In the 1980s, a young Tufts college graduate, Shaheen Mistri, who had been brought up abroad, relocated back to India, with the aim to end the educational inequity she witnessed in her visits to the slums in urban India. Shaheen went on to start the first Akanksha Centre in 1989 to combat the inadequacy in educational resources available to under-privileged children, and inspired her college friends to volunteer at the centre. This evolved in to The Akanksha Foundation; a nonprofit education project that provides after-school tutoring to children who do not have access to sufficient resources. Akanksha makes a big commitment to children to provide them with “a strong educational foundation, a good time, self-esteem and values”, until they are 18 and are ready for further studies and the job market.
Despite the worldwide recognition Akanksha and Shaheen received, Shaheen relentlessly pursued more avenues to create further impact and realise her vision for education in India. She was presented with an opportunity to begin a movement large enough to address these issues when she met Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach For America – a US program that recruits and trains outstanding college graduates, who commit to teach for two years in American public schools. Shaheen adopted this model with a few of her own innovative practices suited to the Indian context, to start Teach For India in 2008. Her conviction and enthusiasm inspired and motivated 78 outstanding college graduates to take part as the first cohort in 2009 and commit two years towards ending educational inequity in India.
Shaheen and her associates worked relentlessly to overcome the challenges that arose due to practically applying this concept to an education system as complex and diverse as India’s. In 2013-14, Teach For India had 950 Fellows in 5 cities impacting over 32,000 students from underprivileged backgrounds in 280 low income schools. The Fellows are successful not only in ensuring significant academic growth, but also in enabling the personal transformation of the students. Shaheen – through sheer tenacity and commitment – has been successful in ensuring that Teach For India realises its mission to building a movement of leaders who will work relentlessly to end educational inequity. Approximately 54% of the alumni have opted to stay within the education and development sector post their Fellowship.
TFI aims to have operations in 8 cities by 2016 with 2000 Fellows impacting 60,000 children. Teach For America and Teach First UK acknowledged the immense work of TFI by organizing their retreat in India to learn from Shaheen’s experiences. Of all the countries in the Teach For All network, India alone does not receive any government funding to support the Fellow stipend. Shaheen has been working relentlessly to ensure that TFI and Akanksha get this support.
Shaheen has been working closely with the government and sub-committees to drive educational reform in India. Previously part of the National Council for Teacher Training (NCTT) formed to bring about educational reform in India, she now sits on the SSA panel along with Dr. M. M. Pallam Raju, former Minister for Human Resource Development (HRD) and Mr. Shashi Tharoor, former Minister of State – HRD. SSA – Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan is the Government of India’s flagship programme for achievement of Universalization of Elementary Education (UEE) in a time bound manner, as mandated by 86th amendment to the Constitution of India making free and compulsory education to the children of 6-14 years age group, a fundamental right.
Teach For India under Shaheen’s leadership organizes annual educational conferences – inspirED in Mumbai, Pune and Hyderabad. inspirED is one of India’s biggest exclusively education-based conferences. This forum brings together India’s most innovative and creative professionals, along with international leaders working in the field of education, to engage the nation in a discussion around the challenges of education equity and its solutions.
TFI has been able to accomplish so much in so short a span of time due to Shaheen’s transformative leadership and vision. She inspires staff and Fellows alike with her ideas and vision for educational reform.