Saliha had spent the entire weekend preparing for an hour-long learning session for kids in her community. A fifth grader, Saliha believed in the transformative power of education, and was determined for her pupils, a group of kindergarten kids and first graders, to be interested in and excited about learning.
They had been waiting patiently with notebooks and pencils in hand while Saliha wrote out the alphabet on an improvised blackboard. When she turned around with poise and self-assurance signalling that she was ready for class to begin, her students were rapt with attention.
In the alleys and open spaces of Sion TT, a low-income community in central Mumbai, other kids were playing marbles, snakes and ladders, and hide and seek—a normal Sunday evening scene. But outside Saliha’s home, in her makeshift classroom set up under an old election campaign poster used as a shamiana (canopy), a handful of children had chosen to skip the regular evening pastimes. With a little prodding from their parents, but mostly from their own volition, they decided instead to attend a learning session led by Saliha, an 11-year-old girl. Something remarkable was underway.
Saliha’s learning journey could not look more different from those of the children she is now teaching. Each of her pupils attends a low-cost private school, the likes of which have now proliferated across Indian cities. These schools have low tuition, which families scrape together from their modest monthly earnings in hopes of better infrastructure, resources, and learning outcomes than their local public schools provide. For many of the gritty individuals who invest a significant chunk of their income into their children’s education, however, these hopes are far from fulfilled. “The tuition fees are increasing but the amount of learning is decreasing,” remarked a parent of one of Saliha’s young students.
Four years ago, Saliha was placed in a second grade Teach For India classroom in Worli, an affluent area of Mumbai dotted with a number of low-income communities. That classroom happened to be the one that I and my colleague Juhi, both Teach For India Fellows, were leading that year. When Juhi and I begun our journey as passionate and idealistic first year teachers who had lofty visions for our 45 students, not one of them knew all of the letters of the alphabet or how to say their name in English. We quickly focussed on building their academic foundations and creating a culture of interdependent learning. Juhi and I were fortunate to have Saliha as one of the students who was quick to teach her peers after mastering a concept herself.
Since then, Saliha has had Teach For India Fellows as teachers each year, like her current teacher Shivani, who have nurtured and supported her, and given her opportunities to explore her potential. Their influence is evident in Saliha’s teaching, from the norms that she’s set in place in her community classroom—“keep your things properly, hands and legs to yourself, collaboration means to help everyone”—to her teaching strategies. Saliha has clearly absorbed the values of her own learning environments and has deeply internalized the role that she can play for others by investing in them, and sparking their own interest in learning.