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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Inspiration:Changing Curriculum to Helping Teachers, One Man Is Altering Education Systems for the Better

The first time I visited the community, I didn’t know it would be that way. It had open drains and garbage dumps. But I still consider it a part of me, because I taught those kids,” says Raman Bahl. He’s an engineering student turned education professional, who taught in the low-income community of Jahangirpuri, Delhi, during his Teach For India Fellowship.Raman dabbled in teaching to pass his time productively while a student at Apeejay College of Engineering, Haryana. Eight years, three schools, and countless experiences later, teaching has become his life.

Raman tutored tenth-graders during his final year of college and saw first-hand the appalling inequity in education. “I used to compare my life to theirs,” he says. “While I always had everything I could’ve possibly asked for, and had good teachers, these kids were desperately in need of a math teacher for three years before I even started!”Raman saw the opportunity to do much more as a teacher. Teach For India’s vision, that one day all children will attain an excellent education, resonated with him, and he applied to join the Fellowship. Raman walked into class on his first day excited, but clueless as to what awaited him. His students needed a lot of work, and he had little co-operation from the school staff. At the end-of-year assessment, Raman was dealt a big blow – his class performed poorly. 

Learning from his mistakes, Raman spent the second year of his Fellowship focused on increasing parent investment. He sat with them to find out how they viewed their children’s futures, and relocated to a house in the same low-income community as his students, to become more involved. Community leaders who had never seen children from the area speak confidently in English, began to realize that Raman was making progress. They even offered him a space, free of cost, to conduct extra classes and recreational activities after school. 

Aarti, one of Raman’s students, knew only basic letter sounds and some numbers when he first met her. Her parents had reservations about sending her to an English medium school, because they were afraid they wouldn’t be able afford the aspirations it gave her. Raman explained to them that “By getting a good education now, Aarti will be able to reach a level where she can start supporting the family”. After a year in Raman’s class, Aarti’s father’s business forced the family to move 45 minutes away. Despite the distance, her parents insisted that she continue in Raman’s class, so she began commuting to school by bus. Just as Aarti travelled across Delhi to learn, Raman began commuting to the opposite end of the city, to Bab Ul Uloom school at Seelampur, to train teachers. “I wanted to reach out to and help other schools as well. My mission is to make the system more self-sustaining,” he says.

Realizing the importance of effective teacher training, Raman then began working with Learning Links Foundation, a Delhi-based non-profit, when his Fellowship ended. As part of his job, he travelled across North India – from the hills in Kinnaur, down to the Pink City. In Himachal Pradesh, Raman noted that most schools pooled students of different ages into one class. He trained teachers to make these multi-level classrooms more assessment driven and use data to better their instruction. It was easy for Raman to forget that many of his trainees had almost fifteen more years of experience in teaching than he did. As a result of this, some of them were slow to trust him. Raman’s patience helped him successfully train more than 700 teachers in a span of five months.

Wishing to spend more time inside classrooms and see impact, Raman narrowed his focus to a single school – Shanti Niketan, in Mahemdavad. He was hired as the principal, a position he held for almost three years. He took on every aspect of school management: teacher development, operations, promotions and enrolment. When he began, Shanti Niketan had a strength of 35 students – it’s now at 135.

Shanti Niketan ensures that “learning is not confined to textbooks”, and follows an integrated curriculum designed by LeadSchool. When teaching students about different types of water bodies, a teacher might take her class to a nearby reservoir – to bring classroom material to life. The school’s theme-based curriculum focused on community helpers last year, which involved taking students to meet professionals like doctors and police officers. The children interviewed people and reflected on their contribution to society. Shanti Niketan aspires to transform its students into independent leaders.

Located at the intersection of a small town and a village, the school’s student body comes from diverse backgrounds, including children of farmers and police officers, from the main city and nearby villages. The school’s vision is to bridge the gap between the education children receive in villages and cities. Raman chose to live on school premises – the only staff member to do so – devoting himself to the goal.

“The teachers come from a very different community than I do,” he says. “In the beginning, I found it very tough to explain to them what I wanted for the children. But what helped me was the sense of possibility – the thought that if I could do the Fellowship, and bring about reform in teacher training, then I could do this as well.”

Raman’s approach to teaching was a huge leap forward from the way his teachers understood classroom instruction. One of his nursery school teachers couldn’t speak English when he joined, and is now confidently teaching the language to an entire class of three-year-olds. That is the impact Raman’s work has had on both his teachers and students.

As Principal, one of Raman’s duties was to review the curriculum, provide feedback, and make changes to enrich it. The experience inspired him to shift his focus to curriculum design. He heard about a school in Chattisgarh that needed guidance and was later recruited to drive its curriculum. Today, as the Academic Director of Aarambh School, he’s enhancing the learning experience for both his students and teachers, while simultaneously pursuing his Bachelor of Education degree.

Raman’s finding new opportunities to revolutionize education every day. “There is no limit to what you can do in the education space,” he says. Here’s to those pioneering ideas and working relentlessly towards a limitless future for every child in the country.

Written by Ananya Damodaran – Communications at Teach For India.

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