Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Anjuli Bharvaga: The Lost And Found Potential Of Gaurav Singh

Courtesy LinkedIn Profile
Finding what motivates you is a lonely journey, often disappointing for those who surround you

A single child with a single parent, growing up in Lucknow in a joint family, Gaurav Singh, now 33, had a linear upbringing that allowed him to look at only two serious career options: an engineer or a doctor. A bright student, academics came easily to the 10-11-year-old who often ranked among the top in his class in school. His mother – who he affectionately refers to as Jhansi Ki Rani - was often told that her son had real potential and that he could simply walk into an IIT after school and end up with a great job that paid him handsomely. The passport and all drivers for success: a good job, a wife, a house and a big car to drive – lay well within his grasp. But as Gaurav approached his teenage years, he began to question what he was doing here on earth and what the purpose of life was, unusual preoccupations for a 13-year-old but there it was. He didn’t want to go to IIT just because he could. The prospect of owning a big car didn’t move him. He couldn’t care less about house ownership. A job in some MNC and a wife sounded even less alluring. As the years went by, Gaurav began to study less, appeared less and less motivated and performed far below what was expected of him and what he was capable of. “There goes lost potential” is what people in the wider family and community around him began to say. For a few years, all did appear lost, especially to his mother who had nurtured the boy with love and careful attention to his every need. She began to question where she had possibly gone wrong. Why were all threats or rewards not enough to motivate her bright spark of a son? He appeared to have great potential, yet he seemed set on squandering it away. Nothing seemed to motivate him or hold his attention.
Gaurav says his only hope at that stage were books and that’s what saved him. He himself didn’t have any answers but he knew that the conventional path did nothing for him. “I was happy to do something but I wanted something meaningful and no one around me could understand what I was harping on about”. He says he spent all those years “disappointing” everyone who mattered the most to him. “None of the usual drivers cut it for me”. With his state of mind, IIT was a far cry but he did head to the cool climes of Himachal to do an engineering degree at a private college. Although Gaurav continued to perform quite mediocrely at his studies, he spent hours teaching his fellow students. He was always more intrigued by how best to explain a concept to a peer than studying his own books and performing well. “I would spend hours teaching my peers subjects that they were struggling with while almost failing mine!”, says he. Gaurav finished his studies and joined Accenture in Hyderabad as a coder. Again, he was less than excited about his job although he didn’t mind the actual work. His friends – several of whom envied his position and would give anything to be there – often commented on how indifferent he seemed, at times making him feel guilty about not appreciating what he had. He worked for almost one year in a desultory manner, earning a decent amount of money when he came across the first advertisement by Teach for India in 2008 in a day old newspaper at a friend’s house. “It was the first thing I saw that spoke to me”, says Gaurav. Here was something that excited and motivated him. He quickly applied and for the first time in his life threw his heart and soul into preparing for something: in this case the interview. Once he was in, Gaurav remembers meeting the almost 100 other fellows selected in the first batch of the programme and thinking “where were all of you all these years of my life”. At one go and for the first time in his life, he met a bunch mostly his age to whom he could fully relate and where he felt he belonged. Gaurav says he was so overwhelmed that he actually wept in private. Gaurav taught for one year at a school in Pune before moving as a Teach for India fellow to a government school in Mumbai. He says he’s proud of how quickly his mother turned around. She couldn’t quite fathom why he would want to work for so little but she could see that he’d found what he’s wanted. He worked hours incessantly and took pleasure in what he was doing. She saw her only child happy and motivated and that was enough for her. For Gaurav, the two years were life-changing. He finally knew what he’d been looking for. This is where his calling lay. And he was happy that his mother was so accepting. In some senses, her own life and peace of mind were deeply entwined with his success and unless he seemed motivated, success was out of reach. He didn’t care about what others thought but he didn’t want to disappoint her in any way. While working with Teach for India, he became aware of two things: how critical a role a teacher played in the entire journey of a child’s education. It was for him the single make or break factor. And second how little we equipped our teachers with to do what he felt was one of the most difficult tasks ever: hold the attention of 25-30 restless 8 or 10-year-olds for several hours a day. This, in today’s day and age, when distractions are simply endless. “Look at how things have changed for doctors in 100 years and how they have changed for teachers. A blackboard became a whiteboard but what else? Doctors, on the other hand, have no end of tools, machines and technology at their disposal”, he argues. Teachers he feels have largely been left to their own devices and are expected to perform a miracle out of nothing. Second, he feels that unlike many other professions, there are no accepted or established best practices that teachers can draw upon. “They are expected to figure out everything on their own while everything remains the way it did 50 years ago”, he adds. The profession remains poorly paid and women dominated. “If it was remunerative, there’s no reason why more men and women would not become teachers instead of bankers or lawyers”, he points out. The third thing he was convinced is that whatever improvements were brought in had to be scalable over time. To reach every teacher and student over a period of time, which was unlikely to be within his lifetime but a start nonetheless. He also wanted to set up an organization – a great place to work – where his own employees could feel they were having an impact and that they were having fun doing it. He wanted people to join in their 20s and work through till their mid-50s not join the education space in their mid-50s after they had more or less concluded their professional lives. “I didn’t want everyone joining to give back to society as we so often see. I wanted them to love what they were doing right from the word go”, he says. “I didn’t want people to look back and say: we had great impact but it was a horrible journey”, says Gaurav. That’s when the idea of 321 came to him. Set up as a foundation, 321 are focused on working with teachers in schools to help them teach better. There are 3-4 foundational principles that 321 uses to differentiate what it does from all the other thousand-odd NGOs who work on the same thing. One thing they found is that teachers, in general, were angry with them when they began going into schools to work with them. The teachers were fed up of training from NGOs that may work with 5 children but not 40. More often than not, they felt insulted by the approach of the NGOs. In most cases, the teachers argue that the training works at best in unreal, simulated classrooms. The real world is a different kettle of fish. That’s the first thing 321 tackles. It works to win over the teacher. “We never talk down at them and tell them what to do and how to do it. The process is very interactive”, explains Gaurav, arguing that “getting the teacher on their side” is where their success lies. So, solutions offered to teachers are carefully worked out to ensure that they work for both – the teacher and the student. “Placing a huge extra burden on an already burdened teacher doesn’t work as we have seen in the past”, says Gaurav. Therefore, 321’s training attempts above all to carry the teacher along. After each training, every single teacher is observed in the classroom to ensure that they practice what was decided upon as a new method of teaching. “Often, training ends and everyone goes back to the classes and teaches just as they did prior to the training. We make sure that doesn’t happen”, adds Gaurav. Moreover, 50 per cent of the time of the training is spent in practice instead of just talking to them. The teachers are divided into small groups and they simulate a classroom. The other teachers become students. The early sweet taste of success is a second motivator. On the first day or second day of training, they encourage teachers to assess how the new technique is working. Most teachers when they see the student responding and showing some excitement, it rubs off. “This is the light-bulb moment for many teachers: they ask why was I never told this”, explains Gaurav. Third, the programme is for two years and is very patient with teachers. Some teachers open up quite quickly while others take 6 months to a year. A recent assessment of teachers trained by Gray Matters India showed a substantial improvement in their teaching-learning, student interaction and assessment methods. The teachers often started below the average but quickly bridged the gap and showed marked improvements. Ashish Dhawan, the founder of Central Square foundation who has personally watched the journey of 321 says that they have adapted quickly to “apply their learning to solve a particularly sticky problem for low-income private schools - that of teacher capacity and motivation”. He says their “Project Ignite” has a very robust and engaging training and support curriculum for teachers. He says that 321 has been “exceptional in comparison to their peer set on two counts - in building and retaining a high-quality team with a vibrant culture and in being very data-driven in their approach." In its seventh year now, 321 currently works with teachers across 130 schools in three cities as of now: Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore. This year the organization is working with around 2500 teachers. A second programme has been started where 321 is supporting the curriculum. This is only just begun and is being run in four schools as of now. The organization has been funded by main grants, foundations (40 per cent of the money) and CSR funds (another 40 per cent). Ashish Dhawan is the chair of the board and has been supporting Gaurav’s work from the word go. Schools also pay a small amount depending on their capacity. Moreover, 321 as an organization has a 90 per cent retention rate, the team that has grown from 7-8 people to around 75 now has an average age of 25 to 27 years. The Mumbai headquartered team, therefore, brings all the energy that only 25-year-olds can and Gaurav infuses this energy with his own to prove that his real potential is yet to emerge fully. He’s finally found something worth his while though. Anjuli Bhargava <>

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