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Verve People
August 04, 2015

Malika Noor Mehta On Teaching For A Cause

Text by Zaral Shah. Photograph by Tejal Pandey

A Teach For India Fellow talks about the challenges she has faced and the lessons she has learnt

Brought up listening to family discussions on current affairs, it is no wonder that she is inclined towards public service which includes her work with Teach For India (TFI). Daughter of Tasneem Zakaria Mehta — director and curator of Mumbai’s Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum — and Vikram Mehta — executive chairman of Brookings India in New Delhi — Malika Noor Mehta has fond childhood memories from family gatherings in their open-air courtyard in Udaipur every year.

The need for change
“Without grass roots experience, I do not believe one can craft sustainable policy. You need experience in the former to be an effective leader in the latter. After teaching for two years, I can now name specific education policies that I would alter. For instance, schools in Maharashtra must promote students to the next standard (until class 8) even if students have failed their exams or missed school (I was made to do so despite my protests). Students and teachers become complacent about their work. I would not have realised how serious this issue is if I had not witnessed its repercussions first-hand.”

Lessons learnt
“There are so many! Mainly, I learnt the importance of perseverance in the face of adversity. I realised that no matter how many times you fail at something, you have to pick yourself up and try again. If my students did not understand a certain concept, I would try to figure out a different way to explain it to them. I knew that their lives, their education, their future rested in my hands. That was a huge responsibility and no matter how many times I faltered, I was determined to push through. I don’t think I had that sort of grit before I joined TFI.”

Career moves
“For the last two years, I have taught 35 children in a municipal school in Mumbai as a TFI Fellow. I clearly recall my first day of work. I was extremely nervous and wondered how my students would react to me. One of my students (who would later become one of my dearest) told me that he would not listen to a ‘female teacher’ and that I should not even try to teach him. It was this point that I knew I had my work cut out for me! I had to work towards changing such attitudes.”

Daily timetable
“My work had been completely hands-on. Six days a week, from 1 pm to 6 pm, I taught English, maths and science to my students. Before school, from 9 am to noon, I would plan lessons, create charts, and answer phone calls from concerned parents. Post school, I often attended training sessions or meetings with other TFI Fellows or visited my students at their homes. My days were spent thinking about, or interacting with, my students or other stakeholders in their education.”

Challenges faced
“It was hard to handle some of my students’ personal issues. A lot of my kids came from tough backgrounds and faced challenges at home. It was particularly difficult for me to realise that I could not always help them or change their circumstances. I could not stand to see my kids in pain.”

Looking ahead
“For me, I am spending the next six weeks writing stories, reading novels, doing yoga and preparing myself to become a student again. In September, I begin my Masters in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School (USA). Post Harvard, I hope to start an educational NGO of my own, particularly focussed on teacher training.”

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