Three months ago, I spent a week in Tengchong County located in the Yunnan province of China. Delegates from 35 countries working for education with the Teach For All network spent a week together sharing success and struggles in the battle against education inequity. I was there representing Teach For India as an alumni and the teacher training program run by our foundation. A lot of the partner countries, apparently find it difficult to establish productive and sustainable partnerships with the government to improve the education system, so there was a section in which different countries which had somewhat managed this were asked to present. Our training program has been established on the Public Private Partnership (PPP) model and we’re working very closely with the local government to make this effective and sustainable. Of course, at this point in time we’re very small and barely cover the all the English medium municipal schools within Pune. Nevertheless, it is a model aimed at creating systemic change and the Teach For All wanted us to share this model with the others so I ran, what they call a Xiaozu (meaning small group) session.
Often with countries like India and China, people tell us and probably we’d like to believe this too that our greatest problem is scale – the sheer number of children that we need to reach out to. But in the little time that I’ve spent in the education sector, I’ve come to realize that our greatest problem is not scale, our greatest problem lies in achieving quality at scale. As a country, we first need to define what excellent education looks like and then replicate that at scale. With Shanghai, China has managed to demonstrate what excellence in education looks like within a city and now it’s matter of time for them to scale this definition of excellence across the country. And that’s what gives me hope for Yunnan and rest of China. It also gives me renewed enthusiasm to strive for excellence and continue our battle against educational inequity back home in India.
One of the most defining moments for me would have to be Andreas Schleicher’s (the man behind OCED’s PISA) talk on how various countries have managed to overhaul their education systems in the past few years. As he spoke of what different countries like China, Germany, Japan and Singapore have done to improve their education systems, it filled me with an overwhelming sense of possibility. I felt positive because each country had made simple yet effective changes in the way they managed their school systems and had achieved excellent results. The solutions seemed less complicated, more approachable and doable. Another thing that stood out for me in his talk was how necessary political will is in impacting systemic changes. Every country that topped the PISA rankings had public sector officials and policy makers who were engaging in a productive national dialogue on education. This reminded me of the critical role that Teach For India’s alumni will play in shaping the educational landscape of the country in a few years to come and the tremendous potential of our alumni movement
I also thoroughly enjoyed Thomas Freidman’s talk. His wife’s a public school teacher and his daughter was a TFA alum. That’s how he’s connected to the TFA movement. He had some wonderful insights to offer on how school education is shaping the global economy and what the future holds for us. I’ve never heard someone speak for 75 minutes without losing a beat. He was a delight to hear. We also got to spend sometime with him the next day on the bus while visiting schools in rural China. He wrote this article titled “The Shanghai Secret” in NY Times during the time he spent with us.
Being at the Teach For All Conference in China was a deeply enriching experience for me. It was an inspirational space where people from thirty five different nationalities came together to engage in a discussion on how we can give every child the education he deserves. Being in this space opened up my mind to many different aspects of educational inequity and how far and deep its roots run across the globe. But being there and seeing so many amazing people committed to the cause of educational equity also made my belief so much stronger that we’re on the right path to solve the problem. I could so easily relate to the perspectives and issues on education shared by countries that were so very geographically and culturally different from mine. It reminded me of what Wendy Kopp said the last time she was in India – “If our problems are the same, then it gives me hope that the solutions must be share-able”: I came back home feeling deeply positive about the road ahead and very connected to the vision of what we’re all working towards.
When I sat down to capture my thoughts, so many amazing memories came flooding back to me. Being in Tengchong has given me so much joy, energy and enthusiasm to keep the fighting the good fight and tremendous hope that one day we will be successful in ensuring that every child get access to excellent education. It was an incredible experience that sown so many seeds of curiosity and inspiration in my mind for which I’m eternally grateful to Teach For All and Teach For China!
I did manage a day of sight seeing and a small hike around Tengchong. I never made it to the hot springs that Tengchong is so famous for because I was running short of time. If I didn’t have to come back for our mid-year teacher training program, I would have loved to spend another week and visit the Great Wall. It was a day’s travel from where I was staying. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent there and more so because of all the tiny, cute Chinese kids. My God, they’re adorable. It took me all my will power (as much as I could summon) to not pinch them on the school visits.
Maybe a photo diary in the next post!