Monday, November 20, 2017

'Urmila Pal ki Balwadi'

1:18:00 PM
“I was born in a small village in Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh. In my village education was restricted only to the Brahmins, and I was the first non-Brahmin girl to have studied till the 12th grade,” said Urmila during our conversation in her house in a large slum of the suburban part of Mumbai.
Moving out of her village to a bustling city was quite overwhelming in the beginning. Urmila wanted to be a teacher, and she wondered if the competitive city will accept her services. But her drive to connect with children and spread knowledge did not allow migrant hurdles to stop her. In 2004, Pratham was surveying her locality, and after some rounds of interviews and orientation, she was selected as a Balwadi teacher with a monthly salary of three hundred and fifty rupees. "Though I earn more now, that amount will always be precious for me", she recalls. More than that, she says, the feeling that 'I am a teacher' was special!



She moved door to door talking about enrolling children in her Balwadi. Urmila’s warm persona, commitment to her work along with the teaching-learning material by Pratham soon became the talk of the neighbourhood. People started to refer to the Balwadi as ‘Urmila ki Balwadi’. Many women in the locality were inspired by her and began operating Balwadis in their own homes.

In 2008, she was given the additional responsibility of bringing 'out of school' children back to the schooling system. Urmila observed that many children, most of them in the age group of 6 to 14 years, spent their time loitering in the streets; some even spent time selling pakodas outside beer shops.” The task of convincing the children and more importantly their parents was not easy. She was ridiculed by many. Urmila’s heart would go out to the children. She was relentless and kept talking to the parents about the importance of education, its benefits, children and their needs. Although some parents relented, she had another challenge ahead of her. She faced resistance in the Municipal schools as the teachers would question the capability of these ‘children from the streets’! But Urmila was prepared for this. She worked with the children before taking them for enrolment. When she asked the children to solve math sums and read out textbooks in front of the teachers, they had no choice but to accept them in their class. This success with a few children created a ripple effect, and other parents started considering education for their kids. Many of these children eventually completed their school education.

A city comes with its challenges as well. "Our locality faces a demolition drive quite often, and many of us live in fear of our houses getting under the bulldozer. However, the bulldozer has always spared the Balwadis, and this is why we thank Pratham", she added.

A Balwadi teacher in the morning, a primary grade tuition teacher in the afternoon and a tailor in the evening, Urmila has her hands full. But her exhaustion vanishes when her ex-students, who are either pursuing higher studies or working, visit to seek her blessings. With time she finds it difficult to recognise many of her students who have grown up, but the thought of touching their lives and initiating a positive change in the society is what she finds her peace in.



Monday, November 13, 2017

The birth of a Teacher

2:00:00 PM

"I had no idea that I would become a teacher", Sajida repeated almost like a refrain, over the course of our conversation. Her first brush with teaching occurred when a girl living next door failed in one of her grades in school. Sajida wanted to help the girl and began to coach her for subsequent exams. Much to everyone's surprise, the same girl topped her class the next year! This gave Sajida immense confidence in her own abilities as a teacher and she began to teach Urdu and Arabic to more children in the neighbourhood.

Sajida, originally from Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh, came to Mumbai in 1989. She lived in Sion till 1995, after which she shifted to Mankhurd where she began her journey with Pratham, a relationship that has endured the years and continues to thrive even today. Sajida traces it all back to a Pratham-led survey in her area, when a Pratham instructor named Rekha asked her to join the organisation and set up a Balwadi. The task laid before her was not easy, but that did not deter Sajida. She lived in the Western end of Mankhurd, whereas the local school was on the Eastern end. As the railway track divided these two ends, children had to cross it to reach school every day. Naturally, this was worrisome for the parents who preferred to not send their children to school at all. This caused an overall decline in the enrollment numbers in the area. The challenge for Sajida was to ensure that all children were enrolled in school and also create a foundation for a large number of preschool children through her Balwadi.

Her first achievement was creating the awareness and understanding among people that education for all children was essential for progress. Her efforts soon bore fruit as some women from within the community came forward, offering to start their own Balwadis like Sajida's. In a matter of months, the area had a total of seven Pratham Balwadis! Sajida then took up the responsibility of enrolling the children in these Balwadis to primary school. Her continual efforts paid off in more ways than one and Sajida had also earned the respect and trust of the 'Aagarwadi School' on the Eastern end of Mankhurd, where she successfully enrolled 25 to 30 children annually. Soon people sought her help for enrolling their children in school, and this number increased to almost 100 children in a year!

The second milestone in her journey was to start a 'bridge class' for children who were out of school, with the aim of bringing them back to the schooling system.

Looking back, Sajida confidently says that children who were a part of the Pratham Balwadi could quickly adapt to what was taught in their later years of schooling whether at the primary or higher level of schooling. Some of Sajida’s students graduated with good scores. Some of them even work with Pratham as teachers, thus sustaining the work that Sajida herself began over twenty years ago.

"Pratham gave me the opportunity to become a teacher", she says. "I have an identity. I am glad that children have progressed with my support. They acknowledge my contribution and often come to touch my feet as a gesture of respect and gratitude", she adds further.

A few years ago, Sajida took a break from teaching, owing to her age and growing responsibilities at home. However, she realised that while school had become a part of everyone's life in Mankhurd, there was a need to address the poor learning levels of children. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Sajida returned to Pratham to take on this challenge head-on and is now a key part of the Pratham Library Program in her area.





Monday, November 6, 2017

Moving on with Second Chance

12:37:00 PM
“I am a Yoga teacher and have requested Pratham to grant me an hour in a week to teach Yoga to our students for free,” said Saleema proudly.

Saleema is one of many success stories from Pratham’s Second Chance program. Along her path to success, Saleema encountered several challenges. Today, however, she has reached out to Pratham not for help, but to offer her own professional services.

Saleema belongs to a conservative Muslim family. After having dropped out of school in 9th Grade, she was married off at a very young age. Her husband was unable to have children with his first wife and married Saleema to fulfill his family’s wishes. However, five years into the marriage, Saleema could not conceive. It was now obvious that her husband was physically unable to father a child. He and his family did not receive this news well, harassing Saleema instead. Around the same time, Saleema developed Appendicitis. Grabbing the opportunity, her husband and his first wife sent her back to her natal home permanently.

Back home, Saleema had no support from her parents, who also began to harass her. It was at this point of her life that she met Varsha, from Pratham. Saleema’s painful story moved Varsha, who then made financial arrangements to enroll Saleema in the next batch of Pratham’s Second Chance program. Although Saleema was delighted by the news, she was skeptical about coping with the syllabus after 14 years of dropping out of school.  After much compelling support from the Pratham staff, Saleema attempted the pre-test of the program.

“When I saw my answer sheet, I began to cry. I realized that I did not know anything which was a blow to my confidence. Somnath Sir and Harshna Ma’am consoled and encouraged me. I can confidently tell you that only Pratham teachers can do this; they have the ability to teach you till you firmly understand the concept,” she said. “From teaching us how to read and write, to preparing us for our board examinations, these teachers were with us until the end. I began to understand the subjects, and this understanding further motivated me to learn. I worked hard, and I passed the 2014-15 board examinations with 61%.”

Surprisingly, it was Saleema’s father who first phoned on the day the results were declared, and he enthusiastically shared the news with friends and relatives.

“After the result, my parents firmly stood behind me. Maybe this increased their self-confidence as they then allowed me to study further. I took admission in 11th grade”, said Saleema. Unfortunately, her troubles did not end here. With the untimely demise of her brother, she had to support her sister-in-law and take care of their baby. Saleema was able to surmount these difficult circumstances better than before. She derived strength from her family and passed 12th Grade with 61%, simultaneously completing a six-month diploma course in Yoga and Acupuncture.

Today, Saleema works as a Yoga teacher in a Patanjali clinic and is pursuing her advanced studies. She has absolute faith in Yoga and wants to teach the same to other women, with the hope that it will empower them to fight the many problems they face and lead them to a brighter future. She is particularly keen on teaching Yoga to every woman in Pratham’s Second Chance classrooms. She identifies with the difficulties each of these women face in life and hopes to make them physically, mentally and emotionally capable of facing the world. In Saleema’s words, this is her way of thanking Pratham.




Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Meet Shehnaz Ansari, a Balwadi Teacher from Mumbai who created a positive impact through her work with Pratham.

8:21:00 AM





People often associate the Bandra suburb of Mumbai with plush apartments, multi cuisine restaurants and Bollywood stars! However, Bazaar Road presents a complete contrast to this preconceived notion of Bandra. Characterised by old and dilapidated buildings, this area houses many of the low-income groups of the city, including small shopkeepers, blue collar workers, domestic helpers and many others. However, this part of the city is still home to a number of fantastic change makers, and Shehnaz Ansari is one of them! 

Shehnaz is a Balwadi teacher who started her preschool centre in 2005. She realised that children around her lacked basic, fundamental education. At the time, municipal schools in Mumbai did not offer any preschool facility, and the enrollment of children in schools - directly happened in the first grade. As a result, most of the children could not cope with the school curriculum, since they had no previous base. Many of them were first generation learners as well. And while there were a few private preschool centres around, they were all rather expensive. Through Pratham, Shehnaz decided to fill this gap and consequently began her journey with us. 

One of the biggest challenges she faced at the beginning, was of the attitude of people around her. She remembers that parents back then were not keen to send their children to a Balwadi, with one of the often repeated questions being - " What and why will a three-year-old learn?" As a result, she began to regularly visit households, so as to personally convince people about the importance of preschool education. 

Shehnaz recalls that in her first year, only 8 to 10 children registered in her Balwadi. However, her repeated visits to households and convince people, slowly but steadily bore fruit, with the number going up the following year. 

Today, Shehnaz's Balwadi is a place where there is a constant dialogue with children as well as their parents. Apart from educational activities, the activities conducted help increase awareness about nutrition, vaccination and cleanliness. " Every child in my Balwadi brings a Tiffin that has home-cooked food. No one brings fast food like vada-pav or chips", she says proudly. Many parents often come up to her and ask her for advice - both about their children and otherwise as well. Shehnaz encourages parents to even do some activities with their children at home and has found that children from her Balwadi are generally able to grasp things quickly once they enter school.

 In addition to the children that Shehnaz has directly impacted, one of her greatest contribution has been to influence others like herself to start their own Balwadi. This has only been possible by her efforts on the grounds. 

She truly is an unsung hero of Mumbai!










Friday, July 7, 2017

Chhaya Panchbhai - story of a Selfless Teacher

12:21:00 PM
Sahyadri Nagar is a small locality situated in the Chembur suburb of Mumbai. This, and areas like Vishnu Nagar, Rahul Nagar, Nagbaba Nagar, have a special significance. It was in this region that ‘Pratham’ started its work in the early 90s. Located on a hilltop, near to the Chembur – CST Freeway, this place boasts of many women who have created a positive impact in the process of educational transformation of this region. And lest we forget, their stories need to be told!

Chhaya Panchbhai is one such woman who lives in a small hut at the top of the Sahyadri Nagar Hill. A visit to her house involves a short trek on a narrow road that passes through a settlement of huts, whose occupants contribute largely to the blue-collared service sector of the city. However, her hut has witnessed one of the first Pratham Balwadis, at a time when both Pratham and the movement of literacy had just begun in this region. Revered and respected, she is fondly called Tai by everyone around.   
Chhaya Tai Panchbhai at home
Chhaya Tai recalls that in the late 80s and early 90s, there was no seriousness about education. Children skipped schools as they were at a distance and that led to dropouts. She had to convince the parents to send their children to her Balwadi. However the general 'mood' of the community was 'why to study, as such we have to do odd jobs', and hence initially no one paid any attention. 'Pratham', she says, made sure women became literate so that they spread the movement ahead in the community. The campaign then picked up, and soon many children and grown-ups learned to read and write. She then switched to conducting the library program in her house, and it added to more children coming to her and eventually borrowing books. She proudly said that many children got their basics right because of her guidance and now many of them, after completing their higher studies, have got good jobs and improved their living conditions. 

But what she said at the end was significant. Today, the school has become a part of everyone's life. There is no need to specially tell anybody that they need to send their child to school. If, whether to send your child to school was a question in the early 90s, then the question today is whether to send your child to a BMC school or a private school. This, I felt is a significant transformation in the region.

Chhaya Tai also told another touching story. There was a child named Amol who did not pay any attention to studies and to make him study; she used to tell him that if he studies he will be able to sit in an aeroplane. Years later Amol, after completing his studies, got an opportunity to fly abroad for work and had to sit in an aircraft. Days before his departure, he came to ChhayaTai and told that her Balwadi and reading sessions had made him sit in an aeroplane today. 

An emotional ChhayaTai could not control her tears as she narrated this incident and we all witnessed how these Balwadis have moulded people, but their selfless efforts are unfortunately unsung!

When we asked her where her students live now, she pointed in a direction and mentioned 'in the buildings' and stressed that she is happy that they now have a better life. However, she still lives in the same, small hut. Teachers are indeed selfless, and all they desire is a better life and learning of their students. 



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