The Akshara Team
The Akshara team is an example of diversity at work – in academic qualifications, age, gender, cultural background, skill sets and talents. From a senior member with a background as a scientific technician to a young D.Ed who was earlier working in the MUWCI canteen, from a BA student who was part of Akshara’s first school batch to a young woman from the local community who has left triumphed over a distressing personal history, from a dissatisfied marketing professional to a young factory worker who met the challenge of sudden disability, the Akshara team embodies a ‘can-do’ attitude, a determination to bring real change in the communities in which we work. While success in education remains central to the programme, we also work with locals on sanitation, alternate energy, community-building and awareness-raising programmes on social issues.
Our Akshara teachers, who are community members themselves, are all change-makers and excellent role models
Meet some of the Akshara team members:
- Dr. Harsha Joshi, Director
- Ms. Madhuri Sumant, Deputy Coordinator
- Ms. Smita Talele, Senior teacher
- Mr. Prashant Kohle, Junior Teacher
- Mr. Milind Jori, Administrative Officer
- Ms. Vishalakshi Raman, English Teacher
- Ms. Gayatri Gujjar, Language Teacher
- Mr. Nemaji More, Khelghar Teacher
- Ms. Seema Nikalje, Khelghar Teacher
- Ms. Sameer Jori, Khelghar Teacher
- Mr. Rahul Kamble, Assistant Administrative Officer
- Mr. Pravin Bharam, Field worker
Catherine comes to the Akshara Programme from a background that includes long experience in HR and Management. She has also done her Bachelor’s degree in Education and is currently working on her M.Ed.
From the academic year of 2014-15, Catherine has been teaching English to the 8th, 9th, 10th standards in the Akshara programme. She is delighted that she is forging a good relationship with the schools where she is teaching. The students look forward to her classes and she is forced to be creative in finding child-friendly methods to keep them engaged and learning.
When I started teaching, I noticed a big difference in the language competency of the 10th std, as compared to the 8th and 9th stds… It was pointed out to me that this difference is the tangible result of two years of involvement with the Akshara programme. That’s when I realised the task ahead of me and the difference I could make.
While doing project work in tribal communities as a student of Home Science at SNDT Women’s University, Pune, Chinmaya realised that she wanted to work for change in disadvantaged communities. After graduation, the Akshara Programme presented itself as a viable option and since July 2014, Chinmaya has been a lively part of the Akshara team. She teaches the Setu and Khelghar groups English and Science. Since she lives in the nearby community, Chinmaya is familiar with the cultural background of the students and can connect intuitively with them. Stories, she says, are the best way to grab the children’s attention. As a science teacher, she uses the surrounding environment as her resource base and makes connections between the concepts and the world the children see every day.
Rural children are very enthusiastic, but they need a lot of support from us, since their parents cannot provide any academic support. Children enjoy listening to stories. I also lays a lot of games with them, especially for teaching things like grammar which can otherwise be very difficult and boring.
Dr Harsha Joshi is the Director of the Akshara programme. Intimately involved with all aspects of the programme, she handles policy-making and funding campaigns with as much commitment as she does family visits and curriculum planning. To Harsha, Akshara’s success lies in the fact that most students take on learning as a life activity, finding ways to continue learning even when they come across obstacles or do not pass an exam. She feels that the programme has managed to be culturally-sensitive — despite the students from Mulshi valley being suddenly exposed to different lifestyles and cultures, they retain respect for their roots and are not blown off their feet. Many of them, she says, are eager to come back and work with Akshara.
Democratic functioning and transparency – these are very important to us at Akshara. We take most decisions collectively and we value the opinion and contribution of every team member. I am happy to see that this idea of being a team member is now deeply ingrained in all my colleagues.
Whether it was the doctor whom she worked for as a scientific technician or the mentors she had when she began working as a counsellor with a women’s helpline, Madhuri feels that she always been encouraged to extend her own knowledge and capabilities, to grow intellectually and emotionally. And it is this idea that she carries with her in her dealings with young people as a teacher, counsellor and senior member of the Akshara team. She feels that it is important to inculcate a sense of self-worth in young people, especially those who come from disadvantaged communities so that they do not fall prey to negative pressures – such as early marriages, mistreating women, or aggression and abuse in any form. Madhuri helps to ensure that all Akshara programmes are sensitive to gender issues. She feels that by sensitising adolescent boys, we can bring in real change in the gender power balance in the future. Madhuri is available as a counsellor for the team members, students and volunteers. She also takes counselling and interaction sessions with parents in the community.
Parents just want to know, sometimes, how to handle a situation that they feel may bring disapproval from society… Just learning that the issue – for example, teenage romances or dropping out of school – is not just happening to them but to other parents also, removes a lot of pressure. Then, when we assure them that it is not a ‘bad’ thing but just needs to be handled sensitively, they heave a real sigh of relief!
Milind was introduced to Akshara when he was in 9th std – part of our first school programme. He joined MUWCI after his SSC exam and appeared for the IB exam (Class of 2006-08), later joining Westminster College, Missouri, USA to study Computer Science. His degree programme has been interrupted due to visa problems but Milind is pursuing his education in India while he works with Akshara. Milind now teaches in the Setu programme and handles Accounts for Akshara.
I have become more inclusive in my teaching, thanks to Akshara. Children are so much more motivated when they are actively involved in their own learning.
Although he has a teaching diploma, circumstances forced Nemaji to take a job with a caterer’s firm and he ended up working in the MUWCI cafeteria. When he heard about the Akshara programme from students who came to the cafeteria, he was excited! He approached the Director and asked if he could join. Persisting until a position was found for him, Nemaji now teaches in both the Setu and Khelghar programmes. He describes his first phase of being at Akshara as ‘unlearning almost everything my D.Ed had taught me.’ Nemaji is today a committed teacher and passionate about reading – the community library is in his house and so he takes full advantage of it and also encourages others to do so. The other teachers aver to his talent for singing, acting, music and storytelling!
We take a model class for the other staff members. They act like school children, asking all sorts of questions and helping us to be prepared for the real-life class…They make suggestions about an activity or song that we can include. I love teaching here, my colleagues have so many skills – you can learn absolutely anything here!
Prashant works with students in the Jaaneev programme. He helps them to prepare for the school-leaving exam and gives them invaluable emotional support. As a mentor and guide to the 10th std students, he counsels them patiently, calms their nerves, instils encouragement and helps them with their studies. Prashant’s home is an ‘open house’ for students who drop in whenever they are need and he often takes extra classes on Sundays. Prashant also helps to install and maintain solar lamps in the communities.
I feel happy to see students coming to my house even late at night because they know I will make time for them. I want to give them the kind of support I myself have received from Akshara.
Pravin looks after the Adult Literacy classes, both on the MUWCI campus and in Asade village community. On the campus, the women grounds staff have been coming to his classes, and in the villages, he has been teaching the community women the basics of literacy and numeracy through AV-based and tech-assisted lessons. Pravin has managed to make reading at the community library a popular activity – even now that the classes are over, the women open the library and read, either in groups or individually. Partially disabled due to a workplace accident, Pravin has not let disability come in the way of his enthusiasm to bring change through education. Teaching at Akshara, he says, has given him a new purpose in life.
There are mostly women in the AL class, because men have ego issues about coming to class to learn…So when one man finally came and joined because the class seemed interesting, I saw this as a mark of success!
Rahul is from Khubavali village. He was in 8th std when he was first exposed to Akshara’s experiential approach to teaching. Candidly admitting that he ‘bunked many classes’, Rahul describes how the programme benefitted him almost without him realising. His school-leaving exam grades were excellent. Although he lost touch with the Akshara teachers after he finished school, the contact was re-established one day when he was playing marbles on the side of the road and a jeep came to a halt next to him – it was the Akshara teachers asking what he was up to and if he would like to volunteer! Rahul is today a BA student, studying English Literature in a good Pune college. He ascribes some of his success to the critical thinking abilities ingrained in him by the Akshara programme. At Akshara, he does some teaching and is the go-to guy for visas, passports, certification, etc. for Akshara students going to study abroad. He also prepares them about what they can expect in a foreign college and how they will have to cope. Rahul also oversees Akshara’s community centre building programme. From the academic year, 2014-15, Rahul will be working with the Triveni Programme of MUWCI, a programme that facilitates student involvement with the wider community.
My sensitivity to social issues has increased so much thanks to the discussions we have had here at Akshara. For example, I cannot ignore plastic waste piling up in the village without trying to do something about it… Nor can I just be a bystander when I see a girl being harassed — on more than one occasion, I have taken action… Also, my involvement with Akshara’s administration has helped me to learn so much about organising logistics and how to deal with different kinds of people. I organised the homestays for MUWCI students and visiting volunteers in our villages and helped volunteers to work in the villages also. I keep in touch with many of them. I am excited about joining Triveni. It will be a new experience and I will pick up new skills. On a personal level, dealing with so many different people and sometimes difficult issues, I have really learned to be patient and keep my temper in control.
An enthusiastic birdwatcher, knowledgeable about local flora, a dog-lover, clever with his hands (he is an expert at bamboo-work) and always ready for a trek through the surrounding countryside – what more could children want in their teacher? It is hardly surprising that Samir is popular with his students in the Khelghar programme! He also assists in the ALP when required and painstakingly mentors the 10th std group, ensuring that they study, complete their assignments and feel mentally prepared to face the exams. Samir is also completing his education while he works at Akshara.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that I am what I am today because of the direction that I got from Akshara. I am calmer, I have more focus, I can take responsibility without shirking. The Akshara teachers took the trouble to understand me. Akshara just changed my life – it’s as simple as that. And now I want to do that for other children.
A few years ago, it seemed to Seema that her life could not get worse than it was. When she finally mustered the courage to walk out of an abusive early marriage, she wondered how she would support herself, unwilling to be a burden on her parents. When the Akshara senior staff heard her story during one of their village visits, and offered her the chance to work as a teacher, Seema hesitantly took up the offer. Today, with the solid support of her colleagues, Seema is an emotionally stable, confident young woman who teaches in the Khelghar programme and has recently been on a successful to a trek to the mountain peaks of Ladakh. She is also continuing her education.
I was so shy even to go to the MUWCI canteen or washroom on my own,’ smiles Seema. ‘Now I can speak about issues, plan my classes with confidence… I love the learning-through-play method that we use and how we all put our ideas together to plan the classes. Cross-curricular learning really helps the children understand. I think I enjoy the games as much as the children!
With an MSc and a BEd, Smita came to Akshara seeking not only ‘job satisfaction’ that she had not got in her earlier job as a lecturer, but also socially-relevant work that would help her to ‘bring change’ in society. This desire gradually took concrete shape as she ‘unlearned’ much of what her B.Ed had taught her and plunged into the personalised, child-centric, constructivist approach that Akshara favours. Smita attended trainings, thought deeply about the meaning of ‘inclusive education’, made IEPs (individual education programmes), helped to evolve the curriculum and plunged into almost all Akshara initiatives – academic, community-oriented or livelihood-oriented. Today, Smita teaches, handles the Outreach Volunteer Programme and is also the Kruti coordinator, amongst other responsibilities.
For two years, I was like a student here myself. The teaching methods I had learned were not working. When I changed my mindset and tried a new approach, my students’ achievements also improved. That was an eye-opener. Akshara has given me a willingness to try new things – I feel there is nothing I cannot learn! My own family has seen the change in me – it reflects on my face.
Lahu teaches Maths for the 8th,9th and 10th stds. He heard about Akshara from his school-going sister. He joined the programme as an assistant Maths teacher and contact person between the villages and Akshara.
Although initially Lahu was not very comfortable with the girl students and feared that his visiting their families for interviews and supervision would be taken in a wrong way, later on, the work experience with Akshara built his confidence and he could explain to parents why it was necessary to visit the families of the girl students.
Lahu remembers travelling to Madhya Pradesh with a volunteer named Michael and getting the opportunity to compare the educational systems of the two states. Lahu has completed his B.Ed degree and is currently working on a post-graduate degree in Statistics.
The Akshara staff never made a distinction between the village students and the city people. I never got any whiff of it. I learned time management, how to use reminders to complete work on time, how to teach maths… I did workshops with Nav-Nirmiti…Akshara helped with counseling for personal and family problems.