Way back in 2006 when I was going through the churn of finding an answer to “What’s my life’s purpose?”, I stumbled upon “Shriman Yogi” – the seminal work on Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj. I have since then read the book multiple times and each reading has lent a better perspective in the life of the tallest influence in my life – A king par excellence; whose legends of bravery, loyalty, leadership, and farsightedness still give me goosebumps.
Of all the virtues that the great Maratha king embodied, one that stands out for me is living life to a purpose. He won his first fort at the age of 14 and in his lifetime conquered more than 350 forts from some of the fiercest enemies whose armies dwarfed his multiple times over. What kind of purpose was it that allowed him unadulterated & uninterrupted meaning for 39 straight years of work-life and continues to give inspiration to the millions like me almost 350 years after his death.
As I read that book and in the years that followed, I have on numerous occasions fantasized about being a Mavala – a foot soldier in Maharaj’s army. What a life to have; in the service of a purpose at the disposal of a leader who would have been second to only my mother. Alas!!!
But I am grateful to my God for letting me struggle with life’s toughest questions at an early age, the pursuit of which led to the life I have today – one which will be graded as sub-ordinary if measured using the scales of possession but one which will rate me as a good Mavala who would have made his master proud 350 years ago.
LeapForWord in a language that the world can understand is an organization that is committed to eliminate the barrier that stops our rural kids from pursuing professional education – Inability to learn English!!! But for me, it has always been God’s work. I don’t know how it will be at the end of this long journey but I know it would have been spent in the pursuit of a purpose.
So much for a prologue!!!
After almost 10 years of field-work most of which were spent in the tribal regions of Maharashtra namely villages & communities in Dhule, Nandurbar, Raigad, Nashik & Thane, we decided to explore working in a larger geography. Over a decade of work in some of the most infrastructure scarce places in the state, we had managed to fine-tune our English Literacy Solution and demonstrate it’s success. The larger idea was to move beyond English Literate communities to English Literate large geographies. While this was going on in our minds, one of my most committed colleagues Ms.Roopali Mohite fell for a guy and decided to get married. The guy was not based in Mumbai and so I had almost resigned to the fact that we would lose her. But then she wanted us as badly as she wanted the new man in her life, so in a win-win arrangement, we decided to set shop in the place where our lady would settle post marriage.
The place turned out to be MAVAL!!!
This was March 2016 and soon the exciting work of exploring Maval began. Teacher Entrepreneur was LeapForWord’s most successful distribution channel – We train and certify educated rural youths and help them set-up English tuition classes in their villages. Kids learn English at ~Re.1/day while these youth who otherwise do not have many employment options make upto Rs.3000/- per month. We decided to start with this channel and then organically expand into the Formal Education System – namely the Zilla Parishad schools.
Having dissected the Maval map in every possible manner, we finally zeroed in on about 40 odd villages. So a team of 4 started touring these villages, talking to individuals, holding small-group conversation, putting up kiosks in market-places, arranging youth exposure sessions in temples & community halls – essentially doing everything to introduce LeapForWord’s work to see if young people would like to start English tuition classes. By the end of the end of 2 months, the team had clocked close to 2500 km, created awareness about LeapForWord and managed to get 7 TEs off the ground. However, something much more beautiful happened in the process.
They say Opportunity knocks on our doors but in our case we happened to knock on the door of opportunity, One of the at-least 500 doors that Roopali & team knocked happened to be answered by one Mr. Datta Padwal who made time to listen to our work and insisted that we meet the Block Development Officer of Maval (Administrative head for all government interventions in a Taluka) who was his good friend. He made an appointment and made sure that the BDO gave enough time to listen to our presentation. This was almost July. The BDO heard us out and invited us to roll out the program across 300 schools in the entire Taluka!!! With a mixed feeling of excitement & fear, we accepted his invitation – Excited for the obvious reason of the potential & fear because 2 out of the 4 people who were doing the running around were summer interns who would soon leave with just Roopali who was starting a new life to guard our first fort-:)
So we started pulling our act together piece-by-piece. First came an official address, then a full-time recruit and then resource planning such that our best people from the Mumbai office increasingly spent more and more time in Maval. To save costs on staying, Mumbai team who traveled to Maval would stay the nights in the office which didn’t have a bathroom. So a wooden plank to cover the toilet seat (Indian) would convert the toilet into a bath!!!
We insisted that only the teacher training should be mandatory. We had belief in our product but more importantly, we understood the on-ground challenges and were pretty sure that a well-intentioned teacher who would explore our product will definitely try it at least once in her/his class and if s/he did so, there was no way s/he would discontinue. Within a span of 2 weeks through the services of just 3 in-house trainers we conducted close to 12 training sessions covering almost 800 ZP school teachers!!! (<–Video)
While 100% coverage through training has been achieved we knew that 100% adoption would never materialize. We started looking for similar such solutions attempted elsewhere or in other sectors to learn how to go about expanding the adoption of our techniques in a voluntarily environment. The search led us to Everett Rodger’s Law of Diffusion of Innovation. It seemed to us that in this theory lay the answers to many of our doubts. The theory suggests that any innovation diffuses through Innovators (2.5%), Early Adoptors (13.5%), Early Majority (34%), Late majority (34%) and Laggards (16%). We set ourselves a target of reaching out to 16% of all trained teachers by the end of the first year and take the adoption rate to 50% by the end of the 3rd year.
So the iterations for the 16% pursuit began. First step, the team painstakingly called up each one of the 800 trained teachers and asked them a simple Question “Did you find the training meaningful enough to start teaching your kids?” 350 answered in the affirmative. We then reached out to donors to raise money for printing teaching material for these 350 classes. Once the material distribution was done, the field team traveled everyday to different classes to get a better sense of ground reality – Who was actually teaching? What were the challenges, What were some of the best practices etc…We brought a list of teachers depending on their on-field action and classified them with a very uncomfortable choice of English:)
Proactive Teachers (‘Hot teachers’ as our tean calls them) = Teachers who are well-intentioned and will definitely form a bulk of the 16%
Warm Teachers = Fence sitters looking for validation before taking the plunge
Cold Teachers = Would never deliver in a voluntary environment
Limited resources advised us to focus more on the first group while keeping conversations open with the 2nd. We decided to not waste our energies on the 3rd group in the first year. 2 months into the program, we again called the teachers (1st & 2nd group) and asked how many of them would be willing to get their students assessed? This was an Acid Test. Government school teachers are vary of outsiders who come and conduct tests and then publish the results bringing a bad name to the entire govt. system. Percentages have a funny way of coloring the good. So we made us and our teachers a promise. We said that we will not share any teacher’s individual class result with others. Her superiors will get consolidated results but will never be able to single out any 1 teacher. 163 teachers responded to our call to action and invited us to conduct the tests in their classes.
Here is where awaited the 2nd challenge. With a small team to conduct a test for ~3,000 students in 7 days was near impossible. So we started courting a new partner again – Shift from paper-pencil tests to OMR (bubble sheet). Endless nights at the Mumbai office resulted in the team finding the most efficient way to conduct mass tests. We not only got the tests conducted we also had the analyses out in record time.
We used this opportunity to meet participating teachers in small groups. We gave each teacher his/her result in a sealed envelope and showed how her class has fared compared to other classes of the same grade and same class strength. We could feel a sense of trust in their response to these meetings. They said that never ever had anyone shown them their performance in such objective & transparent manner. We knew we had finally broken the ice.
The first test was followed by another call ~1.5 months later to conduct the last test of the academic year. A whopping 225 teachers responded to the call. In a voluntary only engagement with no incentive & definitely no penalty close to 30% teachers had participated in the program. We ended the academic year on a high with presentations to the BDO and highlighting those classes and teachers who had done an exceptional job. The result? The BDO made the program mandatory in all schools this year. If that was not enough LeapForWord is now one of the 4 flagship projects of the BDO office in the current year.
The field team in Maval had done a phenomenal job to not only get the program running but also build a bond of Trust with the teachers. Roopali was awarded “Maval Khjitij” in a public ceremony organized by the local administration.
The team had identified some really proactive teachers, these were teachers who went beyond the call of their duty to bring results in their class. Sometime between the 2 tests, Mumbai team visited some of these classes and video-shot these good teachers. We now have edited stories that will be run as part of our “Heroes Of Maval” campaign. We intend to circulate these stories such that they bring inspiration to the fence sitters (Group 2)
We are now in our Year 2 and by June 2019, Maval would have become India’s most English Literate Taluka. There is much to do but our morale is high!!! While we didn’t particularly like the “Compulsory Program” tag we decided to make it work in our favour. While all this was happening in Maval, one really amazing partnership was building. EkStep Foundation built by the Aadhar Card team had built a platform to take digital content to kids across the country. They were looking for reliable content developers while we knew that the long run couldn’t be sans Technology. So during the summer vacation, we digitized all our content on the EkStep platform and it is now available in the form of a mobile application.
Digital inertia in government classrooms is huge – Our best teachers may not be tech savvy and the pressure of using technology in their day-to-day teaching could alienate them and we run the risk of pouring cold water on last year’s good work. But we have decided to take the challenge head on. With the program now made compulsory, we have an opportunity to strike conversations with individual teachers and demonstrate how the mobile phone could be in a very non-intimidating fashion used in a class to improve student learnings. It’s going to be a risky bet but when it comes through, we would have nearly perfected a model to conquer the remaining 349 forts:)
In the first 2 weeks of August the team conducted app-based exposure sessions covering almost 600 teachers!!! As I write this, my colleagues are visiting classes helping teachers overcome their apprehensions with Technology. If last year was exciting, then this year is going to be double the fun!!!
If I have to summarize the 3-year Maval roadmap then:
Year 1 was about learning the Diffusion levers,
Year 2 will be about overcoming technology adoption barriers while
Year 3 will be about streamlining the model and conducting a pan-taluka Impact study
So this is where we are, right in between an amazing year gone by and a possibility of making Maval English Literate!!! It’s again the same mixed feeling of Fear & Hope, but our history suggests that the latter has always prevailed!!!