The power of reflection: Lessons in changing the primary education paradigm

Rakesh Mani is not your average Wall Street banker. He’s not your average primary school teacher either. At 26, when most of his peers had one foot firmly planted in a life of cushy, disproportionate bonuses, Mani was thinking about how he could change the world. And he began with the youngest, yet most significant part of our community - children.

Having traveled all the way from Wall Street to the slums of Mumbai, Mani is part of a growing community of India’s brightest young citizens who are involved in the country’s social sector, inspiring commitment and driving an altered vision for India’s development sector.“I felt an idealistic pull, and wanted to commit towards living and working at the grassroots level in India,” he explains. “Given the state of the bond markets at the time, the opportunity cost of leaving was relatively low and I was encouraged by the prospect of adventure and impact,” he adds.

Chennai-born Mani’s decision to change tracks and emerge as a thought leader in India’s education sector comes within a specific context. Despite rapid economic growth, India is still home to over 40% of the worlds’ poor – and significant hurdles in the spheres of health and education make it immensely challenging to drive systemic change.

Having earned a name for himself in banking stints with Deutsche Bank, BlackRock and JP Morgan in New York, Mani shifted to Mumbai in the summer of 2009. Despite attending an intense training session for Teach For India’s new cohort, he says nothing could have prepared him for the shock he experienced on his first day at school. From the toffee-nosed echelons of Wall Street, he came face-to-face with India’s educational reality: a crumbling school building, with a leaking roof, set in the deep alleyways of the city’s north-western slums; the air heavy with the stench of garbage, he was welcomed by smiling faces in tattered uniforms, waiting eagerly in a cramped classroom to meet their new teacher. “It was a powerful and sobering introduction to the magnitude of the challenge ahead of me,” he reminisces.

Mani began employing a systemic shift in the way these children looked at their own educational environment. The idea was simple--to help them dream big and think outside their the physical and mental confines. From curriculum change to field trips and talks for his students, he approached his teacher’s role in an unconventional manner.

His efforts were often met with stiff resistance by the authority. Mani carried on undeterred. During his two-year teaching stint, he also worked with the school’s teachers to implement a successful teacher training module, allowing them to introduce more effective instructional methods to their classrooms. He developed a robust curriculum focusing on alphabet and sight word recognition for kindergarten students, to help boost fluency at an early age.

“Being a good teacher is only partly about instruction,” he stresses. “What I learned is that it requires tremendous leadership skills, and calls on you to be a good diplomat, a cheerleader, a taskmaster, a mentor and at times, a student as well.”

Looking back, however, his view is surprisingly mixed. “It’s an incredibly emotional and challenging personal journey, and you always feel you did not do enough,” he muses.

“There are many questions in my mind about the costs of educating Indian children in English, and the potential harm of introducing them to a world that is alien to them and beyond their reach,” he continues.

Having completed his teaching fellowship, Mani is now a MBA student at the Kellog School in Chicago, and after broadening his knowledge of macroeconomics and development, hopes to apply his business skills towards making an impact on a larger stage. A previous internship with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) showed him how to meld his passion for social change with his skills and expertise as a finance expert.

A prolific writer on education and the social issues that surround it, Mani’s involvement with teaching will extend beyond his stint with Teach For India. Ask him about his current involvement with education, and his eyes light up when he talks about his new role on the Board of Directors of Chicago Charter Schools, the largest charter school network in the state of Illinois. This will, he claims, give him a chance to deepen his understanding of an effective public-private partnership model in education.

Teaching slum children has been an enriching experience for Mani; not only did he give back, but he also took away a keen desire to continue on this journey of introducing systemic change. This is apparent in what he says about his role as a teacher: “The biggest growth and development you see in your two years is not with your students or at your school, but with yourself internally. You feel certain that you took away much more than you were ever able to give; and you learned more than you were ever able to teach.”

Note: Rakesh Mani is a banker and Teach for India Fellow who has worked with several prestigious banks such as JP Morgan and Duetsche Bank. He holds a degree in Actuarial Science & Mathematics degree from New York University.

As told to Meera Vijayann