Kushal Dattani was pursuing his Masters in Finance in Australia, when he first took on the role of a Special Education Teacher Assistant. Today, he is helping teachers build more inclusive classrooms through his Samait Shala project.
Six years ago, Kushal Dattani found himself volunteering at a special needs school in Melbourne, Australia, as a student pursuing his Masters in Finance. What began as an opportunity to gather work experience helped him discover the passion that would drive him to join the Teach For India Fellowship and start his own organization – Samait Shala.
“I was looking for an opportunity to work and my university counsellors suggested the school as a good option. I had never volunteered before and the environment was completely new,” says Kushal.
He spent two days a week at the school, working with students aged 4 to 12 and, after a few months, felt a strong connection to the kids. The school noticed it too, and offered him a more formal role, which he continued until 2014, when he completed his MA.
Kushal then dedicated his time to the school as full-time employee working on the operations side. He was put through professional development sessions and certification courses:“It’s when I realized how close I’d become to this sector,” he says.
“I loved what I was learning, but I started to question whether I could do more in the sector and didn’t want to be restricted to the role of special education teacher,” he recalls.
When Kushal decided he had to strengthen his commitment and expand the scope of his contribution, he moved to India in search of a programme that would focus on development and children at the grassroots level.
“I remembered reading an article about Teach For India online. I knew it would be the best fit for me – someone who wanted to know the education sector inside out,” he says. Despite the 180-degree career switch, there was no trepidation on the part of his parents, who were supportive of his choices: “They always trusted me with my actions and I’m really glad for that,” says Kushal.
Kushal was accepted to the 2014 cohort in Ahmedabad and he was soon standing before a class of first graders in a school that had just joined the Teach For India network (otherwise known as a first-year intervention school).
“I thought that if I could just show them what excellence looks like, I’d change the system. But there were plenty of challenges – the school, the structures in place and my own mindset. What struck me the most was how many kids were way behind their grade level and I realised that not all of them moved forward at the same pace,” he says.
To Kushal, the parents were the most critical stakeholders in the children’s lives: “At a macro level, parents are the key drivers for a child’s growth. Most of these young children were from a migrant community, where people wanted their kids to be educated. It was also one where parents weren’t aware of how they could help their kids, despite being literate. They weren’t empowered with an idea of what an excellent education looks like,” he explains.
For the rest of his Fellowship, Kushal made every effort to show people what excellence looks like, so they would go beyond imploring kids to “just study well.”
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