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STiRring the love of teaching

Spotting the missing element of teachers’ motivation in the ‘garden’ of education in his native India, Sharath Jeevan founded STiR Education to reignite the love of teaching. Now impacting the lives of six million children across India and Uganda, the STiR team have ambitions to reach 300 million by 2030. Following on from his UK Social Entrepreneur Index nominee Q&A and his subsequent entry as one of our ‘Ten of the Best’, we caught up with Sharath to delve deeper into his journey.

From your background in working with GlobalGiving and Teaching Leaders, and working in schools in the UK that were in quite deprived areas, what inspired you to take that overseas as STiR?

“I was born in India and always kept strong roots there. So I visit frequently and still have a lot of family over there as well. And I was just frustrated by this story that the Indian government had built a million free government schools across the country, which was remarkable in many ways. But it was also sad that the kids were not learning, and it really felt like... If you think about a garden, where the government had built the physical garden of access to education; they were building better and better technical seeds and reading programs, teacher training and new assessment techniques. But the bit that was missing was the soil. And by that I mean the motivational soil. Teachers had basically fallen out of love with teaching, and it felt that was the elephant in the room, and that no one was really addressing that problem.

“We were trying to work more and more around it by finding better technical solutions, but weren't trying to really get the soil fertile. That was in India which I knew well, but also found this was a similar issue in Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, around the world. And so India was the first place we started, but the vision has always been to create a global movement that really tries to address this challenge of intrinsic motivation among teachers, officials and also of course learners, so kids really want to learn and become lifelong learners.”

How did you have to adapt your method and your approach for Uganda?

“We launched our work in Uganda in just two years. We'd only been in India for about a year-and-a-half, and some people thought we were crazy, perhaps rightly so. But I think for us, it was really important to learn early on whether we had a model that would apply in many different contexts.

“The actual core model is very similar in both geographies. The teachers are meeting up every month for a couple of hours (a bit like a Toastmasters or microfinance group). They’re going through a structured process where they improve their teaching, but also actually drive those ideas of autonomy, mastery and purpose that create intrinsic motivation.

“But what's been different is how you plug that model into a government system. And our approach is always that government should be running this from day one. It's not something we do and hand over; it's a government-owned approach, and obviously the structures of districts, how ministries work, are very different in both countries. That's where we've learned to adapt and customise the model.

“Uganda has been more challenging in some regards, but also more exciting as we've been able to use slightly lower-resource settings to make the model work and use what's already there in the system.”

So it's given you the confidence and a platform to take your expansion even further as well?

“Yes, we're looking right now to one more country in Asia. It's most likely to be Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, and also a really fascinating place at the moment because of fast growth. There's a real chance to lift millions of Indonesian young people out of poverty. But education is key to that promise, and I think motivation is coming up as the big issue. It's not a money issue, it's a motivation issue.

“In Africa, we're looking at Ethiopia next, where again, there’s really exciting government reforms. The country's opening up. A really impressive set of changes and reforms in the education space are being planned. But we know that motivation is going to be a key part of that as well.”

And by 2025 you’re looking to get to impact 80 million children?

“Yes, we're now at about six million children.

“Our goal is, in countries like Indonesia and Ethiopia, we're looking longer-term at countries like Egypt and Brazil, we want to create hubs in the major parts of the emerging world, where those countries can become training sites for other neighboring countries. So obviously India for South Asia, Indonesia for Southeast Asia, etc. That's very much the model. We'd like to actually get this to 300 million children by 2030, which is when the UN Sustainable Development Goals are finished this round. That's what the world committed to in terms of education.

“There are about 800 million children who are affected by this problem. They're in school but not engaging in learning, so we want to get to just under half of those kids. And because the costs are so low ... It costs now about 30-35p per child in India to run this approach, we don't think costs will be the barrier. It's more about ‘can we demonstrate the model at scale and get strong government buy-in to really make it a universal part of children's lives?’”

How have you dealt with the challenge of growing from your initial 25 teachers in 2012?

“Now we're 200,000. Yeah, it’s definitely been challenging. So many mistakes were made along the way, and I think part of the real fun of being a social entrepreneur is that we've been able to make mistakes and had very forgiving, supportive donors and partners who have been on the journey with us. We have learned some painful lessons along the way for sure, but each time we've tried to apply that lesson as quickly as possible and get better and better. So I think we're learning how to manage scale much better now.

“I think what's key is that although the scale of what we do has increased 10,000 times over seven years, we as an organisation have maybe grown about six or seven times in terms of our own organisational team and budget. We're trying to stay as lean as possible.

“Helping our partner governments drive the running of this model, so they do the heavy lifting of implementation, means we can stay relatively nimble, lean, agile, and keep a very high staff quality.”

How do you ensure that the schemes that you're setting up in India and in Uganda have a lasting impact?

“We've always been very committed to rigorous evidence, but the challenge with that stuff is that it takes two or three years to figure out what's happening before you can change something. So we've moved to a much faster big data approach using tech. Using an app now, every month, our team surveys a sample of schools and network meetings and then district meetings. We've created some pretty robust rubrics for measuring the quality of what's going on, and also it is actually happening on the ground. That now gets fed into the app every month. It gets shared within our teams so they can discuss it and look at what's going well or where to improve.

“It gets shared back with the district governments every month as well, and they use that data to refine the following month's priorities. Every three months we meet with the national or state government and share that data as well. So again, it's really trying to create a model for continuous improvement.

“There will always be challenges and quality is always something that needs to keep increasing, but it’s questioning, ‘how do we set the data up in a way that we know what's going on, everyone feels engaged and motivated, then they want to improve things in the system as a result?’”

How do you feel about being selected as one of the ‘ten of the best’ in the UK Social Entrepreneur Index 2019?

“It's really great to see the Index happen. I mean, the UK really is a hub of social innovation. Some of our funders are from the US, and there's a really strong ecosystem of support for social entrepreneurship there. I think there's a lot we can learn from them in terms of just celebrating it.

“More and more young people go straight into this as a first or second career, which is really exciting. That wasn't an easy option when I was coming into this, so anything we can do to raise the profile of the field is important. I think that increasingly, the government and the policy worlds locally are more open to innovation.

“And I think especially if you're doing anything around basic services in developing countries like education or health, if you can learn to work with governments and partner with them closely from the beginning, scale really can happen - quite realistically actually - without having to fundraise huge, huge amounts of money as well.

“I think that openness in the policy environment is really exciting at the moment. I think we're craving new ideas, new ways of thinking. So it's a great, a very fertile time for the space overall.

“I was really impressed by the diversity of the people included in the index, but also in the schemes and the businesses; there's everything from tea to education to healthcare. It's fantastic. And there's some people who started their social enterprise when they were 17 years old, and some people who started it in their 50s. It's an amazing, amazing sector.”

Sharath’s personal experience, business growth and drive to move forward have seen him recognised as one of the 2019 UK Social Entrepreneur Index’s ‘Ten of the Best’. To find out more about the Index and see the others recognised, head over to the website. Keep an eye out for even more in-depth interviews with some of our other social entrepreneurs.

Announced earlier this year, the UK Social Entrepreneur Index is a celebration of entrepreneurs running businesses with social purposes. Out of the 29 entrepreneurs who made it into the Index, we’ve highlighted our ‘Ten of the Best’ and are bringing you a more in-depth look at some of their business journeys and lives as social entrepreneurs.

Ashleigh Smith
Article by Ashleigh Smith
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