It’s extremely easy to feel gloomy about teachers in India. We know that the single biggest in-school factor contributing to a child’s educational success is the quality of her teacher, and yet, across India, around 25 percent of teachers are absent every day. You’ll often find those who do show up reading the newspaper or chatting in the staff room rather than teaching—let alone teaching high-quality lessons. But this data presents only a partial view of teachers across the country. After speaking to more than 3,000 teachers working in schools serving low-income communities across Delhi last summer, we strongly believe that teachers can be part of the solution, rather than a barrier, to education reform.

Studies by the Poverty Action Lab and others help us understand effective mechanisms and incentives for improving teacher accountability, but how do we encourage teachers to want to teach well? How do we motivate and support teachers so that they become quality-conscious and see themselves as responsible for improving the system? These are the questions we are trying to answer at Schools and Teachers Innovating for Results (STIR). And although changes to school governance structures (such as those suggested in Susannah Hares’ recent “Education in India: Time for a Bold New Experiment” post) are critical, an important first step towards higher-quality education is to make teachers desire change in the first place.

STIR was launched in Delhi in 2012 with an ambition to build on what the Heath brothers—in their book Switch—call the “bright spots” that already exist in the education system. Our organization identifies, tests, and scales micro-innovations—that is, low-cost (often no-cost), teacher-led practices that have the potential to make a significant positive impact on student learning. One micro-innovation was developed by Sajid, a principal in a school attached to a madrasa in East Delhi. Sajid films his teachers’ lessons and asks them to review the film using a structured self-reflection sheet, then shares his own feedback. Another example is a student letterbox, developed by a teacher named Jasbeer, which allows students to share concerns and questions with her in writing; this closes the distance between teacher and student, and allows Jasbeer to monitor student writing.

Following a wide-ranging micro-innovation search and selection process (involving teacher feedback, partner feedback, and existing research evidence), we chose 25 high-potential micro-innovations, and are now working with more than 50 NGO, government, and private sector scaling partners (such as Pratham the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, the Azim Premji Foundation, the Bharti Foundation, and various state governments) to implement them at scale.

With our focus on identifying and scaling micro-innovations, however, we initially failed to see a major benefit of STIR. Teachers who participated in our micro-innovation search enjoyed discussing practice, getting recognition for their interesting micro-innovations, and belonging to a creative community of teachers (some teachers who participated said they had never spoken to teachers from other schools before). All of this greatly influenced their motivation and belief in their ability to lead improvement in their classrooms and schools. Like our friends Digital Green, who work with farmers, we came to realize that well-organized, face-to-face interaction is a crucial part of sharing micro-innovations, and helping teachers learn from and develop the confidence to try new ideas.

STIR is now building on the enthusiasm among teachers during our micro-innovation search to further increase motivation and interest in effective practice. Following our next search, we, along with our partners, will set up and run STIR Teachers’ Innovation Networks across the country. These networks will offer teacher support over the course of a year, diagnosing challenges they face in their schools, implementing and adapting relevant micro-innovations, and working together to measure and review their success.

Evidence shows that this kind of collaborative approach to professional development is highly effective, not just in terms of student outcomes, but also in terms of confidence and self-efficacy. By launching our networks on the foundation of a micro-innovation search, we begin our relationship with teachers by recognizing the positive contribution they make when they develop new ideas. We then help them see themselves as capable of and responsible for leading improvement in their classrooms and schools. Through a partnership with Columbia University Business School, we will measure the impact of program participation on teacher motivation, behavior, and practices.

A year in a STIR network will, we hope, help teachers take the first step toward quality-consciousness and the development of skills required to lead change. From there, our organization provides access to a range of next-step services and training provided by partners (presented in similar way to the UK’s Good CPD Guide). STIR scaling partners, as well as other organizations providing services to schools, will gain access to a group of motivated teachers who are willing to learn and teachers will get further support and encouragement to not just teach, but to teach well.

If we can equip even a small percentage of India’s approximately 8 million teachers with what they need to create change, it could have an enormous ripple effect on teaching practices and quality—and therefore on educational outcomes and life chances of millions of children in the world’s largest education system.

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