Swastika Shrestha has impacted the lives of around 8,000 students through Teach For Nepal. As the Co-founder of the organisation, Swastika’s journey started from its very roots. She is the Chief Executive Officer of TFN, a responsibility that runs deep as it promises to change the lives of young students across a country that struggles to provide quality education and education equity and access.
While launching Teach for Nepal, Swastika was apprehensive if the model would work, would the young people entrusted with the work deliver on the trust that was being put into them, would they be able to face the challenges without getting tired, would the beneficiaries accept the model, would the local implementing schools approve… there were many questions on her mind, but none of it deterred her from accompliceship what she was set to do. Ten years later, Teach For Nepal has stood the test of time and two very critical phases that the country went through – the earthquake and the Covid 19 pandemic. Ten years later, she stands with an alumni that believes in her more than ever. Young people who shared two precious years of their lives making a difference to less privileged students giving them the promise of a better tomorrow, and through the process, enriching themselves.
Swastika believes that life revolves around service and leadership. Leaders are the ones who have decided that their lives are not just about finding comfort for themselves but wanting to make meaningful changes in others lives and working for the betterment of society.
In conversation with WOW, Swastika talks about learning and unlearning over the years, opens up about her fears, speaks about keeping the zeal to foster change in the nation, and above all what it takes to be a good human being. Excerpts:
Taking you back to the beginning; when did you first start thinking about wanting to work with the community?
I must have been about seven or eight when I first heard my parents talk about the war between Israel and Palestine over evening tea. I remember thinking to myself – I will somehow find a way to stop that war and end all the suffering so that the world can be restored to its natural state of peace and harmony. Some time later, I remember hearing about a war between India and Pakistan. As a young girl, I remember feeling overwhelmed that now I had two wars to stop. Needless to say, growing up was about learning about the state of our world – wars, famine, genocide, terrorism, slavery, and other unimaginable atrocities that were part of both our past and present. But somehow, I never lost the confidence that I had as a little girl who wanted to stop wars. The sense of agency and sense of possibility sustained through the years. As I grew older, I knew that, in this very lifetime, I can do something meaningful and leave the world in a better state than how I found it. I don’t need to move mountains. I just have to make sure I shift it one degree towards humanity and lessening human suffering.
Co-founding Teach For Nepal and working with the community began with the same zeal and desire to bring about that one degree shift in this universe that has the potential to create strong ripple effects in communities and the nation at large. Nurturing young leaders – that includes both our students and Teach For Nepal fellows – who are deeply embedded in values of compassion, integrity, agency and possibility, all of which I strongly believe in will change the face of this nation.
What are the attributes and qualities that allow you to do what you do?
I believe in the work that Teach For Nepal does and the transformation that we hope to be able to drive through this movement. That belief is the single most driver that sustains me in the kind of work that we do. With that belief, I have now completed ten years in and with Teach For Nepal. But if I look back, from the days we were starting this movement and founding this organisation to the several challenging contexts of the earthquake, Covid, and political unrest, we have been through a lot. In these ever-changing contexts and with new challenges every few years, sustaining the movement and the zeal for this work has taken a lot of persistence. With a strong belief and conviction in the work, the ability to continuously learn and continuously evolve while being rooted in our core values have been the most important attributes and qualities that have sustained me as well as our entire team in this work.
What about failures?
As a young woman, I remember being overwhelmed and disheartened by my shortcomings and failings. I don’t remember what each of those failures taught me. I just remember that I eventually got used to failures and began to see failings not as failures but as things not turning out the way I expected. Now, I have just learned that not everything turns out exactly how you expected it to turn out, and that’s okay too.
What do people in Nepal commonly misunderstand about education, pedagogy and nonprofit work in the country?
After the first phase of the Covid wave in Nepal, I remember a young well-intentioned journalist asking me: Did Teach For Nepal innovate something interesting that enabled student learning? I could sense that perhaps she was asking about some technological or digital breakthroughs. She was a bit disappointed when I said that our magic bullet was our people – our fellows who relentlessly called their students over the phone or reached them through social media to make sure that were emotionally well and that their learning continued.
We at Teach For Nepal believe – “Ideas don’t change the Nation, People Do.” This statement often provokes different kinds of reactions. Of course, ideas are important. Innovation and inventions are important. But in education or in any other kind of work where we are working towards social justice and equality, the question is not just about technological innovation but about who has or who doesn’t have the access, information, or tools to reap the benefits of these innovations. The only way to bridge the gap is for leaders who are willing to get their bare feet and hands on the ground where things are complex, intertwined and real. Unless we invest in leadership that has both the will and wisdom along with deep-rooted values of justice and equality, great ideas themselves are not going to fix anything for the poor and disenfranchised.
Can you tell us about the status of women in the work that you do?
In the kind of work I do, I have had the privilege of meeting women across the spectrum. This includes girls we teach in the school who work incredibly hard to excel in school amidst other responsibilities at home. I have met mothers who also work incredibly hard to support their families and make sure that their sons and daughter reach the horizons that they couldn’t even dream of.
I have had the privilege of working with a lot of young women who join Teach For Nepal as fellows. These young women work incredibly hard to break social and gender barriers for their students and in the process, break their own inner and outer barriers. I see these young emerging female leaders go on a journey of understanding their authentic selves and trying to find their place in the world while also trying to change the world into a more equal society.
I have met women leaders who also work incredibly hard and find themselves not always having the voice, social acceptance, or recognition that they deserve. Some women leaders have decades of disempowering messages and traumas to heal from.
It might not be possible that put all these women in one box and define their status. If I must, then I would say, women across the spectrum, through the virtue of their own inner and outer strength are steadily moving forward towards a better life for themselves and transforming the social, cultural and gender barriers for everyone else.
How has Teach For Nepal sensitised or cultivated empathy in those who decided to be part of the journey?
Those who chose to join Teach for Nepal fellowship are people who are already moved by empathy. They chose to embark upon this journey once they become aware of how slim the chances of success are for students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. These fellows take on this huge responsibility because they have been through the hardships that are faced by hundreds and thousands of students or because they realise their privileges and want to give back to those who don’t have those privileges. The two years of fellowship journey where they become more and more aware of the ground reality and the humbling experience that they have in the community which becomes their second home, further nurtures empathy and fuels their drive to continue in the path of service and giving back.
There is a glaring dearth of teachers in primary schools across Nepal, how do you think TFN fellows drive themselves towards what they have set out to accomplish?
The dearth of teachers in schools across Nepal is not an isolated problem. It is a systemic problem with its roots in our culture as well as social, political, and economic structures and systems. The idea of Teach For Nepal is not about trying to fill the gap in teachers in numbers. The fellows who spend two years in school and community as teachers bring back a depth of understanding and knowledge about the several social, cultural, political, and economic factors and a network of stakeholders that create a complex ecosystem within which our public schools function.
The fellows whose leadership journey begins with two years of teaching fellowship, eventually work towards innovating and intervening in the system from multiple spaces within the public education ecosystem. We have seen a lot of our alumni work towards teacher training, school management enterprise, online learning resource development, supporting social-emotional skills in classrooms, raising key agendas in education through print and visual media, etc.
We believe that these new generations of leaders in the education ecosystem will drive changes at multiple levels and collectively change the status of public education.
What have your interactions with volunteers and fellows been like?
During the time of Covid, when Teach For Nepal, with a high sense of urgency, was trying to ensure that children’s learning continued without any interruption, we started to reach out to students through social media and other online mediums. During this time, we were able to reach about 1500 students out of the 8000 students that we were working with during normal times. This was mainly because only that many students had some form of access to a digital device and the internet.
In times like that where only a segment of our students was able to access learning and other support, our fellows were extremely upset. They questioned – how can we leave behind the very students that we stepped up to work for. As a TFN community, our first and foremost commitment has been to support those who have been marginalised and disadvantaged. How could we forget those who had an equal desire for learning, equal need for support, and equal potential for success but didn’t have the resources?
Of course, at that time, we as an organisation had to focus on what was possible for us to do at the time. But these critical questions that fellows raised were a grounding moment for me and a reminder of my values for social transformation with which I had co-founded this movement.
Fellows at that time reminded all of us to never forget who we are and for whom we exist.
How do you create an ecosystem that makes the enterprise both scalable and sustainable?
No enterprise can scale or become sustainable until and unless it can create an ecosystem of multiple leaders and a culture of collective leadership. Investing in people and their leadership along with the culture of shared accountabilities within a mutually empowering and co-learning space is first and foremost the most important variable that ensures growth and long-term sustainability.
What are the most pressing challenges you face while running the project today?
In this fast-paced culture where more and more youth feel the pressure to rapidly move from one thing to the next, only some of the exceptional youth are willing to leave the “race” and deep dive into a process of learning, self-exploration, and grassroots experiences.
With the ever-rising level of capitalism where the focus is extremely high on individual prosperity, the group of youth who chose to give back to the community and focus on collective community prosperity is exceptional role models.
How do you assess the progress made – not solely quantitative but also on a more personal level?
At Teach For Nepal, we assess student learning outcomes as one of the indicators of progress. But more than that we do look at the changes that we see in students – their participation in classrooms, their engagement in different leadership activities, their attitude towards learning, their ability to collaborate with other students, etc. Successful Teach For Nepal fellows in addition to improving learning outcomes, also prepare their students for life and set them on a transformational life path by building students’ core mindset around their attitude towards learning and what they believe is possible for themselves.
Successful students for us are those who not only progress in life but also are deeply embedded in the value of giving back to others and leading transformation in their communities towards justice and equality.
When you look at the state of education, schooling, and grassroots community-building, what concerns you most and what brings you hope?
Public schools are often seen as a school for those who cannot afford or do not have access to private education. We as a nation haven’t entered into enough discourse about how public schools are not just about serving poor and disadvantaged students and their families. The very idea of public schools is that they are instruments for equalising society. Public schools should not be the last desperate option for families but a choice for families from all varying social and economic backgrounds.
This vision for public schools is only possible if there are leaders across the public education ecosystem who collaborate, support, and remain accountable for their share of outcomes. In this regard, there’s much to stay optimistic about as local government is prioritising public education and many youths are taking leadership roles in schools, community, media, politics, and policy-making with the interest of strengthening public education for all students.
Do you still teach?
I don’t teach textbooks within the confines of a classroom. But when I engage with young emerging leaders, learning and teaching alongside them is inevitable.
What keeps you inspired?
As a Buddhist, the first and foremost thing that drives me is compassion and the commitment to do whatever little I can do in this world to make people’s lives better.
Needless to say, the work does get exhausting. There are times when it gets hard to remain inspired or motivated. Fortunately, I am part of a community of people that I can lean on. The Teach For Nepal family is a group of incredible people who are extremely motivated and driven by the bigger vision of our movement for education equality.
A lesson in combining education and entrepreneurship.
There was a time when we believed that school education was enough to set up our children for a secure future. These days, we heavily focus on entrepreneurship. Even the government has incorporated entrepreneurship development in students as a goal of education. Needless to say, this is an interesting shift in what we think our children in today’s world need. However, the increasing focus on entrepreneurship leaves behind the vision of service and giving back to the community. It leaves behind the idea of developing student leadership to solve some of the pressing issues around justice and equality. Apart from individual prosperity, the vision for education is incomplete unless the individual’s leadership role in collective community prosperity, justice and equality is included.
What advice do you have for those who want to pursue philanthropic interests or contribute to the community and society but are unsure or perhaps even skeptical about where to start?
We as a society often overlook the importance of supporting the good work that other people are doing. Supporting other people’s philanthropic work is perhaps the most virtuous thing to do. One can always start something on one’s own and launch a unique perspective in solving social issues. For all the right reasons, our society values people who have started something on their own. Independence is valued, individual charisma is applauded, and individual leadership is acknowledged. However, we often forget that if we were to fundamentally transform our society and achieve a significant impact, it is going to take more than one leader with several followers. The necessary scale of transformation is only possible when leaders in a particular setting work in collaboration with other leaders. Thus, everyone who believes that they have the leadership skills and desire to engage in philanthropic work should consider joining and supporting the good work that’s already happening.
Photographer: Suzan Shrestha
HMU: Sarishma & Asmita
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