Monday, 29 July 2013

Managing a Location

Natasha (R) with one of the Mumbai RPAs, Neelakshi (L)
 -Natasha Maru

Natasha works with the Central Team of the Learn, Out of the Box programme. She also manages the programme in Mumbai

Managing the program in Mumbai, as in any other location, means taking overall responsibility for roll out and on-going operations in the location.

This involves enrolling our target number of schools and ensuring their training occurs in a timely and thorough manner; providing them with the requisite support – be it material, technical or pedagogical; managing the activities of the Regional Programme Associates; and bridging the gap between the vision of the program and its actual delivery.

However, above the generics, what it really means to me is to establish and foster a team that is well equipped to facilitate high quality teaching and learning experiences, as envisioned by the program, while simultaneously enjoying this process.

Having only recently returned from supporting teacher training in Uttar Pradesh, I am reminded of how the launch period was, for us in Mumbai, during the same period last year. We were just starting off the project then, and there were a lot of uncertainties. This past year has taught us a lot as a team, and me, personally, as a manager of a location.

We faced a lot of challenges – first, during launch, as well as later in the year. Some of the bigger challenges we faced are discussed below:
  • Launch Strategy – In some locations all the schools were enrolled first and then trainings conducted. In other locations, enrolment and trainings were done simultaneously. We hoped to follow the second strategy in Mumbai – however, due to staff changes and the resulting man power constraints, we were only able to enrol and train a few schools at the start of the school year. We then focused on getting them started with using the WebBox, before enrolling and training the rest of the schools. Managing such a situation was a challenge as the two sets of schools needed different levels and types of support at different times of the year. 
We completed the launch process in Mumbai only in December. During the enrolment and training of the new schools, the initial set of schools was neglected, while new schools used the late launch date as an excuse for non-usage.
  • Time Management – A time consuming activity last year was the data collection exercise for the program evaluation prototype study. Additionally, we had to constantly fight the school calendar with their multifarious holidays, functions, exams and other events. As a result of these disruptions, we were not able to make the most of the time we had. The program suffered from irregularity and haphazardness, and managing our time was a challenge due to the lack adequate pre-planning.
  • Building Relationships – The program not only provides technology to schools but also provides in-school support to teachers to help them make their classrooms more active. Our schools were not accustomed to such an intervention and, though most of them were open to it, it was hard to get their full cooperation, time and support. We have always tried to maintain a casual and friendly relationship to ensure a trusting and open relationship with teachers. At the same time we have had to draw clear lines and be formal about the terms of our association, on occasion, so that we are not taken too lightly. Our relationship relies on this fine balance, and maintaining it has been a challenge for the RPAs
  • Nature of Participating Schools – Two thirds of our schools are government aided, where teachers have a lot of time consuming administrative responsibilities. Often, the principal’s direct involvement in the program is minimal. There are a lot of holidays as prescribed in the government calendar. Additionally, the schools are also used as voting centres, or state-board exam centres, and venues for other events which also cuts down on class time. The schools here are semi-English, which means that students learn only Math and Science in English while all other subjects are taught in Marathi. Each class has over 40 students, with students being at different skill levels.
Working within this framework and accounting for the aforementioned factors can prove to be quite challenging. Lesson planning for classes within this structure requires a unique approach.
  • RPA Management and Development – We did not have any strict monitoring protocols for the RPAs last year. Since I was as new to the program as the RPAs, I was unable to guide them or assess their needs, as I was myself just getting acquainted with the output expected from them. They needed a lot more support than we provided in terms of on-going training and monitoring.
  • Challenges of a Start-up Program – Being in the first phase of the program, we were devoid of any of the wisdom now accumulated and brought into Phase 2. We did not know what we could expect, and could not anticipate the little things that turned out to be important later on. For example, we found out the strength of students in the classes we were going to be working with, but we did not document this. Thus, when we needed the data, the exercise had to be repeated unnecessarily.

The Mumbai team has learnt a lot in the process of facing these challenges - learning that we are going carry forward into this new academic year. Some of these learnings are elucidated below:
  • Planning – We are going to be a lot more organized this year. Being more aware of the extent of our role in working with schools, and the processes involved therein, it is easier for us to properly plan our work in advance. We have initiated planning session to properly plan our activities monthly. Additionally, we will have weekly review meetings that will help us take stock and plan for each coming week.
  • Coordination and Communication – Having worked together for a year, it is now easier for us to understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses and work together. I intend to give clear and crisp instructions, as well as set realistic yet firm deadlines. Conversely, I intend to create an environment where the RPAs are encouraged to take initiative, and to question and clarify the specifics of assigned tasks.
  • Working with Schools – Last year, I found that RPAs were initially hesitant to take firm decisions on the spot. With an increased familiarity with the program, they are more confident and will be in a better position to take autonomous decisions.
Additionally, we were quite lenient with what we asked for from schools in the previous year, and gave them a lot of leeway when it came to low usage or non-cooperation with the program. This led to a lot of schools taking the program lightly. Building on this experience, we have put processes in place to prevent similar events from occurring – this includes clearly defining our requirements for usage of our systems and the relevant consequences arising from shirking this responsibility
  • RPA Skill Development – This is a focus of across all program locations this year – however, in Mumbai specifically, I plan to work diligently on RPA skill development through weekly meetings and workshops, so that they can become more independent, and take an increased ownership for their schools and the related responsibilities encapsulated therein. Defining measurable goals for activities with defined steps to achieve them, as opposed to an ad hoc work style, will also help in achieving a larger impact.

In the past year, I have really learned a lot. I have also come to enjoy and cherish my role as the manager for the program in Mumbai. It is lovely to see the spark of new ideas on teachers’ faces during training and to see how much children absorb in the classroom, while having a lot of fun through the use of the WebBox. It is as much a matter of pride as it is humbling to see the RPAs grow, and to build trust and understanding with them. It is great to see the RPAs increasing confidence, taking ownership of their schools, training teachers and being appreciated for the work they do.

With the start of the new academic year, I feel a renewed sense of commitment to managing the Mumbai program, and I look forward to seeing how it unfolds this year!