"My first impression?" asks Ranjithsinh Disale. "I was shocked. Shocked and upset when I saw the school and the classroom."

Ranjitsinh is not recollecting his kindergarten days.

The 2020 winner of the $1 million Global Teacher Award, given by the Varkey Foundation (founded by philanthropist and educationist Sunny Varkey, chairman of Gems Education) to a teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession, is telling me about his first day as a teacher at the Zilla Parishad Primary School in Paritewadi, in the western Indian state of Maharashtra.

"I could scarcely believe my eyes when I saw the classroom the school’s headmaster led me to," he says, in an exclusive telephone interview from India.

While part of the school was being used as a cattle shed, the classroom was being used as a storeroom. Hay, cattle feed and dirt littered the floor while the walls begged for a coat of paint. "There was rubbish everywhere; the classroom a complete mess," he recalls. "I was truly shocked. I never imagined that a school in the 21st century could be like this."

If his first impression of the classroom left him shocked, what upset him more was the attitude of the parents of students. "The school’s pitiable condition was an indication of their indifference to education," he says. "None complained about the condition. Clearly, they didn’t care about education or of improving the status of their kids through education."

The children did not care either; for one, very few attended school: Truancy was so high, attendance was a pitiable 2 per cent!

Rankled, Ranjithsinh set himself three targets that he hoped would result in positive changes for students. (Much later, in December last year, the award-winning teacher would also end up making a positive change in the lives of nine teachers and their students: upon winning the Global Teacher Prize, in a heart-warming gesture of magnanimity he gave away half of the $1 million prize money to the nine teachers who were shortlisted for the award. But more about that later.)

"The first target was to bring about a change in the parents’ attitude towards education, particularly education of girls," he says. The second was to put an end to teenage marriages in the community, and the third was to improve the academic performance of students. In that order.

He gave himself five years to achieve the targets.

In his twenties at the time, the son of a teacher began to devise initiatives that would help him meet his targets.

Teenage marriages were high in the rural village situated some 300km away from the state capital Mumbai. Ranjitsinh knew that "if I wanted to change something, it shouldn’t be just changes in the classroom; it should be social and community reforms".

Ranjitsinh’s school was the first in Maharashtra to include QR codes in textbooks. In 2017, the state government introduced QR coded textbooks for grades 1-12

However, he would soon discover that changing long-entrenched mindsets is no easy task. Convincing parents that it is important to educate children, particularly girls, was "a lot of hard work".

The students hailed from extremely poor families – officially classified BPL or below poverty level. Their parents, many of them daily wage earners, were unaware of – and uninterested in – how education could make a difference to their childrens’ lives. "Parents, I realised, needed to be educated first and made to understand the importance of sending their kids to school," says Ranjitsinh. To that end, he initiated a community engagement programme actively involving them in the teaching and learning process, making them understand what educated people do in society and how they contribute to the betterment of themselves and the community.

Digital drive

Initially slow to take off, the initiative soon snowballed with parents starting to take an active role in the upkeep and improvement of the school premises, and showing keen interest in what – and how – lessons are being taught.

Convinced that schools and the education system should empower the community and solve society’s ills, he decided tackling teenage marriages should take priority next. Here again the community engagement programme helped.

Next Ranjitsinh began working on giving students access to quality education. Aware that several girl students were forced to remain at home to take care of their younger siblings and help parents in household chores as well as in the fields, he came up with a plan that would help such students continue their learning even while at home. The result was an innovation that would ring a bell in the educational echelons of even the state and Central governments: QR codes in text books.

The lightbulb moment occurred when he was out shopping one day. "I saw a shopkeeper scan a QR code of a product, and the price and product information flashed on the monitor."

Ranjitsinh wondered how he could digitise lessons and make it accessible on a smartphone or digital device for anyone, anywhere.

To that end, he learnt the technology involved in embedding content into QR codes which he then printed on stickers before pasting them in school textbooks. "Now, a student who couldn’t attend school for any reason, could scan the QR code and have access to audio poems, video lectures, stories and assignments creating a personalised learning experience for them," he says, not without pride.

But could students afford smartphones? I ask.

"I thought of that too," he says.

The young teacher contacted the local Rotary Club and a few corporates in the region and requested them to donate inexpensive smart devices to the students. "The club and the corporates agreed with the latter shifting some funds from their CSR ventures for this initiative."

In a matter of months, all his students had smart devices. Ranjitsinh taught them how to scan the QR codes, and the girls, thrilled with their new gizmos, quickly adapted to the new mode of learning. "I was pleased by how soon they began to learn the various subjects," he says.

Ranjitsinh reacts as his name was announced winner of the $1m Global Teacher Prize

Ranjitsinh now upped his act, making the codes dynamic so he could change the data in specific codes at any time.

This way the first time the students scanned the codes, they could download video, images, audio or a power point presentation. The next time they scanned the code they’d get online assessments or online tests.

"Based on their academic performance in online tests, I also altered the data. If students didn’t perform as well as I expected, it meant the digital content was not helping them understand concepts. I’d then change the data so the next time students scanned the code they’d get new digital content that suits their style of learning."

The QR code project opened a new chapter in education. If Ranjitsinh’s school was the first in Maharashtra to include them in textbooks, a couple of years later, in 2017, the state government announced that they would introduce QR coded textbooks across the state for grades 1-12.

Noting its success, the Indian government directed the National Council of Education Research and Training (an autonomous body that advises the Central and State Governments on policies and programmes for qualitative improvement in school education) to conduct a study on the impact of QR coded textbooks and how it could be scaled up nationally. The report gave the project full marks and in 2018, the government announced that all NCERT textbooks would have embedded QR Codes.

Engineering education

Looking back, it is no surprise that Ranjitsinh incorporated tech with education. "Growing up I wanted to be an engineer," he says. After schooling, he even enrolled in an engineering college. But six months into the course, his father, a retired school teacher, requested him to consider a career in teaching. "He told me ‘please do a teacher’s training programme at least for six months; if you don’t like it return to engineering’."

Ranjitsinh agreed. The six months at a teacher’s training college "changed my life and my perspectives. I realise teachers are true change makers. I decided I too wanted to be a change maker and help improve the condition of my students."

Clearly, he has been doing that and more: Close to 90 per cent of his students excelled in academics achieving the expectations of their teacher. "Within four years, I also achieved 100 per cent attendance. But more importantly, teenage marriages are now almost zero per cent," he says. "Girls feel more confident now thanks to the education they have. They realise that they too are important members of the community and can contribute to society in several ways."

To add a star to his records, his school was adjudged best in the district in 2016.

So, what is his greatest achievement to date?

Ranjitsinh takes barely a moment to reply. "The change [I brought about] in the mindsets of parents," he says. "Now they believe education is important and investing in girls’ education is as important as educating boys. That is a huge achievement." The entire community has now realised that educating girls could benefit not just their own families but also the family the girl is getting married into. "That’s one of the best changes I’ve seen in the 12 years since I started working here."

Peace project

Not one to rest on his laurels, Ranjitsinh began considering how "my girls" could help contribute to a more peaceful world.

"I was reading the Global Peace Index report when I came across some interesting stats," he says. The teacher found that countries such as India and Pakistan, Israel and Palestine, Iran and Iraq, among others, spend billions of dollars in defence hoping to bring about lasting peace. "But they are yet to find it," he says. "War, clearly, is not a solution."

Convinced the world would be a better place if even half the amount of money spent on fighting was spent on education, he decided to set up Let’s Cross the Borders, a project that dovetails with the UN Sustainable Development Goal No 16 that aims for peace and peaceful communities.

"I wanted my students to realise that war is not a solution for conflicts."

His novel project connects youth from India and Pakistan, Palestine and Israel, Iraq and Iran and USA and North Korea. Over a six-week programme, students from one country are matched with ‘peace buddies’ from the other country with whom they closely interact to understand the similarities they share.

A keen believer in Mahatma Gandhi’s guiding philospophy of non-violence, he says: "I wanted to see how my students view our neighbour Pakistan and the students there, what their thoughts are about the issues between the two countries, their mindsets…" Students also discuss the stresspoints between the nations, the similarities and dissimilarities between the peoples, how peace can be promoted and what needs to be done to prevent issues from cropping up.

In less than a year, his new project saw over 5,000 students from 150 schools participating sharing views and offering solutions to end tensions between nations.

If the reactions of students who participated in the project are any indication, world peace is not a mirage. "There was a girl student from Pakistan who said, ‘Just look at the European countries, they are so diverse with different cultures, languages and geography, yet they are all living together quite peacefully. They have the same currency, they do not need a visa to travel between the various EU countries. They have so many differences yet they are living together. We have so many similarities but we are still fighting’.

"Such thought-provoking reactions truly make me happy," he says.

There is another set of reactions that also gives him a lot of joy – those that occur in a science lab he set up in his home. Here, after class hours, he demonstrates scientific experiments and shares them virtually with less-privileged students across the world who do not have access to a lab in their schools. "I set this up a few years ago," he says. "Schools that don’t have a science lab contact me and schedule a date and time, and mention the concept they would want me to teach. I then conduct experiments in the lab, which are shared virtually and in real time with the students of those schools," he says.

Over the past years, he has taught some 86,000 students in more than 1,400 classrooms in 70 countries, helping popularise science in rural areas of the world and promote a scientific attitude among students.

Little wonder Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella included Ranjitsinh’s story as one of three from India in his book Hit Refresh.

But in case you thought Ranjitsinh teaches only students, you are wrong; this teacher teaches teachers, too.

During summer vacations, Ranjitsinh offered face-to-face training sessions with more than 16,000 teachers across Maharashtra on how to augment teaching using technology.

"It’s said that every student has a birthright to education," says the teacher. "That saying should be changed to ‘birthright to quality education with accessibility to technology’. This should be the birthright of a 21st century student," says Ranjitsinh, who is all praise for his family, particularly his father who supported him during challenging times. "Once he gave me his month’s salary so I could purchase a laptop," he says.

A lesson in generosity

As we prepare to wind up, I ask Ranjitsinh what he felt when he decided to give away 50 per cent of his prize money of $1 million to the nine other teachers shortlisted for the Global Teacher Prize, the first time any winner has done so.

"I think teachers work for the outcome, not for the income," he says. "Sharing the prize money is actually my investment in the respective countries. I now truly feel the world is my classroom."

Ranjithsinh says the entire community has realised that educating girls could benefit not just their own families, but also the family the girl is getting married into

Viewed with that mindset, sharing the prize money, he feels, will help more students. ‘[The money] will help teachers from those nine countries to continue to work with the same passion as when they started their projects. So by sharing, it is actually multiplying… we are all growing."

Sure that such a collaborative effort will improve the education system across the world, he says, "I don’t think I did anything different. Indians follow a tradition of sharing and growing. We don’t think twice before sharing our food, our happy and sad moments… so why not share the prize money, too.

"Even though [the jury] named me the winner, now we all 10 teachers are happy. I was delighted to see the smiles on their faces and to know that they could continue their work."

Ranjitsinh's teaching tips: The way of a global teacher

• Follow your passion. Identify your area of interest and then continue education.

• Don’t be afraid to fail at every moment. Success may teach you a few things but you might not know why exactly you tasted success. But failure will teach you a lot provided you take the lessons and move on. So don’t be sad if you have failed at something.

• Be compassionate towards less privileged students and low achievers.

• Be a catalyst of positive change to other students; try to solve problems in communities.

• Focus on learning and understanding concepts rather than just on achieving marks.

• We need wise people, not educated people. Educated people are not always right; there are several people in my village for instance who are not educated but are very wise. They know how to protect the environment, to communicate well with people, to find solutions to issues in a simple way…

• Plan lessons according to 21st century skills. Focus on building citizens of the 21st century. We need innovators and creators rather than just users.

• Adopt new methodologies to make your teaching more impactful.

• Be a friend to your students.

• Continue your professional development, sharpening and honing your skills every day. It’s often said that students of the 21st century are being taught by teachers of the 20th century using 19th century curriculum with 18th century techniques.

• The world needs teachers of the 21st century. Teachers who are tech savvy use opportunities and know what kind of changes they can bring. They use different technologies and methodologies in the classroom.

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