What could have been an exhausting experience ended up being most fulfilling, packed with exuberance and high morale, leaving me with a profound sense of accomplishment. I was on cloud 9 for the first time in a long time.
I remember the first day we started to travel to the training location. It was a 310 km journey (a 6 hour drive, approximately). Five of us were sitting inside a car that was designed for four people. And not to forget the car trunk, it was packed like a jigsaw puzzle with stationery and our luggage. Initially, we were adjusting to each other and the environment, but within the first hour of travel, we had completely forgotten that we were in an uncomfortable place and an unfamiliar setting. Instead, we heartily discussed life, love, and Illayaraja . If I have to think back about what made the transition from awkward to comfortable, I have to say it was the people.
The one-of-a-kind residential Fellowship program
“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller. I never gave this quote enough thought before experiencing the Tamil Nadu Education Fellowship (TNEF) training induction program that happened in September 2022. The Department of School Education, Tamil Nadu, India, launched a 2-year Fellowship program across the state. The program is a one-of-a-kind government initiative that provides paid work experience for individuals who wish to contribute to the larger community, especially in the education sector. A total of 24,412 applicants from across the state of Tamil Nadu applied to be a part of this initiative. 140 candidates had been selected from 38 districts to support the district-level Government officials in implementing various programs launched by the Department of School Education. The selection process had four levels that spanned two weeks each cycle – screening call, pre-work screening, two face-to-face interviews, and the finalisation of the candidate based on their overall performance.
I was fortunate to be included in various elements of the selection & training process such as face-to-face interviews, drafting official letters and circulars along with the department, and other critical on-field activities such as facilitating 3 sessions on diverse topics, planning and coordinating with the school management, state officials, Fellows, and Madhi team members with day-to-day requirements.
The training was for a duration of 16 days. The organising team was engaged with the planning in the preceding five months. I joined the planning and execution team towards the very end, just as the training was about to begin. Despite the shorter timeframe, the perks of being a part of the planning and execution team, I suppose, is that you get to experience the pre and post-training moments. I witnessed how we, human beings function and thrive despite the curveballs thrown at us.
To think about planning, organising, and coordinating a residential training for nearly 160 people who are from 38 different districts with stark differences in experiences, outlooks, and expectations, for 16 days is tiring. You’d have to consider numerous and diverse factors such as logistics, food (thrice a day with refreshments in between), ensuring safety and security, providing consistent power supply, and, the most critical function of all, preparing and executing training sessions from sunrise to sunset that is packed to the brim with knowledge and skill development. The cherry on top was that it fell to us to keep the morale of the Fellows up as well. (Deeeeep breaths – I told myself every time something seemed overwhelming).
Despite the long travel, we somehow had the energy to kick-off the discussions and on-field preparations for the training immediately after reaching our destination. With much excitement and anticipation, we had nearly 150 fellows reach the venue the next day, all prepped for their 16-day training. It was the day of registrations, and despite having little sleep, we woke up the next morning full of energy for the registration process. From then on it was round-the-clock coordination and execution. It was at this point I recalled a famous quote by Charles Darwin, “It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”
I can’t agree more with Darwin’s quote! It was beautiful for me to see that at every point in time, people drew energy and inspiration from one another – I believe that is what makes teamwork a success. As human beings, we depend on each other to build each other up, no matter how independent our thoughts or actions are , we thrive on social connections, and it is hardwired within us to be social.
Learning and Growing together
What made the journey interesting was that it was residential training. I had the opportunity to observe the people, their work, their approach to life, and their sheer zest for life. Each team took up various responsibilities and executed them, like the team of cooks from the school who cooked and served food every day. Just watching them start their day at 4:30 am and end it around 10 pm (every day) while also ensuring the quality of food for all 160 people was fascinating. It motivated me to ensure quality in my own work at all times.
I drew inspiration from every single team member — some motivated me to be more prepared and well-planned, some inspired me to look at challenges as opportunities, others brought out my creative side, and others built my perspectives. Amidst all this, we made time to sing, dance, and star gaze. We built resilience as a team by leaning on each other for support and encouragement, which provided enough mind space to plan and execute the next day’s training activities seamlessly.
I remember having conversations with some of the fellows during the initial days – their levels of interest and connectivity was drastically low when compared to the days nearing the end of the residential training. While trying to understand the motivation behind the higher levels of interest, they had expressed about how their group members and hostel buddies played a vital role in inspiring each other. An interesting research on the influence of residential training communities talks about how students developed a higher sense of interest and, critical thinking, vested in their educational path, and were always learning from each other because of sharing the same physical environment for their learning journey .
In her blog post, Jessica Everitt talks about how a team member’s high morale plays an essential role in determining their productivity at the workplace thus directly translating into the impact that they wish to create. Especially for members working in the social development sector which inherently “means investing in people” . It was fascinating how a couple of us started a morning routine which involved some stretches, running and games. Watching this, other team members, although not into running in the morning were willing to just join the group on the field. Within two days they restarted some of their old morning routines like yoga, breathing exercises, praying and playing an instrument. Starting our mornings doing something that energised us increased our morale and allowed us to be more invested in the day’s activities. An environment that creates high morale will create a high impact on the social development sector.
It is not a secret that working together as a group can bring about radical shifts in any environment. Some of the famous movements in India that sustained and brought drastic changes were Chipko Movement, 1973 , Narmada Bachao Andolan, 1985 , and Save Silent Valley, 1973 which were all led by ordinary people who worked together in their own communities. Bigger the movement, the bigger the challenges, the stronger the bond, and the stronger the impact. Being a part of the social development sector is not always easy in this consumerist world, but finding people who believe in the same cause and trust each other to build and work towards that cause will lead to changes in a ripple effect.
Every time I look back at my experience at TNEF, what I will remember and cherish most are the people – how dynamic, unique and complex we are and, despite our complexity, have the ability to come together and work as one towards attaining one dream. I can only imagine what massive changes and movements we can bring about if we continue to trust and be trustworthy with each other for something greater that will create an equitable society. A state of togetherness and collective action would be the first step toward a larger change in the system.
- Know your Raja
- Harvard Business Review – Communities at Work
- People need people
- Investigating the Influence of Residential Learning Communities on Student Experiences
- Project Manager & Blogger
- What is Social Development by New Brunswick in Canada
- Chipko Movement
- Narmada Bachao Andolan
- Save Silent Valley
This article was written under the aegis of the Centre for Education Research in India (CERI). CERI, an initiative powered by Madhi Foundation, is a digital repository and think-tank catering to policymakers, practitioners, and academics in the education sector and the larger community, to catalyse reform in the education ecosystem in India.
Juliana works in the project management team at Madhi foundation. She has a Masters degree in Social Work and seven years of experience in the development sector. She believes in creating a society that promotes love, empathy, justice, and equity.