She's a star of a teacher

She's a star of a teacher

Jennifer Star’s tryst with India began at 17, when well-known non-profit organisation World Vision sent her to India as part of an internship.

EMPOWERING TEACHER Jennifer Star with two of her students.Since then, this Australian’s bond with the country has only become stronger, even to the extent of making India her home away from home. Now well into her twenties, she has recently been bestowed with the distinction of being NSW Young Australian of the Year, 2012. Mostly thanks to her pet project, Tara.ed.

After her initial visit to India, Jennifer returned of her own accord, living and working in one of Jaipur’s rag-picking slums. While she strived to teach these children, it would appear that she was also taught in turn. As she recalled her first teaching experience in the country — “I was thrown in front of a class of 48 students, with no resources and told ‘teach’!” — it soon became clear that one of her life’s greatest lessons was taught to her through the lives of students she had enriched.

It was in Jaipur that she realised the true power of education and its potential to induce change. But the magnitude of change she had in mind was based on an interesting choice; “I could go back to India each year and teach 30 children and change 30 lives. Or I could go to India and teach 30 teachers, who each would teach 30 children and change 900 lives…” And so, Tara.ed was born.

Jennifer recounts that establishing the organisation was easier said than done: “Setting up an international NGO as a 20-year-old female had many challenges. At first, nobody would take me seriously.” However, after securing the Goldman Sachs Global Leader Social Entrepreneur grant, there were far more people willing to pitch in.

Organisation of change

As an organisation, Tara.ed works towards improving the quality of education in rural communities. Jennifer appreciates the fact that the Indian educational system is pretty widespread — “even in the remotest villages, there is a primary school” — but often finds quality to be lacking. India, she says, “needs to invest in her teachers, as this is where the power of education lies.”

Working mainly with primary schools in Karnataka and Maharashtra, Tara.ed collaborates with Indian and Australian teachers in such a manner that each can take away valuable inputs from the other. Through innovative programmes such as ‘teacher tours’ and ‘sister schools’, Tara.ed combines the approaches of two very different schooling systems, the Indian and the Australian, into one unique whole. ‘Teacher tours’ is much like a foreign teacher exchange, where Australian trainee teachers are presented with an opportunity to experience what it’s like in an Indian rural school. It also facilitates an exchange of ideas as the Australian teachers pick up some of the local tricks of the trade used in shaping the young mind, and reciprocate by sharing their own teaching methodologies.

The ‘sister school’ programme is one where students of an Indian and an Australian school share their experiences on a particular subject through online platforms such as Skype or blogs. Where the resources don’t allow for an online connection, they simply write to each other the old-fashioned way.

Surely, this cannot be as smooth sailing as it sounds. But just as I relate my scepticism, Jennifer brushes it away with her assured response, “Problems are a part of life and teaching. We make sure that the Indian schools and Australian teachers are prepared well in advance about each other’s culture.” Where language is concerned, she admits that it is often an issue. But with English fast becoming a part of the curriculum, the barriers are slowly breaking away. Australian teachers tend to take those courses where English is the medium of instruction. Besides, if there is anything this exercise has taught her, it is that effective communication is not wholly dependent on knowing a common language — “It is amazing how fast the teachers and children learn when they have no other way of communicating!”

Even her current focus — a postgraduate research degree in education from the University of Oxford — is very much related to the organisation. How will this course help her approach the concept of education, going forward? Her research, she informs us, “compares the Australian and Indian pedagogies and the relationship it has to culture, learning and professional identity.” Jennifer believes that this understanding will help her to better conceptualise the value of cross-cultural teaching, and boost the Tara.ed experience, making it all the more beneficial to Australian and Indian teachers.

Fast-forward to the near future and Jennifer’s goal remains more or less the same: to change young lives through an enhanced classroom experience. Jennifer’s vision for Tara.ed sounds like quite a lofty goal to achieve (they aim to reach out to 2000 teachers and 20,000 students by 2020!). Nevertheless, having briefly poured through her past achievements, I begin to wonder why this shouldn’t be possible. For clearly, here is a woman who isn’t afraid to change the world.