January to May 2021 have been the most exciting and eventful times at Learning Companions. We were able to show strength and creativity to get past every problem that came up. It felt like we have figured everything right and we have got it. And then we entered June 2021…
Wait a minute! A little heads up before you start reading further. Why did we think of writing this piece? As we were observing different patterns in our program, it clicked to us that there are so many fellowship programs very similar to ours. How exciting would it be if we compare each of these scenarios and patterns with other ongoing fellowships? One of the 3 things will happen with every point we share here:
- Someone else of you would have gone through a similar situation, but successfully tackled it. In that case, our organization would be able to note exactly where we went wrong and correct the course.
- We would realize that many of us have the same problem and we should think together to work on it.
- Some of you might help from the solutions that we tried and be able to solve your own challenges
We are NOT writing this piece because we are in some sort of trouble. We do not have any issue that we think we cannot handle. This write-up is not about that. This write-up and dialogue is about experiencing the beauty of getting into the nuances of a program, sharing with each other, learning from each other and experiencing the beauty of what we do.
So, we have gathered the courage to write this piece despite a fear that it might be misinterpreted and consequently hurt our program instead of serving the purpose with which we intended to write it. So we appeal to you, “Let us focus on the right things and find our joy, strength and beauty in our conversations and in thinking together.”
So, January to May 2021 have been the most exciting and eventful times at Learning Companions. We were at the most vulnerable moment of our organization with the Covid pandemic threatening to halt everything at a time when we had very little resources, very less experience and when we needed to continue and build our strength. A lot of support and trust from our supporters, funders, a good amount of luck, some perseverance, creativity and we made it through.
We were able to build the trust in our supporters that we are ready and capable to continue the program despite the Covid scenario. We had a monumental task of finding 9 people who are dedicated enough to go and stay in remote places, manage everything on a very small stipend and still maintain the energy and creativity to plan the lessons for children. That too happened after a lot of uncertainties and troubles. We were able to get the district administration to allow us to work with ZP schools. We prepared a month-long training program, with every document in two languages, Marathi and English. All of this with a tiny program team of 5 people, with multiple responsibilities beyond the fellowship program and very less experience.
The last hurdle, in the context of Covid situation, was to get all the fellows in Nagpur. We got the fellows here. We successfully completed our ambitious, month-long training workshop and finally got the fellows to their respective hamlets. We felt that the day everyone is placed at their respective hamlets, we would finally be able to take a breath.
But that wasn’t to be. Within the first 30-40 days, we faced some serious challenges, including fellows feeling unsupported, fellows feeling uncomfortable about a lot of things, and 5-6 fellows leaving us. Here’s our understanding of the problems and what might help us overcome these challenges in future.
- Fellowship is challenging – The first simple reason is this, it is one of the most challenging fellowship experiences for the fact that fellows are required to work in remote areas with very limited resources. We are working for a nomadic community called Bharwads. Our fellows have a mandate to stay with or near this community and teach the children. There are no toilets in these places, which is very challenging, especially for female fellows. Hence, they have to live in a nearby village which will be 3-5 kms away. So fellows need to find a room, make arrangements to cook, cook for themselves everyday, travel to the hamlet and then maintain the energy to plan for the children and teach for 3-4 hours. If one or two of the 3 fellows from a hamlet is dropped, the others have to worry about paying the full rent, cooking alone and staying safe in case of girls. It is probably not something completely unimaginable or impossible, but a task that will definitely require someone who has a very high level of motivation, creativity and perseverance. Those who could not show this level of energy decided to leave the fellowship.
How can we solve this challenge? We are thinking in two directions. 1. Make this experience a little easier for fellows by taking care of some more costs, work on building toilets at hamlets and building stronger, local support for the program. 2. Make our recruitment process stronger to reach out to more people who will have this level of energy and resourcefulness.
- Perception management and expectation setting – Probably one big mistake on our part was failing to set right expectations during the recruitment and onboarding process. Though we talked often enough that the fellows are expected to stay in a rural setting and the conditions will be challenging. But fellows were not able to imagine all the challenges. Also the program team couldn’t imagine many of these challenges as it was the first time at this scale also for us. Fellows felt disillusioned when they saw some things not matching what they imagined.
We realized that the same fellows would have responded more positively to the exactly same conditions if there was little more effort on expectation setting. This is a major takeaway for us when we sit down to plan the recruitment and matriculation process for the next year.
- Remuneration – We are offering a monthly stipend of Rs. 12000, inclusive of all expenses. Given the conditions in which fellows are staying, fellows would require little more financial support than what we are currently providing. Accordingly we are planning to raise the amount of stipend going into the next year.
- Program team preparation – All 3 of the program managers we have are our own fellows who completed their fellowship. We realized that our program managers struggled with keeping track of their tasks, making every fellow feel that they are supported, given time and included, and building the culture of their learning circles. We realized that there should have been more hours of training than we were able to do and also closer monitoring and handholding in the initial period. We have started working on the same and we hope that it will strengthen our program.
- Competing opportunities – One of the key barriers, being a new organization is the brand association. It becomes very challenging to convey the quality of our program given the existing perception bias. We realized that this perception barrier can be broken to some extent by getting fellows to small workshops before joining, during the selection process. The positive part of the story is that some fellows, as a result of these workshops, have indeed shown this trust in our program and chosen our fellowship over some bigger names. The key thing we remember is to not look at this as a competition. There are enough people that every program can have enough people to recruit. There are just two key challenges for us to remember. One, Reach out to more and more people. Two, making sure through continuous dialogue and proper mindset training that the people’s level of motivation and preparedness to learn is not affected by this perception bias.
- There is more scope to improve in outreach – As noted above, the recruitment process is one of the most crucial factors in the success of the fellowship program. We realize that there are a lot many prospective fellows who have not heard about our fellowship program. We have identified some factors that have limited our outreach program and we are accordingly improving our strategies for upcoming recruitment campaigns.
- The organisational culture setting- The culture of our organisation is democratic in nature, dialogue and conversations being a major medium for any kind of conflict or difference resolution. But we noticed that we cannot rely only on these. Firm structures and fundamental non-negotiables need to be specified and clear to fulfill expectations. Otherwise we end up micromanaging every little task which is the ownership of concerned individuals.
These are some factors that have made it challenging for us to run the program, but it has not stopped us. It has pushed us to become stronger, more creative and perseverant. Our program team stepped up and showed preparedness to stay at these hamlets to create initial support for the fellows until they feel settled and comfortable, even play the role of a fellow when there were some drop-outs. We maintained a very honest and frequent dialogue with the community about everything that was happening. It helped us gain more trust and support from the community amid all the uncertainties. We kept trying to stay focused and completed a comprehensive baselines assessment for about 12 fellows, 80 children and 35 families at 4 centres.
And now we aim to prepare better for the next round of fellowship by addressing these challenges in coming months. Please do share if you have any different perspective on these challenges. Also if you have faced any other challenges in your own fellowship/program that are not mentioned here in this article. Let us take this conversation forward and get ourselves stronger and more impactful.