From Sir, With Love
Reader's Digest India|September 2021
Winner of the Global Teacher Prize, Ranjitsinh Disale has transformed a village with sense and tech sensibility
Shreevatsa Nevatia

There’s a palpable goodness about Ranjitsinh Disale that makes him easy to like. On 3 December, 2020, when actor–author Stephen Fry announced that Disale had won the million-dollar Global Teacher Prize, he was, of course, elated. There was something altogether endearing about how he and his family broke into spontaneous celebration. After having settled down, however, Disale told Fry he wanted to share half his prize money with his nine fellow finalists. Speaking to Reader’s Digest on the phone, Disale laughs when we ask him: “Why did you do this?”

“I knew you would ask me that,” he says. “Beyond a little recognition, what is there for the finalists who didn’t win? I believe we are all equals, and that by sharing this prize money, I have actually invested in nine other countries. These teachers will now have more incentive to follow their passion.” Kindness apart, the 33-year-old Disale hopes this gesture will be tangible proof of his “sharing and growing principle”—it’s only when you share knowledge do you create opportunities for growth. “I don’t want to be that person who only talks,” he says. “I want my deeds to speak for themselves, too.”

The 12 years Disale has spent teaching children at the Zilla Parishad Primary School in the Maharashtra village of Paritewadi have been full of action, even adventure. Though his teaching style has relied on technological interventions, his methods are guided by the belief that education cannot be separated from the society it can one day, eventually, better. The Global Teacher Prize, commonly referred to as a ‘Nobel for educators’, has made Disale’s story of dogged determination an inspiration for the world.

For Disale himself, the prize has “opened a window”, one that is fast helping him scale up. In June this year, he was appointed educational advisor to the World Bank. That apart, he has also been working on projects with UNESCO and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. “I feel that I no longer have to limit myself to the four walls of the village where I teach. Everything is suddenly a lot more open. These last few months, the world is my classroom.”

Given how cinematic his life has proven to be, it’s not surprising that Baahubali writer K. V. Vijayendra Prasad is vying to script his biopic. Though Disale remains unassuming, the trajectory of his journey is unmistakably heroic. Not just has he beaten personal and professional odds, he has also used his smarts and empathy to turn around the fate of an entire village. This is the story of an ordinary man’s triumphs against incredible odds.

WE DON’T NEED NO EDUCATION

In 2005, Disale finished school with dreams of becoming an engineer. His love of mathematics was sure to see him through, but engineering school, sadly, came with a set of problems that was far from academic. “I was hurt by how seniors would rag juniors.” Even while Disale now theorizes his experience of bullying by saying education is a reflection of society—“the way we have caste, political and bureaucratic hierarchies in society, we also have age-based hierarchies in college”—he adds that all those years ago, he had “really collapsed, mentally and physically”. Disale returned home to Barshi.

Ever-supportive of his son’s wishes, Disale’s father, Mahadeo, sought to distract him from his turmoil. He suggested Disale enrol in a nearby teachers’ training college. “The idea was to do it for six months, but I ended up doing the full two-and-a-half years. My professors helped fill me with passion and confidence.” Usually shy and reserved, Disale saw himself gradually emerge from a shell of reluctance. As he learnt how to interact with children both emotionally and psychologically, a young Disale revised his own conceptions about personality: “Every time I saw a child smile, I felt so happy myself. I felt transformed and empowered. India has always had a tradition of good teachers. I wanted to be one.”

WHEN DISALE WAS posted to the Zilla Parishad Primary School in Paritewadi, the city-dweller expected to find a well-furnished and well-equipped school on his first day. The village, after all, was in Solapur, the same district he’d grown up in. Nothing or no one had prepared Disale for what he saw: A room where cows and buffalos far outnumbered the two students who had turned up. When Disale complained his classroom was, in effect, a mere cowshed, his principal told him sternly, “You will have to teach here.” “It was all really shocking,” recalls Disale. “Barshi is only 70 kms away from Paritewadi, but the gap between these two places is like the gap between generations. While one is India, the other is Bharat.”

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