Saturday, June 19, 2010

taking measure of 21 years

How does one measure the usefulness of anything? Does it lie in its quantum of influence--spatially, numerically, intellectually, materially? Does it lie in its ability to survive over time? Or (as some in this age would have it) in the number of mentions it generates on social media?

An idea that was born just over 21 years ago is now in the process of being put to rest. Not quite given up on as an idea, but in its material form, designated "unsustainable".

Teacher Plus was mooted in the second half of 1988, and given shape to in the first half of 1989, in the offices of Orient Longman Pvt Ltd, Hyderabad. The ELT team in the publishing house, of whom Lakshmi Rameshwar Rao (Buchamma), Usha Aroor and Rema Gnanadickam were a part, originated the idea of a professional magazine for school teachers that would serve as a forum for the sharing of teaching ideas and experiences, and perhaps motivate teachers to play a catalyzing role in reforming classroom practice. I was recruited in January 1989 to help give shape to the idea, as the company lacked experience in magazine publishing. I had just moved back to Hyderabad after a two-year stint with Living Media in New Delhi, helping start up and run their magazine, Computers Today.  Rema and I, with help from others in the Orient Longman office in Hyderabad worked with graphic artist Ranjit Roy Choudhury to create the bright orange logo and identity for the tabloid, which was launched as a bimonthly in July 1989, three months ahead of my first daughter Achala's birth. (Aside: Pradeep, now MD of Orient Blackswan, drove me around on his motorbike in Chennai, when I was six months pregnant, on marketing rounds for TP!) Usha Aroor served as the senior editor but as she was based in Madras, the day to day planning and operations were handled by Rema and me.

Later in the year, I moved to a part time role as consultant editor of the magazine and Rema moved to Australia, leaving the magazine in the hands of Deepa Chattopadhyay, an editor and linguistics scholar who had returned to India a short while before after completing a PhD in the US. Deepa ran the magazine with a skeleton staff for the next decade, helped by various part timers including Sumana Kasturi and Aditi. I continued to be involved as a consultant, except for the years  1994 to '98, when I was working on my own PhD in the US. The magazine never left my mindspace for very long though, even while I was abroad.

In 2001, Sheel joined the magazine as a part time editor, and Deepa moved out. From then on, Sheel and I steered the magazine with help from itinerant junior editors and the OL production team (significantly, Nayab). In 2002, Buchamma, her friend Tanvir and Sheel entered into a partnership and formed Spark-India, a firm devoted to the production of educational resource materials. The development and production of Teacher Plus was then outsourced by OL to Spark-India. My role as consultant continued, and I helped plan the issue and source articles while Sheel handled day to day follow up and coordinated production--I tend to be good with the big picture while Sheel is great with details. Buchamma and Tanvir provided guidance and occasional editorial inputs. We drew in additional editorial assistance from Sujata C, a freelance writer and editor who also felt strongly about education and the need to empower teachers. Then Nirmala, who had been with The Hindu for over two decades, joined Teacher Plus in February 2006 and the magazine took on a more streamlined, professional structure with her inputs. Kamakshi Balasubramanian, a friend, spent time with us, working as a writing coach and doing a column on thinkers in education. Neha Kamdar, who had been my student at Hyderabad University, joined the team in 2006 and worked for a few months before her departure to the US for a doctoral programme, and her position was taken by Meghana Rao (also a former student at HCU), who worked with us for a year before her journey westward began. Another person who worked with us and brought a lot of smiles into Sudarshan, where the magazine was housed, was Temjenwabang, a doctoral student at HCU. Teacher Plus (and Spark) was becoming a great place for people who wanted to learn and who cared about education!

In 2006 we lost Tanvir who succumbed to cancer and left the third place in the partnership vacant. I stepped in at that point to make up the partnership and to take a more active part in producing Teacher Plus.

Around this time, IT giant Wipro's corporate social responsibility arm known as Wipro Applying Thought in Schools (WATIS) became interested in floating a magazine for teachers, something they thought would help the overall project of education reform that they were engaged in, with a variety of other organisations ranging from Ekalavya (Bhopal) to Digantar (Rajasthan). After Anand Swaminathan and Vijay Gupta came to meet us and had a few rounds of discussion, they began supporting the magazine in 2005, and in January 2007, enabled Spark-India to acquire the magazine from Orient Longman (which is now known as Orient Blackswan). The WATIS support (later coordinated by Prakash Iyer) also helped Spark invest in a new design and format for the magazine and re-launch it in June 2007 as a monthly. The new design was overseen by Vinay Jain, a Delhi-based designer who had worked on The Hindu's Folio series. Soon after the launch of the monthly edition, the Teacher Plus team consolidated with a few additions and a few farewells. Shalini joined Nirmala as a second editor in July 2007; Kumar came on board as a full time layout artist/designer at the same time. In addition, now Shweta handles accounts and circulation while Sushma manages the team and looks at marketing. For a year, we also had Pawan Singh (the writer of many Last Words) and for a summer, Chintan Modi (a fellow from Seagull Books). And so the learning space continued to grow. Toward the middle of 2009, we relaunched the web site and brought much of the new content online. The site was designed by Ochre Media and the entire process was coordinated by Divya Sripraphul (yes, yet another former student from the Communications Dept, HCU!).

The magazine reached out to practising teachers across the country, and built up a small but committed readership, comprising educators in alternative spaces as well as government school teachers and teacher trainers. The focus right from the start was to provide a mix of hands-on tips, discussions of issues related to classroom management, child development, curriculum planning and delivery, and the larger politics of education, as well as commentary on current developments in the field. Our contributors included practising teachers at all levels, many who had never really considered themselves writers, and people who felt strongly about education and wanted to share their viewpoints. For many, it was the first such forum they had participated in; the idea of a teachers' magazine was novel and exciting, offering the opportunity to share things as mundane but crucial as how to teach fractions or spellings or even burnout.

Over the years, we have built up an amazing network of people with many different ideas and approaches to education but one common passion; child education in the broadest sense of the word. The pages of Teacher Plus have carried articles that have appealed to the primary school teacher as well as the one handling board-facing students, and principals worried about teacher recruitment and retention or the design of playgrounds. This has resulted in a large editorial bank of ideas and resources: projects, activity sheets, and teaching tips. Orient Longman published one collection of Teacher Plus projects in the mid 1990s that is now out of print, but the rest lies in the pages of the magazine, in staff rooms and teachers' bookshelves around the country.

But what is the point of this long history?

Because the story has an end, one that is coming up in the next month. July 2010 will be the last issue of Teacher Plus. An ongoing struggle to build up the subscriber base and the resultant challenge to become financially sustainable has forced this decision. Even under OL, the magazine had struggled to stay afloat, with the subscription base never going beyond 2000, and only a very strong organizational commitment keeping it alive. The first year after Spark took it over, an energetic drive by Buchamma added a few hundred subscriptions, still not enough to take it to a break even point. The WATIS support, it was hoped, would infuse fresh energy and bring a wider audience to the magazine, and while there is no question the former has happened, the latter has been a huge challenge.  Those who handle media products know that huge marketing inputs are needed to create visibility and buy in from potential readers. This has not been possible with Teacher Plus. Our efforts have been largely word of mouth and small mailing drives, clearly not enough to lead to the 10,000 we need to stay afloat.

So now, three years later, we stand at a point where we have to ask ourselves: does 2500 subscriptions count for "significant impact"?

Impact yes, significant, no.

Does an estimated readership of 10,000+ count for anything?

I suspect each of the teachers and educators that makes up that number would say yes to both.

But as an enterprise that needs to achieve both quality and business survival, Teacher Plus falls short. There is no doubt that we have built a magazine that makes sense. In terms of quality of production and content, we've achieved a standard of excellence that does not exist in scholastic journalism in the country. I for one firmly believe that teachers need and deserve a good looking, engaging magazine that affirms their professional identity, and Teacher Plus has attempted to be that. But in terms of business survival, we have not yet hit upon the formula that works. We need more teachers to read such a magazine, and draw advertisers to it, if it is to remain alive. But 21 years of trying (not in the right way, maybe) hasn't worked.

So, it's time for the idea to take a rest.

In this case, 21 hasn't really meant a coming of age, but a transition of another kind. And a learning, nonetheless.