From mock training to master trainer!

Purnima Ramanujan 

Senior Associate, Research Unit 

(Disclaimer: The photos in this post are set in training halls but they tell stories of their own…)

For the uninitiated, MT stands for Master Trainer – the men and women who are made responsible for delivering the ASER survey training across 600 plus districts in this country to over 25,000 volunteers who eventually conduct the survey. As an MT, one gets to lead the survey in a district, conduct trainings for students and volunteers, supervise participants in-class and in-field and ensure that all data is genuine, reliable and correct. Thus, to put it mildly, to be an MT in the ASER Survey is a high stakes position!

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A round of introductions to kick off the training! Kargil District Level Training, ASER 2013. This year, about 45-50 students from the college volunteered to participate in the training and survey.

But before one can become an MT for ASER, these men and women are put through an extremely rigorous training process themselves. A mandatory five to six-day training is conducted for all MTs in each state where participants are trained on the survey process by ASER staff. Classroom training is followed by a ‘practical’, hands-on, field-pilot exercise, where teams go into neighbouring villages to simulate the entire survey process themselves. (We firmly believe in the ‘learning by doing’ ideology and make this an integral part of all our trainings).

One day of this 5 to 6-day schedule is reserved for a simulated activity of another kind, internally referred to as ‘Mock Trainings’. On this day, each MT aspirant/participant is expected to deliver a ‘mock’ training to the available audience comprising fellow participants and trainers, on a pre-selected topic from the ASER Survey process booklet. Just like in the field-pilot routine, the idea behind this exercise is to provide new and old MTs a control environment in which to rehearse their own training skills and delivery, practice new ways in which to engage the audience and take feedback from senior team members on how to improve further. (P.S: We believe that people can be become effective trainers with practice, LOTS of it).

And this, precisely, is where the fun begins! Let me explain how.

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My colleague, Firdous Ahmed explaining the map making process for the survey. Kargil District Level Training, ASER 2013.

Mock trainings are dreaded affairs for first-time MTs. In some cases, even second time MTs haven’t quite gotten over the shock of their first mock training and may experience slight nervousness at the thought of facing the simulation audience. The audience in such mock trainings, as a rule, comprise of several senior ASER and Pratham members – individuals who have delivered these trainings a zillion times before, across multiple locations; individuals who can (probably) narrate the process manual verbatim even in their sleep! These individuals as audience members are a force to reckon with and can be pretty nerve-wrecking for new MTs to be face to face with. In several trainings in the past, I have seen this ‘mock’ audience confuse an otherwise confident trainer with leading and complicated questions (which should not happen and is thus a training for MTs to know their content and learn how to manage or stir away potentially digressing discussions) or make trainers lose their composure with participants (which again is a no-no since we train diverse groups in equally diverse environments and is a lesson in being polite yet firm).

I share two of my most recent memories from these mock trainings.

The first was at the ASER 2016 National Workshop that was held in Lucknow from 29th August – 4th September 2016. We were a large group of over 150 participants, and core ASER team members representing all states of the country were there. (All.States.Of.The.Country. No Kidding!)

The evening before the mock training session, most participants had been assigned their topics along with time instructions. All over the training venue, one could see groups of participants, from the states and central team, huddled together, preparing their deliveries, asking questions and rehearsing with one another. Some seniors sat in these groups and offered training advice and tips.

While the new recruits were busy preparing their deliveries, in another room in this venue sat a large group of senior trainers, who were equally engrossed in preparing for the mock training sessions to be held the next day. Except that these individuals were not going to be the trainers, they were going to be the (dreaded) audience. What they were doing was preparing a tall roster of some tricky, misleading and complicated scenarios with which to confuse, anger and/or waylaid the (unsuspecting) MTs the next day. These furious lists were being made amidst a lot of laughter!

As I came to know of this massive preparation, I remember thinking to myself, that both processes were equally important to the whole ASER enterprise – new recruits revising content and feverishly practicing their delivery along with the preparation that was being undertaken by the seniors. Each had its own part to play in ensuring that no ASER staff member who returned from the training was unprepared for any question or scenario that awaited them in the districts.

The second incident happened in September 2016 at the combined Himachal Pradesh and Jammu region state level training that was held in Kangra district, HP.

In the group that I was an audience in, a young gentleman from Himachal had just finished his session. Either due to the presence of several senior team members or perhaps because this was his first public speaking experience, he had made a few mistakes in his session. He also spoke very softly and was barely audible at various points, which was problematic because at the district level, with less than minimal infrastructure, voices have to carry far and long into training halls.

Mr. Vijay Jamwal, a Pratham Himachal veteran who has done at least 4 ASER surveys before was providing feedback. He started with congratulating the MT for his effort and added a few words of encouragement before talking about points of improvement. Lastly, Mr. Jamwal congratulated the MT on his demeanour and alluding to his low decibel levels and mild manner of speaking said that he was certain that the MT would have no problems in managing the training since no participant/volunteer in their right mind would ever get into an argument with him or dare to speak disrespectfully. All this was said in an extremely gentle albeit humourous manner, eliciting a few laughs from the participants and even the MT in question as well. But the young trainer from Himachal understood exactly what was being said and accepted that he needed to train himself to speak more loudly and confidently.

As I witnessed this exchange, I again couldn’t help think about the importance of supervisors in mentoring new recruits. Supervisors, as do all human beings in general, come in different shades – some have a tough exterior, some others are warmer, more gentle. But most importantly, all mentors (usually) know exactly what to say and how to say in order for people to learn and this only comes with practice.