When the Varkey Gems Foundation first announced the ‘Global Teacher Prize‘ in 2014, I for one was a little underwhelmed by the prospect. Given the nature of the world in crisis I thought, why focus on ‘teachers’ rather than perhaps peace makers or refugee workers. But the concept has grown on me, because it has undoubtedly surfaced huge differences in what makes a great teacher across the world, and has caused my profession to look more carefully at the devil in the detail.
There have been 2 winners so far, Nancie Atwell (English teacher, Maine, USA) in 2015 and Hanan Al Hroub (Primary specialist in supporting children traumatised by violence, West Bank, Palestine). Their stories, and those of the other finalists can be read here, and the work more generally of the Global Education & Skills Forum here.
Sunny Varkey and his family have a huge business in schools, based in the middle East, known as GEMS Education, with some satellites around the world, including 5 schools and a nursery here in the UK. The philanthropic foundation chose to set up the annual Global Education & Skills Forum, and have funded it really well, UNESCO and the UAE support it and their lead speakers over the last 4 years have been out of the very top drawer. Pope Francis announced this year’s winner by video link, and Hanan Al Hroub’s supporters were able to watch live on the big screen in Ramallah.
There are some really key features that the finalists have in common; passion for learning, focus on the children and their outcomes, willingness to innovate and challenge, and really willing to share their work widely. And if you don’t believe me, read on – headlines include ‘space elevators’, ‘distance learning across the globe’, ‘refugee schools’, ‘maker culture for literature and films’, ‘free maths teaching videos for all’ , ‘social justice programmes for sex trafficked children’ and so forth. Clearly none of the finalists set out to win this prize, and many of their personal life stories are quite extraordinary. For example, Robin Chaurasiya helped organise a successful campaign to change US armed forces policy after being forced to leave her position as an Air Force officer because of her sexuality. She changed profession, moved to Mumbai in India, and works within an NGO called ‘Kranti’ (Revolution) empowering marginalised girls in Mumbai’s red light district to become agents of social change.
Winning the prize does not mean the teachers can leave what they re doing – far from it, it secures their employment in their setting for the next 5 years! Interesting to note that last year’s winner, the most amazing English teacher in the backwoods of Maine, Nancie Atwell donated her prize to her school and their work to disseminate her innovative teaching methods. And what’s fantastic is that the methods used by both winners are spreading across the world more rapidly because of the fame this prize has brought. Atwell’s pupils read an average of 40 books a year and probably write as many, such education providing a real antidote to the anti-academic nature of rural life in Maine.
More generally, the Varkey Foundation’s work is doing amazing things in creating thousands of new teachers in countries where they are in really short supply. Cutting to the chase, when teaching can make such a difference to children’s lives, sometimes 4 years training is a tad too long; they have developed an impressive 5 day intensive training programme for school leaders in Uganda. Through working together, potential school leaders are empowered to break the ‘learn these facts rote learning’ mould and enable teachers and pupils to take responsibility for their learning and personalise it to fit needs and circumstance.
So the cynic in me has gone, to be replaced by a real sense of wonder that along side Messi, Adele, Brad Pitt and Jamie Oliver to name but 4 random celebrities renowned for their craft, we now have have some superstars of our own at whose work we can marvel and admire. Here at Claires Court we have some superstars of our own of course, but I suspect not yet any who have had the stretch and reach of the GTP finalists to date. The thing is though, prizes are not what brought any of us into Education, but what such competitions have done, as indeed the Oscars before for so much longer, is find some unsung heroes and place them centre stage, for their work, for their craft and for the passionate endeavour which they bring to their work every day. And that’s a lesson for all in schools, be they adults or children – worth perhaps the spending of a million dollars!