A couple years ago, Mr. Sunny Varkey, who lives in the United Arab Emirates, learned of a truly disturbing statistic. According to a survey and study by UNESCO, which is the education branch of the United Nations, there are presently some 500,000,000 (yes, half a billion) children who attend underperforming and failing schools. And yes, some of these are in the U.S.; just look at some Chicago high schools where there are still dropout rates of 50% and graduates read at elementary and middle school levels.
The Varkey family wanted to do something about this, and has been using a good portion of the family fortune to create the Varkey Foundation, which has its headquarters in the United Kingdom. The Varkey GEMS group has created and runs some 250 schools worldwide. But Mr. Varkey also knows that to make the biggest difference in alleviating poor schools and improve the education and learning opportunities for all children worldwide, we need to improve the status and level of expertise of the single most important part of the education equation, and that is teachers.
No progress will be made in education if we do not have great teachers. But to do this on a massive, global scale, how the public and how policymakers look at teachers and the profession, which is not always stellar, must improve. It is well known that teaching is often not respected as a profession the way doctors and lawyers and engineers are. Pay is among the lowest of all professions. Top students typically do not aspire to be teachers (likely because of the lack of status and income). This is true not only in the U.S., but in nearly all countries around the world. Our motto is simply, "Teachers Matter!!!"
In 2014, the Foundation sponsored a first of its kind program to begin raising the status level for the teaching profession, the Global Teacher Prize. Mr. Varkey announced he wanted to create the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for teaching and education - for the past two years, the top 50 teacher finalists were announced, and from those two groups there has been a $1 million winner of the Global Teaching Prize, and nominations have come in for thousands of teachers from over 160 countries.
I was unbelievably fortunate to have been in the inaugural class of finalists in 2015, from which Nancie Atwell of Maine was the first winner of the prize (she was awarded the prize by the Crown Prince of the UAE and President Bill Clinton). We represent 26 nations. The 50 of us have been named the first group of Varkey Teacher Ambassadors (VTA), and in March of 2016, the first VTA Leadership Summit was held in Dubai. We had two days to meet face to face, and begin a discussion of what we want this group and network to do. Those of us who could make it were joined by many of the teachers from the second cohort of VTAs from 2016 (collectively representing 36 nations). The culminating event at the conference was naming this year's winner of the Prize, Hanan al Hroub of Palestine. Her name was announced via video by the Pope.
I encourage anyone who reads this to nominate a great teacher or colleague (nominations open in May). While there are countless great teachers in classrooms around the world, especially think of those teachers who also excel outside the classroom, taking part in training other teachers, publishing articles or videos to broad audiences, run their own schools, create programs or projects that have effects on a broader scale, have their students involved with sister schools (especially internationally) and do service projects, develop new teaching techniques/methods, are politically active and making change in education policy, and so on. Honestly, it helps if the teachers have already received recognition in other capacities and have 'a reputation,' as well, where others in the field believe they have done great work.
My two days with my new colleagues and friends were the best two days of my professional life, without question!! This is an incredible group with which to be associated, and part of our time together was just getting to know each other and the similarities and differences between our education systems, cultures and environments. In the end it became clear that kids are kids, and we all have the same needs and wishes for our students. It is fascinating to learn of the teachers in the Middle East who are working with refugee children who are on the run from war and terror groups. It is heartbreaking to hear from a teacher in India how families living in the slums have their daughters get married in arranged marriages at the age of 12 or 13, only to see them be forced to go into the sex trade for income - these are the girls she works with. Or an amazing man from Ghana who has needed to develop methods for deradicalizing kids who come out of certain madrasses or are being recruited by radical groups. Or the teacher from Haiti, who still is coping with widespread destruction left over from the earthquake six years ago.
Our mission is big and long-term: to use any influence we might have or gain in the future to help improve the status of our profession, and to help as many kids globally as we can. For example, we have already been proactive by writing to Ban Ke-moon, the Secretary General of the U.N., to see if there are any ways to help the millions of refugee children fleeing Syria, many of whom have not been in a school for several years since the civil war began (and many of whom are now running from ISIS). We have working groups thinking about what resources we can provide the world's teachers to help them in training and in their classrooms. We are thinking of how to influence policy makers and improve education at the systemic level, with less demand for standardized testing and more emphasis on skills students need in modern times. Note there were dozens of ministers of education at the conference, including Arne Duncan, and several former heads of state (such as Tony Blair), so these are people in our network with whom we now have contact. We are discussing and forming collaborations between our schools so students can learn from each other about culture, issues, commonalities, and the creation of joint projects, using technologies for the common good. We are thinking about what a science classroom should be doing if we are serious about "21st century skills." We are thinking about how to get students active in all subject areas, and how we can transform schools to some level of multidisciplinary work in order to allow students to develop creative and innovation skills, which are a must in the modern workplace.
To a person, all of us involved with this group are committed to working on these issues for the rest of our lives. It is exciting, but also daunting given the political environments in many countries. But our kids are worth the effort!! Each year we will have 50 more ambassadors, as we continuously branch out our network across the globe, gaining influence and making impacts, both small and large, as we try to change the world over time!!
A special THANK YOU goes to the ETHS Alumni Association!! Without their very generous grant, I likely would not have been able to go to the conference in Dubai!! To my ETHS colleagues, this is a wonderful group that offers mini-grants to faculty with ideas they want to try in their classrooms, so please inquire if you have cool ideas that will help your students!!