Roughly a month ago the Varkey Foundation published a longlist of 50 nominees for the 2017 Global Teacher Prize. Among the nominees are some truly inspiring stories. For example, the powerful story of Phuti Ragophala, a South African teacher and school principal who grew up in straitened circumstances and now implements effective classroom innovations for her school community, composed mostly by orphans.
I feel honoured to be in the company of the great.
Being a teacher is among the most important professions you could imagine. Teachers play a crucial role in the lives of our children. We prepare the next generation for the challenges of an ever-changing world. We empower them with knowledge, competencies and attitudes so that they can contribute to their communities and to society as a whole. We have the ability to spark the ambition of our students and we help them to construct a positive self-image. We guide our students in creating an autonomous perspective on the world around them. We show them compassion and an open heart. As I have recently discovered, we teachers can actually teach love.
Teachers matter. For good reasons #teachersmatter is the official twitter tag for the Global Teacher Prize. The Varkey Foundation recognizes the importance of the teaching profession and gives teachers a voice on the global stage. With the prize, they aim for recognition and status for the teaching profession:
The prize serves to underline the importance of educators and the fact that, throughout the world, their efforts deserve to be recognised and celebrated. It seeks to acknowledge the impacts of the very best teachers – not only on their students but on the communities around them.
I hope to inspire others with my own story. For this reason, I was glad to see my nomination has made some impact in The Netherlands. The reason why I became a teacher is deeply rooted in my personal history. I grew up in an ordinary middle class environment. My parents had expectations of me, as any parents would, but these did not necessarily corresponded with my own interests in life. One or two teenagers might relate. I attended a normal public school in an ordinary suburban district. School did not have my particular interest, though I believe teachers could have done more to stimulate my motivation or to simply connect with me. In any case, street life was far more alluring. Eventually bad led to worse and I ended up in juvenile prison, where I wasted a considerable amount of my adolescent years. In an attempt to escape the boredom I started reading books, in particular about history. I schooled myself and, at eighteen, applied for state exams.
When I got out, I was a young adult with a diploma and a burning desire to make a fresh start. I decided to enrol at the teachers academy and there, for the first time in my life, I met teachers whom I could connect with and who were able to ignite my passion for learning. In short, they gave me a goal in life and with their continued support I coursed through university without failing a single test.
After that, becoming a teacher myself was the obvious path to choose. I loved it from the start and, I think for this reason, the pupils loved me back. Of course I had my ups and downs just like any other starting teacher has, but I was (and I still am) deeply motivated to connect with my students and to give them the best possible learning conditions I can provide. This motivation to keep improving and developing my teaching skills eventually got me elected as the national teacher of the year in secondary education.
This year, I have had a lot of opportunity to look back at a long struggle in which I’ve climbed from the gutter to where I am now, and I realized that my achievements are indebted largely to the support of a few teachers who truly believed in my capabilities.
The Global Teacher Prize nomination gives me the opportunity to inspire others with my story. There are many young individuals out there on whom we have given up. Children who don’t live up to their parents’ expectations. Pupils who lost their motivation at school. Kids who keep running towards trouble. As a teacher, I firmly believe there is a future for every child. We should never turn our backs on them. I also believe the core of good education is dedication. It means helping young individuals in formulating and fostering their own ambitions. I hope to make a positive impact in the lives of teenagers who lost their sense of purpose. We need but to keep believing in their capabilities and we will be amazed at what they might achieve. As my story proves; teachers matter.
Though there is undeniably a competition element involved, this prize is not about ‘being the best teacher’. As I have mentioned before, the nomination is about advocating for the status of our profession. About demonstrating why exactly teachers matter. It is about sharing our powerful stories, backgrounds and perspectives on the profession. It is about showcasing teacher leadership.
Teaching truly is a team effort. This is underlined again and again by the OECD in its reports on the teaching profession, like TALIS2013. OECD clearly shows the importance of cooperation between teachers: ‘these activities shape the learning environment on the school level, i.e. the school climate, ethos and culture, and thus directly and indirectly (via classroom-level processes) affect student learning’. On a personal level, working collaboratively with my peers has been pivotal in my professional development. Together with my colleagues, I have designed a course for the high school I work at (a course called “Marvellous Minds”). This has been both a highly-rewarding job and an opportunity to learn from my colleagues and to improve my own teaching practice.
For this reason, I am thrilled to see teachers setting up networks for sharing ideas on a local and national level almost everywhere in the world. For example, I myself am engaged in Meetup020 (Amsterdam area) and MeetupNL (national), a ‘grassroots’ network movement. On an international level, efforts are made by organizations such as Education International to set up global network structures. Simultaneously, I have advocated for a platform for teaching professionals during the International Summit on the Teaching Profession (‘the G20 for education’) in Banff, Canada (2015) and Berlin, Germany (2016). In our report, which can be read here, we urge the importance of making connections between teaching professionals and policy makers.
I just came back from a trip to the Middle East. I took the opportunity to visit Hanan Al-Hroub, winner of the 2016 Global Teacher Prize, in her home town of Ramallah Palestine. Hanan has deeply inspired me by her perspective on our profession. In a challenging environment, where fear and hatred go hand-in-hand with violence and oppression, Hanan teaches love and peace. Hanan told me she has no control what students might do after they leave school, but within the classroom environment, she does everything within her power to equip her students with a moral compass. In her own powerful words: ‘we just want peace; we want our children to enjoy their childhoods in peace’.
Advocating for my profession, inspiring others with my story, connecting with some of the finest our profession has to offer, helping to construct a global network for teacher leaders, meeting Hanan in Ramallah, making my family and my own school community proud. This is the true prize. I am blessed to regard myself as an ‘ambassador for the teaching profession’ and wish all of my 49 fellow nominees the best of luck – and a strong voice – in their important work the following weeks. We have the opportunity to demonstrate why exactly teachers matter for the eyes of the world.