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Canadian Teacher of Inuit Children Wins Global Teacher Prize 2017

Global Teacher Awards Prize

The teaching profession has long been undervalued.  And yet education is consistently at the top of the priority list in developing countries, once basic needs have been met. Parents recognise that education is an investment in their child’s future and theirs too. 

I’ve always been intrigued that in many countries (the UK among them) we have not put teachers on the same high pedestal that we place doctors. We wouldn’t want an untrained medic operating on us, so why would we want anyone other than the best teachers and support staff playing with our children’s minds?  Countries that value their teachers, accord the profession respect, and support them in the class room, with resources, as well as decent pay, get results – look no further than Singapore and Finland. Both these countries have had national teacher awards for years.

So it was with great excitement that I attended the Third Global Teacher Prize which followed the Global Skills and Education Forum (GESF) in Dubai.  Supported by the Varkey Foundation GESF brought together over 40 ministers, and former Prime Ministers and 2000 delegates from 140 countries for two days of intensive and dynamic ideas exchange.    

Global Education Ideas Exchange

With the Global Partnership for Education Board Chair, Julia Gillard, the 27th Prime Minister of Australia, we had a packed schedule.  The event started with a powerful reminder that, almost 3 years since 276 girls were kidnapped in Chibok, there are still 195 in captivity.  Two girls came to GESF, one had escaped following the kidnapping by jumping from a truck into the forest at night. The  other had lost her family, murdered by Boko Haram fighters. They gave harrowing testimony of the impact on them personally, and on the community.  Parents are now afraid to send their children to school, especially their daughters.

Often called the ‘Davos’ of education, the theme for this year’s GESF was Creating Global Citizenship. One of the highlights was undoubtedly Julia Gillard debating the motion ‘This House Believes, that Schools should Teach National over Global Values’ opposite Michael Gove MP, the architect of Brexit. It was a lively, good humoured debate with some cracking lines.   

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Julia Gillard comparing Gove to a latter-day James Bond saving the UK man on the street from the risk he might not be able to buy a pint, watch the football and have a curry, had the audience in stitches. Though Gove’s response has to be seen to be believed (watch here). In the end the motion was defeated, though there was violent agreement between the teams on many issues.

Julia Gillard

On the second day, we organised a public briefing with Dubai Cares focused on Early Childhood Care and Education.  It’s great to see this issue coming up the agenda, finally there is a recognition that this under resourced area needs attention across the sectors, not just from the education side. Ministers from Nepal and Tanzania attended. Both countries have prioritised early years and alongside generating improved outcomes, they are also seeing much improved retention rates as children progress into primary school. We were honoured to be joined by one of the Teachers on the shortlist for the Global Teacher Prize, Michael Wamaya. A teacher of ballet in Kibera slum in Nairobi he has seen first hand the impact on learning faced by the poorest children.  ‘Their shelters are close together, with tin roofs. They are noisy, especially when it rains.   Children do not sleep well.  They rise early, often before the sun, maybe to help get younger children to get up or fetch water.  On their walk to pre-school, perhaps on their own, or maybe with an older sibling, often on an empty stomach, they see things no young child should see: people on the streets, sometimes drunk, or fighting, even dead bodies. They arrive at school, tired and hungry.  Kindergartens need to take account of this and provide food, and allow time during the day for them to sleep, otherwise they are too exhausted to learn.’

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The culmination of  the two days was the Global Teacher Award Prize ceremony.   Last year the award was presented over video by the Pope.  What could top that?   The opening music from Andrea Bocelli was sensational. 

Then in a moment of high drama the screens came to life and Bear Grylls jumped from a helicopter, landed on the Atlantis beach and ran into the venue with a gold statuette!   

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When the winner was announced by Thomas Pesquet, an astronaut on the International Space Station, (watch here) we knew that Varkey were serious about making this prize bigger than the planet! 

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The winner was Maggie MacDonnell, a Canadian teacher working in an Inuit community called Salluit. Her community is so remote it is only accessible by air. Tragically, this isolated and harsh environment has led the small 1,300 strong community to suffer the highest youth suicide rates in the country. In a poignant speech there was hardly a dry eye in the house as she described the horror of attending 10 funerals of young people, some of whom went to her school who had taken their lives in the previous two years. ‘When we come into school the next day and we see the empty desk it’s simply heartbreaking.’ Her energy and inspirational commitment to bring about change through education in this community that has struggled to attract or retain good teachers was commended by Canadian PM Justin Trudeau. As she touchingly brought two of her students onto the stage, and thanked the His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President and PM of Dubai, for shining a light on this small minority community, it was hard to imagine a more deserving winner. And yet, each of the remarkable teacher on the short list has a fantastic story of commitment and drive to tell.  It was a thoroughly inspiring few days!