I just spent the weekend with 100 teachers in Dubai. These teachers came from many differerent countries in the world to participate in the Global Education and Skills Forum, an education convening organized by Vikas Pota, the CEO of the Varkey Education Foundation which brings together over 1000 leaders of industry, thought and practice in education to discuss some of the current issues and challenges in education. These teachers are the top finalists nominated to the Global Teacher Prize, an initiative of the Varkey Education Foundation with the goal to bring attention to the teaching profession and to elevating respect for teachers around the world.
The winner of the prize this year, Andria Zafirakou, is an arts and textile teacher from Brent, England, a low income community with a rich cultural diversity. Over 130 languages are spoken in Brent. Andria has taken the time to get to know the parents of her students, and learned a few greetings in some of those languages. Through arts education, Andria helps their students develop many competencies essential for the twenty first century: creativity, empathy, curiosity, collaboration. It was such a pleasure to be in a room with all those who had come to celebrate teachers from ministries of education, education organizations, schools, and international development agencies. It was a special pleasure to hear Al Gore talk about the future, and about his ongoing work to address climate change.
Like Andria, the other finalists for this prize over the last six years, are truly exemplary teachers. They have all been recognized by their exemplary dedication to the profession, by their effectiveness, ingenuity and commitment to serve their students. These finalists have formed a professional community and are collaborating in a number of efforts to improve education. Six of them, from four different countries, have just published a book, Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, in which they discuss the present and the future of the world and of humanity and ask: how could education best serve children so they build a better future? Another finalist, Stephen Ritz, who developed an approach to teach sustainability by growing food in schools, has written a book, the power of a plant, explaining his innovative approach and journey. Another finalist, Elisa Guerra, has developed a curriculum to teach Spanish which incorporates the lessons and principles of the book Empowering Students to Improve the World in Sixty Lessons, which my students and I developed to teach the Sustainable Development Goals and Human Rights.
The Global Education Skills Forum opening session included a panel in which three students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida recounted their experiences during the shooting in which 17 of their classmates were killed, and 17 more were injured. They shared their views on the risks that the ready access to weapons in the United States represents for students, schools and communities, and described their actions and future commitments to raise awareness about these issues and advocate for more stringent legislation that can reduce the availability of guns, in order to increase safety. One of them summarized their ends clearly ‘to work to ensure that every student returns home from school alive’. Their remarks were thoughtful, inspiring and moving, reminding us all of the agency of our students to take on complex challenges, and act to address them.
This conference which convened to celebrate teachers and teaching, provided also many opportunities for dialogues about the present and the future of education in adequately preparing the students for 2030 and beyond. They were rich, creative and provocative and made for two valuable days of learning for all participants. I participated in adebate on whether the world in 2030 would be better for youth than it is at present and gave a talk on the role of global citizenship education in empowering students to participate civically.
I take home many lessons from this conference. The main one that teachers can play a crucial role in supporting our students as they take on difficult social challenges. This is the lesson the students in Douglas Park High School are teaching us, the lesson offered by their teachers in supporting them, and the lesson that Andria Zafirakou, and the other finalists for the Global Teacher Prize are teaching us.