We Needed an Academy Awards for Our Teachers and the Global Teacher Prize Is Doing Just That

Mar 16, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Dmitri Mehlhorn

In a July 2015 skit for Comedy Central, Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key, of "Key & Peele," pretend to be anchors for the fictional channel “ TeachingCenter,” modeled upon ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” Peele kicks off with a segment called “The Ruhf Is On Fire,” in which he reports:
Well, now we know. The long-awaited announcement by star English teacher Ruby Ruhf has sent teaching fans across the nation into a frenzy.
The segment then cuts over to a media table where veteran teacher Ruhf, speaking into a bank of microphones as cameras flash, states that while she’s enjoyed her time in Ohio, she’s taking her talents back to New York City. Later, the skit covers a fake teacher draft at Radio City Music Hall, and clips of the teachers in action along with commentary about their pedagogy. In the final 30 seconds of the clip, Ms. Ruhf uses her star power in a commercial for the BMW 6 series luxury cars. The depressing part, of course, is that we never actually treat teachers with the kind of star treatment that we use for entertainment figures from sports, music or movies. But that may be starting to change. This past weekend, the Varkey Foundation announced their second annual Global Teacher Prize, a $1 million grant to the world’s best teacher. The foundation solicits and reviews recommendations, names 50 finalists and then uses a panel to narrow that 50 down to a list of 10 who are celebrated over a weekend conference called the Global Education and Skills Forum. Although the prize and summit are only two years old, media have already begun referring to them, respectively, as the Nobel Prize and Davos Forum of education. So, what does the Davos of education look like? It turns out, it looks a lot like John Dewey’s vision of teachers as leaders in the classroom, the profession and the nation. The summit’s plenary sessions took place in a vast multimedia auditorium, where teachers and teacher leaders participated in panel discussions alongside ministers, philanthropists and technologists. In addition, each of the 10 teacher prize finalists conducted a master class, where rooms full of conference attendees took lessons directly from the world’s great teachers. The conference also had policy debates, which took place in a replica of the British Parliament, in which teachers and teacher leaders argued alongside journalists and venture capitalists about topics such as the proper role of STEM learning and profit-making in education. At a conference attended by leading figures such as Fareed Zakaria, Arne Duncan and Andreas Schleicher, teachers were the stars: showcasing their techniques, engaging on policy and shaping the debate. The hashtag for the conference was #TeachersMatter. Dewey would have been pleased. It was with the Prize ceremony, however, that the weekend started to attack the satire behind the Key & Peele “TeachingCenter” sketch. The massive auditorium was packed. The ceremony started at 6:00 p.m. with an ensemble musical dance with dozens of performers. By video, Stephen Hawking announced the 10 teacher finalists, while Prince Harry and Bill Clinton offered praise. Each of the 10 was profiled in a video tribute to their methods and results. Along the way, stars from Bollywood and Hollywood, such as Matthew McConaughey and Salma Hayek, came to the podium to offer tribute. Pope Francis joined by video to announce the winner of the prize. Yes, Pope Francis. The winning teacher was Hanan Al Hroub, a Palestinian woman who invented and implemented game-based learning to help children learn in violent settings while themselves rejecting violence. When Al Hroub’s name was announced, all 10 teachers from around the world raised their hands together in solidarity, and the audience erupted. The ceremony felt like the Academy Awards. After the ceremony, the audience walked over to dinner. We walked for several minutes on a red carpet, holding individual invitations. Along the route, an announcer encouraged cheering for the many teachers walking along. On the other side of the red velvet rope, a throng of students cheered loudly and high-fived the teachers walking by. The dinner celebration was marked by searchlights and headlined by pop stars. Famous people kept rushing up to the top 10 teacher finalists to take selfies with them. The celebration felt like it was everything the profession and the world finally needed to treat great teachers as they deserve. The Varkey Prize and Forum is only in its second year. Perhaps a few years from now, the Key & Peele skit will no longer be funny, because we will be treating all great teachers as we do celebrities.
Photo of Hanan Al Hroub courtesy of Global Teacher Prize.

Dmitri Mehlhorn

Dmitri Mehlhorn is a parent and school volunteer, as well as a Democratic donor and activist. He is a member of several boards, including that of StudentsFirst and several early stage companies, and he was a co-founder of Hope Street Group. He has earned degrees in political science, education policy and law from Stanford, Harvard, and Yale, respectively.

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