In most societies, and at most times throughout history, teachers have been among the most respected members of communities. My parents were teachers who came to Dubai in 1959 from Kerala, South India, and opened an English school there. Growing up, I saw first-hand how families would ask them for advice on every aspect of their lives.
And when we look at history’s most celebrated figures – from Aristotle to Confucius – many were teachers.
But I could see a huge distinction between how we used to see teachers and how we treat them now. Teachers have the most important job in the world. Yet, I saw teachers under attack: blamed for all sorts, from poor manners to a country’s failure to win more medals at the Olympics.
This was on my mind when I first had the idea of the Global Teacher Prize five years ago. The failure to respect teachers is not just a moral failing. It is corroding the life chances of children – especially in the poorest parts of the world.
The long-term effects of this lack of respect are profound. Poor skill levels slow down economic growth and stifle innovation; and an uneducated citizenry can weaken democratic institutions. As their hopes and dreams are dashed, young people, lacking opportunities, can be prone to unrest and even extremism.
Five years ago, there was no reliable international research to back up whether my view was accurate, so we asked people in 21 countries to give their view on the status of teachers.
The resulting Global Teacher Status Index confirmed that in much of the world teachers are not highly regarded. For example, just a quarter of British people said they would encourage their children to become teachers. China was the only country in which people felt that teachers enjoyed as high a status as doctors.
So how can we change this view? Some people argue that prizes are not the answer; that it is impossible to single out a few individual teachers for special attention. My answer is that, yes, there are countless wonderful teachers. But it is only by focusing on the contribution of individuals that we make flesh the way that teachers can transform children’s lives. That, in turn, raises the status of every single teacher.
It was clear from the moment we launched the prize that there was a pent-up thirst to celebrate the achievements of teachers on a global scale. We have had thousands of nominations from hundreds of countries. Most importantly, the most popular media in the world have – for the first time – discussed the crucial value of teachers and examined their pivotal role in all of our lives. My dream of great teachers reaching the same bracket as stars of film, sport or music is beginning to come true.
The prize has now developed a life of its own. It has inspired governments to launch over 20 national versions of the award, ranging from Argentina to Yemen.
We are humbled that in three short years, some of the world’s most respected figures have backed the prize. President Bill Clinton, Queen Rania of Jordan, Professor Steven Hawking, Prince Harry and Bill Gates have given their time to announce finalists, send encouraging messages or even present the prize.
One of the highlights of the Global Teacher Prize was when Pope Francis announced the winner of the 2016 Prize and invited Palestinian winner Hanan Al Hroub to the Vatican. I was invited too, and seeing Hanan share her experiences of helping children traumatised by war was one of the highlights of my life.
Rather than becoming predictable, we want to enthuse young people to nominate their teachers. There was huge excitement when Chief Scout Bear Grylls parachuted into the 2017 award ceremony to deliver the trophy. Astronaut Thomas Pesquet announced this year’s winner from the International Space Station – orbiting 20 miles above the Earth.
I believe these bold gestures that create excitement around celebrating teachers have never been more necessary. Next year, the Varkey Foundation will publish a new Teacher Status Index, charting the status of teachers around the world. We will be able to judge how much progress we have made in restoring teachers to their rightful position in society.
The ultimate goal is for every child to be given their birthright: a great teacher and a quality education. I’m proud that we have achieved so much. But ending the scandal of children abandoned to poor – or no – education takes more than a prize: it requires commitment on behalf of the world’s governments.
Sunny Varkey is founder of the Varkey Foundation