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'Teachers shouldn’t be afraid, embarrassed or ashamed to celebrate each other’s achievements'

Jon Brunskill, a primary teacher in East London, writes:

The Deputy Mayor of London, the Prince of Norway and Kevin Spacey walk into a bar.

I’m not joking. Along with 63 fellow members of the Global Teacher Prize Academy, they will be spending the next few months deliberating over which of the 50 finalists deserve the inaugural title of the best teacher in the world.

The award has ruffled more than a few feathers, with the $1m prize coming under particular criticism. I remember having mixed feelings when the award was first announced. The idea of monetary reward for a profession like teaching seems to dilute the altruism that is inherent within the job.

Like stories of successful charity CEOs making six-figure salaries, we have a visceral reaction to anyone making big cash from helping people. Oddly, as Dan Pallotta points out in his excellent TED talk, there isn’t a similar outcry against people making megabucks in the entertainment industry.

But perhaps the ill-feeling isn’t about the money on offer. Anyone who has worked in education knows that the vast majority of teachers are busting a gut day in, day out for the children in their care. To pluck one from obscurity and coat them in glory seems tremendously unfair. Sure, maybe they wrote a few blogs and organised some conferences, but while they were doing that we were marking books and planning lessons. It seems, by implication, that the rest of us clearly aren’t doing enough.

So what more is necessary to be in with a chance of winning? The GTP Academy judges nominees against seven criteria: achievements in the classroom; preparing children to be global citizens; employing innovative and effective teaching practices; developing and sharing innovative thought to improve access to quality teaching; contributing to public debates, raising the bar of the profession; accomplishments beyond the classroom; and encouraging others to join the profession.

Critics may complain that only the first three criteria really describe the job of a teacher. Why should “encouraging others to join the profession” be remotely relevant in any assessment of a good teacher, let alone the “best in the world”? Recruitment is surely someone else’s job.

The criticism, I think, is fair. Clearly, any teacher doing these sorts of things is going above and beyond what is expected of them. They aren’t just buckling down in the trenches, getting the job done. They’re throwing themselves on wild grenades, rallying the troops and dishing out their chocolate rations to keep morale high.

So why shouldn’t they be celebrated? The notion isn’t entirely unprecedented. After all, Nobel prizes are handed out for literature, science, and even the abstract notion of ‘peace’. Were Malala Yousafzai’s heroics somehow commodified or cheapened by her recent global recognition and suitcase of cash?

Surely not. In fact, such prestigious prizes carry certain responsibilities that are arguably unfair to place upon the victor. What do you spend the money on? Certainly, there is an expectation that at least some of it will be used in the name of education. Winning would also place the teacher’s career choices under heavy scrutiny. Leaving the profession would be almost certainly out of the question, an unfair constriction given the demanding nature of the job.

Ultimately, UK finalist Tom Bennett may have provided an optimistic (even if unintended by the GTP) analysis of the award. It is not to reward the best teacher in the world, that would be absurd, he explained, but rather to raise the profession as a whole.

Sadly, a cocktail of martyr and inferiority complexes have left the teaching profession’s status at a much lower standing than it deserves, given the life-changing work that goes on in schools every day. We shouldn’t be afraid, embarrassed or ashamed to celebrate each other’s achievements. We mustn’t roll our eyes when inspirational individuals (individuals who we at the chalkface know are more common than rare) are ascended to global acclaim.

For too long, teachers have been crying out for recognition for the incredible work that we do. Yes, there may be some technical difficulties – perhaps even some philosophical unease – with the Global Teacher Prize, but it is far and away the largest and most sincere gesture from the world that they value what we do. Rather than shun that, we should embrace this leap forward.

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