Middlesbrough teacher may be best in the world

13th February 2015 at 00:00
UK biology specialist in line for $1m prize in global competition

An all-singing, all-dancing biology teacher from Middlesbrough is among the final 10 contenders vying to win a $1 million (pound;656,000) prize and worldwide acclaim.

Richard Spencer, who works at Middlesbrough College in the North East of England, has been shortlisted for the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize - dubbed the Nobel Prize for teaching - as a result of his work both inside and outside the classroom.

Dr Spencer is up against teachers from countries including the US, India, Haiti and Afghanistan, and takes his place among the final 10 after beating more than 5,000 nominees.

The winning teacher will receive the $1 million prize over 10 years on the condition that they remain in teaching for at least five of them. The organisers of the award, the charitable arm of the Gems education company, will provide financial counselling to the winner. Judges include Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey and UK technology entrepreneur Baroness Martha Lane Fox.

Dr Spencer, who has a PhD in molecular biology, was nominated in part for his use of "inter-disciplinary" approaches in his teaching - he often deploys song and dance to engage his students in the more abstract areas of his subject.

He was appointed MBE in 2010, was named among the UK's top 100 practising scientists by the Science Council last year and has already been handed a number of accolades for his innovative methods.

"At first you think there's a one in 50 chance, now there's a one in 10, but there are far more deserving teachers out there than me on that list," Dr Spencer said. "I haven't even contemplated winning the award."

Should he take the prize, Dr Spencer said he would want to work on projects that blended the arts with science, with a view to helping combat Aids in developing countries.

Another finalist, Stephen Ritz, introduced urban farming to disadvantaged students in New York City's South Bronx, the poorest congressional district in the US. Mr Ritz, a special education teacher at Public School 55, said his aim was to introduce healthy diets to young people in his community and improve attendance rates and grades as a result.

Daily attendance rates have risen from 40 per cent to 93 per cent since the project started, with the school achieving 100 per cent pass rates on standardised tests.

Mr Ritz said that just by being shortlisted for the award he had "already won", and that clinching the overall prize would allow him to take his Green Bronx Machine programme overseas.

"I am humbled and flattered beyond belief," Mr Ritz said. "This award brings attention to every teacher across the world - whether you're a teacher in an earth-floored hut, a flood zone, wherever - this award is a celebration of the work teachers do every day.

"We're not just growing fruit and vegetables, we're growing citizens, we're growing graduates, we're growing the next generation of the workforce," he said. "If I won the overall prize I would take what we're doing in the South Bronx to South Philly [Philadelphia], to South Central [Los Angeles], to Haiti, and we would spread the seeds that we're planting."

Also among the finalists is Kiran Bir Sethi from India, who established her own school in Ahmedabad. The Riverside School draws on Ms Sethi's background in design and aims to produce graduates who think "empathetically rather than just intellectually".

She described being shortlisted as "wonderful" and said she hoped to expand her project if she was awarded the prize. "If I win, I will continue to do what I am already doing - investing in the present to secure the future - only it will be on a scale that will allow for even greater significance and impact," she said.

The 10 finalists will travel to Dubai next month for the Global Education and Skills Forum, where the winner will be announced.

The finalists

  • Azizullah Royesh Marefat High School, Kabul, Afghanistan
  • Kiran Bir Sethi The Riverside School, Ahmedabad, India
  • Guy Etienne College Catts Pressoir, Port-au-Prince, Haiti
  • Jacqueline Jumbe-Kahura Bofa Primary school, Kilifi, Kenya
  • Nancie Atwell The Center for Teaching and Learning, Southport, Maine, US
  • Naomi Volain Springfield Central High School, Springfield, Massachusetts, US
  • Phalla Neang Phnom Penh Thmey, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
  • Madenjit Singh Science of Life Studies 247, Dili, Timor Leste, Malaysia
  • Richard Spencer Middlesbrough College, Billingham, UK
  • Stephen Ritz Public School 55, Bronx, New York, US

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