`Restore the respect teachers so richly deserve'

5th June 2015 at 01:00
World leaders back profession as $1m prize opens for entries

Respect for the teaching profession has been "eroded", which could lead to "profoundly damaging" effects on young people's life chances and a rise in extremism, a group of former world leaders has claimed.

The 25 leaders, including former Spanish prime minister Jos Luis Rodrguez Zapatero and former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, argue that members of the profession have too often been a "target for short-term political gain".

In an open letter to education ministers around the world, the leaders say that a "declining respect for teachers" will "weaken teaching, damage the learning opportunities for millions and ultimately weaken societies around the world".

They warn that "an uneducated citizenry can weaken cherished democratic institutions" and that "uninformed democratic choices can give way to populism and even extremism". Governments should "play their part in restoring the respect that [teachers] so richly deserve", they add.

The letter has been published by the Varkey Foundation and the Club de Madrid - which represents former presidents and prime ministers from around the world - to mark the opening of the 2016 Global Teacher Prize. The Varkey Foundation award, dubbed the "Nobel prize for teaching", aims to raise the status of the teaching profession by highlighting best practice around the world. The winner will receive $1 million (pound;650,000).

Chasing status

"We're trying to elevate the status of the profession by celebrating it," Vikas Pota, chief executive of the Varkey Foundation, told TESS. "We know from our own research that in some parts of the world teaching has become a low-social-status profession, and I think society is to blame for that."

The award has received messages of support from United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and UK prime minister David Cameron. Entrants will be judged by a panel including Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey. "Influential world figures [are] making the time and effort to state their support for the aims of the prize," Mr Pota said. "We're using that star power to emphasise the message."

The Global Teacher Status Index, a study of 21 countries published by the Varkey Foundation in 2013, found that Britons were most likely to compare teachers to social workers and nurses, with just 5 per cent comparing them to doctors. Only 21 per cent felt pupils respected teachers.

Only 23 UK teachers were entered for the 2015 prize, compared with 193 from India, 174 from the US and 98 from Nigeria. "In the UK, our education sector is globally renowned for the quality of teaching that takes place in our classrooms," Mr Pota said. "We owe the world a duty to showcase that."

Richard Spencer, a science teacher at Middlesbrough College, Teesside, was one of 10 finalists for the 2015 prize. Dr Spencer impressed judges with his use of innovative techniques such as role play, songs and dance to make lessons engaging.

He told TESS that being a finalist was a "phenomenal" experience. "I was on BBC television, on Good Morning Britain, on the radio," he said. "I went to the Vatican to meet Pope Francis, and I'm a Catholic so it was fantastic."

Other highlights were closer to home. "Two student teachers at Teesside University said they were going to drop out of the course but that I'd reignited their passion and belief," he added.

When asked what teachers entering the prize should demonstrate, Dr Spencer said: "I think the most important quality is enthusiasm for what you do and that you care about the success of your pupils. That should be what shines through."

Entries for the 2016 Global Teacher Prize are open until 10 October. Find out more at www.globalteacherprize.org

$1m teacher

Nancie Atwell, pictured, winner of the 2015 Global Teacher Prize, runs a small private school in Maine, US, for students from kindergarten to 8th grade. She set up the Center for Teaching and Learning 25 years ago. About 80 per cent of its pupils receive financial support towards the $8,000 (pound;5,200) annual fee.

The prize money will be used to allow children whose families can't afford the fees to stay on for their entire school careers, Ms Atwell says. The centre also aims to develop innovations to pass on to other schools; hundreds of teachers have been invited to observe its practice.

Ms Atwell has campaigned against plans to introduce the Common Core State Standards - akin to a national curriculum - across the US because she believes the approach is "bad for.children as writers and readers".

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