Five American teachers in the running for $1m global teacher prize

14th December 2016 at 21:53
Global teacher prize
After more than 20,000 nominations, 50 teachers have been shortlisted for the biggest teacher prize of its kind in the world

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Five American teachers are among 50 finalists in the running for a $1 million international education prize, it was announced today.

The teachers will battle it out to receive the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize, which was set up to recognize one exceptional teacher on the world stage.

More than 20,000 nominations from 179 countries were received for the award, the biggest of its kind, which will be announced at the Global Skills and Education forum in Dubai in March next year.

The American teachers vying for the award are Brian Copes, from Thompson High School in Alabama; Erin Gruwell, from the Freedom Writers Foundation; Corey Mitchell from the Northwest School of the Arts in North Carolina; Estella Owoimaha-Church, from Hawthorne High School in Los Angeles; and Alhassan Susso from International Community High School in New York City.

Sunny Varkey, founder for the Varkey Foundation, said the number of entries for the prize received this year was “testimony to the achievements of teachers and the enormous impact they have on all of our lives”. 

Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said: “Teachers are entrusted with nurturing the potential of the young and helping them blossom as productive and responsible members of society. It is hard to underestimate their value.

“I applaud the launch of the Global Teacher Prize, which recognizes their worth.“

The nominees – with information provided by the Global Teacher Prize

Brian Copes: Thompson High School

Brian Copes

Unusually for a teacher, Brian hated school for the most part as a child, which in his case consisted of an uninspiring and traditional educational environment. At a crossroads, he recalled his technology teachers’ belief in him and decided to pursue a career in education, hoping he could inspire some to learn. Brian has consistently expected high standards from his students and this is turn has led them to achieve beyond their own expectations. In many cases, he also acts as the only male role model some students have.

Brian’s distinctive approach is project-based learning, which inculcates important STEM skills while integrating this knowledge with design that helps benefit others in the community. His students have actually designed inexpensive vehicles for assembly using ordinary hand tools in remote world locations. These projects have won them the Basic Utility Vehicle competition in various categories over consecutive years. Another hugely successful project was the design and manufacture of less-expensive prosthetic limbs which students then fitted to patients in parts of the world such as Honduras. This is particularly important because 80% of all amputees live in developing countries. Brian’s students have also worked in the University of Alabama Engineering department, where they have had a hand in building cryogenic freezers used on the International Space Station.

Brian has received the 2015 Presidential Volunteer Service Award, and was named 2014 Environmental Teacher of the Year, along with many other awards over the years. With the prize funds, Brian would seek to establish ‘Sister School’ partnerships with other schools around the world, and develop the products his students design to go into production.


Erin Gruwell: Freedom Writers Foundation

Erin Gruwell

Erin was motivated to become a teacher after seeing the social unrest of the Rodney King Riots in Los Angeles. She realised that such things could be prevented if the economic playing field was made more equal by giving children educational opportunities. She has taught in environments of at-risk students ever since. Many of her students have had first-hand exposure to gang violence and racially divided communities. Some have lost many friends to gang warfare.

Erin tackled the contrast between schoolwork and the ordinary lives of her students by focusing on issues and struggles that had some relation to their own circumstances. She has encouraged journaling as a way for them to express themselves (as opposed to violence or other anti-social behavior). This in turn led to a book co-authored with her students, The Freedom Writer’s Diary, which became a New York Times bestseller and has achieved coverage around the world. The book and its creation have now been adapted to film with Hilary Swank playing the role of Erin! Subsequently, 100% of Erin’s students (who were failing classes previously) have successfully graduated high school, and she has adapted her methods to a progressive teaching curriculum called The Freedom Writer’s Method. Her Teacher’s Guide is published by Random House and she has been the recipient of many different Teacher of the Year awards.

If awarded the funds, Erin would donate them to her Freedom Writers Foundation, using the money to give scholarships to teachers abroad to attend her Freedom Writers Institute in California, providing professional development and support to many teachers in the US and abroad.


Corey Mitchell: Northwest School of the Arts

Corey Mitchell

Corey grew up in a small farm in North Carolina but was always a natural performer, drawn to the stage from a young age. However, he has always considered teaching to be his true vocation. Initially an English teacher, he has taught acting and musical theatre at the Northwest School of the Arts since 2001. For the past fifteen years, he has supported young artists to follow their dreams, encouraging great talents to develop and achieve their potential. Many of his students are now professional performers, whether on Broadway, in London’s West End, or other venues – and a few are now even directors, playwrights, and arts managers. He sees it as his aim to help students understand the infinite possibilities of the arts – through discipline, but also with fun.

Corey has received many awards in recognition of his special approach and dedication. He was the inaugural winner of the Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre Education; the recipient of the Arts Innovator Award from The Arts Empowerment Project; and was named Best Director by a host of theatre associations and other centres. He and his students were also the subject of the documentary film Purple Dreams about the process of producing a musical version of The Color Purple; this was submitted to the Sundance Film Festival for consideration.

At an early stage of his teaching career, Corey received financial and practical help from a number of individuals, which he remembers vividly. He is now the patron of several small theatre companies and is also involved in fundraising activities. If awarded the prize Corey would like implement a “Theatre Two-Day Takeover” program to conduct masterclasses with students and teachers and communicate the benefits of developing a strong arts program.


Estella Owoimaha-Church: Hawthorne High School

Estella Owoimaha-Church

Estella teaches in Los Angeles and is the daughter of two migrants to the US. Difficult circumstances growing up meant she had to help raise her siblings while still pursuing high school education. Estella now teaches in order to leave the world a better place than she found it. She credits her own teachers with her success. Presently, she serves as theatre director, district theatre course lead, academy leader, and English teacher in her school. Hired to rebuild a languishing theatre program, Estella has turned around a department that suffered low participation, student apathy and low graduation rates. In just two years, the students have produced four main-stage productions, competed in four state competitions, and attended at least three industry and leadership conferences. Reading and writing skills have improved, with half of students having a lexile increase of 25+ points. In theatre, Estella has regularly implemented conflict resolution strategies, including circle discussions. With added training in restorative justice, she has been able to improve conversations among students in a way that allows them to develop listening and speaking skills, resolve conflicts, and understand the importance of community. Developing empathy is a key objective for Estella’s teaching.

Last year, Estella was recognized at the Annual Education Excellence awards, and her department has also won the Theatre of Excellence and Extraordinary Theatre Educator awards. If awarded the prize, she would sustain her teaching by paying off the large student debts she had to take on to become a teacher; open a social-justice-based performing arts academy for grades 6-12; and travel around the world to learn from those doing similar work.


Alhassan Susso: International Community High School

Alhassan Susso

Alhassan teaches History in New York’s Bronx. He himself has overcome many obstacles to succeed in life and in his profession: an immigrant from West Africa, he had a rare eye disease in youth which left him nearly blind. Following the early death of his sister as an indirect result of her being unable to emigrate to the US and receive medical treatment, Alhassan wanted to become an immigration lawyer, but he was persuaded that he could make more of a difference by empowering people as a teacher. He knows that having the right opportunities often makes the difference between success and failure.

To motivate and equip his students to succeed, Alhassan has created the Inspiring Teens program. This relationship-based approach is designed to help teens build the skills to thrive academically, socially, professionally and economically. The program is built on five essential skills: Mindset, Vision, Setting, Interpersonal Communications, Leadership, and Financial Management. Each period starts with upbeat positive music, and employs the central concept of a Well-Rounded Student – consisting of eloquent speaking, purposeful reading, persuasive writing, and critical thinking. The program has resulted in a boost to standardized exam results from 29% to 69% in one year with a pass rate of over 90%. 100% of the students who took the program for credit graduated and went to college, and for the last three years Alhassan has been the “Most Admired and Inspirational Teacher” in his school.

If awarded the prize, Alhassan would invest the money to expand the Inspiring Teens curriculum to other schools in New York City, take the program online to a global audience, and establish college scholarships for those who cannot pay.


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