One Amazing Teacher Is About To Get $1 Million

Celebrating the one profession that makes all others possible

Class With No Chairs
APA fourth grade teacher talks to students at a Colorado school that uses stability balls as a way to improve student posture and attention.


By Aaron Gell

This November, one lucky teacher will be the recipient of $1 million, courtesy the Varkey GEMS Foundation. That's a whole lot of glue sticks.

The Foundation is the charitable arm of GEMS Education, an international network of for-profit private schools, operating mostly in the Middle East, which will open its first stateside private academy this September in Chicago.

The goal of the prize, according to the foundation's chief executive Vikas Pota, is to elevate the stature of teaching as a profession. He cites a recent study conducted by the foundation, the Global Teacher Status Index, that found the reputation of teachers around the world hovering near that of lowly social workers and librarians - except in China, where teachers are viewed as comparable to doctors.

Applicants are welcome from around the world. The winner will be a teacher who has shown real results in the classroom, acted as a role model to other teachers, and brought knowledge to children of all backgrounds, among other things. The judging committee includes an international mix of education luminaries, including Geoffrey Canada of Harlem Children's Zone and Teach for America's Wendy Kopp, as well as seeming wildcards like actor Kevin Spacey.

Asked how the "House of Cards" actor wound up on the committee, Pota notes, "Kevin Spacey is not only an inspirational figure to many because of his artistic achievements; he is well-known for mentoring young people." As evidence, he points to his work with the Kevin Spacey Foundation, which offers grants and scholarships to "emerging artists in performing arts and film."

Boosting the reputation of the teaching profession is certainly a welcome development in the U.S., where many teachers, especially those in public schools, feel under assault these days, and not just from spitballs.

School for Migrant workers'' children
Getty ImagesMigrant workers' children studying in a Beijing classroom.
There is, of course, the usual pressure from school boards, local governments and parents. Recently they have been joined by a pinstriped legion of numbers-driven superintendents and administrators pushing metrics, measurables and standardized tests. Meanwhile, seasoned teachers looking for new jobs increasingly find themselves competing with an army of apple-cheeked young dabblers, eager to burnish their resumes with a pedagogical pit stop on their way to Wall Street.

Billionaire reformers like Bill Gates and Eli Broad have gone on the offensive against teachers unions, poured money into schools choice legislation and charters, promoted a push toward ever more testing, and championed performance ratings and standardized curricula.

And then there's the tech sector, chomping at the bit to replace teachers with an array of flashy apps and scalable MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses.

In an era of era of drawn out contract negotiations and ever-tightening district budgets, a million dollars is quite a jackpot. Last year, teachers in the U.S. alone spent a total of $1.6 billion of their own money on classroom supplies - around $485 on average - according to a report by the National School Supply and Equipment Association.

"It says a lot about what we're trying to achieve," Pota says. "A million dollars is a significant amount of money. If you look at the Nobel Prize, it's also around a million. So is the Templeton Prize, et cetera." (Actually the Nobel is $1.2 million and the Templeton's up to $1.8, but who's counting?)

Pota adds, "Would you be talking to me if we had just pledged $50,000? It's quite a radical thing."

Indeed. And what if the winning teacher should decide to take the money and run?

"It's an interesting question," Pota says. "What if they just blow it and buy a Ferrari? One thing we are quite clear on is whoever wins will have to have the right values. You want someone who has a real love of the profession. You have to put trust in the teacher."

And just in case, there's a clause in the eligibility criteria noting that the winner has to remain in the classroom to keep collecting the installments.

Oh, well. At least there's summer...

Apply for the Varkey GEMS Global Teacher Prize or nominate a favorite teacher at globalteacherprize.com.

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