In 2015, I was fortunate enough to be named a Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize Top 50 Finalist. While I didn't win the million dollar award, I earned something that I treasure to this day. I was able to meet educators from a myriad of different countries who have taught me a great deal about education around the world and impacted how I teach.
Hallo aus Deutschland
After the 50 finalists were announced, Mareike Hamecher from Germany reached out to me almost immediately. We had deep conversations about our classrooms, students, and teaching. Mareike teaches English and theater arts, and I was impressed with her website, which uses a collaborative, group-oriented teaching style that focuses on self-initiated learning. She uses audiovisual materials extensively, and her class projects focus on teaching units that encourage volunteerism and active citizenship. Mareike sent me videos her students made, and I was inspired and impressed with the depth of their expression. There was so much that Mareike did that I wanted to incorporate into my own classroom.
In June that year, Mareike came to visit me in Boston for four days. I brought her to my school, and we marveled at the similarities and differences between our two schools. For example, Mareike was surprised that we had an American flag in our classroom and that students said the Pledge of Allegiance each day—in Germany, that would be seen as nationalism. I showed one of Mareike's class's videos to my students and they loved it. The next year, my students made their own video that we shared with Mareike and her students. Mareike and I are still collaborating.
Hallo uit Nederland
This past October, I received an e-mail from Jelmer Evers, one of the top 50 finalists, from the Netherlands. He invited me to a one-day symposium at Harvard University on the future of the teaching profession. I was shocked when I saw that the guest list included education rock stars Howard Gardner and Andy Hargreaves, as well as other leading educators from around the world. During our meeting, we talked about the effects of automation and technology in teaching, and we discussed teaching networks around the globe, which are working to find solutions to contemporary educational challenges. We also talked about the teacher professionalism that is at the heart of educational change. It was exciting to be part of such a stimulating and inspirational discussion. Afterward, two attendees—professors from a university in the Netherlands—came to observe me at my high school. My students enjoyed peppering them with questions about education in Holland.
Further reading: 10 Classroom Strategies from Finland
When Jelmer got back to the Netherlands in November, he e-mailed me and asked if my students wanted to Skype with his students about the U.S. presidential election. My class was thrilled with the exchange, which showed that students halfway around the globe were just as concerned about the outcome of the U.S. election as we were. We hope to Skype more with Jelmer's classes in the future.
Kusheh from Sierra Leone
I've also met Miriam Mason-Sesay, who was one of the top five finalists from 2016. She moved from the U.K. to Sierra Leone and opened a school for vulnerable children, including orphans, young mothers, and ex-combatants. Miriam's nonprofit, EducAid Sierra Leone, now educates 2,500 students. She stresses equality at her school, and the participation rate of girls is twice Sierra Leone's average. This year, Miriam facilitated a pen pal project with our students that has taught these teenagers a great deal about the world. Because the project began around Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the conversation starter was "What is your dream?" Our students shared their dreams for the future with one another. My students marveled at the similarities and differences, and they look forward to letters from their pen pals every month. They're gaining a global perspective that transcends the classroom.
Further reading: Exploring Countries in Your Classroom
The Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize experience has taught me a great deal about education around the world. Providing students with opportunities to investigate the world, share viewpoints, learn about other cultures, and interact with others helps them gain a global perspective that enables them to better understand, empathize, and take action. My students were profoundly affected by their experiences meeting students and educators from around the world, and many of them hope to study international relations and business, political science, medicine, and teaching.
The great lesson I've learned, however, is that sharing best teaching practices with educators around the globe is powerful. Through Mareike, for example, I learned about the effectiveness of interactive learning and began to understand the need to call upon students to be changemakers. I think about education in a new way after the symposium with Jelmer Evers and some of the world's leading educators. I recognize that education is the key to solving many global issues, and I realize that if teachers work together, the result will be effective and meaningful change.