Hunger, drug abuse and gangs: When being a teacher is far more than simply teaching

12 Mar 2019 |

Teaching has never been just about imparting knowledge. Indeed, it is almost impossible to teach effectively if pupils are hungry, isolated, abused or caught up in violent conflict.

Every school and each student within it is unique, bringing a distinct set of challenges. And when a school’s pupils come from areas of deprivation, teaching often goes far beyond the standard curriculum.

But there is one constant theme that holds true, no matter where, who, or how teaching takes place – teachers are the agents of change.

Since 2015, the Global Teacher Prize has been recognising the changemakers at the heart of education, teachers whose hard work and dedication are turning young lives around and improving outcomes. Here are some of the inspirational finalists from previous years.

Diego Mahfouz Faria Lima, Brazil

When 2018 finalist Diego Mahfouz Faria Lima arrived at the Escola Municipal Darcy Ribeiro in the state of São Paulo, it was notorious for being the most violent and drug-riddled in the area, with the highest dropout rates. Something had to change – and change it has.

Diego persuaded local businesses to donate paint and building materials, while parents, staff and students worked together to transform the school. He then introduced system to track attendance and reduce truancy, and he has focused on improving teaching standards.

The result of these projects has been that the school now has strong links with the whole community, students feel they have a voice and are listened to, and more parents now attend school meetings. But perhaps most tellingly, policies to limit conflict and violence, as well as reduce absenteeism have worked.

Andria Zafirakou, UK

At Alperton Community School, where the 2018 Global Teacher Prize winner Andria Zafirakou works, 35 different languages are spoken and many complex, challenging home backgrounds often hamper pupils’ attendance and attainment.

Andria set about learning the basics of many of the languages spoken at the school. Next came the process of changing the curriculum to make it feel more relevant to the students. She has also helped one of her colleagues from the music department launch a Somali school choir and created alternative timetables to allow girls-only sports that would not offend conservative communities.

From low levels of attainment, Alperton has been awarded specialist school status in visual arts and is now in one of the highest tiers for educational results, demonstrating remarkable progress for its students.

Maggie MacDonnell, Canada

Maggie MacDonnell won the 2017 Global Teacher Prize. She teaches in one of the most extreme and remote locations – the Inuit village of Salluit, near the Hudson Straits in the far north of the Canadian province of Quebec.

Teenage pregnancies here are common, there are high levels of sexual abuse, and rates of suicide among young people are also high. Maggie’s whole approach has been about transforming students’ lives through initiatives such as ‘acts of kindness’, which have improved school attendance. One of her priorities was to establish a fitness centre. It has become a hub for young people and adults alike and is helping them grow stronger both physically and mentally.

She has also overseen a community kitchen, suicide prevention training and hiking trips through national parks to promote environmental stewardship.

Stephen Ritz, USA

New York is the largest city in the USA and one of the wealthiest. But it also home to the poorest Congressional District in America – South Bronx, where 37% of residents do not have access to affordable, nutritious food.

Hunger affects students’ ability to focus, concentrate and learn. It can make physical education challenging too. It can also lead to attendance problems caused by poor health, fatigue and generally high levels of disaffection.

Enter 2015 Global Teacher Prize finalist Stephen Ritz, a teacher at Public School 55 in South Bronx, with a passion for home-grown food. His mission is to get students involved in growing food, and so far, his students have installed more than 100 gardens in New York City alone, establishing a food production business that helps achieve food security.

Ayub Mohamud, Kenya

2016 Global Teacher Prize finalist, Ayub Mohamud has dedicated himself to combating radicalisation as a teacher and through his involvement in grassroots projects. He currently works in Nairobi, teaching business studies. But prior to that, he worked in rural schools, teaching traditional herding families why educating their children was so important.

As well as overseeing improved educational attainment levels, he established the Teachers Against Violent Extremism network, and has devised lesson plans for other teachers so they can address the issue of deradicalisation during Islamic religious studies lessons.

He works hard at helping students become social entrepreneurs. One idea developed by some of them – the production of roofing tiles from solid waste – has the potential to change the lives of millions of slum dwellers in areas affected by poverty and disease.

Azizullah Royesh, Afghanistan

Aged just 10, Azizullah’s education came to an abrupt stop when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. He returned from exile in Pakistan some years later and set up three schools, but fled again in the wake of the Taliban regime.

In 2001, the Taliban’s control of the country ended and he moved his Marefat School from Pakistan to Kabul. The name means insight and knowledge. Quickly evolving from basic literacy and numeracy skills, the school seeks to focus on civic education and female empowerment in an attempt to overcome the culture of violence and pessimism left by decades of conflict and oppression.

In 2009, several female students launched a protest against Shia Family Law which violated women’s rights and legalised marital rape. This led to a call for Azizullah’s execution and an attempt to burn down the school. But he was undeterred and it strengthened his resolve to make education available for all.

Phalla Neang, Cambodia

In 1986, Phalla was a UN school director working in a Thai refugee camp where she started working with blind children. She returned to Cambodia in the early 1990s and became the country’s first Braille teacher, working with the Krousar Thmey NGO. She is now the nationwide coordinator for the Education for the Blind program.

Phalla’s approach to teaching blind children was little short of revolutionary in Cambodia, emphasising the importance of students’ sense of touch and hearing rather than focusing on their visual limitations.

There are now 69 teachers and 250 children in four Krousar Thmey schools and 29 integrated classes across Cambodia. In 2014, 100% of Phalla’s blind and visually impaired students passed the national baccalaureate exam. As well as the important educational attainments, Phalla’s work has also raised the profile of blind people and improved the way they are perceived.

These are just a few of the teachers who have gone the extra mile to transform the lives of their students, creating a ripple-effect out to benefit the wider community. And there are plenty more examples in the finalists for this year’s Global Teacher Prize.