Sunday, March 20, 2016

5 Takeaways from the 2016 Global Education and Skills Forum

It's been a week now since I was sitting on stage waiting for Pope Francis to announce the winner of the Global Teacher Prize. Looking back, my whole experience in Dubai at the Global Education and Skills Forum (GESF) and the Varkey Teacher Ambassador Summit that preceded it have a surreal, dreamlike quality. It's hard to believe that they really happened. There is no doubt that I will remember the last week as one of the most powerful and amazing weeks of my life.

There were so many incredible moments, influential conversations, and meaningful personal experiences that occurred during those few days. Here are my five biggest takeaways.

The Global Teacher Prize is elevating the status of teachers around the world.

At the 2014 GESF Sunny Varkey announced the Global Teacher Prize as a way to elevate the status of the teaching profession around the world. It is working. The narrative around teachers is changing and around the globe inspirational stories of teaching excellence from the top 50 finalists are being shared on television, the front cover of newspapers, and in magazines.  Each of these stories serves as a source of motivation for others in the profession who desperately need it in the current anti-teacher climate that exists in many countries around the world.

The way that teachers were celebrated at the Forum was outstanding. I can't think of another event in which teachers were seated in a place of prominence next to heads of state, ministers of education, and other guests of honor. As my fellow finalist Joe Fatheree expressed, teachers were given respect. Our voices mattered. Teachers were given the opportunity to speak, debate, and participate as equals in policy discussions on the highest level. 

For the Top 10 Finalists, this event was nothing short of surreal. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that teaching would lead me to walk the red carpet like I was a celebrity, be praised by the greatest scientist of our time, or be kicked off a stage while dancing in Dubai as a French Neuroscientist DJ blasts Pakistani dance jams (Yes, that really happened). Nobody ever chose the teaching profession for the recognition, but I hope the attention surrounding this award lets teachers around the globe know that there are many people around the world who understand just how important teachers are. 

Teachers need autonomy over teaching, and learners need autonomy over learning.

Right from the opening plenary keynote in which Adreas Schleicher talked about "making education everybody's business," and Sunny Varkey explained that he created the Global Teacher Prize to elevate the status of the teaching profession, the theme of teacher empowerment was present. In order for us to have the excellent educational systems that we desire, teachers must be treated as the professionals that they are. Teachers must have autonomy in their practice to do what they know is best for students instead of having their methodologies, curricula, and professional learning dictated to them by non-educators. 

Jelmer Evers talks about empowering teachers
It would be absurd to think that surgeons were being forced to use techniques that were dictated to them by those outside the medical profession. It should be viewed as equally absurd for those with no educational background to be dictating to teachers how to teach. We should be encouraging teachers to innovate and share their best practices with others so that those techniques can be replicated. Yet, 75% of teachers around the world believe that innovation in their classrooms is not encouraged. How can we prepare our students for an unknown future in which critical thinking and creativity are crucial when we are being told not to model innovation for them?

Another theme that was present in the Masterclass sessions taught by the Top 10 Finalists for the Global Teacher Prize was the need for students to be in control of their own learning. You can't make someone learn, but you can create conditions that inspire someone to want to learn. That's what made the finalists so amazing. Each of them had their own way of creating intrinsic motivation in their students in order to shift control back to the students.

The world would be better off if teachers were in charge. 

Varkey Teacher Ambassador Summit

During the Varkey Teacher Ambassador Summit and GESF, I spent a lot of time learning and working with 50 teachers who were named finalists for the Global Teacher Prize the past two years. We came from all over the world. Every religion and region of the country was represented. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists were all in the same room working to solve the world's problems through education. We spoke different languages and had very different backgrounds. There was no tension, animosity, or friction. There was just a group of amazing people who were thrilled to get the chance to know each other and make the world a little better. Our governments and politicians could learn a lot from teachers.

We do not agree on the purpose of schools.

Debate over the use of standardized testing in schools
Are we educating children to get them ready for the workforce?  Are we developing global citizens? Are schools tools to ensure the economic success of their nations, or are they tools to preserve culture and heritage? Should we focus on knowledge and compliance in schools, or should we focus on creativity and develop students who will question authority? Should we focus on equal access to education in our societies, or should we focus on developing excellence in our educational systems? 

These are difficult questions, and I don't believe there would be consensus among attendees on any of them. The debates at GESF were an excellent addition and gave opportunities for many of us in attendance to examine our beliefs. In a world that is being rapidly transformed by the ubiquity of information due to the internet, it is vital that we figure out the purpose of schools before we move forward.

Hanan Al Hroub is the perfect representative of the teaching profession.

The most exciting part of this whole experience for me was getting to know and learn from the other finalists and Varkey Teacher Ambassadors. The ten finalists got to know each other very well. When you go through such an emotional experience together, you bond because people on the outside will never understand the experience as well as those who went through it. Every one of the other nine finalists inspired me and made me proud to be a teacher.
Hanan Al Hroub and I after she was announced as the winner

I feel blessed to have gotten to spend a few days getting to know Hanan before she was announced as the winner. I participated in her Masterclass, volunteering to play games as a student. I got to speak with her in private and tell her how much I admired her as a person and a teacher. I got to feel the love that she has for her students and her profession.

When the announcement came from Pope Francis that she had won, I broke out into a huge smile. I am so happy for her and for our profession that she will be our representative for the next year. Her message of non-violence and teaching through play will resonate around the globe, and the story of what she has overcome in order to spread her message will inspire millions.


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  2. Hi Mike! Once again hearty congratulations to you on making it to the big stage. Having known you and your work for a while now, you deserved to be there. I am also happy the way you have made the best out of your experience in being a part of the world global teaching fraternity. I am particularly very happy that you heaved lavish praise on Hanan and her work. That shows the positive intent in you and you are truly a very deserving educator. If almighty wishes, I will be very happy to meet you someday. Once again, my heartiest Congratulations to you and the millions of teachers that you represent.

  3. Thanks for such a nice post. It is a great way to teach values and it worked with my children. And it Just Be You is all three and such an inspiring story about a young boy named Mark, who was very concerned about his first day of school. Thanks for sharing.

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