$1m prize awarded to US teacher giving immigrant pupils a chance to succeed

Educator Keishia Thorpe used her own experiences of racism to improve support systems for immigrant students and their families.

A US-based English teacher has won a $1m global teaching prize in recognition of her work to help low-income immigrant students access college education. Keishia Thorpe, a teacher at International High School Langley Park, Maryland, was selected from more than 8,000 nominations across 121 countries to win the 2021 Global Teacher Prize, the largest award of its kind.

“As a young girl coming from the circumstances that I come from, I would never have thought that something like this ever happened to me… I'm speechless, I'm overjoyed. I'm amazed," she said, on hearing she had won the prize. 

Thorpe, who was born in Jamaica, escaped poverty and violence thanks to an athletics scholarship that took her to the United States. There, despite experiencing racism and discrimination as a black immigrant student, she graduated top of her class.

Struck by how non-white learners were underrepresented in the public school system and their schools under-resourced, Thorpe decided to train as a teacher and act as a mentor for low-income students to help them get to college.

At her school in Maryland, she has redesigned the 12th-grade curriculum to make it culturally relevant to her students, a mix of first-generation immigrants and refugees who have English as a second language, resulting in vastly improved reading and test scores.

In addition to serving with several teaching unions and advocacy movements, Thorpe runs a nonprofit offering at-risk student athletes access to college scholarships. She is the founder of the Hope Beyond Distance Foundation and Food4Change, providing support to immigrant students and their families.

“I want to be able to use this platform to gain a seat at the table to advocate at the highest level for my students because they deserve, every student deserves, the right to an education," Thorpe said. "I want to be that personal champion for them.”

The Global Teacher Prize was launched in 2015 by the UK-based Varkey Foundation, the charity run by the family behind the GEMS Education company. Its aim is to reward “an exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to their profession”.

Previous winners include science teacher Peter Tabichi from Kenya, Andrea Zafirakou, an arts and textiles teacher from the UK, and Indian village teacher Ranjitsinh Disale.

"If we back our teachers and our students, then together they can remake the future with greater equality, peace and justice."

Stefania Giannini, UNESCO assistant director-general for education.

This year, due to Covid-19 restrictions, there was no star-studded ceremony in Dubai, where the Varkey family is based, and instead the award was made virtually from Paris.

In a recorded message played at the ceremony, former UK prime minister Gordon Brown said Thorpe’s “inspirational story reminds us of the critical importance of teachers and education, particularly in these difficult times.” He added: “Let us fight for education and for the future of every child.”

Also acknowledging the unprecedented disruption to education caused by the pandemic, Stefania Giannini, UNESCO assistant director-general for education, said: “Covid-19 has given us all a chance to pause and reflect. We have learnt who and what matters most to us. There is perhaps now a small window of opportunity for the next generation to make a better world.”

She added: “If we back our teachers and we back our students, then together they can remake the future with greater equality, peace and justice.”

In parallel to the Global Teacher Prize, this year saw the launch of the Chegg.org Global Student Prize, which was awarded to Sierra Leonean student, Jeremiah Thoronka, for his invention of a device that uses kinetic energy from traffic and pedestrians to generate clean power.

Born into conflict, Thoronka grew up in a slum on the outskirts of Freetown where families were forced to burn charcoal and wood to provide heat and light. Concerned about the environmental impact, as well as the effect this poor lighting had on young people’s ability to study, he set out to find an alternative.

At the age of 17, while studying at the African Leadership University in Rwanda, Thoronka launched a startup to capture vibrations from vehicles and pedestrian footfall, and turn them into electric currents. With just two devices, the company already provides free electricity to 150 households, as well as 15 schools attended by some 9,000 students.

The student says he plans to use his $100,000 prize money to expand his business, Optim Energy, to reach 100,000 people by 2030.

Hollywood actor Hugh Jackman, who presented the award to Thoronka said: “Students everywhere are fighting for their very future. They are part of a generation that are on the frontline of the greatest challenges of our time – from climate change to global inequality. So, we must listen to their voices and shine a light on their stories.” - PA