GEM’s Sunny Varkey shines a light on teachers amid COVID-19 challenges

Sunny Varkey
Sunny Varkey Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Since the coronavirus pandemic first emerged, 1.5 billion learners across the world have been impacted by school and university closures. In a world turned upside down, we’ve been daily reminded how much we rely on the world’s teachers. Sadly, it took the pandemic for many to truly understand how lost we would be without them.

But we should not take for granted what they achieved. The physical closure of many schools around the world – and the year-long disruption to the normal routines of education – could have been catastrophic for society. But teachers everywhere improvised, experimented, and found new ways of educating and supporting the students under their care.

At the same time as taking their curriculum online, many teachers also kept classrooms open to teach the children of medical staff and essential workers through the darkest days of the pandemic. Without those teachers – who were often placing themselves at risk – then many of the healthcare workers that we rightly celebrate would not have been able to go to work and save lives.

I want to pay tribute to our teachers at GEMS Education who worked so hard to keep our schools open. I’m proud that from September 2020 we have kept all our schools here in the UAE open apart from some brief interludes of 100 percent distance learning in individual cases as directed by our health authorities and KHDA, with which we always work very closely.

Tolerance and respect

My mother Madam Mariamma Varkey was a life-long teacher who was driven by a belief that all children need to be nurtured and encouraged. Tolerance and respect for others were for her the most important lessons that she taught. Her passing earlier this year has only strengthened my resolve to help give teachers the respect and recognition they deserve.

Both my mother and father came to Dubai in 1959 from Kerala, South India and founded Our Own English High School in 1968 to teach children of all nationalities and religions in their new home. As a child, I will never forget the respect they were shown. I saw first-hand how people looked to them for advice and support.

This then grew into the formation of GEMS Education, now one of the foremost private education organisations in the world thanks to the support of our national leadership who have made the preparation of the next generation of our young such a priority. We have received substantial support in this shared mission from the UAE Leadership, the Ministry of Education and also the individual education authorities in the Emirates.

Sadly, however, in the decades since my parents were teaching, it seems that teachers’ expertise, dedication and care are increasingly taken for granted throughout the world.

Mother of all professions

Eight years ago, the Varkey Foundation commissioned the world’s first Global Teacher Status Index. It confirmed what we all feared – teachers had lost their place among the most respected professions in society. In 2018, we conducted a follow-up study, which showed that, though respect for teachers is on the rise around the world, there is still a mountain to climb before they are truly recognised as the mother of all professions and a major positive force for change.

In direct response to this, the Varkey Foundation launched the Global Teacher Prize in 2014 to recognise and celebrate the impact that teachers have on society. We will be eternally grateful to His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai, for giving us such a powerful platform to celebrate the world’s teachers. Nurtured in Dubai, the Global Teacher Prize has become a great gift to the world to celebrate these change-makers. We could not have predicted that in a few short years the Global Teacher Prize would become a beacon for teachers everywhere. Most importantly, for the very first time, it filled the world’s media with thousands of stories of heroic teachers transforming young people’s lives.

We began to spark discussions at the breakfast table in every corner of the planet about the importance of teachers: something we could not have dreamed was possible when we started our journey. We also couldn’t have imagined that the prize would develop a momentum of its own, inspiring over 40 National Teacher Prizes and leading to the Global Teacher Prize Ambassadors network, which now has over 300 ambassadors from more than 80 countries.

We have been overwhelmed by the support for the Global Teacher Prize from present and past world leaders including President Joe Biden, President Uhuru Kenyatta, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Theresa May. We are also humbled to have had the support of His Holiness Pope Francis and the late Professor Stephen Hawking as well as major sporting and cultural figures, including Trevor Noah, Hugh Jackman and Lewis Hamilton.

Incredible work

I am so proud of the amazing teachers – and their incredible work – that we have been able to spotlight. Débora Garofalo, a top 10 finalist in 2019, helped her students turn 700kg of recyclable waste into robots that perform everyday tasks. She has since worked with the Sao Paolo state education secretary to develop a technology and innovation programme that was deployed to 3,800 schools, benefiting 2.5 million students.

The 2019 winner, Kenyan science teacher Peter Tabichi, continues to inspire us all and was recently appointed as the first Champion for Children in Conflicts and Crisis for Education Cannot Wait, the global fund for education in crisis. And our 2020 winner, Ranjitsinh Disale from India, is now using his platform to champion girls’ education all over the world. I look forward to unearthing even more stories of extraordinary teachers.

The world is facing some of its greatest challenges. Some, like the pandemic, seem like bolts out of a clear blue sky. Others, like climate change, conflict and growing inequality have been dark clouds on the horizon for decades. All will require teachers to pass on the baton of education to the next generation.

Never has the world been in more need of hard-won knowledge rather than instant opinions, rationality rather than knee-jerk reactions, and sound judgements rather than sensationalism. The one calm, clear voice that needs be heard above the noise is that of the teacher.

Leaps forwards in technology, advances in neuroscience and the ways in which we share ideas means that education will also change more in the next 50 years than it has in the last thousand. And now, on top of these seismic shifts, global education systems must adapt in the wake of COVID. The Director of the OECD’s Directorate of Education and Skills Andreas Schleicher said the pandemic “clarified the potential of new technologies, not to conserve nor replace existing practices, but to transform them”. We at GEMS Education are certainly prioritising this focus while rolling out regular training for our teachers that will prepare them – and their students – for this exciting but challenging new reality.

As we sift the bold new ideas from the fads, we need the wisdom of teachers. Supporting them, even as the world shifts under their feet, isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s essential to equip our young people for the turbulent decades ahead. Now, more than ever, we must shine a light on the world’s teachers.

The author is Chairman and Founder of GEMS Education