Keishia Thorpe, the winner of the Varkey Foundation’s Global Teacher Prize 2021. Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: Keishia Thorpe has spent years helping at-risk students get access to college education and scholarships. Now, as the winner of the Varkey Foundation’s Global Teacher Prize 2021, she has urged for teachers to get “a seat at the table”.

“Teachers are on the frontlines every day and have seen their students face crises during the COVID-19 pandemic. As teachers, we have some of the solutions. We [now] need to be heard,” she told Gulf News a day after receiving her trophy in Paris. She was presented the award on the sidelines of the 41st session of the Unesco General Conference.

Global prize

The America-based teacher was named the winner of the Global Teacher Prize 2021, conferred by the Varkey Foundation in partnership with Unesco. As the winner of the seventh edition of the international prize, she will receive a $1 million (Dh3.67 million).

The Global Teacher Prize was set up to recognise one exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession, as well as to shine a spotlight on the important role teachers play in society.

Curriculum redesign

Thorpe has notably made college education more accessible for low-income, first-generation Americans, immigrants and refugees. She is a 12th grade English teacher at the International High School Langley Park in Maryland and was selected from 8,000 nominations and applications from 121 countries. All her students are English language learners and 95 per cent identify as low-incomes. So Thorpe redesigned the curriculum to make it culturally relevant to her students, who mostly hail from Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean and South and Central America. When the prize was announced, it was revealed that Thorpe’s interventions have helped students improve their reading score by 40 per cent.

Teacher trophy
The trophy for Varkey Foundation’s Global Teacher Prize 2021. Image Credit: Supplied

Thorpe also spends a significant amount of time encouraging her students to apply for college and assists them with obtaining fully-funded scholarships. During 2018-2019, her students were approved for $6.7 million (Dh24.61 million) in scholarships to 11 colleges.

College scholarships

The teacher also co-founded a non-profit entity — the US Elite International Track and Field Inc — to give at-risk student athletes access to fully-funded scholarships in American colleges and universities. Since its founding, she has helped more than 500 students get full track-and-field scholarships. US Elite has also achieved more than 90 per cent college graduation among student members, with 20 per cent going on to pursue graduate degrees.

In addition, Thorpe also established an Annual Scholarship and Athletic Convention, where college coaches and admissions and compliance teams inform economically disadvantaged student-athletes about college admissions and interact with them one-on-one, allowing many to get recruited there and then.

Education is transformative

Thorpe said she hopes to use her prize money to extend this platform further, and to also expand services for the schoolchildren she teaches.

“I myself arrived in the United States from Jamaica on a track-and-field scholarship and chose to major in English Law. While mentoring students, I came across many who were under-resourced and I wanted to make college education a reality for them. After all, education has the transformative power to disrupt the cycle of generational poverty, especially for students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds,” she said.

Sunny Varkey, founder of the Varkey Foundation, has congratulated Thorpe on her prize, saying that her story shows “the vital role education plays in tackling the great challenges of today and tomorrow”.

Keishia Thorpe rejoices after her name was announced for the Global Teacher Prize 2021. Image Credit: Supplied

Speaking up for the at-risk

“Winning this prize is a dream, because I have always wanted a platform from which I can speak for at-risk and marginalised students. Today, I have had a chance to address ministers of education attending the Unesco conference, and this is a great opportunity,” Thorpe said.

The teacher, who has been in education for 17 years, said she simply wants a better future for students and that education therefore needs to become more inclusive.

“One of the biggest challenges today is the under-resourced nature of many schools. We must, therefore, tap into community resources, have businesses invest in schools and have policymakers allocate funding to schools so that we can level the playing field for students, and ensure that every child who wants an education has access to it,” Thorpe said.

Support necessary

Following the prize announcement, Stefania Giannini, assistant director-general for education at Unesco, said: “Inspirational teachers and extraordinary students alike deserve recognition for their commitment to education amid the learning crisis we see today. Now more than ever, we must honour and support our teachers and students as they look to rebuild a better world in the wake of COVID-19,” she said.

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Student prize

This year, a sister award — the Chegg.org Global Student Prize — was established to honour an exceptional student who has made a real impact on learning and society. Jeremiah Thoronka, a student from Sierra Leone, was the inaugural recipient of this award. He was given the recognition for inventing a device that uses kinetic energy from traffic and pedestrians to generate clean power.