How much is a great teacher worth? $1 million, according to some…

Think Global’s Business Manager Richard Leishman considers the ups and downs of financial rewards for great teaching; and reflects on a new $1 million prize designed to celebrate and encourage good teaching.

I read an interesting article on the BBC recently about a teacher winning a million dollar prize.

The Global Teacher Prize was set-up by Sunny Varkey, an Indian-born billionaire, based in Dubai. It may strike you as sadly predictable that someone like Mr Varkey, one of the most successful education entrepreneurs in the world, would come up with such a crass, money-centric competition in a sector that surely should be focused on higher motivations of justice and learning. But of course Mr Varkey is a bit more complicated than that; he is a UNESCO goodwill ambassador, and has funded the training of 12,000 teachers in Uganda through his foundation, with plans to expand this to 250,000.

Still, what about the huge winner-takes-all prize? Might that not be controversial, to say the least? Perhaps not. Large prizes as motivation are an interesting but by no means new idea – the Orteig Prize was a $25,000 prize offered in 1919 by French hotelier Raymond Orteig for the first nonstop flight between New York City and Paris. In 1927, underdog Charles Lindbergh won the prize in a modified single-engine Ryan aircraft. In total, nine teams spent $400,000 in pursuit of the Orteig Prize. That is the real power of this type of competition – the initial ‘investment’ in the $25,000 prize was multiplied 16-fold by others chasing the prize.

The Global Teacher Prize takes the idea into less obvious territory, but the principle is the same. The big prize raises the profile and attracts loads of high quality entries – 15,000 in 2015. But more importantly, it attracts publicity and encourages debate at a level that would be difficult to buy at any price. The winner, Nancy Atwell, received her prize from Bill Clinton and some of the finalists went to the Vatican to meet the Pope. The prize led to international press from the likes of CNN, BBC, ITV, Wall Street Journal and Forbes. So in terms of raising the profile and status of teachers around the world it sounds like money well spent to me. And in case you are concerned about the corrupting power of big individual prizes you will be heartened to know that that Nancy has donated the prize to her school.

If you are a teacher and like the idea of tackling the moral dilemma of whether to follow Nancy’s example or just keep the money and retire then your first step is to enter the 2016 competition. The selection criteria include “Ensuring children receive a values-based education that prepares them to be global citizens in a world where they will encounter people from many different religions, cultures and nationalities.” So if you share our commitment to development education hopefully you will be off to a flying start!

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