Teachers do far more than simply impart knowledge: they shape a child’s personality, showing them how to think for themselves, how to tackle problems and find their place within society.
That means that they are also changemakers – equipping not only children with the necessary skills and attitude to change their lot in life; but also shaping the schools they work in and the wider society which feeds into that school.
This year’s Global Education and Skills Forum asks ‘Who is Changing the World?’.
Teachers are certainly part of the answer to that question. Not least because, as their students watch them in action, a new generation is learning how to become changemakers of their own.
Listening to your pupils
Some of the best examples of teachers who have changed their communities can be found among the 2018 finalists for the Global Teacher Prize, a $1 million award presented annually to an exceptional teacher.
Diego Mahfouz Farina Lima, for example, heads up the Escola Municipal Darcy Ribeiro in a deprived area in Sao Paolo, Brazil. When he arrived at the school, it was notorious for violence and drugs and had the highest dropout rate in the area. Parents were afraid to enrol their children and some of the students carried guns.
On his first day at work, Diego’s students set fire to the bathrooms, threw water at him and emptied the rubbish bins over his head.
But he chose not to react in anger or frustration and refused to be daunted by the scale of the problem. Instead, he chose to listen to the pupils who were abusing him. He told them that he trusted them and wanted to give them a voice.
The students complained that the school was ugly and damaged. Indeed, many of the classrooms were torched and covered in graffiti. So, Diego encouraged parents and members of the community to come and paint it. Physical changes were made, and a cycle was broken.
Showing dialogue is crucial
That decision to listen to his pupils also came to the fore when he tackled the many conflicts between pupils, sitting alongside students during mediation sessions, showing them the importance of understanding other people and the need to engage in dialogue.
Diego has changed many things – from the way the school looks, to attendance rates and the attitude of the community members. But perhaps his greatest achievement is in changing the children’s future.
“What makes me most proud in my school,” he explains, “is when I see students finding a way to leave behind the world of crime and drugs - and finding, in school and studies, a way to change their lives.”
Diego’s story is not dissimilar to that of the winner of last year’s Global Teacher Prize Andria Zafirakou, who teaches at Alperton Community School in London.
For her, listening and understanding her pupils was key to changing the school. One of her greatest innovations was to bring local police officers, mental health workers and teachers into the school to discuss pupils from a 360-degree viewpoint. She learnt the basics of many of the different languages spoken at the school and gained as much understanding as possible about the home lives of her pupils.
This knowledge then helped her to redesign the whole school’s curriculum so that it would resonate with the many different cultures present. She helped the music teacher launch a Somali school choir for example and allowed girls-only sports for pupils from a conservative background.
And, as she went about implementing this transformation, she was teaching and demonstrating to her pupils the importance of embracing diversity and understanding different cultures, proving that institutions can be changed to do likewise.
Teaching about rights
Luis Miguel Bermudez Gutierrez from Colombia also faced extreme poverty and conflict within the school context.
But it was the attitudes of his pupils to sex and gender stereotypes he was most determined to change. He wanted to empower them to be able to call out sexual harassment and understand that it was their right to say ‘no’.
He was motivated to start a project of sexual citizenship within the school curriculum after one of his 12-year old pupils became pregnant with twins. He decided school should teach about contraception and how difficult it is to be a mother, as well as about the rights of gay and transsexual students.
Being a good role model
“The main challenge in education is to change the mentality of an entire generation,” he explains.
Teaching pupils about the importance of accepting each other – whatever their sexual orientation – is the start of that enormous change in our community – and, we hope, for many others around the world.
The existing attitudes of many of the pupils was almost certainly a direct result of the views of their parents or older role models. And that is why teachers can have so much influence in challenging those thought patterns.
Children learn by copying. And that is as true of copying a list of spellings or using a particular method to solve a maths problem as it is of copying behaviour.
So, when teachers demonstrate their passion to change the status quo, the next generation is also being taught how to change the world.
As Luis Miguel says: “I love teaching because a teacher once changed my life… and that’s what I want to do for others.”
Hear from other changemakers like these past Global Teacher Prize Finalists at the Global Education and Skills Forum 2019. And learn more in Classroom @GESF sessions.