Million Dollar Teacher

Nancie Atwell is the “best teacher in the world”. She teaches English as a writing-reading workshop in a rural school she created in Maine (USA). She was just awarded with the Global Teacher Prize.

What can you learn from the best teacher in the world? I read her book “the Reading Zone” to get closer to her teaching philosophy.

Being a teacher for her is like embarking on a life-time mission. “The good teachers I know from every grade and subject are in the classroom because they want to influence kids for a lifetime, to make a difference over the long haul, to inspire students to become thoughtful, productive grown-ups.” So everything that could constrain teacher’s inspiration and freedom –like the obligation to follow the Common Core curriculum and assess students’ performance with standardized tests – will go against teaching as an inspirational and aspirational profession. When interviewed, she recommends “creative and smart young person NOT to go into teaching unless an independent school would suit them”. You can be the best teacher in the world and maybe the last one…

© Global Teacher Prize

© Global Teacher Prize

Atwell defines reading instruction as a process that “brings knowledge, joy, purpose, skill, personal preference and a sense of community”. This is a powerful definition of innovative learning that makes knowledge only one component of the learning experience. As she puts it: “No child ever grew to become a skilled, passionate, habitual, critical reader via a fat, bland textbook.”

Questioning “fat, bland textbook” is another way of highlighting the importance of the learning experience as both a unique personal experience and at the same time shared with peers.

Atwell understands reading as a personal art and defines the key for learners’ engagement: “every day they engage with literature that enables them to know things, feel things, imagine things, hope for things, become people they never could have dreamed without the transforming power of books, books, books”.

Engagement is the school #1 problem and early school leaving or boredom at school are two symptoms against which Atwell brings solutions : know, feel, imagine, hope.

No such thing as rewards in Atwell’s pedagogy: “The passions aroused by stories and characters are the prize”.

It is interesting to put Atwell’s visions in perspective with the main digital learning challenges.

MOOCs are criticized for the lack of students’ engagement with students facing the solitude of the on-line learning process and unable to engage into fruitful exchanges with peers. All types of rewarding schemes have been imagined from certification to gamification. But following Atwell, passion for learning should be the true reward!

Teachers, trainers, MOOCs instructors are therefore all facing Atwell’s challenge: inspire students. And certification is not the substitute for passion!

A last comment regarding being the “best teacher in the world” as opposed for instance to be the “best tennis player in the world”. The million dollar Prize will be paid in equal annual installments over a period of ten years and the winner must continue to teach for a period of five years after the awarding of the Prize. Imagine Roger Federer or Rafa Nadal being paid for winning a grand slam tournament in ten installments and forced to keep playing for five years.

Shouldn’t be teachers considered as trustworthy as tennis players?

God bless your cell phone

“Too often we forget how lucky we are to go to school”. This sentence opens the brilliant documentary “On the Way to School” by French director Pascal Plisson, produced in partnership with UNESCO and Aide et Action.

The true stories of four children who walk 15 kilometers across the savanna of Kenya, cross the Atlas mountains in Morroco, ride for hours on horseback through the middle of Patagonia, and push a wheelchair along 4 kilometers of sandy trails in India “just” to go to school are the best testimonies of what it means to have access to education and the right to a better future. At P.A.U. Education, we published a similar story written by a young Liberian girl named Korto, who wrote about her experience of being allowed to go back to school once the civil war was over.

It is certainly worth remembering that, at the same time, 58 million primary school-aged children and about 63 million adolescents of lower secondary school age are not in school. And there is a need in 2015 for an extra 1.6 million teachers in order to achieve universal primary education. But these inspiring stories still exist and show the way for many.

But what is happening in Europe where education is fully guaranteed as a right? Have young Europeans forgotten how lucky they are to go to school?

More than 12% of all European pupils are early school leavers, with peaks in some countries (like Spain), where the rate is well above 20%. Every sixth young person aged 18 to 24 in EU-28 leaves school with only a lower secondary level education, and participates in no further education or training beyond this point.

Why do young Europeans decide to leave school early when young Indians, Kenyans, Argentinians and Moroccans are risking their lives to go to school? Statistics don’t always tell the true lives of students, especially when they get bored instead of enjoying every minute of their school day.

I had an interesting chat with my son Eliot, aged 13. He told me that he dreamed – sometimes – about not going to school anymore (we went together to see the documentary, and I am sure his dream won’t disappear). I asked him, “What will you do then if you don’t go to school?” His answer was, “I will study first on my own, then go to school to exercise what I just learned.” He had just reinvented the flipped classroom, because of the disappointment he felt with some of his classes.

Innovative learning isn’t just good for rich countries. Would technology enable the young heroes from the “On the Way to School” documentary – and many others – to access school more easily? This is one of the questions that may be raised at the upcoming “Mobile World Congress”. In Kenya, for instance, 75% of the unbanked population now has access to improved financial services through mobile money. Could they, in a near future, access basic education the same way?

The father of Samuel – the young Kenyan in the documentary – blesses his kids before they start their journey to school, telling them, “God bless your pencil and give you success in life”.

Might he say one day, “God bless your cell phone (or your tablet)”?


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