New Straits Times
Teacher of the world
Global Teacher 2020 award winner Ranjitsinth Disale intends to make a difference on a global scale, writes Elena Koshy
THERE’S a palpable fieriness emanating from Ranjitsinth Disale when he declares matter-of-factly: “Teachers work for the outcome not the income!” It’s a fact that he vehemently believes in.
Eyes glinting, the serious-faced teacher from India is a passionate educator. He leans forward and looks intently at me, before adding: “There’s no greater vocation than that of a teacher.”
I can’t help but agree, of course. Teaching is central to the development of any country and it represents a form of higher calling. It is public service which ultimately shapes the public it serves.
Teachers in our memories may often be the oppressors of our free time or the arbiters of our school days, but as educated adults we have to recognise that in their highest incarnation, they represent selflessness and integrity.
As a child, we may feel saved from the sin bin of underachievement by a teacher who spots that we’re diamonds beneath the dust. As parents, we can only wonder as a teacher takes our impossibly shy baby and produces a child who reads confidently in assembly.
We look at our primary school children transforming into young adults because their secondary teachers have inspired them in sports, drama, art and social skills, as well as academia. As employers, we’re relieved when the new recruit is literate and confident.
These are the outcomes, Ranjit (as he’s known) is talking about. The 33-yearold elementary school teacher from Maharashtra, India made waves last year when he beat nine other co-finalists (including our very own Samuel Isaiah from Malaysia) to win the 2020 “Nobel Prize” for educators — the Global Teacher Prize. Ranjit emerged victor from 12,000 welldeserving nominees from all over the world.
Shortly after the virtual ceremony broadcasted from London’s Natural History Museum on Dec 4, 2020, Ranjit announced in an unprecedented move, that he intended to share half of the US$1 million windfall with his other nine finalists, giving each over US$55,000.
“By sharing the prize, I’m actually supporting and helping them to continue their work. All my students keep telling me, ‘Sir, sharing is growing’. I agree with that,” he explains, smiling. “I want us all to grow for the betterment of education not only in my country, but also across the world.”
He leans forward, looking intently at me through the computer and continues: “I’ve never felt that I was the best. I’m just first among the company of equals. I’ve read through all of the finalists’ profiles and I’m amazed at all the incredible work that they’re doing.”
He’s right, of course. Teachers are doing incredible work around the globe. Our own Global Teacher Award finalist, Samuel Isaiah made a difference to the lives of Orang Asli students of SK Runchang in Pekan, Pahang.
Known affectionately to his students as “Teacher Sam” or “Sir”, the Pahang native began shifting the previously negative perception of Orang Asli children and their educational capabilities from the get go.
“The world is my classroom,” Ranjit declares. “By sharing, and here I must stress that I’m not donating the prize money, I’m sharing it. I want to help each and every student in the world who deserve excellent teachers and quality education. With the help of teachers like Isaiah, I’m supporting the Malaysian students as well.”
The recognition for quality teachers who take the trouble to make a difference in the lives of students come during a time when teachers are largely unappreciated, to the extent that the profession isn’t given the respect it deserves.
If teaching is respected, then more people will want to become teachers and standards will rise. But if teaching is constantly denigrated, then many will be put off applying — and dedicated teachers will eventually decide they can’t take it anymore.
Back in 2018, national schools across the nation needed about 6,000 teachers, but there were only 1,676 graduate teachers available to fill that gap.
We not only expect schools to educate our children, we also demand that they make up for parenting deficiencies, society’s problems and diplomatic blunders.
It’s no surprise then that teachers feel undervalued — because they are.
Almost every minute of their working day, teachers have to make important and often difficult decisions: how to communicate, react to challenge, inspire a pupil, or intervene in conflict. They deserve to be respected and valued. Yet all too often, they fade deep into the recesses of our memories once we leave school.
In 2013, the Varkey Foundation commissioned Populus, the leading research and strategy consultancy, to gather in-depth opinions from 21 countries to explore attitudes about the teaching profession; teachers’ salaries; students’ attitudes towards educators and how participants rated their own education systems.
The results, published as the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Status Index, formed the first comprehensive attempt to compare the status of teachers across the world.
In many countries, it was clear that the profession’s status had dropped and the findings shocked Sunny Varkey, the Varkey Foundation’s chairman, whose parents had both been teachers. He founded the Global Teacher Prize as a response with the aim of raising the profession’s profile.
To “reawaken the world’s appreciation and importance of teachers”, the Varkey Foundation partnered with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) to establish the Global Teacher Prize in 2014. The annual award which comes with a US$1 million grant, recognises “one exceptional educator who has made an outstanding contribution to their profession”.
The journey to becoming the “Global Teacher of 2020” has been an unexpected calling for Ranjit. “I had a love for computers that lasted throughout my childhood,” he confesses, adding that he’d wanted to become an IT engineer as a young boy.
“When I was in the sixth or seventh grade (10 or 11 years old), I invented an egg-shaped computer because I grew bored of the typical square ones that I was tinkering on,” he confides.
The young student met Vijay Bhatkar, a noted computer scientist and the architect of India’s national initiative in supercomputing, who was impressed with Ranjit’s invention and urged the young student to patent his invention and pursue computer science.
“I was so excited,” he recalls. “It was such an honour to meet him. I met him again years later when I became a teacher. I presented to him a copy of my patent certificate and told him that I followed his advice and patented my invention. He was so happy!”
It seemed like a natural path for Ranjit to pursue his studies in computer science. “The IT industry in India is a booming one. Most students, like me, dreamt of qualifying as an IT engineer and moving to the Silicon Valley in the US,” he shares, smiling.
His family’s economic status “wasn’t good” but his father still invested in the young man’s education. But things didn’t turn out the way he hoped. The shy, retiring student was subjected to bullying and ragging by other students, and he returned home telling his father that he didn’t want to go back to the university again. “I was young and not matured back then,” he confesses.
His dreams shattered, Ranjit took the advice of his father — a teacher himself — to enrol in a teachers’ training programme. “My father kept telling me that being a teacher is a noble profession; that I’d get to nurture the brightest minds and make a difference in many lives. Besides, he told me that at least with a teacher’s qualification, I could always get a job!” he recalls, adding candidly: “I wasn’t really interested but I enrolled anyway.”
His life changed dramatically and unexpectedly. “Look at me now,” he exclaims, grinning. “I can talk to you confidently, I can answer your questions and I’m talkative!” It wasn’t always so, he says ruefully. “I was terribly shy and I couldn’t talk to girls!” he confesses, chuckling.
His lecturers, he says, brought him out of his shell. “I’m extremely grateful to them. They soon showed me the impact that educators could make on young lives. From being marginally interested in teaching, I grew passionate and wanted to make a difference.”
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
After graduating in 2009, Ranjit accepted a position in Paritewadi, a hamlet with less than 2,000 residents, in Maharashtra.
The remote village’s dilapidated school building was located between a cowshed and a warehouse. “My first day was unforgettable,” he recalls dryly.
His classroom was overrun by cows and buffaloes. A farmer had used the school building to house his cattle and refused to leave. “I had to register a police complaint,” says Ranjit. “[The farmer] would shout at me and throw stones at my bike.”
There were even more worrying challenges ahead for the determined teacher. Girls in the village were rarely sent to school and often married off at a young age, and the curriculum wasn’t written in their native Kannada language. The country’s poorest students, who typically show up in first grade weren’t at all prepared to learn and were unable to comprehend the teaching material.
“There were so many problems,” he recounts, adding: “I had to start from scratch. I set myself three goals from the beginning. One, to change the mindset of parents towards education; two, to achieve 100 per cent attendance in the classroom and finally, to ensure that my students achieve the expected learning outcomes.”
Shrugging his shoulders, he continues: “I started by initiating small projects towards achieving my goals.” Through his “small projects”, Ranjit made great strides.
When his students didn’t show up to class, the young teacher would venture into the fields to chat with their parents. He took the trouble to learn their native language Kannada and eventually translating the curriculum from Marathi, a language some students didn’t speak, into Kannada. He also came up with a way to pass the school curriculum to the girls who couldn’t attend his classes.
The IT-inclined teacher added unique QR codes to each chapter, allowing students to access audio poems, video lectures, stories and assignments. “I got the idea of QR code when I went to a shop to buy something and they scanned the product at the counter,” he says, grinning.
It sparked his curiosity and he realised that the same concept could be replicated in education. What’s more, this method could be far-reaching and extend beyond the school walls.
IT became the solution to his many challenges at Paritewadi. Ranjit would request for parents with female students at home to drop by the school on the weekends so he could transfer the digital files from his laptop to their mobile devices.
His students, many of whom were already mobile-savvy, could then keep up with their classes through their parents’ devices.
He even actively stopped a marriage between one of his students and an older man from taking place. “We managed to counsel the father and he agreed to call off the wedding,” he tells me, pride lacing through his voice.
His efforts weren’t in vain. Today, his tiny school boasts a 100 per cent attendance from girls, and 98 per cent of students achieve their expected learning outcomes before completing the school year.
One female student from his class recently even graduated from university, something that would have not been considered feasible just a few years ago. Most importantly, parents have stopped forcing their teenage daughters into matrimony.
There’s no looking back for Ranjit. The still-single teacher is determined to take education to the next level. He recently kick-started a global project called “Let’s Cross the Borders” which is designed to build peace between young people living in conflict zones.
The six-week-long programme virtually matches students with a peace buddy from an “enemy” country with whom they closely interact — preparing presentations and listening to guest speakers together to understand their similarities. This project successfully connected 19,000 students from India and Pakistan, Palestine and Israel, Iraq and Iran, and the US and North Korea.
There’s so much more to do, says Ranjit. “Education can make a real difference everywhere. As teachers, we’re in the enviable position of changing lives,” he enthuses, smiling.
The Global Teacher winner intends to use his share of the prize money to raise passionate teachers in India. As for the other half, he’s happy to share it with likeminded teachers around the globe.
“I want to start a global movement of teachers who want to make a difference,” he declares, before concluding: “Together we can make a difference. We can change the world.”
“I want to start a global movement of teachers who want to make a difference. We can change the world.” Ranjitsinth Disale