Special educational needs teacher Dr Muhamad Khairul Anuar Hussin from SMK Taman Universiti 2, Johor, is one of the finalists for the Global Teacher Prize.

“No education system can outperform the quality of its teachers. When we bring teachers to the discussion, everything changes. How many panel discussions, how many events have we been to when people discuss education and not one teacher on it?”

That was the powerful message by Varkey Foundation chairman Vikas Pota on the undeniable value of teachers during his welcome address to the delegates at the Global Education and Skills Forum (GESF) 2019, themed “Who’s making the changes”, in Dubai last week.

In its seventh year, the GESF, described as the “Davos” of education is a platform to address the challenges of education with insightful talks, debates and interviews. Attended by government heads, education ministers, and education advocates from all over the world, a host of high profile endorsers are involved each year including Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan, Bill Gates, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

The highlight of the two-day event is The Global Teacher Prize, a US$1million award touted as the Nobel Prize for teachers presented annually to an exceptional teacher for their outstanding contribution to the profession.

It all began in 2013 when the Varkey Foundation gathered opinions from 21 countries on the status of teachers across the world found that the profession’s status had dropped.

Shocked by the results, its chairman Sunny Varkey founded the Global Teacher Prize with one mission-- to raise the teaching profession’s profile.

When the award was first launched, critics raised the question if the money would help raise the profile of the profession. The argument was that it would be more effective to spread about the money a bit rather than spending all in one place.

Ambitious teachers are the ones who enter this career to affect change. While the US$1million prize might only be for one lucky teacher who would receive the money in instalments over a decade, teachers are truly deserving of recognition, and there is much to be gained from sharing their experiences.

Malaysia too has its own teachers nominated and shortlisted for the Top 50 Global Teacher finalists. Engineer turned chemistry teacher Yasmin Noorul Amin made it to the list in 2015 followed by Noorjahan Sultan, a preschool teacher and Vanesri Kasi, a remedial education teacher shortlisted for the following year’s edition. K. A. Razhiyah, a special-needs teacher from SMK Panji in Kota Bharu, was among the 50 finalists for 2018.

These teachers are those who meet the demand for great teachers and make it their goal to improve the education quality for everyone. This year, Dr Muhamad Khairul Anuar Hussin from SMK Taman Universiti 2, Johor was a finalist.

A PhD holder and a special educational needs teacher, Muhammad Khairul developed an inclusive education model.The model prioritises social inclusion and co-teaching with mainstream students which he believes is the most effective way to equip them for work and independence.

Dr Muhamad Khairul said he was thrown into the deep end on his first posting out of teacher training college as a preschool special educational needs teacher.

Given only an empty classroom with zero budget, he had to get the class going for eight blind pupils.

Little did he know that besides visual impairments, these children also had a wide range of other conditions from deafness and autism to Down’s Syndrome.

He had a choice to learn to figuratively swim very quickly or give up. A year later he received a funding of RM100,000 for the special education needs classroom for his school.

Muhammad Khairul then went to further his studies and returned to a secondary school to continue his teaching career upon completing his postgraduate studies. And at the new school he received what he claimed as the best reward of being a teacher.

He met the two preschoolers he taught earlier in the first school, now already in Form Five. While it would be the most common education path for many students, it would not have been for these special students.

“Only a teacher would know that’s the best gift ever, perhaps better than a million dollar prize,” he jokingly said.

His earlier effort has changed the lives of his students that would not have happened without the intervention at an early age. It is a similar experience he went through because he had a teacher who inspired him when he was in school as a student.

Born deaf on his left ear and growing up in a fishing village, Muhammad Khairul went to a special class in Primary School. He said it was his teacher Noridah Ahmad who pushed and motivated him through education as the means to get out of poverty. From teaching ABC and 123 till he graduated with a PhD, he said, never did Noridah forgets to check on him till today.

With or without the US$1million, teachers are already the changemakers transforming our world.

“Education’s greatest days are still to come and teachers, as always, will light the way,” said Varkey Foundation founder Sunny Varkey at this year's GESF. There will be more stories to come soon.

The writer, who left her teaching career more than 20 years ago to take on different challenges beyond the conventional classroom, is NSTP’s education editor for English content