American teacher Keishia Thorpe wins $1 million Global Teacher Prize 2021

Jeremiah Thoronka from Sierra Leone wins the Global Student Prize 2021


Nandini Sircar

Published: Wed 10 Nov 2021, 11:15 PM

Last updated: Thu 11 Nov 2021, 7:37 AM

US teacher Keishia Thorpe, who has opened up college education for low-income, first-generation American, immigrant and refugee students, has been named the winner of the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize 2021 that was held at the Unesco's headquarters in Paris on Wednesday.

Now in its seventh year, the $1 million award is the largest prize of its kind and is held in partnership with Unesco.

Keishia, an English teacher at International High School Langley Park, Bladensburg, Maryland, was selected from over 8,000 nominations and applications for the Global Teacher Prize from 121 countries around the world.

Meanwhile, Jeremiah Thoronka, a student from Sierra Leone, who invented a device that uses kinetic energy from traffic and pedestrians to generate clean power, has been named the winner of the Global Student Prize 2021.

French actress Isabelle Huppert announced Keishia as the winner of the Global Teacher Prize and actor Hugh Jackman announced Jeremiah as the winner of the inaugural Global Student Prize.

Jeremiah, 21, is the first winner of this new $100,000 sister award to the Global Teacher Prize that is given out to one exceptional student who has made a real impact on learning, the lives of their peers and on society beyond.

Together, the Global Teacher Prize and the Global Student Prize tell inspirational stories from both sides of the education sector.

Keishia teaches English to Grade 12 students at the International High School Langley Park in Maryland. A 100 per cent of her students are English language learners and 95 per cent identify as low-income.

Keishia completely redesigned the curriculum for the English department to make it culturally relevant to her students who are first-generation Americans, immigrants, or refugees from mostly Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and South and Central America.

As a result of her interventions, her students have shown a 40 per cent increase in their reading, which contributed to the school meeting its growth-to-target rate with a 10 per cent increase in WIDA scores for 2019-2020 and the highest in the school district for ELLs.

Keishia dedicates a huge amount of time encouraging her high school students to apply for college, assisting them with their applications and helping them gain fully funded scholarships.

Between the period of 2018 and 2019 alone, she helped her students win over $6.7 million in scholarships to 11 different college, with almost 100 of them going tuition-free.

Jeremiah, on the other hand, was born amid the fighting of the Sierra Leone civil war and grew up with his single mother in a slum camp for displaced people on the outskirts of the capital Freetown. He had to burn charcoal and wood for lighting and heating.

Jeremiah saw with his own eyes how, in addition to the photochemical smog making respiratory problems commonplace, his young contemporaries fell behind in their schoolwork because of a lack of decent lighting.

Thus, life-threatening disadvantages and hardships fuelled Jeremiah’s passion for renewable energy and climate change advocacy. At 17, when studying at the African Leadership University in Rwanda, he launched a start-up called Optim Energy that transforms vibrations from vehicles and pedestrian footfall on roads into an electric current.

Optim Energy ran a successful pilot programme in Jeremiah’s neighbourhoods, Makawo in the northern part of Sierra Leone and Kuntoluh east of Freetown. With just two devices, the start-up provided free electricity to 150 households comprising around 1,500 citizens, as well as 15 schools where more than 9,000 students attend.

Congratulating the winners, Sunny Varkey, Founder of the Varkey Foundation, said: “Congratulations to Keishia for winning the Global Teacher Prize 2021 and Jeremiah for becoming the first ever winner of the Global Student Prize. Their incredible stories show the vital role education plays in tackling the great challenges of today and tomorrow.”

Stefania Giannini, assistant director-general for education at Unesco, also congratulated the pair.

"Unesco was proud host to this year’s Global Teacher Prize ceremony at our headquarters in Paris. Inspirational teachers and extraordinary students alike deserve recognition for their commitment to education amid the learning crisis we see today. Now more than ever, we must honor and support our teachers and students as they look to rebuild a better world in the wake of Covid," she said.

Actor and humanitarian Hugh Jackman stressed the importance of listening to students' voices.

“Students everywhere are fighting for their very future. They are part of a generation that are on the frontline of the greatest challenges of our time – from climate change to global inequality. So, we must listen to their voices and shine a light on their stories.

To every dedicated student around the world working hard to build a brighter future, we thank you for everything you do while still pursuing your education," he said.


Congratulating Jeremiah, Jackman added: "You have made an enormous difference to your community and far beyond. I am sure that you will now use this incredible platform to make an even bigger impact."

More news from