Pakistani teacher wins $1 million prize for building school for needy kids

She was only 13 years old when she set up a school in her home's courtyard

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Nandini Sircar

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Published: Fri 10 Nov 2023, 12:50 PM

Last updated: Fri 10 Nov 2023, 1:19 PM

A Pakistani teacher has won the $1 million (Dh3.67 million) prize money bagging the Varkey Foundation’s Global Teacher Prize 2023 for setting up her own school for underprivileged children in her home’s courtyard when she was just 13.

Despite facing multiple attacks and threats in the past due to her school-running efforts, she persevered.

Chosen from a pool of more than 7,000 nominations and applications spanning 130 countries worldwide, Sister Zeph, an educator specializing in English, Urdu, culture, inter-faith harmony, and climate change, hails from Gujranwala, Punjab, Pakistan.

What is the Global Teacher Prize?

The Global Teacher Prize was set up to recognise one exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession as well as to shine a spotlight on the important role teachers play in society.

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By unearthing thousands of stories of heroes who have transformed young people’s lives, the prize hopes to bring to life the exceptional work of millions of teachers all over the world.

Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO, said: “Congratulations to Sister Zeph for winning the Global Teacher Prize 2023. Inspirational teachers deserve recognition for their strong commitment to education in a world faced by global teacher shortages and a decline in conditions and status. Teachers matter! Now more than ever, we must honour and support teachers as they shape not only the next generation but the future course of our societies.”

Sunny Varkey, Founder of the Varkey Foundation, said: “Congratulations to Sister Zeph for winning the Global Teacher Prize 2023. Your incredible story shows the vital role education plays in tackling the great challenges of today and tomorrow.”

Backstory

At the age of 13, Sister Zeph established a school in her home's courtyard for children whose parents couldn't afford fees. Working eight-hour days to finance the school, she dedicated an additional four hours to teaching students and spent nights educating herself.

Over the span of 26 years, the school, now situated in a new building, offers free education to over 200 underprivileged children. Overcoming adversity from a young age, Sister Zeph has become a symbol of hope for disadvantaged children in her broader community. Many of her students, originating from modest backgrounds, have joined her education and empowerment foundation, while others have achieved success in various professional careers.

In addition to overseeing the school, she conducts self-defense classes for girls, drawing from her own experience of facing attacks.

Moreover, she extends financial support to families grappling with the dilemma of choosing between their children's education and covering essential bills. Additionally, she manages a vocational centre that has empowered over 6,000 women by imparting skills in ICT, textiles, and the English language.

Dr Tariq Al Gurg, Chief Executive Officer and Vice-Chairman of Dubai Cares, said: “Teachers are at the heart of the education ecosystem and have one of the most important jobs in the world as they shape young minds and prepare them for a world that is constantly changing. We congratulate Sister Zeph who has earned a place in history as the winner of the Global Teacher Prize 2023. This accomplishment showcases her passion and enthusiasm for making teaching a truly enriching and meaningful experience for students.”

Future plans

Sister Zeph aims to utilize the funds from the Global Teacher Prize to establish a school on a 10-acre plot, dedicated to providing education to children from the most underprivileged families in the country, without any form of discrimination. Additionally, she envisions the creation of an orphan shelter on the premises, where food will be cultivated, and teachers from various parts of the world will be invited to educate the children in a variety of subjects.

The other top 10 finalists for the 2023 Global Student Prize include individuals such as Annie Ohana from Canada, Deep Narayan Nayak from India, Nicolas Gaube from France, Shafina Vohra from the United Kingdom, Eric Asomani Asante from Ghana, Mariette Wheeler from South Africa, Melissa Tracy from the United States, Geisha Bonilla from Chile, and Artur Proidakov from Ukraine.

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