Educators not only inspire kids to dream big and help them to achieve their goals but they also act as counselors, problem-solvers, and sometimes even social workers. Yet, these incredible human beings are often overlooked. To “reawaken the world’s appreciation and importance of teachers,” in 2014, the Varkey Foundation partnered with UNESCO to establish the Global Teacher Prize. The annual award, which comes with a $1 million grant, recognizes “one exceptional educator who has made an outstanding contribution to their profession.”
This year’s “Nobel Prize” for educators went to Ranjitsinh Disale, an elementary school teacher from Maharashtra, India. However, his nine co-finalists — selected from over 12,000 well-deserving nominees — did not go home empty-handed either. Shortly after the virtual ceremony broadcasted from London’s Natural History Museum on December 4, 2020, Disale announced that he intends to share half of the $1 million windfall with them, giving each over $55,000.
The 32-year-old says, “In this hard time, teachers are giving their best to make sure every student has access to their birthright of a good education . . . If I share the prize money with the rest of the teachers, they will get a chance to continue their work… and we can reach out and lighten the lives of as many students as we can.”
Disale enrolled in a teacher-training program reluctantly after being unable to obtain admission to an engineering university of his choice. However, he soon realized the impact educators could make on young lives. After graduating in 2009, he accepted a position in Paritewadi, a hamlet with less than 2,000 residents, in Maharashtra’s Solapur district. The tiny village’s dilapidated school building, located between a cowshed and a warehouse, was far from satisfactory. However, even worse was the farming community’s ambivalent attitude towards education, especially for girls, who were rarely sent to school and often married off as teenagers. Even worse, the curriculum was not written in the native language, Kannada. As a result, most students, unable to comprehend the material, did not achieve the required state standards.
The young educator stepped up to the challenge by first learning Kannada himself and then translating all the textbooks — from grades 1-4 —into the native language. Unique QR codes added to each chapter allowed students to access audio poems, video lectures, stories, and assignments, further enhancing their knowledge. Disale even organized after school “Edutainment” activities, like games and movie showings. “I just wanted to create a learning environment for every student that would spark their curiosity and make them innovative problem solvers so that they can contribute to the community, ” he said.
His efforts have not gone in vain. Today, his tiny school boasts a 100 percent attendance from girls, and 98 percent of students achieve their expected learning outcomes before completing the school year. One female student from Disale’s 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.
Disale’s desire to make a difference in young lives extends beyond his tiny village. His ‘Let’s Cross the Borders’ project is designed to build peace between young people in conflict zones. The six-week-long programs, which virtually match students with a peace buddy from an “enemy” country, have successfully connected 19,000 students from India and Pakistan, Palestine and Israel, Iraq and Iran, and the USA and North Korea. If that is not enough, the young teacher spends his spare time recording scientific experiments from a makeshift lab in his home. His online tutorials have been attended by over 85,000 students from over 1400 classrooms in 83 countries. And that is not all. During the summer break, Disale travels across the state to teach educators in other small towns and villages how to incorporate technology into their classrooms.
Given his dedication to improving young lives, it is not surprising that the Global Teacher Prize is just one of the numerous accolades Disale has received. He was named “Innovative Researcher of the Year” by the Indian Government in 2016 and the “National Innovator of the Year” by the nation’s Department of Science and Technology in 2018. The educator’s inspirational journey was one of just three Indian success stories mentioned in Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s 2017 book, Hit Refresh.