EPL Master's Student and Malaysian Teacher, Samuel Isaiah, named top ten finisher for Global Teacher Prize

Samuel Isaiah


In a moving tribute, Stephen Fry announces Samuel Isaiah as a top ten finalist


Malaysian teacher Samuel Isaiah has been named a top 10 finalist for the Global Teacher Prize 2020, in partnership with UNESCO. Now in its sixth year, the US$1 million award established by the Varkey Foundation is the largest prize of its kind.

In a special video message announcing Samuel Isaiah as a top ten finalist, comedian, actor, writer and presenter Stephen Fry paid a moving tribute to Samuel Isaiah’s work. He said: 

“Today I am delighted to announce that Samuel Isaiah from Malaysia is a top ten finalist for the Global Teacher Prize 2020. Samuel, you travel 200km to and from school every day to reach your students, the Orang Asli, the indigenous people of Malaysia who live in the rainforests. You provided laptops and tablets for your students through a national crowdfunding campaign and most importantly dedicate yourself to inspiring your students to dream big and to connect to the outside world. This has resulted in your school’s average pass rate in English increasing from 30% to between 80% and 85%. Congratulations Samuel and thank you for everything you do”.

English language teacher Samuel Isaiah from Sekolah Kebangsaan Runchang school, Muadzam Shah, Pahang, Malaysia, was shortlisted for the Global Teacher Prize 2020, after being selected from over 12,000 nominations and applications from over 140 countries around the world.

Samuel Isaiah’s students are the Orang Asli - the indigenous people of Malaysia who live in the rainforests, at the fringes of society. His students struggle with poverty, assimilation into society, and retaining their own identity and culture. This is compounded by an unequal education system, with a culture of believing that whatever is taught will make no difference. In itself this has led to a lack of funding, infrastructure and equipment for the Orang Asli’s schools. The children themselves end up believing these stigmas, often doubting what they can achieve. Non-governmental organisation Suka Society highlights that in Peninsular Malaysia alone, some 7,029 indigenous children have never been to school.

When Samuel arrived at the Sekolah Kebangsaan Runchang school in 2012, he found demotivated teachers, low attendance and a pass rate of just 30% in English. Samuel believed he was put there for a reason and dedicated his teaching life to challenge the status quo and turn his school around. To boost attendance, Samuel chose to not only teach within the school classroom but also within the Orang Asli’s settlements in the forest as he knew it was a place they loved and felt safe. He started with 10 students attending a week, which very quickly turned to 120 students a week, including children with special education needs.

Samuel then planned and executed a successful national crowdfunding campaign to renovate the physical condition of his school classroom, which was falling apart, to develop a safe and creative physical environment on a par with urban schools. Crucially, Samuel was able to provide the best technological tools, including laptops, LCD Projectors, and tablets for every child, to boost attendance as well as engage and accelerate learning for his students.

Samuel introduced many innovations to inspire his students to dream big and crucially connect them to the outside world, including an e-mail exchange project called ‘Asli E-Pal’, where they communicate in English with adult volunteers all over Malaysia and overseas. Samuel also introduced the “Speak Up With Poetry” programme where he worked with amateur poets to write poems relatable to Orang Asli culture which his students would then watch in the form of guided videos to learn English. With further crowd funding he brought ukuleles for all his students, which they learnt to play and now use to improve their English through songs. All these efforts and many more paid off. The school’s average pass rate in English increased from 30% in 2012 to between 80% and 85% in 2015-2018.

Samuel’s efforts attracted the attention of the Ministry of Education who asked him to conduct multiple workshops nationwide, in states and schools with an indigenous population. The Ministry also developed videos of Samuel’s interventions to be scaled and replicated in indigenous schools as well as in urban and regular schools. Samuel’s model of working with the grain of Orang Asli culture through group learning, being in touch with nature and the use of music and poetry, have been used to inspire teachers at indigenous schools in Malaysia to adapt and come up with interventions of their own, and to advocate for equity and equality for indigenous education. His work is captured in a new video released by the Varkey Foundation today.

Samuel Isaiah joins Indian teacher Ranjitsinh Disale, Nigerian teacher Olasunkanmi Opeifa, UK teacher Jamie Frost, Italian teacher Carlo Mazzone, South African teacher Mokhudu Cynthia Machaba, US teacher Leah Juelke and South Korean teacher Yun Jeong-hyun as a top 10 finalist. The remaining two top 10 finalists will be announced one each week in the run up to the Global Teacher Prize ceremony, which will be virtual for the very first time in its history due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Global Teacher Prize is also delighted to announce that this year’s virtual ceremony, expected to take place on December 3rd 2020 where the overall winner will be announced, will be hosted by English comedian, actor, writer and presenter Stephen Fry from the Natural History Museum in London. The ceremony will also include a special recognition for one teacher – a COVID hero – who has gone above and beyond to keep young people learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With ten years to go to meet UN sustainable development goal 4 - providing a quality education for every child - the Global Teacher Prize has partnered with UNESCO to ensure teachers are right at the top of governments’ agendas.

Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director General for Education at UNESCO, said:

“Congratulations to Samuel Isiah for being selected as a top ten finalist from such a huge number of talented and dedicated teachers. I hope his story will inspire those looking to enter the teaching profession and also highlight the incredible work teachers do all over Malaysia and throughout the world every day.

“The Global Teacher Prize helps put the teacher voice at the heart of our mission to champion inclusive learning opportunities for children and young people all over the world, especially the most marginalised and disadvantaged, during this sudden and unprecedented disruption to global education.

“Since the coronavirus pandemic first emerged, we have seen 1.5 billion learners across the world impacted by school and university closures. But not all learners are being impacted equally. Governments must learn lessons and act decisively to ensure all children receive a quality education in the age of COVID and beyond”.

Sunny Varkey, founder of the Global Teacher Prize, said:

“The Global Teacher Prize was set up to shine a spotlight on the important role teachers play in society. By unearthing thousands of stories of heroes that have transformed young people’s lives, the prize hopes to bring to life the exceptional work of teachers all over the world.

“This year, more than ever, we have seen teachers go above and beyond to keep young people learning throughout the world. Teachers everywhere should be applauded for their creativity, compassion and resolve to fulfill every child’s right to a good education”.

Further information about the top 10 finalists will be available here: http://www.globalteacherprize.org.

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