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A teacher who devotes herself to immigrants in Maryland just won a $1 million prize

Teacher Keishia Thorpe said she was speechless after winning the Global Teacher Prize 2021 at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Thorpe teaches English to high school students whose families have immigrated to the U.S.
Bertrand Guay
AFP via Getty Images
Teacher Keishia Thorpe said she was speechless after winning the Global Teacher Prize 2021 at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Thorpe teaches English to high school students whose families have immigrated to the U.S.

Keishia Thorpe immigrated to the U.S. as a child, hoping for a better life than the poverty she came from in Jamaica. She's now a teacher in Maryland — and her devotion to preparing young immigrants to succeed just brought her international recognition and $1 million, via the Global Teacher Prize.

In a sign that the committee chose the right teacher, Thorpe said it's all about her students.

"This recognition is not just about me, but about all the dreamers who worked so hard and dare to dream of ending generational poverty," she said in Paris, where the award ceremony was held via video conference. "This is to encourage every little Black boy and girl that looks like me and every child in the world that feels marginalized and has a story like mine and felt they never mattered.

The Global Teacher Prize is organized by UNESCO and the Varkey Foundation. The award committee recognized Thorpe for her work teaching English to 12th-graders who are English-language learners in Bladensburg, Md. Thorpe is also a founder of Food4Change, which supports immigrant families.

"Education is a human right, and all children should be entitled to have access to it," Thorpe said after her win was announced by the emcee, French actress Isabelle Huppert.

"This is also for every teacher across the globe who shows up every day in the classroom, to teach their students and transform their lives," she added.

"Every child needs a champion, an adult who will never, ever give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists they become the very best they can possibly be. And this is exactly why teachers will always matter. Teachers matter. Thank you."

Thorpe was selected out of more than 8,000 applications and nominations for this year's award. The prize was first awarded in 2015, to recognize "an exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to their profession."

When Huppert asked how she feels after winning the prestigious award, Thorpe said she was overjoyed and amazed, adding, "This validates everything that I've done in my life up to this point. And I just thank God for this moment."

Thorpe works at the International High School at Langley Park, where more than 85% of the students are Hispanic and 95% identify as low-income, according to the prize organizers.

The transformative power of education that Thorpe relies on to improve her students' lives is something she experienced herself. After graduating high school at the top of her class, she attended Howard University on a track and field scholarship. She's now been teaching for 17 years.

"She made me realize what I am capable of as a person," Karen Aleman, a former student of Thorpe's, said when her teacher was named a finalist for the award.

Previous winners of the Global Teacher Prize include village teacher Ranjitsinh Disale of India, science teacher Peter Tabichi of Kenya, and art and textiles teacher Andria Zafirakou of the U.K.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.

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