The 21st century ushered in a new and exciting era in education. Teachers started to explore innovative ways of teaching and learning. The amazing breakthrough with new technologies created distinctive platforms that connected teachers, education suppliers and education experts globally. From this pool of education innovators, a new and distinguished class of leaders, movers and shakers within the global education community emerged. Vikas Pota, CEO of the Varkey Foundation stands among the leaders in this class.
Vikas is uniquely positioned to tap into the pulse of some of the transformative methodologies, resources and the outstanding teachers who are changing the way we teach and learn. His work allows him to improve the standards of education for underprivileged children worldwide.
A firm believer in education, philanthropy and collaboration, Vikas has worked extensively with various charitable organisations. He is the recipient of numerous honours and awards.
Join Teach Middle East Magazine as we delve a little into his background and find out from him what makes him tick.
Share a bit about your upbringing and early goals that led to your success today.
I was born in Nairobi, Kenya, and moved over to the United Kingdom when I was nine years old. I went to Edgware Junior School and then onto Edgware Secondary School, which was a state comprehensive school in North West London. I was committed to getting my education. I expected that it would lead to better things. I quickly learnt that a good teacher is important. You need to have a ‘get-up-and-go’ attitude to be able to figure things out for yourself. I also learned that it is vital to surround yourself with people who have good values in their lives and in what they do.
Who or what inspires you most?
I am a fan of the underdog, people overcoming adversity and going on to succeed against the odds. These stories really inspire me, as they teach us about human potential. My mother inspires me a lot. She came from a poor background and raised my sister and I single-handedly after my father died. This was a tall order and a big achievement. There are major political and historic figures like Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, who had a big influence on me. We are in the process of discovering who their equivalents in today’s age are going to be, which is very exciting.
What motivates you to get involved with charitable work?
The role of charities has fundamentally changed in the last few years. Technological advances are making the world a smaller place, yet the challenges we face over big issues such as global inequality and the environment only get bigger. The fact that half a billion children don’t have access to a good teacher is almost unbelievable in this day and age.
I strongly believe in innovating the various roles that can be played by charity, particularly in cases where progressive organisations can make meaningful and productive links with business, charity, and policy makers – anyone who can help change the situation for the better. We need to work together in better networks and greater partnerships to make real and lasting change.
Describe a childhood educational experience that changed your outlook on education.
My grandparents left India to pursue better lives in the 1920s. They helped build the Railways in East Africa, where my father and his siblings were born. Owing to the worsening political situation, my family decided to move to London in the early ‘80s for better prospects of future generations. Soon after arriving, when I was very young, my father died. My mother raised my sister and I with the support of our loving extended family. She worked two jobs at times to ensure we were provided for, including in a samosa shop, a photo processing plant, an old people’s home.
She strongly instilled in me the importance of education, when it comes to getting on in life. When I was choosing GCSE options at the age of 14 she said something, which has stuck with me to this day. She said: “all I want you to do is to get to university, because everyone around you who has, seems to have done well for themselves”. It was her hard work in those different jobs that gave me the education I have today. In March this year, I received an honorary degree from my old college, Aston University in Birmingham. I was delighted and proud to take my mother with me. She had inspired me to embrace education in the way that I have throughout my life. As Sunny Varkey, Founder of the Varkey Foundation, has often said, and as I now say to my two daughters: “Whatever the question, education is the answer.”
What is a typical workday like for you in your role as CEO of the Varkey Foundation?
Today, technology makes it easier to connect and co-ordinate with the Varkey Foundation colleagues all around the world. Skype calls with our people in different locations can take up a lot of my morning. The day starts with calls with colleagues from the East, moving on to the West, followed potentially by some media interviews. In those, I am promoting and answering interview questions about some of our initiatives such as the Global Teacher Prize. I am often asked to comment on emerging education ideas and my views on new reports published about the education sector. Afternoons are packed with meetings with many of our partners such as Harvard Graduate School of Education, Dubai Cares, and the Association for the Development of Education in Africa among others. We have discussions and updates of initiatives such as our annual Global Education and Skills Forum, which is often referred to as “the Davos of education.” I try to spend the evening with my family, but sometimes I have a networking event with an important opinion former, journalist or celebrity, who can use their platform to highlight key education initiatives.
This is of course if I am in the UK. I am often travelling, visiting and overseeing many of our programmes around the world – leadership training in Uganda, interactive distance learning for girls in Ghana, among others. I also attend a lot of education conferences, to both contribute ideas and stay on top of global developments. Or I may be travelling with our Global Teacher Prize winner, Hanan Al Hroub from Palestine, as she spreads knowledge of her acclaimed methods of teaching traumatised children in conflict zones. She has also been promoting a message about the importance and responsibility of educating the world’s refugee children, which she recently spoke about at the United Nations.
Share 3 positive ways in that the Global Teacher Prize (GTP) has impacted education globally.
The Global Teacher Prize is not about one teacher but uncovering stories of thousands of superhero teachers around the world. We’re extremely proud to have uncovered and then showcased the great work of these teachers. By shining a huge spotlight on the importance of great teachers, we hope to raise the respect of the whole profession. Many of the teachers who are shortlisted in the top 50 go on to become household names in their countries. That in itself is an achievement. It is great to have them being role models for young people.
We’ve launched the Varkey Teacher Ambassadors network. This is a virtual community of role model teachers who will help to promote best practices in education and teaching as a profession. When our finalists from the GTP and other educators meet in Dubai at the Global Education and Skills Forum (GESF) to share best practice, we pool that knowledge, information and experience. We are developing a repository of the best teaching knowledge in the world. We are very proud of that.
Finally, the GTP initiative inspired the creation of new national teacher awards, as different countries help to elevate the status of the profession across the world. We hope to have around 30 national prizes by GESF in March 2017. This means educators in Argentina, Italy, Liberia, Nepal, Palestine and Uganda will have the chance to be recognised as the best in their country. Those finalists will partner and interact with the GTP teachers and organisation. They could potentially end up as shortlisted candidates for the US $1M Global Teacher Prize itself.
Congratulations on being included on the London Evening Standard’s Progress 1000 list of influential people in London…
The London Evening Standard’s Progress 1000 list includes amazing talents, who have contributed so much to our great city of London, which continues to lead the world. I was humbled to have been included among them. It was an honour for me.
This kind of high profile recognition is of course invaluable to our mission at the Varkey Foundation, where, from our base in a global capital, we strive to give every teacher around the world the status they deserve, as well as every child the chance of a good education.
With my family having moved to London from East Africa, I know first hand that the city has provided many opportunities to immigrants like us. London is such an incredible city, and I am so grateful for the words of encouragement and celebration that my family and I have received.
What message would you like to share with teachers as they prepare for the upcoming term?
In November 2013, the foundation published the Global Teacher Status Index, the first attempt to compare attitudes towards teachers in 21 countries. The index found that there were significant differences between the statuses of teachers worldwide. The survey also found that in many countries, between a third and half of parents would “probably” or “definitely not” encourage their children to enter the teaching profession. The full Global Teacher Status Index can be found at:
My message to teachers everywhere is hold your head high. Be proud of the amazing work you do every day to nurture young minds. Share best practice; support each other in lifting the status and acclaim of this great profession. Ask your school, your teachers and your local communities to get involved and nominate great teachers for the Global Teacher Prize. Use the Prize as it is intended: as a platform to share your inspiring stories with the world, because they really do deserve to be told. If you did not apply this year, please apply next year.
What is one fun thing about you that would surprise your colleagues?
This is a tough one as my colleagues know everything about me. No unusual hobbies or anything, but I like going out, going to dinner, I can’t think of anything else off hand.
What is the best advice that you have received? How has this helped you?
The best advice comes from my boss Sunny Varkey. He always urges people to aim for the top, because nothing is impossible. In order to over achieve you have to set targets that stretch you, and sometimes you don’t know what those are. The worst thing you can do, in my book, is not to try. As a leader, your job is to make sure you push the boundaries every day in order to benefit humanity.