Mariette Wheeler, a science teacher at Protea Heights Academy in Cape Town, South Africa, has been named a top 10 finalist for the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize 2023 organised in collaboration with UNESCO and in strategic partnership with Dubai Cares, a UAE-based global philanthropic organisation.

Wheeler was selected from more than 7 000 nominations and applications from 130 countries around the world.

She first trained as a scientist, obtaining a PhD in Zoology and spending two years on the sub-Antarctic Marion Island. As she started sharing her knowledge and experience with younger generations, she realised teaching was her true calling. Now her creativity in the classroom, mixing science-themed charades, class debates, and science apps helps students excel at science and her broadcasts on marine life reach 400 000 people.

Now in its eighth year, the $1-million Global Teacher Prize is the largest prize of its kind.

It 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. 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 millions of teachers all over the world.

Dr Tariq Al Gurg, CEO and vice-chairman of Dubai Cares, says: “Teaching is not only about sharing knowledge; it also includes playing a pivotal role in guiding children and youth towards a path of lifelong learning, empowering them to make an impact within their communities and countries and driving the future of humanity by becoming global citizens.

“We congratulate the teachers who have earned a place in the top 10 list of the Global Teacher Prize 2023. Making it this far is a reflection of your commitment, hard work and dedication to your profession. As a strong advocate of the role of teachers in driving human development, Dubai Cares looks forward to celebrating this noble profession at the Global Teacher Prize ceremony in Paris.”

Stefania Giannini, assistant-director general for Education at UNESCO, says: “Congratulations, Mariette! We look forward to welcoming you to the Global Teacher Prize ceremony, hosted by UNESCO at our headquarters in Paris. Inspirational teachers such as Mariette deserve recognition for their commitments to preparing children and youth to navigate a rapidly evolving world. Teachers play a leading role in transforming education for the future.”

Wheeler first trained as a biological scientist, her career has enabled her to combine her two main passions – biological research and teaching. Wheeler’s teaching approach emphasises the simplest possible explanation of material: learners explain work to each other in small peer groups, have class debates, participate in charades-like class competitions, and use apps to learn difficult scientific terms.

As a result of her imaginative and engaging approach to teaching, all of her Grade 12 Life Science students have passed the class and their senior year. She also runs science clubs and exhibitions. Outside the classroom, Wheeler makes monthly record broadcasts on marine life for a local radio station, listened to by around 400 000 people.

In 2021, she was named National Best Teacher and represented South Africa at the virtual UNESCO celebration of World Teacher’s Day. If Wheeler wins the Global Teacher Prize, she will use the funds to set up a medical centre focusing on teenagers; increase her church’s efforts in sustainable community building; set up a mobile science equipment unit that can travel between schools; and create a dedicated marine sciences venue.

Sunny Varkey, founder of the Global Teacher Prize, says: “Congratulations to Mariette for reaching the final 10. Her story clearly highlights the importance of education in tackling the great challenges ahead – from climate change to growing inequality to war and conflict. It is only by prioritising education that we can safeguard all our tomorrows. Education is the key to facing the future with confidence.”

The other top 10 finalists for the Global Teacher Prize 2023 are Annie Ohana from Canada, Deep Narayan Nayak from India, Shafina Vohra from the UK, Sister Zeph from Pakistan, Eric Asomani Asante from Ghana, Nicolas Gaube from France, Melissa Tracy from the US, Annie Ohana from Canada and Artur Proidakov from Ukraine.

Applications and nominations for this year’s Global Teacher Prize opened on 6 May 2023 and closed on 25 June 2023. The prize is open to working teachers who teach children that are in compulsory schooling or are between the ages of five and eighteen. Teachers who teach children age 4+ in an Early Years government-recognised curriculum are also eligible, as are teachers who teach on a part-time basis, and teachers of online courses. Teachers must spend at least 10 hours per week teaching and plan to remain in the profession for the next five years. It is open to teachers in every kind of school and, subject to local laws, in every country in the world.

Teachers applying for the Global Teacher Prize are assessed on teaching practices, how they innovate to address local challenges, achieve demonstrable learning outcomes, impact the community beyond the classroom, help children become global citizens, improve the teaching profession and gain recognition from external bodies.