Education & Family

Dancing scientist in final of global teaching prize

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Media captionRichard Spencer displays some of his dance moves in the classroom

A science teacher from north-east England who sings and dances in lessons is among 10 finalists in a competition to find the world's best teacher.

Biology teacher Richard Spencer gets his Middlesbrough College students up and moving to aid their understanding of complicated scientific terms.

He says his pupils enjoy his classes and "learn a lot from joining in".

Dr Spencer is the only UK representative left in the $1m (£650,000) Global Teacher Prize.

He is up against teachers from countries including the US, India, Kenya and Afghanistan in a competition designed to raise the status of teaching.

'Livens things up'

Dr Spencer says he uses unorthodox approaches in his lessons, such as song and dance, role-play and learning games to help his pupils understand very difficult concepts and to use scientific language.

He told BBC News: "I adopt this style of teaching to engage the students in some very complicated processes in biology, complicated structures, and to get them to say the words which are quite difficult.

"The students do enjoy it but most of all they learn a lot from joining in.

"We do other things as well, like experiments and traditional teaching, but this just livens things up for them and they respond fantastically well."

He says that when he bumps into former students, sometimes years later, they can often still recite some of the songs he has taught them.

Dr Spencer switched to teaching after completing a PhD in molecular biology.

He says he enjoys the "light-bulb moments" in teaching when "challenging topics start to make sense to students".


The Global Teacher Prize, which will be awarded for the first time next month, has been created by the Varkey Foundation, part of the Dubai-based GEMS international education group. It has received entries from 127 countries.

The idea behind the competition and the $1m prize is to raise public recognition for the importance of the teaching profession and to encourage high-quality recruits.

Dr Spencer says that "teaching is a profession that everyone has an opinion about", not least because "everyone has had experiences of good and bad teachers".

He describes it as a "very rewarding" career.

But whoever wins the $1m will not be able to walk away from the classroom, as the money will be paid in instalments over a decade and a condition of winning is staying as a teacher for at least five years.

Sunny Varkey, founder of the foundation, said: "We introduced the prize in order to return teachers to their rightful position, belonging to one of the most respected professions in society.

"The many applications prove that the prize is not only about money, it's also about unearthing thousands of stories of inspiration."

Former US president Bill Clinton, the foundation's honorary chairman, said: "Attracting the best people to teaching, developing and supporting their skills, and holding our teachers in high regard - all are critically important to achieve excellence, both in teaching and learning."

The other nine finalists are:

  • Azizullah Royesh, Kabul, Afghanistan
  • Kiran Bir Sethi, Ahmedabad, India
  • Guy Etienne, Port-au-Prince, Haiti
  • Jacqueline Jumbe-Kahura, Kilifi, Kenya
  • Nancie Atwell, Maine, US
  • Naomi Volain, Massachusetts, US
  • Neang Phalla, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
  • Madenjit Singh, East Timor
  • Stephen Ritz, New York, US