Pakistani teacher who set up school for underprivileged wins $1m Global Teacher Prize

Sister Zeph plans to build a new school and a shelter for orphans

Pakistani teacher Riffat Arif, also known as Sister Zeph receives her award at a ceremony in Paris attended by British celebrity Stephen Fry, left, and Dino Varkey, group chief executive of Gems Education. AFP
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A Pakistani teacher who as a teenager founded a school for underprivileged children in her home has won the $1 million Global Teacher Prize.

Sister Zeph was just 13 years old when she set up a school in the courtyard of her home for children whose parents could not afford to send them to school.

She worked eight-hour days to fund the school and then taught pupils for four hours, and then stayed up at night teaching herself.

Twenty-six years later, the school is now housed in a new building and provides free education to more than 200 underprivileged children.

Sister Zeph plans to use the $1 million she won to build a school on four hectares where children from the poorest families in the country can be educated without facing any discrimination.

She also wants to create a shelter for orphans, where food will be grown in-house and teachers from all parts of the world invited to provide classes.

Stefania Giannini, assistant director general for education at Unesco, congratulated Sister Zeph on winning the Global Teacher Prize 2023.

"Inspirational teachers deserve recognition for their strong commitment to education in a world faced by global teacher shortages and a decline in conditions and status," Ms Giannini said.

"Teachers matter. Now more than ever, we must honour and support teachers as they shape not only the next generation but the future course of our societies.”

Sister Zeph, from Gujranwala, Punjab, in Pakistan, was selected from more than 7,000 nominations and applications.

She teaches English, Urdu, culture, inter-faith harmony and climate change.

Ms Zeph also runs self-defence classes for girls and provides financial assistance to families forced to choose between educating their children and paying their bills, and runs a vocational centre that has helped more than 6,000 women gain skills in computers, textiles, and learning English.

The Global Teacher Prize, now in its eighth year, is an annual award by the Varkey Foundation made to an educator who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession.

The Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize 2023 is organised in collaboration with Unesco in partnership with Dubai Cares and is the largest prize of its kind.

Actor, comedian, and writer Stephen Fry announced Sister Zeph as the winner at a ceremony he also hosted, from Unesco's headquarters in Paris.

Sunny Varkey, founder of the Varkey Foundation, said: “Congratulations to Sister Zeph for winning the Global Teacher Prize 2023. Your incredible story shows the vital role education plays in tackling the great challenges of today and tomorrow.”

Tariq Al Gurg, chief executive officer and vice-chairman of Dubai Cares, also congratulated Sister Zeph on her win.

“Teachers are at the heart of the education ecosystem and have one of the most important jobs in the world as they shape young minds and prepare them for a world that is constantly changing," he said.

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

Updated: November 12, 2023, 9:39 AM