Michael Wamaya, a dance teacher from Mathare in Nairobi has been named a top 10 finalist for the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize 2017.
The US $1 million (Sh102m) award is the largest prize of its kind, set up to recognize one exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession.
Mr Wamaya is a dance instructor who works for Annos Africa, a UK-based charity that offers alternative arts education to vulnerable children in Africa.
Mr Wamaya primarily works with children in Nairobi slums, teaching at Valley View School in Mathare and Spurgeon’ Child Care Kenya Academy and KAG School, both in Kibera.
“I can’t believe I’ve been nominated amongst the top 10 teachers in the world. For my work to find itself on the global stage, I’m so thankful,” he says.
The ballet teacher is no stranger to the spotlight, as his story went viral last year.
Since being featured by international outlets such as The Guardian and Al Jazeera, Wamaya says there has been an outpouring of support and donations for the children he trains.
They’ve received boxes of ballet dresses and shoes from around the world, and there have also been opportunities to compete for international dance scholarships.
Despite this, the teacher says he is happiest when the support comes from home.
“To me, that [international attention] is not important; it’s that the parents invest in ballet and they go to markets to look for ballet costumes for their children,” he says. “Even if they spend Sh200 or Sh500 on an outfit, they’ll show they care.”
Children in Wamaya’s ballet classes say they find school fun and that dancing has helped them concentrate better on their studies.
“Seeing other children dancing, I didn’t know what it was called, but now I know it,” says Sharyle Noryle, a student at Valley View School.
After joining the students and wanting to get more involved, she began instructing them alongside Wamaya, who believes in fostering leadership at a young age.
In the dance class, Noryle can be found leading the other students in a dance routine and helping them with their form. “I’ve become a teacher even when I’m small,” she proudly says.
Wamaya says his ballet classes, which are optional, are a welcome change to the typical student routine.
“All day they learn math and history. Here, their mind is at ease. When a child is at ease, then their mind is free and they’re creative. We only train for two hours a day but it transforms their brain.”
The ballet programme explores students’ individual human potential and creativity, which has brought them a lot of confidence and self-esteem.
Attending the classes has also turned around dropout rates and teenage pregnancy rates for his students.
Nonetheless, teaching in the schools in slums has not been rosy, Wamaya says.
“Because we don’t have mirrors, our children can’t see themselves when they dance. Sometimes it’s very dirty. We remove the dust and sweep the floors. Because you’re dancing here, you have to work extra hard,” he says, adding that he trains them to dance on uneven floors in a way that won’t injure their knees.
Eventually, Wamaya wants to start a professional dance studio in a Nairobi slum.
The price money would undoubtedly help make that happen, but he is determined to make that goal become reality regardless.
It’s that determination that took Wamaya from being a school dropout to now, being considered one of the world’s best teachers.
Wamaya was forced to drop out of high school due to financial constraints. He says while walking on the street one day, he noticed a sign advertising auditions with the visiting Kenya Performing Arts Group.
Although he didn’t have prior dance training, Wamaya performed well and moved to Nairobi and studied dance with the group, which he says changed his life.
In 2009, he joined Annos Africa as a dance instructor and has been teaching in slums ever since.
After receiving international recognition for his work, Wamaya was approached by private schools who wanted him to join as a dance instructor, but he says there’s no way he would give up his passion of working with children in slums.
Wamaya is the only African finalist to make it to the top 10 list this year. There were over 20,000 nominations and applications from 179 countries for this prestigious award, with the other finalists hailing from countries including China, Brazil and Australia.
“I hope his [Wamaya’s] story will inspire those looking to enter the teaching profession and also shine a powerful spotlight on the incredible work teachers do all over Kenya and throughout the world every day,” said Sunny Varkey, founder of the Varkey Foundation.
The winner of the Global Teacher Prize will be announced at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai on March 19.