Melissa Salguero, an elementary school music teacher in New York City, has been named a finalist for a $1 million international teaching award.
The award, the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize, honors one teacher each year for outstanding contribution to the profession and impact in the community. Salguero is the only U.S. teacher among the 10 finalists announced today.
The winner receives the $1 million prize money in installments over 10 years and serves as a global ambassador for the Varkey Foundation, an education charity founded by Dubai-based education entrepreneur Sunny Varkey. Only one American teacher has ever won the prize: In 2015, the contest’s first year, language arts teacher Nancie Atwell received the top honor.
Salguero started teaching at P.S. 48 Joseph R Drake elementary in the Bronx in 2010. When she arrived, the school didn’t have any funding for music projects. She built the band program there from scratch, fundraising and applying for grants to buy instruments.
But in 2014, a tragedy at the school set the music program back to square one. The building was broken into and $30,000 worth of equipment was stolen and damaged.
In response to the incident, Salguero’s students came to her with lyrics for a song about rebuilding and healing. After a YouTube video of the class singing the song, titled “We Will Rise,” went viral, Ellen DeGeneres invited Salguero onto her show—where she gifted the music teacher new instruments and donated $50,000 toward her music program.
Now, most of the 5th graders at the school play an instrument in the band—about 7 in 10 students participate. “The results from the kids participating in the band program have turned our attendance around,” Salguero said, in a video produced by the Varkey Foundation. The video notes that students in the music program have a 95 percent attendance rate.
Because the school provides instruments to those who want to play, none of the students need to rent equipment, Salguero said in the video. “I will never say no to a kid,” she said. “I don’t care if the concert’s tomorrow—I will have that kid participate in some way.”
Salguero has also been recognized by the Grammy foundation. In 2018, she won their Music Educator Award.
Australian actor Hugh Jackman announced the finalists in a video today, praising the role that teachers play in society.
“When I was a kid there were lots of superheroes that I wanted to be,” Jackman, who has played comic book hero Wolverine in multiple films, said in the video. “But I can tell you right now, from where I stand, with all my experience, the real superheroes are teachers—they’re the ones that change the world.”
All 10 finalists will be invited to Dubai for an awards ceremony to announce the Global Teacher Prize winner in March.
Last year, British art and textiles teacher Andria Zafirakou won the award for her work to support her school’s economically and ethnically diverse student population.
Photo courtesy of the Varkey Foundation.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.