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Maryland high school teacher wins $1M Global Teacher Prize

"That's why I go so hard for my students — because my story is their story," Keishia Thorpe told NBC News.
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Keishia Thorpe jumped up and down, then broke down in tears when she found out she won the $1 million Global Teacher Prize.

On Wednesday her students in Bladensburg, Maryland, gathered together to watch the virtual ceremony and shouted with joy as their teacher’s name was announced.

The high school teacher was given the award for her work mentoring and making college education accessible for students who are first-generation Americans, immigrants or refugees. 

“Education is a human right, and all children should be entitled to have access to it,” Thorpe, 42, said in a pre-recorded video message during a ceremony broadcast online from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) headquarters in Paris.

“Every child needs a champion, an adult who will never ever give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists they become the very best they can be,” Thorpe said in the video.

“This is exactly why teachers will always matter.” 

Thorpe, who teaches English at the International High School at Langley Park in Bladensburg, was selected from more than 8,000 nominations and applications from 121 countries around the world, according to the Varkey Foundation that organizes the annual prize. 

Thorpe grew up in Jamaica, and came to the United States on a track and field scholarship.

“When I think about the students and how much their parents are sacrificing for them just to have an equitable education, it reminds me so much of my own journey,” she told NBC News' Kate Snow from Paris.

Thorpe found out she won last week and was in the French capital Wednesday to pick up her award.

“And so that’s why I go so hard for my students — because my story is their story,” Thorpe added. 

Keishia Thorpe, center, picked up her award in Paris.Bertrand Guay / AFP via Getty Images

Thorpe redesigned the 12th grade English curriculum to make it culturally relevant to her students.

She also spends countless hours assisting her students with college applications and financial aid, helping them win over $6.7 million in scholarships to 11 different colleges in the 2018-2019 school year alone, according to the Varkey Foundation.

Thorpe also co-founded the nonprofit U.S. Elite International Track and Field with her twin sister, Dr. Treisha Thorpe. It aims to help “at risk” student-athletes around the world pursue scholarships to U.S. colleges and universities, the foundation said. 

To date, she has helped over 500 students get full track and field scholarships, it added. 

Thorpe told NBC News she plans to use the $1 million prize to help more students worldwide access higher education. 

“My students are the reason I’m here and if I don’t think about how I can use that to elevate them and to also create a better future for them — who am I without my students?” she said. 

Thorpe was congratulated on her win by Gordon Brown, the U.N. special envoy for global education and former U.K. prime minister, as well as former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

“Keishia’s inspirational story reminds us of the critical importance of teachers and education, particularly in these difficult times,” Brown said in a video statement during the ceremony. 

Ban said Thorpe’s “incredible achievement” is a testament to her hard work and sacrifice over many years. 

“You have changed the lives of your students who are first-generation Americans, immigrants and refugees,” he said in a video message. “You have shown them the life-changing potential of a good education and you have opened the door to their futures.”

The Global Teacher Prize is presented annually by the U.K.-based Varkey Foundation to an exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to their profession.

Last year's prize went to Indian teacher Ranjitsinh Disale for transforming the lives of young girls in his village. Thorpe is the second American teacher to win the award after Maine educator Nancie Atwell claimed the inaugural prize in 2015.