teacher of the year from downstate Effingham who has used hip-hop, technology and even video games to get his students excited about learning has been named one of 10 finalists in an international teaching competition where the winner will receive a $1 million prize.

Officials with the Varkey Foundation’s Global Teacher Prize announced that Effingham High School teacher Joseph Fatheree made the final cut of teachers selected from more than 8,000 applicants from nearly 150 countries.

Nicknamed the Nobel Prize for teaching, the yearly prize goes to the educator selected as having made an outstanding impact on the profession.

The central Illinois teacher will travel to Dubai next month, where he and the other finalists will participate in an educational forum that features panels and workshops until the winner is announced during the closing ceremony March 13.

“Oh my gosh. Absolutely I was surprised,” Fatheree said last week before the announcement was made public.

Fatheree, Effingham High’s instructor of creativity and innovation, has been a rock star in the world of public teaching, working with education leaders across the country, sharing teaching strategies and having earned recognition as Illinois Teacher of the Year in 2007 and the National Education Association’s National Award for Teaching Excellence in 2009.

His rise in public education and policy began with his experimenting in the classroom how he could capture his students’ attention and imagination. Starting as an English teacher in 1990, Fatheree changed his approach and lesson plan, incorporating music, pop culture, science and business into his curriculum. His changes sparked an immediate transformation in his classroom, he said.

“It was overnight. I saw from the second I made the change in my instructional approach. I saw it on their faces,” Fatheree recalled.

“They were like: ‘Oh my goodness. No more worksheets that just don’t matter to us. No more lessons that I’m not understanding why we’re doing them.’ Everything that we did had a purpose to their lives … we worked to try to do lessons that were fun and engaging. But we also tried to instill grit and resilience in our students.”

Nearly three decades later, Effingham High School — a school of more than 800 students in a farming community — is home to a popular student-led film festival; uses new technology, including 3-D printing; and has recently begun partnering local business leaders with students to teach them about entrepreneurship.

The married father of two college students says he’s far more excited about meeting top teachers and sharing ideas than in thinking how he would spend a $1 million prize.

“It is an amazing honor to be named in the top 10 teachers in the world, but what I am thrilled about is having an opportunity to work with teaching leaders like that, and policy leaders and business leaders, because I know together we can make great things happen,” he said.

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