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LHS Teacher a Finalist for $1 Million Global Teaching Prize

Lowell High School teacher Jessica Lander has been named one of 50 finalists worldwide for the Varkey Foundation’s $1 million Global Teacher Prize.

Lander teaches U.S. History to immigrant students whose native language is not English. Prior to coming to Lowell High School in 2015, she taught English and critical thinking at Chiang Mai University in Thailand and leadership skills to college women in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

At Lowell High, Lander has always made her students feel welcomed in their new home, as well as empowered them to find their voices and realize they have the right and responsibility to be heard and to advocate for change.

In her first year she was awarded the Richard Aieta Promising Teacher Award from the Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies, and in years since been awarded a number of teaching awards.

She taught her students how to research important topics and build arguments to push change. Each year her students write op-eds, a selection of which run in the Lowell Sun.

As part of their activism in 2017, her class worked with school and regional organizations to open a school-based food pantry that is now being replicated in schools across the district.  

In 2016, Lander created a course called Seminar on American Diversity. In her class students study and analyze U.S. Supreme Court cases, leaders who fought for social justice, and write books that have been shared in classrooms across the country. In 2018 her students wrote personal essays sharing their own experiences and identity as Americans, which were compiled into two books, “We are America,” and “We are America Too.”

What started as a class project at Lowell High School, has since blossomed into a national movement. Lander and 14 of her former students co-founded the We Are America Project in partnership with Facing History and Ourselves, Re-Imagining Migration, and New York’s Tenement Museum. The goal of the organization is to shape the national conversation about American Identity.

Lander created a 100-page curriculum on American identity and, over the last two years, she and her former students have coached and collaborated with more than 50 teachers in more than 25 states to run the We Are America Project in their classrooms, with the goal of each classroom publishing a book of their personal stories. The effort, Lander said, is meant to build empathy through personal stories in a nation with deep divisions.

Stephen Gervais, Lowell High School’s Chair of EL and World Languages said Lander embodies this Nelson Mandela quote: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

“Her goal is always to empower, and give voice and agency to her students,” said Gervais. “She has done this from day one at Lowell High School, and she continues to find new ways to help challenge and guide her students to be the changes they want to see in the world.”

“Since her arrival at LHS, Jessica has given our students access to a world-class educational experience,” said LHS Social Studies Chair Robert DeLossa. “Now, what we have known here at LHS has been recognized around the world through the Global Teacher Award Committee’s designation of her as a top-50 finalist.”

“Jessica has found a way to showcase our students’ voices in places that normally would not be exposed to them. Jessica’s students have appeared in local and state newspapers as writers with important things to say,” said LHS Head of School Michael Fiato. “This is not an opportunity that is afforded to high-flying, academically gifted students alone, but to all students. This is a remarkable achievement for anyone, especially in a school that runs the gamut in terms of student backgrounds -- from impoverished, limited-English refugees to materially privileged students with broad, deep roots in the area.”

A resident of Cambridge, Lander holds a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology with a certificate in African Studies from Princeton University and a Master’s in Education Policy and Management from Harvard University.

The Varkey Foundation created the Global Teacher Award to highlight the important role of teachers in societies all over the world and showcase those who are doing an exceptional job in transforming the lives of their students.

“Congratulations to all the Top 50 finalists,” said Sunny Varkey, founder of the Varkey Foundation. “Their stories clearly highlight the importance of education in tackling the great challenges ahead – from climate change to growing inequality to global pandemics. It is only by prioritizing education that we can safeguard all our tomorrows. Education is the key to facing the future with confidence.”

This year’s Global Teacher Award winner will be announced in November. For more information and to see the other finalists, visit:Global