Working beyond the challenge is message of Global Teacher Prize nominee


Tervuren-based teacher and German expat Christoph Schiebold has been nominated for the most prestigious teaching prize in the world, bringing attention to teachers with physical disabilities

‘You can still do extraordinary things’

Back in the 1990s, Christoph Schiebold was like so many other students, backpacking around different parts of the world in that precious time between secondary school and higher education. He was in Thailand when he first noticed something strange.

“We were at a creek, and I had my foot in the water,” he recalls. “And suddenly I couldn’t feel it anymore. This is the first memory I had that something was wrong. This is how it started.”

Eventually he came to find out that he had multiple sclerosis. This kind of diagnosis effects everyone who hears it a little differently. For Schiebold, he just carried on, as if nothing had happened.

“For 10 years, everything was kind of normal,” he notes. “Later I used one cane, when I was about 30. But I didn’t always need it.”

Now 42, Schiebold walks with two canes and teaches in a wheelchair. A teacher of mathematics and geography at the International Montessori School in Sint-Stevens-Woluwe, he has made the top 50 finalists for the Global Teacher Prize.

$1 million

The eminently prestigious prize is ultimately awarded to just one teacher, anywhere in the world. It is run by the Varkey Foundation in London, which receives tens of thousands of applications every year.

The top 50 will be whittled down to 10, with that announcement expected as early as this week. The winner will be announced at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai on 24 March. All 50 nominees are invited, and Schiebold plans to be in attendance.

The prize is more than an honour, it’s a chance to make a dream project a reality. The winner receives $1 million (€831,000) to use on their educational project.

There are many people in the world who have their own baggage, but they still do what they do

- Christoph Schiebold

While Schiebold does have a couple of potential projects, he decided to apply for consideration for the prize because of his condition. “I’m definitely not the best teacher in the world,” he laughs. “But what I wanted to get across is that no matter what difficulty you might have, you can still do extraordinary things.”

This was the one message he wanted to get across by applying for the prize. “I have one specific difficulty, I am sitting in a wheelchair, I have multiple sclerosis. That’s my challenge. But everybody has his or her own challenge. There are many people in the world who have their own baggage, but they still do what they do.”

Schiebold has a “typical” story of an expat in Brussels, he says. A native of Germany, his family moved to the capital when he was a teenager because he father got a job with Nato. Following his studies, he signed on to the Montessori philosophy of the whole-child aspect of education.

Reading and Writing for All

Should he win the $1 million, he has a couple of ideas in mind. One is a learning kit that would be sent to schools around the world, and especially schools with few resources and little funding.

The programme would be called Reading and Writing for All, and it would be based on the Montessori sandpaper letters, used to teach children how to reach and write. The kits would be crafted by Inspiring Education, a maker of fine wooden learning materials in Spain.

“You could teach the English language with these letters,” he explains. “You could, of course, make these with any language, but we would stick to English in the beginning. We would also support the school in creating a reading library of books in English, both fiction and non-fiction.”

Sitting in a wheelchair and still being a happy and positive person has an immense impact on students

- Christoph Schiebold

Another idea is to set up a fund for renovations in schools to make them accessible for teachers like him. This would mean wheelchair ramps or other infrastructural changes to remove barriers to teaching in the school.

“If you improve the school’s infrastructure, it all of a sudden becomes accessible for disabled pupils as well. It opens many different doors.”

Schiebold is pragmatic when it comes to his projects – both of them modest and affordable. More important than winning the Global Teacher Prize is the exposure and connections created by making the top 50.

In the meantime, he keeps incredibly busy with his second job – the owner of Treasure Trove English bookstore in Tervuren, the town where he lives with his wife and two kids. Treasure Trove is a children’s bookstore (albeit with a solid adult section), and Schiebold hosts workshops there for children in the weekends.

The family has been running the bookshop for 10 years now. Much like teaching, he says, “this is only doable when you’re a team. It’s all about the love for books, and it’s become one of those little rebellious things, like that goes against all the online shopping. With a bookstore, you have a huge influence on what people buy.”

When asked what kind of impact multiple sclerosis has had teaching his classes, generally filled with 10 to 12-year-olds, Schiebold’s answer is swift and short: “None.”

The pupils, he says, “are used to seeing me in my wheelchair. This is a another thing – this should be a normality. It should be normal that you see the dude in the wheelchair going shopping after work. It’s getting there. Many things are more accessible now, and especially for children. I always says I’m a ‘roll model’”.

And that means just living your life and doing your job. “Sitting in a wheelchair and still being a happy and positive person,” he concludes, “has an immense impact on students, without even needing to talk about it. I represent a cause – just  being me.”