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Q and A: Our 2015 Finalist Stephen Ritz at WOBI with 2 Standing Ovations

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1. Congratulations, Stephen, on all of your successes since becoming a Top 10 Global Teacher Prize finalist! You were asked to speak at WOBI (World of Business Ideas) this year. What did you speak about and how do you think this year’s theme of highlighting powerful stories impacted your message?

Thank you! I believe every person has a story to tell, a mark to make on the world and the innate ability and potential to leave the world better than they found it. Global Teacher Prize celebrates the people who facilitate these stories — the teachers behind them! Our Green Bronx Machine story is a simple story; a story of grit, determination, resilience, optimism and a desire to make our lives and leave the world better than we found it — for us to own and steward our destiny.

People everywhere respond to positive messages and the power of people. Be it Net Impact Conference with a room full of emergent luminaries and social entrepreneurs looking to change the world or WOBI – World of Business Ideas with a room full of professional icons and industry leaders who are on the cutting edge in their practice, my goal is to share my experience, my strength, my hope and to leverage the audience not to clap for me but to extend their hands to their competitors and colleagues to end hunger and poverty in this lifetime — to cooperate for a greater global good — to raise and educate the next generation of healthy children and innovators as well as employees and market share.

My message is that I grow vegetables but my vegetables grow children, schools, and communities. I ask the audience, Where is their garden? What are you growing? Where and what is your South Bronx? I urge folks to take responsibility and own it. If one man in a homemade bow-tie and cheese hat can do this with children daily, so can you in your practice. I thank all for listening.

2. What was the reaction from those that heard your story?

I am an eternal optimist and believe that people respond to genuine and authentic stories about real life people; that we all share dreams for a better and brighter tomorrow. Stories of hope, passion and a greater global good resonate with all and everyone likes a happy ending. My story is about endless happy endings, changing lives and destinies for this and future generations. All of us in the movement know that teachers change lives; that we are the conductors of classrooms, projects and performances of all shapes and sizes; we are on stage daily.

That said, when folks suddenly rose to their feet cheering in the middle of my talk — with a timer ticking — it’s humbling, exhilarating and nerve-wracking. Simply put, in that moment, I was overwhelmed. For my students and I to then receive another and final standing ovation at WOBI on the hallowed stage of Lincoln Center sends a resounding message that teachers matter and teachers change lives. As I write, we are and we will remain forever grateful. We know the best is still yet to come and we’re just getting started; walk with us and join us!

3. Tell us about meeting Global Teacher Prize Academy Member & Actor Kevin Spacey!

Simply put, beyond exhilarating!

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I can’t tell you the amount of engagement, excitement, joy, inspiration and aspiration his work has brought to my personal and professional life. His movies and performances are amongst my all time favorites and have been the basis for much classroom learning and discussion. Pay it Forward has inspired so many of my students and colleagues to do great actionable things in school and in our lives — to show the power of teaching, learning and children. Sir Kevin Spacey speaks of craft, dedication, education, integrity, persistence, respect and a reverence for those before him and with him in a way that speaks to the basis of all that I seek to do with students and colleagues in school and in my life.

To have him acknowledge my award, representing the very Academy that awarded it to me, was indeed special and proof that with education, anything is possible!

4. The 2016 Top 50 Global Teacher Prize finalists will be announced next month! Any fresh advice for those who will be chosen?

Perhaps the only folks more excited about the next round of Top Fifty Finalists than me are the finalists themselves. I’m anxious to meet them, to support them, to learn from them, to hear their stories and shake their hands.

In fact, I have already committed to attending the ceremony in 2016 in Dubai. I so vividly remember the day I was notified that I was a Top 50 Finalist and then learning I had advanced to the Top 10 — simply exhilarating. When I advanced, it was if the sum of my career — past, present and future — and the sum of all who have impacted me advanced with me — the whole Bronx cheered!

For those who will be chosen, I’d like to share that I went to Dubai not to compete but to complete a team of equity warriors, of student and teacher champions, to celebrate the profession and people who got me there and keep me on my A Game daily; we are a family, a federation and a sacred and special community — this is a privilege and our very presence demands that we act accordingly. Without a doubt, we all stand on the shoulders of giants and we need to acknowledge that and those people daily. I am forever grateful to my parents, family, teachers, students, and colleagues.

For the next Top Fifty Finalists, my advice is simple: be grateful and ever mindful of colleagues around the world — those teaching in windowless rooms, on earthen floors, under thatched roofs or open plains, with one or no blackboard and those sharing pencils and paper, those without plumbing, electricity or internet and those walking miles daily, often on unpaved roads, and those teaching in war torn countries and conflict — they are our unsung heroes!

Behind every successful person in the world, there is a teacher; teachers change lives and teachers matter. Always remember that we are the keepers and stewards of dreams and destinies and we have a tremendous responsibility. Every day is an opportunity to do something great, every moment matters and we must forever PAY IT FORWARD! SI SE PUEDE!

Watch Stephen’s speech at WOBI.

The 2016 Top 50 Finalists will be announced in December. Stay tuned! Please join our email list if you haven’t yet so you can get the news in your inbox. And make sure to keep up with the Green Bronx Machine’s inspiring news on Facebook and Twitter!

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