03/26/2015 08:27 am ET Updated May 24, 2015

The Indignant and Audacious Teacher

On the night that the winner of the Global Teacher Prize was announced at the Global Education and Skills Forum, I found that a friend - an outstanding teacher - was losing her battle to cancer. She had been put on hospice care and given up to two months to live. She passed away this Monday, exactly one week later.

Jill O'Malley, known to her readers as The Indignant Teacher, was a dedicated professional and mother of three from Boston. She shared many of the traits of the ten finalists for the Global Teacher Prize, an initiative intended to identify and celebrate what is working in education.

The diversity of the ten teachers was impressive. They came from all corners of the world. They taught different subjects. They shared their knowledge and experience in different ways. Some opened schools. Others published. Many were part of professional learning communities.

For all of their differences, the ten finalists had much more in common. They had reach, yet stayed focused on teaching and learning. They loved their work. They cared deeply about students. They took risks. They were audacious, to quote one of the finalists. They were effective in ways that could not be measured by tests.

Perhaps most importantly, though, they are "the tip of the iceberg." This sentiment was shared by Fernando Reimers, Ford Foundation Professor of Practice in International Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Throughout the two day forum, this comment was echoed by many other panellists and speakers.

For each of the ten finalists seated on the stage, there are tens of thousands - maybe more - of effective, caring, audacious risk taking teachers out there. Jill O'Malley was one. When finalist Kiran Bir Sethi, founder of The Riverside School in Ahmedabad, India, was asked how she had accomplished so much, she shared, "I never sought approval. I sought meaning." This was met with nods from the other finalists and applause from the audience.

Ms. Bir Sethi's comments could not have described Jill O'Malley more effectively. Frustrated by changes to the teaching environment brought on her school's implementation of Common Core standards, Jill began The Indignant Teacher, a blog about education reform. She and Diane Ravitch became friends. She left her job with no idea what she would do next. While Jill described herself as indignant, I think those that knew her would prefer to describe her as knowledgeable, effective, and, yes, audacious. She did not like being told what to do. She believed that teachers matter and could learn most from one another.

In May 2013, Diane Ravitch published a letter Jill wrote on her blog. In this letter, Jill shared:

I believe if the teachers come together & have some conversation, change will happen. The faster we do that, & the more teachers we reach out to include, the faster the change will come.
Someone just needs to gather up all the teachers now.

Jill's desire to make a difference brought her to the the United Arab Emirates just over a year ago. She was hired by a bilingual International Baccalaureate school and asked to lend her expertise to setting up a SEN program. Do what you think will work. Jill jumped at the chance to bring her three boys over the the UAE, to provide them with new experiences, and to make an impact doing what she loved to do.

Jill and I became fast friends, talking education on my back porch while our boys ran around and played in the yard. We disagreed often. The value of public-private partnerships was a particularly sticky subject. But I certainly would never have told Jill how to teach. Nor would I have have stood in her way if she had an idea for school improvement and a team ready to take it forward. I can't imagine who would.

In his opening remarks at the Global Education and Skills Forum, Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director for the Directorate of Education and Skills, challenged school leaders and policy makers to consider ways to make schools more innovative workplaces. This would indeed effect change in teaching and learning. But let's not forget the power of simply encouraging, supporting, and defending our most audacious teachers.

The author is an employee of GEMS Education.