When a young Brian McDaniel picked up his first trumpet, he had no clue that one day it might win him a $1 million prize as the top teacher on the planet. Maybe that’s a testament to the transformative power of music.
Life has been unpredictable lately for the band and choir teacher at Painted Hills Middle School in Desert Hot Springs. His dedication and commitment to providing opportunity to his students through music led to McDaniel being honored as the 2018 California Teacher of the Year. Now, McDaniel’s efforts are receiving even greater acclaim, as he was recently named to the list of 50 international finalists for the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize and a $1 million award.
“I feel like this past year has been a once in a lifetime experience,” said McDaniel. “Honestly, I was just happy to be Teacher of the Year at my school.”
The Global Teacher Prize was set up to recognize one exceptional educator who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession as well as to shine a spotlight on the important role teachers play in society. McDaniel is one of four teachers from the United States to be shortlisted for the grand prize, which is now in its fifth year and is the largest award of its kind. The top 50 were selected from more than 10,000 inspiring educators from 179 countries. The 10 finalists will be announced in February and will travel to Dubai for the award ceremony on March 24.
“My mom always told me I was one in a million,” McDaniel said. “Now, I can tell her ‘I’m one in 100 million.’”
McDaniel was inspired to teach by the problems he had to deal with in his own childhood, and the positive support and encouragement he received from educators. Born to teen-aged parents in a home where gun violence was a recurring theme, a string of tragic events led to a period of homelessness and depression. But it began to turn around when McDaniel discovered the joy of music and teachers who supported and inspired him. Now, he does the same for hundreds of students every year in the same Low Desert community where he was raised.
“I create a space where every child can be successful,” McDaniel said. “I’m doing this so the kids in my community can shoot for the stars!”
At Painted Hills, McDaniel founded The Regiment—a student-led musical organization that helps students overcome life’s difficulties through music. McDaniel has built this group from the ground up to now more than 250 students who might otherwise not have exposure to playing music. Drawing from his own childhood experience where he couldn’t afford an instrument, McDaniel will not allow lack of money be an obstacle for any student that wants to join his band.
“In my program, nobody pays for anything,” said McDaniel, who said he has about 350 instruments on hand that he’s obtained in a variety of ways. “I never take no for an answer. I always find a way. I’ll go to jazz musicians and ask for their old instruments.”
The Regiment program is nothing short of magical. McDaniel sees music as the key to helping students express their humanity and take chances in a supportive and respectful environment. The program has received more than 200 honors and awards, as well as acclaim from educators and conductors nationwide, who praise the musicianship and professionalism of McDaniel’s students.
“As teachers, we have the power to create success through opportunities. Never should a child leave our classroom feeling less than they arrived,” McDaniel said. “Every day, we need to find new ways for every student to feel the joy of success. As it only takes one great experience to change the trajectory of a child’s life.”
McDaniel is joined by three fellow American educators on the Top 50 list: Eric Crouch, a fifth-grade educator in Columbus, Ga.; James Linville, headmaster at the Abaarso School of Science and Technology in Somaliland; and Melissa Salguero, a music teacher at P.S. 48 Joseph R Drake Elementary School in the Bronx, N.Y.
“Congratulations to Brian, Eric, James and Melissa for reaching the final 50,” said Sunny Varkey, founder of the Varkey Foundation and the Global Teacher Prize. “I hope their stories inspire those looking to enter the teaching profession and highlight the incredible work teachers do all over the world every day.”
For McDaniel, winning the $1 million prize wouldn’t mean lounging on a beach for the rest of his life—he’s already thinking about how he would use it to take his students around the world to give them and others opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have.
“Every penny of that money would go into a fund for my kids,” McDaniel said. “I do this all for my kids!”