In 1997, Malaysia-born Madenjit Singh was stuck in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, because of border hostilities with Thailand. He had time, so he started teaching English to poor local boys.
That effort led to his decision to found a nonprofit called SOLS 24/7, which today runs close to 200 free boarding schools for disadvantaged youth in six Southeast Asian countries, often in remote rural areas.
Previously Singh had been a manager and magazine publisher. The managerial skills he honed in those roles influenced his schools’ operations and teaching methods. Under Singh’s system, students do much of the work necessary to run the school. They cook. They clean. They garden. The older students even teach — math, science, computer and other skills. Students of every age perform community-volunteer projects.
“We teach them the power of discipline, mindfulness and compassion as an effective way to build a character and face life challenges,” Singh said.
Many SOLS 24/7 students had been dropouts. Some have learning disabilities. Yet most of the 100,000 SOLS graduates either run businesses or are otherwise employed (some as teachers at Singh’s schools).
“They stand out,” Singh said, because they can rely on their skills whenever and wherever the job market is tough.
Singh believes that too many families de-emphasize girls’ education, so at his schools, any boy who wants to enroll is required to bring a girl (a family member or friend) who is also interested in enrolling.
SOLS 24/7 schools attract government partners and private donors. Singh said that is because the schools offer a “win-win formula,” with schools that are self-sustaining and students that are hardworking, confident and responsible.
Singh is one of the 50 finalists in the 2015 edition of the $1 million Global Teacher Prize for an outstanding teacher. Often referred to as the Nobel Prize for teaching, it is open to teachers in every school in every country of the world.