Teacher of the Year dedicates award to students and colleagues
The newly-crowned Global Teacher of the Year has used her award to highlight some of the harsh living conditions faced by the children she teaches in inner-city London.
Art and textiles teacher Andria Zafirakou is the first UK winner of the US $1 million Global Teacher Prize, which is presented annually to an exceptional teacher who has made an ‘outstanding contribution to their profession’.
Speaking at a red-carpet ceremony in Dubai, Andria said she was ‘humbled’ to accept the award, and that she was doing so not just for herself ‘but on behalf of every teacher who is making an amazing amount of difference in their communities’.
She said she wanted to share the honour with her fellow teachers across the world and her ‘wonderful students’ at Alperton Community School in Brent, north London, many of whom face daily hardships as a result of living in cramped conditions.
“Some of them do come from deprived backgrounds, and what we do is just make sure they have a fantastic experience. We provide extracurricular activities, we provide them with a breakfast club, we do whatever it takes to make sure all our children will thrive,” said Andria.
“So to all the student all over the world, I say, whatever your circumstances, whatever your troubles, please know that you have the potential to succeed in whatever your dreams may be. And that is a right nobody take from you.”
The Global Teacher Prize has been awarded since 2015 by the Varkey Foundation, a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving the education of underprivileged children. Andria was selected from more than 30,000 nominations and applications from over 170 countries around the world, and in the final 10 was up against teachers from Turkey, South Africa, Colombia, The Philippines, USA, Brazil, Belgium, Australia and Norway.
Andria’s school, Alperton Community, faces challenges similar to those in many other parts of London, in that Brent is both of one of the capital’s most ethnically diverse and disadvantaged areas. It’s a school where 35 languages are spoken, has gang violence on its doorstep. And yet, it is home to children who, given the opportunities, can – and do – thrive.
This has been the case with Andria who, when she joined the school faced a huge challenge in getting young people to engage with her. But she believes that ‘art transcends language’, and through this, she has been able to develop pupils’ skills, improve their confidence and help them achieve something real. She also introduced an ‘artist in residence’ into the school. And while this has been vital in helping the students on a technical level, perhaps more importantly it has offered students an outlet for what are often difficult home circumstances.
“By getting pupils to open up about their home lives, I discovered that many come from crowded homes where multiple families share a single property. In fact it’s often so crowded and noisy that I’ve had students tell me they have to do their homework in the bathroom, just to grab a few moments alone so they can concentrate. I also found some were being forced to play truant to cook meals in the allocated time slot they were permitted to use their shared home kitchen.
“Others could not participate in extracurricular activities after school because they had to take on parental responsibilities like collecting their brothers and sisters from others schools. Discovering all this prompted me to organise additional provision within the school day and often at weekends to help students have the opportunity to progress. This included giving them access to a quiet place to do their art work, as well as time to participate in extracurricular activities.
Andria’s work does not stop at the school gates either. When school finishes she stands outside, helping to get pupils safely onto buses to take them home, doing her best to keep them away from the menace of local gang ‘recruiters’.
“You can’t let that come through the school gates – we have to protect our pupils, all costs,” said Andria. She has also set up a boxing club, revamped the school timetable to enable girls-only sports – resulting in a cup-winning cricket team no less – and helped a music teacher colleague launch a Somali school choir.
So when you read that Alperton is now in the top five per cent of schools in England and Wales for improving pupils’ achievement, it is a testament to the kind of example that Andrea, together with her colleagues, is setting.
“My calling in life is to make sure that every single child reaches their full potential. That I unlock that. That I make sure whatever it is they need to achieve, I make it happen for them,” she added.