Visible Women

London teacher wins $1m prize for being named ‘world’s best teacher’

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Moya Crockett
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Art and textiles teacher Andria Zafirakou, from Wembley, paid tribute to her students and called for more recognition for arts subjects. 

Teaching is hard. Not only do they have the responsibility of honing the minds of children or teenagers, giving them the intellectual tools they need to go out into the world, but the best teachers also support their pupils’ emotional and mental wellbeing – and, if they work in the UK state school system, often have to do so in the face of increasing class sizes and punitive budget cuts.

The Global Teacher Prize, an international education award worth $1m (£720,000), aims to recognise the hard work and dedication of the world’s best teachers. On Sunday night, the award for 2018 was given to Andria Zafirakou, a London teacher who dedicated her win to her “fellow teachers and wonderful students”.

Zafirakou teaches art and textiles at Alperton Community School in Wembley, north-west London. BBC News reports that she is the first UK teacher to win the Global Teacher Prize, beating teachers nominated from more than 170 countries.

At an awards ceremony in Dubai, Zafirakou said she wanted to “share this honour with my fellow teachers and wonderful students”.

“Tonight it’s not about one person,” she said. “It’s about celebrating all the teachers and recognising the important role they play in shaping the future of our children.”

Andria Zafirakou celebrates her win 

Zafirakou has been praised for her extensive work with the local community, from visiting pupils’ homes to create better links with their families to working with police to ensure students can travel safely to and from school.

She also redesigned the curriculum to make it more relevant to pupils, and helped set up girls-only sports clubs for girls from conservative communities.

In a powerful and at times politically-charged acceptance speech, Zafirakou highlighted the difficulties faced by many of her pupils and called for greater recognition of the value of arts subjects.

“Since I was young my dream was to be an art and textiles teacher,” she said. “I am proud to be an art and textiles teacher.

“[But] the arts have to fight for space in the curriculum and for funding. They are often the first budgets to be cut. This is so wrong.”

Arts subjects, said Zafirakou, teach young people “resilience”, “perseverance” and “how to think creatively, which will be important for the jobs they are likely to do when they leave school.” She added that the arts “provide a sanctuary” for her students, as “a place where they can safely express themselves and connect with their identity”. 

Alperton Community School is in the London borough of Brent, which has been claimed as one of the most ethnically diverse places in the UK with 130 different languages spoken. Zafirakou has learned basic phrases in Hindi, Tamil and Gujarati to communicate with pupils’ families, and paid tribute to the “beautifully diverse” community surrounding her school.

However, she said that Brent is “also a community where many of our students unfortunately live in challenging circumstances. They have tough lives.” Some of her students live in overcrowded housing, she said, meaning that they cannot find “peace and a quiet place to study”, while others can’t attend after-school clubs “because they are carers or have to look after their younger brothers and sisters while their parents go to work.”

“What is amazing is that whatever issues they are having at home, whatever is missing from their life or causing them pain, our school is theirs,” she continued.

“So the most important thing that we can do as teachers is to ensure that our schools are safe havens.” 

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The Global Teacher Prize was launched in 2015 by education charity the Varkey Foundation, and aims to boost the status of the teaching profession. The Oscars-style awards ceremony in Dubai was attended by Olympic athlete Mo Farah, former US vice-president Al Gore and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, and members of the current government also sent messages of congratulations to Zafirakou.

In a video message, Prime Minister Theresa May commended the teacher and said that great teachers needed “resilience, ingenuity and a generous heart”.

Education Secretary Damian Hinds also sent a message to say her “story of selflessness and dedication is truly inspiring”.

Zafirakou will be required to stay working as a classroom teacher for at least five years as part of the conditions of her award, and will receive the $1m prize money in instalments.

Asked after the awards ceremony what she will do with the money, she said:

Asked what she will do with the prize money, she told The Guardian: “I’m going to be patient, I’m going to reflect, but as you know I think it would be really fantastic if I could think about how the arts could be celebrated even further within our school community.” 

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who’ve made a difference, celebrating their success, and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: Global Education & Skills Forum / YouTube / Getty Images