The teacher who transforms lives

By Sarah Wild

London-based teacher Andria Zafirakou won the Global Teacher Prize in 2018. In an exclusive and inspiring video interview, BecomingX spoke to her about her mission, passions and career so far. We provide a taster here.

Teachers influence student achievement more than any other aspect of schooling, research shows — and if anyone demonstrates the power of this, it’s Andria Zafirakou.

Last year, the arts and textiles teacher at Alperton Community School in north west London won the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize, a US award presented annually to an exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession.

Among the 30,000 applicants from 175 countries, she was recognised for her dedication to making her students feel welcome and valued – for example, learning the basics of 35 languages so she could greet them every day in their first language.

She has donated every penny of her $1m prize money to her arts charity, Artists in Residence, which helps schools to improve their art curriculum by connecting them with artists to co-design a residency project.

Zafirakou continues to teach today, making real the vision she nurtured from childhood.

Challenge and opportunity

“I went into teaching thinking ‘I can’t wait to have my art room and inspire my students; to be that amazing person in a child’s life, the role model’,” she explains in the video.

“I remember turning up for my interview at my school; windows were broken; the displays in the room were old and tattered. Students were rowdy and there wasn’t a community. I wanted to leave as quickly as possible. Until two little girls in the front said to me in very broken English: ‘Miss, can you stay? Will you be our teacher?’. Thirteen years later I’m still in that school. It’s exactly where I need to be.”

During her time at Alperton Community School in Brent, one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the country, she has grafted to earn the trust of her pupils and their families in order to understand more clearly the complexities of their lives. Doing this encouraged her, as a member of the school’s leadership team, to redesign the curriculum to meet pupils’ diverse needs, working carefully with other teachers.

For those with chaotic home lives, she made provision within the school day and at weekends for booster lessons and provided access to computers and a quiet place for pupils to do their homework, plus time to participate in extracurricular activities.

Alternative timetables allowed for girls-only sports that would not offend some of the more conservative communities. She led the girls’ cricket team to win a prestigious cup.

Your job as a teacher is to make sure every child in front of you has every opportunity to succeed

“My school is in an area of high deprivation,” she says. “Children in our community are growing up way too fast. They have extraordinarily tough lives and pressures we can’t even imagine. We just have to make sure that we support them as much as we can.”

The value of the arts

Arts education is a powerful tool for bringing out young people’s unique personal strengths and building both individuality and belonging, she believes. They help young people to think creatively, communicate and build resilience — vital skills for life and work.

“Imagine you are a child who has just migrated from another country. You are going to a school where you are intimidated and scared. The only areas where you can show ‘who I am’ are the creative subjects and PE.

“These subjects help us achieve and feel that sense of purpose: ‘Yes, I am as good as everyone else, or even better’. That’s life-transforming.”

Dedicated to ensuring the arts are not “squeezed out of curriculums” — at the very time that we need human skills the most — she started her Artists in Residence charity to bring artists into schools.

“I want children to know that they can aspire to become an artist,” she says. “If we do not protect these subjects we are not helping our children succeed in the future.”

At her own school, for example, the charity has recently enabled students to experience a series of Shakespeare workshops with director Michael Attenborough CBE.

For Zafirakou, teaching is an holistic role and a rewarding vocation.

“Teaching does not end when you close a door after a lesson,” she argues. “Your job as a teacher is to make sure every child in front of you has every opportunity to succeed. Break their ceilings. It doesn’t matter if they have special educational needs or whatever; there is a way that every child can achieve a sense of purpose.

“When you’re doing something that brings you joy then it’s not a job,” she adds. “You love it, you thrive on it. That, for me, is what keeps me going. That’s what it takes to be a good teacher.”

About BecomingX

BecomingX launches later this year. For a taster of their content, watch the promotional film of CEO and founder Paul Gurney’s interview with Andria Zafirakou at bit.ly/AndriaZ

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