A day after receiving the $1million World Teacher Prize at a glittering Oscar-like ceremony in Dubai, Andria Zafirakou still can’t stop smiling. Posing for a photoshoot at the Gulf News studio, the associate deputy head teacher of Alperton Community School in Brent, England, is ecstatic and does not hesitate to break into a merry jig, shaking a leg to music from the radio while laughing and joking with photographer Aiza Castillo-Domingo.

Shaikh Mohammad presenting the World Teacher Prize to Andria in Dubai
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‘My children and colleagues back in my school are waiting for me to return for more celebrations,’ says the 39-year-old teacher, sitting down after the shoot – and the impromptu dance – for an exclusive interview with Friday, her eyes twinkling while recalling the previous night’s red carpet experience.

The first teacher from the UK to win the prestigious prize given by the Varkey Foundation, Andria faced stiff competition from more than 30,000 nominations from 173 countries to lift the glittering trophy on March 18.

Throwing up her arms in joy in Atlantis’ packed ballroom before an august audience that included His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, former US vice-president Al Gore, former UK prime minister Tony Blair, race driver Lewis Hamilton and Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra, Andria gasped a huge ‘wow’ when her name was announced by presenter Trevor Noah even as gold confetti rained down on her.

‘It was so humbling to accept the award,’ she says, ‘not just for myself but on behalf of every teacher who is making an amazing amount of difference in their communities.’ She is planning to use part of the prize money to ‘do something that would involve collaborating with artists to inspire students to excel in their chosen fields because I know how arts has such a tremendous impact on students’.

Daughter of Greek Cypriot migrants – ‘the Greeks are here’ she said in a humorous nod to her proud parents in the audience – Andria says she always wanted to be a teacher.

[2019 Global Teacher Prize winner Peter Tabichi: the teacher who owns nothing]

‘When I was in primary school, my teachers used to tell my parents ‘Your daughter is so bossy; she always tells us what to do. We think she’s going to be a teacher’, she says. But teaching is perhaps in her genes: ‘My father is quite like a teacher, my mom teaches adults, my sister is a deputy head teacher in a secondary school, my brother is an examiner at a driving school so is pretty much like a teacher… So I think [teaching] is a family business,’ says the mother of two, with a guffaw.

Andria exults after winning
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Andria began her career as an arts and textiles teacher at Alperton 12 years ago, and quickly rose to become a member of the senior leadership team. Her 1,400-student-strong school in Brent is in an extremely multicultural and diverse area – one of the most ethnically diverse places in the UK with 130 different languages spoken in the London borough, according to the BBC.

‘Brent is quite a deprived area and there’re lots of gangs there; it has the highest number of gangs and our children are exposed to that,’ she says. Concerned about children’s safety, Andria would often travel along with her students on school buses ‘just so I could ensure that they get home and are not waylaid by gangs’.

On days she does not go on the bus, Andria often stands outside the school gates after hours, walkie-talkie in hand, ensuring children get safely onto local buses, heading off recruiters for local gangs. ‘We have to protect our students at all costs,’ she says.

Gangs are not the only problem the educators have to contend with. ‘Truancy was very high mainly because many children had to skip classes and return home to cook at particular times of the day because that was the time their parents could use the kitchen as they were living in multi- occupancy houses and were sharing the kitchen with maybe four or five families,’ Andria says. Some families lacked access to modern conveniences such as washing machines and dish washers – which meant children had to chip in doing these chores that ate into their study time.

‘One of my children once told me that she had to do her homework in the bathroom because that was one of the quietest places in the house. These are the very everyday scenarios that occur at my school,’ she says.

Once the problems were identified, the challenge lay in finding solutions that suited the children, their families and was within the school’s ambit.

To provide students with a quiet and conducive space to work and study even after school hours, Andria and her team keep the school open until very late in the evening. ‘A main reason for this is to keep the children off the streets because they are dangerous due to the many gangs out there.’

Another reason for this move is that the school offers several facilities that are not available to children in their homes. ‘If they need internet access, they can use the school’s wifi; if they want to print something, they can use the school’s printers; if they need paints and art material, they can take them from the school stores… It’s their school and we felt we needed to keep it open for them.’

Clearly, keeping children off the streets is one of the most important missions for Andria and her team. ‘To this end, we offer them the space in school to be creative, resources to study, incredible access to art material and we make sure we have clubs that they can attend to develop themselves.’

To make children feel more inclusive, she adopted a few subtle but welcome moves. ‘I [learnt to] greet the children in their own language; a ‘hello’ on the gate in their language immediately makes their faces light up,’ says Andria, who has learnt basic phrases in several languages that her students use including Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati, Bengali and Portuguese.

Another major change she helped bring about was in the curriculum. ‘I noticed that particularly for art syllabus, the students were simply not engaged with it; they were completely detached to their own interests and experiences.’

Lewis Hamilton, LEFT, who brought the prize to the stage, with host Trevor Noah
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Looking at ways to help students connect to art was, in a way, an attempt to modernise it, she says. To that end, she and her core team examined the various cultures of the students. ‘We looked and listened and learnt a lot,’ she says. ‘We have a lot of students from [the subcontinent] so we decided to include a lot of rangoli patterns in the art class; we have a lot of children who practice Islam so we decided to include mehendi patterns with Islamic designs. This made them identify with their culture, made them feel inclusive and celebrate their culture.

‘Once you do that, you’ve got a buy in. Students are interested. That was quite unique.’

Andria insists that there is no point in teaching something if the children are not engaged with it, cannot connect with it or are not inspired by it.

The Somali choir that she helped set up in the school was a result of this thinking. ‘We found that the children weren’t engaging with traditional European music; they were not very interested in it. But, when we said, ‘Ok, let’s start celebrating other cultures and their sounds’, the result was brilliant. We even had Gujarati children singing in Somali. It was wonderful.’

A firm supporter of the ‘power of arts’, particularly for the ‘poorest communities’, Andria believes schools can make a huge difference in the lives of children - ‘a great positive difference’ – by encouraging them to explore their talents in creative subjects.

Highlighting that aspect in her acceptance speech, she said: ‘Too often we neglect this power of the arts to actually transform lives, particularly in the poor communities.’

Andria's school is truly multicultural, with students from diverse communities
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The art and textile teacher makes no bones about the role of art in a child’s development. ‘Art is so fundamental; it’s so important,’ she says, warming up to her favourite subject. ‘A child needs to be creative; if you take away creativity from them, they become bored and will not be able to think clearly. When you are practising art, you are always challenging the thought process.’

The arts area in Alperton Community School is where children can relax and allow their creativity to take over. ‘Whenever they have some free time, our children come and hang out in the art rooms. They love the environment, the ambience. They find it very relaxing. They can zone out and not stress about anything and can get on with what they like to do.’

She believes arts helps children develop ideas and to think outside the box. It helps them to communicate more effectively, manage their own time, socialise so they are able to talk to people. The last, she says, is a crucial and key skill.

‘Now, when kids go home, they are immediately on their devices playing games. They are not communicating socially and that’s a skill I’m really worried we are going to lose if we are not careful. Our modern technology is very much about working by yourself and not face-to-face, which is a bit of a concern. Correct social skills are threatened.’

Arts is not the only area that she helped bring about changes in. She found that several girl students from conservative families, a tad reluctant to participate in sports with boys, had begun to shun sports completely.

‘With health being such an important factor, we wanted to encourage as many students as we could to participate in sport,’ says Andria, who helped set up a girls-only sports club in the school. It, too, was a huge success; the all-girls cricket team went on to lift the local shield. That’s not all. She also helped set up a boxing club so her pupils could learn to take care of themselves when out alone.

Thanks to these and several other initiatives including bringing in an ‘Artist in residence’ (Armando Alemdar) to inspire and encourage students to cope with the responsibilities of living in complex circumstances, Andria’s school is now in the top one to five percent of the UK’s schools in terms of qualifications and accreditations. The artist in residence initiative resulted in Alperton bagging the specialist school status in visual arts.

The education authorities also noted that the school had made marked improvement over the past few years. Alperton is also one of fewer than 10 schools to win the Institute of Education’s Professional Development Platinum Mark. The maths department also won accolades last year, thanks in part to real-life situations she helped introduce to the classes.

Another of her innovations was to bring local police officers, mental health workers and teachers to a school roundtable to discuss the holistic development of her pupils thereby enabling everyone involved in their lives to work together to help the children succeed.

‘I feel my mission in life is to make sure every child reaches their full potential. I want to unlock that. I want to make sure that whatever they need to achieve I make it happen for them,’ she says.

And she is proud of the results: ‘Our students have gone on to become doctors, architects, fashion designers, dentists. For me, the important thing is that they had a fantastic experience at school.

‘Some of them may not have people in their families who have gone to university. So, in terms of role models at home they may not have that high an aspiration in terms of going to further education. So when they do and they become something, it’s a great feeling. Very special,’ she says.

Andria mentions a former student who sent her a congratulatory message when she won the prize. ‘The boy, actually he is a grown-up man now, was a student of mine 10 years ago and is now working at Google. He was following me through the awards nomination and he sent me a message saying, ‘I knew it was going to be you’.

‘There are many like him working across the globe, but they still keep in touch. That, to me, is what makes it all worthwhile, makes me extremely proud. Fulfilled.’

Teaching, she says, is an incredible profession. ‘Teachers are devoting their hours and weeks … their life to put somebody on the right path and to support them to take the right decisions. I started teaching at Alperton and have not wanted to leave it. When I go to work, I feel like I and working with good people. And I feel like I’m making a difference.

‘I feel every school teacher feels the same.’

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Sunny Varkey, founder of the Varkey Foundation and the Global Teacher Prize, while congratulating Andria, hoped that her story would ‘inspire those looking to enter the teaching profession and also shine a powerful spotlight on the incredible work teachers do all over the UK and throughout the world every day’.

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The Global Teacher Prize winner will be paid the prize money in equal instalments over ten years and the foundation will provide the winner with financial counselling. The winner is also expected to serve as a global ambassador for the Foundation. A condition of winning the prize is that the winner remains a classroom teacher for at least five years.

3 TIPS FOR TEACHERS

1. Embrace the different cultures among your students. All cultures are beautiful and unique.

2. Show your children how happy and passionate you are about your subject, and how keen you are to share your knowledge about the subject with them.

3. Teach your subject with a smile and with enthusiasm, and your students will automatically get on board.

What schools can do to help teachers

  • Give teachers the time and space to work with other teachers; to collaborate.
  • Time and facilities to develop their practice and do their research to improve their practice.
  • Provide avenues for teachers to learn about new technologies, concepts, research that is taking place in the world of education... For instance, there could be new research in Africa that we can use here.
  • Make provisions and avenues available for teachers to utilise the knowledge they have picked up. While it may be great to read about a new research finding, it is also important and useful to practice it and implement it and try it out in the school.