Interview: Winner of UAE's $1m teaching prize warns the arts cannot be forgotten in global push for science

Reflecting on a remarkable year, Andria Zafirakou tells of building pupils' confidence in her multi-cultural school and winning Dubai's $1m teacher prize

British school teacher Andria Zafirakou, with confetti still sticking to her skin, gestures toward other finalists at a ceremony awarding the Global Teacher Prize in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Sunday, March 18, 2018. Zafirakou won the highly-competitive $1 million teaching prize on Sunday for her work with inner city children in London, helping students feel welcome and safe in a borough with one of the highest murder rates in the country and where English is frequently spoken as a second language at home. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

Curiosity. Creativity. Thinking outside the box. These are just some of the important life skills that children learn from art education, but the subject is being sidelined in our schools, according to the woman named as the world’s best teacher.

"People don't realise the skills which art can bring to the entire package for a child," Andria Zafirakou, an art and textiles schoolteacher from north London, said in an interview with The National. "We need to bring art back onto the agenda… I feel really passionate about this."

It was this passion and dedication that resulted in Ms Zafirakou, 39, being awarded the US$1 million (Dh3.67 million) Varkey Foundation annual Global Teacher Prize at a star-studded awards gala in Dubai in March.

As the school term draws to a close, she sat down with The National to reflect on a remarkable year. She has just returned from Geneva, where she accompanied Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to the opening of an exhibition on girls' education at the Palais des Nations.

Ms Zafirakou was selected in March from thousands of applicants around the world in recognition of her work at Alperton Community School, an impoverished, inner-city school in Brent, London. One of the UK’s most deprived boroughs, more than one-third of the children in Brent live in poverty, criminality is rife and gangs stalk the school gates.

Organisers of the award praised Ms Zafirakou for “[transforming] her school’s approach to reach often isolated young people so that they can engage in school life and perform to the best of their abilities”.

One of her signature achievements has been a complete redesign of her school’s art curriculum. It is something she had to fight for, she says, given the trend to cut art budgets in schools in favour of subjects like maths and science.

“Especially in the UK, arts are not a priority,” Ms Zafirakou says. This is a real problem which will have a ripple effect in the workplace, she warns.

“Art teaches things like resilience, creativity, curiosity, teamwork, social skills, communication skills. It also teaches children how to fail and persevere until they succeed.

“If we don’t teach art in schools, our children will not have these advantages later on in life. I’ve met many chief executives and organisations over the past weeks who say: ‘OK I have engineers but I need problem solvers – where are they? I need creative thinkers, where are they?’

“So there is a real interest. We need to bring art back onto the agenda.”

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (L) and British 2018 Global Teacher Prize winner Andria Zafirakou visit the opening of an exhibition on girls' education involving a large temporary arts structure and a damaged classroom in the grounds of the Palais des Nations after addresses the 38th session of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council on June 18, 2018 in Geneva. / AFP / ALAIN GROSCLAUDE

Ms Zafirakou says she is immensely proud to be an art and textiles teacher, and says it is a “privilege” to see the effect her teaching has on her students.

“Our children do really well at art – they love it, they enjoy it, it’s a subject in which they can experiment, take risks, fail and start again,” she explains. “It’s a great journey to take, and it’s a privilege to teach. They will have lifelong learning from this.”

With her prize money, she is hoping to further promote the arts in education. “It [the $1m award] is quite a pressure, but it’s a beautiful pressure to have,” she said.

“This award has been given to me for what I do in my school community. So it is important to think about what I can do with it to have a platform for what I think is vital in schools.

“At the moment, what I think is important is the arts, and how we can connect the arts with our children.”

Raised in Brent, Ms Zafirakou is dedicated to her local community and has taught at Alperton school for the entirety of her 12 year teaching career. The school is very ethnically diverse, with a large number of the students coming from deprived migrant families. Some speak very little or no English when they first arrive.

In an effort to build bridges with her pupils, Ms Zafirakou learned how to welcome them in many of the 35 different languages spoken at Alperton. These include Hindi, Arabic, Romanian, Tamil, Polish and Somali. She also helped launch a Somali choir.

She is quick to dismiss praise for these initiatives, however. Born to Greek-Cypriot parents, she says she remembered how it felt to turn up at school and struggle to communicate, so she simply wanted to do her bit to make life easier for children in a similar situation.


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“I grew up speaking Greek fluently; English was my second language,” she says. “Eighty-five per cent of the children in our school are also EAL [English as an additional language]; I feel very much connected with them and try to put myself into their shoes.”

“Imagine them arriving from God knows where, they’ve come into this country, they enter a building which is scary and where they feel out of place, terrified. And I can go up to them and say ‘good morning’ in their language.

“So that’s why I do it: because it makes them feel special,” she adds. “I think that’s how the world should be – we have to go out of our comfort zones.”

The hallways of Alperton school buzzed with excitement on that day in mid-March, when news spread that Ms Zafirakou had won the Global Teacher Prize 2018. For Ms Zafirakou, this was an accolade to be celebrated by the entire community, not just by one person.

“We can celebrate it, we can say ‘we’ve earned it’,” she said. “We are such a hardworking community, we are dedicated to our children, and we deserve to be recognised.”

“I’ve seen how it’s changed my school in terms of the confidence it’s given the children, the pride that’s just oozing everywhere – it’s just such a proud and momentous time in our history.”

As for the glittering awards gala at Atlantis, The Palm, she says it was “simply extraordinary”. “It was like the Oscars – a huge ceremony, so glamorous, so high profile.”

The event was hosted by South African comedian and The Daily Show host, Trevor Noah, with surprise appearances by stars including F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton. Also in attendance was Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, Nicholas Sarkozy, the former president of France, and other global dignitaries and local sheikhs.

When the winning teacher’s name was announced by pupils in a video broadcast, Ms Zafirakou said she had “no idea” it was going to be her. “I didn’t even hear my name being called out until someone jumped up and said, ‘Andria, it’s you!’,” she said.

LONDON 19/3/18 Alperton Community School, North London.  Gustavo Valiente  for the National

Gold confetti rained down on her as she went up to the stage to be presented with the prize by Sheikh Mohammed. Recalling that moment, Ms Zafirakou said: “It was so mind-blowing, I was terrified! The ruler of Dubai, this incredible human being, I can’t even remember what I said – I was in my own little bubble, a dream. It was sensational.”

She was constantly aware that she was in the UAE representing every single teacher in Britain. “That was a lot of pressure,” she said.

But she was also full of praise for all the other teachers from around the world, who she met in Dubai. “Every single Top 10 finalist – extraordinary doesn’t even encompass who they are, and what they’ve achieved in terms of changing their schools and communities for the better.”

While she has never taught in the UAE herself, she has friends who do, and they have told her about the strengths of the local education system.

“I know the Varkey Foundation and the Gems schools, the work they do there [in the UAE] is quite extraordinary,” she said.

“I have many ex-colleagues who work in Dubai, and they love it, they just feel that it’s the best place to teach. Education is so well respected in Dubai, teachers have got such an important role, and there is a quality assurance that takes place.”

The fact that Sheikh Mohammed is a patron of the prize, and that he attended the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai in March, is also “significant”, she said.

“It shows the country has bought into education, they know how vital it is for growing young minds, and for the future of the economy in Dubai and beyond, you can sense that. You can absolutely sense that.”

What’s next for the world’s best teacher? “I am absolutely remaining at my school!”, Ms Zakirafou says. “I’m happy here, I love being where I am. Teaching is my vocation, I’d be lost without it.”

But she is also determined to use her achievement as a platform to promote the profession of teaching, which is something she feels needs greater recognition.

“Teachers work extremely hard, but I don’t think we are respected enough,” she says. “Unless you’ve been raised by a teacher, you won’t understand the hours, the dedication that goes into a teacher’s life. You could never set a price on that, because it is so unselfish.”

“In my view, we are doing the most important job in the world. We are growing, nurturing young minds and making them into the people we want and need in our society.”

But there’s not nearly enough awareness of that, and not enough funding in schools, at least in Britain, she says.

“Can more be done? Absolutely, and I think the government is listening now and trying to put things into place – whether or not they’ll be successful, let’s see.

“Obviously I have this fabulous opportunity now to try and change things,” she adds. “I have a platform to raise the profile of teachers, and to do something that can really change the world.”