The hallways of Alperton Community School buzzed with excitement on Monday morning as news spread that Andria Zafirakou, an art and textiles teacher from the impoverished, inner-city school in north-west London, won the US$1 million (Dh3.67m) Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize 2018 at a glittering awards gala in Dubai.
“It was emotional for everyone. We are completely and utterly proud. There are high-fives going all around. I know it is a cliché to say this, but I don’t think there was another person in the universe that deserved this as much as Andria did,” humanities and social sciences teacher Candise Lazare told The National.
Organisers said Ms Zafirakou “transformed 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”. Ms Zafirakou redesigned her school’s art curriculum, helped launch a Somali choir and learned how to welcome students in many of the 35 languages spoken at Alperton.
“She’s such an inspiration. She’s got such character and drive and you see that every day and you cannot help but be inspired by that. She loves the children and the school and the families,” head of physical education Nicola Hazley said.
Alperton opened its doors on Sunday afternoon so students, parents and teachers could watch the ceremony together. Dozens waved Union Jack flags and erupted in cheers as gold confetti rained down on their art teacher. But it wasn’t until Monday morning that the magnitude of the win sunk in. Journalists from as far away as Greece were calling the education authority in Brent to interview Ms Zafirakou, who is expected to stay in Dubai for a couple of days.
“It is like this beacon. We’ve got a new building and now this award – this is the biggest award that our teachers could get – and all of the staff and everyone are shocked. In Brent? You wouldn’t have thought this would happen in Brent,” Ms Hazley said.
Ms Zafirakou is the first British winner of the Global Teacher Prize, edging out competing teachers nominated from more than 170 countries. The prize, launched in 2015 by the Varkey Foundation education charity was created to boost the status of the teaching profession.
The honour is also a boost for aspiring university students and the community of Brent, a multicultural neighbourhood where more than one-third of children live in poverty.
The area presents myriad challenges to aspirational families and institutions like schools seeking to nurture young talent. Expensive cake shops sit next to saree wholesalers. Gangs are a major concern for parents and teachers alike. While some students appear to live in large homes, it is often the case that behind closed doors seven or eight families share the living space. Some families remain without access to modern amenities such washing machines or basic school supplies, Ms Hazley said.
"It just goes to show that anyone, from any background, in any community can win. There are no barriers," pharmacist Paul Davda told The National on Monday. "The local population are all proud."
Parents said the award will make hold Alperton Community School in higher esteem.
“My son is 11 and we were thinking about sending him to that school – my husband went there – and now their reputation is just going up and up,” said Saira Baig, who works behind the counter at a fast-food curry and pizza restaurant.
“We feel very proud because we are her neighbours,” chairman of Shree Sanatan Hindu Mandir temple, Narendra H. Mandir, said. “Youngsters will learn from this. It inspires people. I invite her to join us. We will respect and honour her.”