$1m teacher prize winner wants to work harder

Art teacher from UK, Andria Zafirakou, plans to help her school and students in troubled area of London

Dubai: It was a moment UK schoolteacher Andria Zafirakou was hoping for, but not expecting.


On Sunday night, she won the $1 million (Dh3.67 million) Global Teacher Prize in Dubai, chosen from 30,000 nominations from around the world. Given by the Varkey Foundation, the prize is awarded “to an exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to their profession”. It has now completed four annual cycles.

Zafirakou, 39, is an art and textiles teacher at Alperton Community College, a school in Brent, a troubled inner city area of London. The mother-of-two, who is of Greek origin, has faced off gang members looking for young recruits outside her school, helped students from broken homes or pupils with special educational needs flourish academically and socially, redesigned the curriculum, led the professional development of teachers, and much more.

Through to her efforts, Alperton is now within the top five per cent of the UK in terms of school qualifications and accreditations.

In an interview with Gulf News on Monday, Zafirakou said the teaching profession today is underappreciated, adding that the award goes a long way in giving teachers a voice on the global stage.

“Thankfully, we have awards like the Global Teacher Prize. And what His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum [Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai] and Sunny Varkey [founder of Varkey Foundation] are doing is desperately needed now, because I think teachers do need to have their voice heard. I think the teaching profession is a profession that’s really tough, really difficult,” Zafirakou said.

Zafirakou, who was scheduled to fly home on Tuesday night, has no plan to take it easy, despite the substantial prize money and newfound fame.

“It’s now my duty to make sure that I continue this work and not just sit there and relax. This is what my calling is, to help raise the profile of teachers.”

She also wants to raise the profile of art, which she said has provided “a sanctuary” for her students. When asked if she wanted to use the prize money for the school and students, she said “yes, of course”.

“I didn’t think I was going to get it and so let’s not even worry about that. At the moment, I’ve got to make all the right decisions and obviously take my time in doing that. It’s clear to me that I’m really passionate about the arts and seeing children thrive in the arts and developing in the arts, so it would be something I would like to do. Maybe projects working with other artists, other musicians, and seeing where we can really take creativity to another level,” Zafirakou added.

Earlier, during Sunday’s prize ceremony, she had said, like her school, all schools should be “safe havens” for children, especially when they come from troubled backgrounds. But Zafirakou doesn’t stop there — she is out patrolling the streets back home to ensure children get home safely, away from gang violence and gang solicitation.

Her efforts have not made her a favourite with the gangs. Zafirakou has been threatened, cursed at and intimated to back down, but she carries on.

“The safety of our children is the most important thing and we need to protect them at all costs. So I know that, what I’m doing, is something which will benefit the students, and I know that most teachers would do the same.

“[The gangs] are there to target our students. They wait outside the school for them. It’s not a very nice situation, it’s quite intimidating. I approach them and say to them ‘you need to move on’. I contact and I work with the local police to make sure they [suspicious persons] are who they say they are, and they don’t pose any threats to our students.

“Obviously, they don’t like to be told to move on. I’ve been threatened before. They have been quite aggressive, thankfully not violent because it is a public place.”

On Monday, recalling her win, Zafirakou, who was swamped by international press, said she had managed “a very quick hello” on the phone with her two daughters who are waiting for her back home.

“I said ‘Mommy’s won!’, and they’re like ‘Yeah, we know, we saw you!’ It’s really good. I just can’t wait to see them.”

Who is Andria Zafirakou?

She is an art and textiles schoolteacher at Alperton Community College, a school in Brent, London

Zafirakou, 39, won the 2018 Global Teacher Prize, worth $1 million, awarded by the Varkey Foundation

She has faced off gang members looking for young recruits outside her school, helped students from broken homes or pupils with special educational needs flourish academically and socially, redesigned the curriculum, led the professional development of teachers, and much more

Born and raised in the UK, Zafirakou, whose mother is from Cyprus and father from southern Greece, has two young daughters

This was her second trip to Dubai and she plans to return soon

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