Andria Zafirakou, Alperton Community School, bags the Global Teacher Award

20 Apr

I        Ms Zafirakou’s pedagogic journey and achievements

The Global Teacher Prize in 2018 was won by Ms Andria Zafirakou, an art and textile teacher at Alperton Community School in the London Borough of Brent.  She was deemed to be the best – having been pitted against 30,000 entrants from 173 countries.

The odds were stacked against her succeeding, but Andria defied them. Working as an art and textiles teacher and member of the senior leadership team, she was tasked with earning the trust of her pupils and their families and understanding the complex lives they led.  She redesigned the curriculum across all subjects from scratch – carefully working alongside other teachers – to have it resonate with her pupils. She helped a music teacher launch a Somali school choir and created alternative timetables to allow girls–only sports that would not offend conservative communities, leading the girls’ cricket team to win the McKenzie Cup.

Learning the basics of many of the 35 languages in Alperton’s pupil population, Ms Zafirakou reached out to her once marginalised students to earn their trust and, crucially, established relationships with their parents. Thanks to her efforts, Alperton is now in the top 5% of the country in terms of qualifications and accreditations. This was a colossal achievement given how low the students’ starting points were and how rapidly they progressed during their five to seven years at the school, a point recognised by Ofsted.

Alperton, Ms Zafirakou’s school, is in one of the most deprived parts of the UK.  Altogether, 85% of pupils do not have English as their first language.  This is unsurprising because in the London Borough of Brent 150 different languages are spoken by the very multi-cultural population.

Gang violence is another problem.  About three decades ago, a 16-year-old pupil from Alperton was fatally knifed by a fellow pupil on his way home from a GCSE examination.  However, Ms Zafirakou, who sees teaching as a calling and way of life rather than a job, stated that she is keen to ensure that every child reaches her/his full potential…. “that whatever it is that children need to achieve, I make it happen for them.” It is the “against-all-odds stories” that are “the reason why I carry on doing this job day after day”, she added in an interview with The Times Educational Supplement.

Raphael is a student with special educational needs.  He was a selective mute and “completely withdrawn” when he arrived at Alperton.   Ms Zafirakou learnt about his love of art, capitalised on that love and helped Raphael to flourish. She predicted that he would go on to university and do well in game design. “You would not know that this child has special educational needs,” she said. “He has come out of his shell and just feels so comfortable and confident – that, for me, is the dream.”

She acknowledged, however, that while teaching provided immense satisfaction if one came into the profession with the right mind-set, becoming a successful one was no walk in the park.  “Teaching is the most difficult profession,” she said. “You will not have a social life.  You will be dedicating yourself to this profession.  It’s so important that you understand what it means.

“But look at the impact you’re having – you’re changing lives, inspiring others, and I think that’s the key to why we’re doing it.”

Ms Zafirakou has (so far) spent her entire 12-year teaching career at Alperton.  “I absolutely love what I do,” she said. “I can’t imagine having any other job. They’re my kids – I’m a mum to 1,400 students.”

She added: “Building relationships with your students is the absolute key. That’s the most important thing you need to do, not sort out your behaviour management. Once you build relationships with children, they are on board.  I’m interested in their lives, in where they live and what their family situations are like. I’m interested in what they want – ‘Why are you not happy? What is it that you’ll need from me to get you engaged in that subject? Talk to me.’

“I think it’s just having that interest in a young person. If you can’t understand where they’re coming from, you’re not going to get through to them.”

The love for her work manifests itself in several ways.  She has formed a boxing club where children can channel their energy, through teaching them how to greet one another in dozens of languages, to patrolling the streets outside the school to deter gang members from attempting to recruit her students.

On one occasion she was helping pupils onto a No 83 bus, when they suddenly started banging in panic on the upper-deck windows, shouting “Miss, let me out!”   Someone who got onto that bus as the pupils were piling in, suddenly pulled out a handful of large active snakes which he began twirling around his fingers.  The pupils were terrified, she recalled.  She shepherded them off the bus and informed the authorities.  Ofsted would have most definitely marked her as outstanding when it came to Safeguarding.

Ms Zafirakou considers being in love with one’s subject/s – in her case art and textiles – is of prime importance.   “The kids will feed off your energy, and that’s when the magic happens; that’s when you start building relationships with them; they’ll just fly; they’ll be incredible.”

That love for what she teaches is infectious.  It gives her pupils wings to fly and helps them achieve so well placing them in the top few per cent of the country in qualifications and accreditations.  In the video interview which she gave after receiving the award her colleagues paid tribute to Ms Zafirakou, her enthusiasm and willingness to do whatever it takes to support her pupils.

Headteacher Gerard McKenna said: “She will go the extra mile outside of school, helping students in the streets, on the way home, with the community – whatever she can do to help.”

II       Teachers – an investment and not a cost

For many of us, the best days of our lives were when we were at school and this was because, the overwhelming majority remember at least one very good teacher who made all the difference.   Good teachers are vital to the body politic.   They do not represent a cost, but rather an investment, the investment for the future.  It was, consequently, unsurprising that Lord Adonis, the former Education Minister, said: “No education system can be better than its teachers.”  However, the respect that teachers are given across the world is variable.   In China, teachers have a higher status than teachers anywhere else in the world, according to the Global Teacher Index drawn up by the Varkey Foundation.   Greece, Turkey, Singapore and New Zealand follow on the respect league table.  Teachers are at the bottom of the respect pile in Israel, Brazil, the Czech Republic and Italy.

According to the survey carried out by Varkey Foundation, they are viewed differently in different countries.   Countries such as New Zealand, Spain and the Netherlands, teachers attract the same respect as social workers.  In China, they are commensurate in status to doctors, in France and Turkey, they are like nurses and in the USA like librarians.

Whereas in China, 50% of parents encourage their children to become teachers, in Israel, it is 8%.  Greece awards a high status to teachers, but pays them poorly.   The reverse – i.e. poor status but high salaries – is true in Germany and Switzerland.  Roughly 75% of people in 21 countries consider that teachers should be paid according to the performance of their pupils.

III     Global Education Management Systems

Sunny Varkey, a Dubai-based education entrepreneur of Indian (Keralan, to be precise) origin, founded and is chair of the global advisory and education management firm, Global Education Management Systems (GEMs), a private Kindergarten-to-Grade 12 schools.  There are 130 schools in GEMS Education.

Among his many initiatives that Varkey established to “educate the world”, the Global Teacher Prize is the most egregious.    The Global Teacher Prize was presented at a ceremony in Dubai on 18 March 2018, and was worth $1 million (£720,000) prize.

The prize, now in its fourth year, was set up to recognise an exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession, and to shine a spotlight on the crucial role teachers play in society. Ms Zafirakou has beamed her light into a corner of London where the young people in her charge have taken more than a shine to her, grown in her sunshine and warmth and flourished.   She is one of the fortunate few who have had their achievements recognised.  Many others (thousands of teachers) are doing similar work.  Let us not forget them too to make Thomas Gray’s famous, following lines in An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, redundant.

“Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”

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