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Wed 19 Sep 2018 01:50 PM

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Meet the million-dollar teacher

Andria Zafirakou, winner of the 'World's Best Teacher' award, tells how she plans to splurge her $1million Dubai prize on inspiring kids to take up art

Meet the million-dollar teacher
Andria Zafirakou pictured with pupils at Alperton Community School, north London. All images: The Varkey Foundation.

It’s 3pm and the school day is over at Alperton Community School, a sprawling state school in north London.

But unlike other schools up and down the country where children scramble and bustle out of the school gates, the children here – all 1,800 of them – are pouring out of the exit in an ambling, orderly manner. Many of them are smiling.

This could be mere happenstance but it’s more likely to be by design, for this school is the workplace of star teacher Andria Zafirakou, who beat 30,000 hopefuls to clinch the fourth annual Global Teacher Prize in March this year.

Andria Zafirakou was personally handed the award by Dubai Ruler HH Sheikh Mohammed at a gala ceremony earlier this year, with Sunny Varkey, the Varkey Foundation chairman.

“We start the school day at 7.30am. Many of the pupils are already here at 7am, they can’t wait to start the day,” Zafirakou tells Arabian Business.

“The key thing that every pupil wants is to be valued in the world and in the school – I try very hard to achieve that. As a school we offer a lot of pastoral support, the whole school focuses on making the children feel welcome and connected so they can achieve their potential,” she says.

Zafirakou, who was awarded her $1 million prize by the Dubai-based Varkey Foundation and personally handed the award by Dubai Ruler HH Sheikh Mohammed, is talking to me from her new office in an outhouse in the school’s grounds.

There is a faint sound of musical instruments in the background. This is a new arts centre, she tells me. Since the win, the school’s head teacher has bestowed Zafirakou with a small unit where she can help promote and teach the arts.

“When I came back from Dubai, I told our head teacher I wanted to go on a sabbatical so I could change the world,” Zafirakou says.

“He said ‘no’ but offered me a great compromise… he gave me this office and I’m now working three days a week on my new charity ‘Artists in Residence’, which aims to bring in artists to 30 London schools to inspire the children. The other two days I am teaching art and textiles.”

It’s clear that Zafirakou is fizzing with energy about her new project. “I don’t sleep… I’m working so hard.”

She is keen to stress that she won’t be frittering away her prize money on herself or ‘rushing to pay off my mortgage’.

She says: “I want to do something which will have an effect and give back to the community. The take up of arts in schools has declined and I want to try and reverse it across the country. Art has so much to offer because it is so inclusive.”

“In deprived schools, children might not have access to instruments or their parents might not take them to museums, for example. And they won’t choose arts as a career as they are told that they won’t make money; they think they have to be a doctor or a lawyer for that, but it’s obstructing their potential to do what they want to do,” she says.

So why does Zafirakou think she won the world’s most prestigious teaching prize?

“I was so surprised because every day I’m just doing what I love to do, what I was born to do. I got a prize for just doing that,” she says.

But that’s not the full story.

Zafirakou's success came from her deep roots with the diverse local community. She learned how to say basic greetings in many of the 35 languages spoken at the school, including Gujarati, Hindi, Tamil and Portuguese, to help parents feel welcome and included. She has also worked tirelessly to bring art to those pupils who might otherwise never have accessed it.

“I come from a migrant Greek-Cypriot background myself. Our school is very multi-cultural and some of the children hardly speak English when they come here and they are intimidated. I put myself in their shoes… they have moved from developing countries and they have just arrived to London, they are terrified,” she says.

Most of the pupils at Alperton Community School hail from Asia, Somalia and the Middle East.

“Having a big smile and saying hello in their language or trying very hard to connect with them is the key thing. You want them to engage quickly so that they can ultimately make progress. Our grades are excellent and our pupils are over-reaching their targets,” Zafirakou says.

“What do I love about teaching? What do you love about the air that you breathe? It’s my necessity - it’s what I need,” she adds.

Nominations for this year's prize close on September 23. Click here for more details on how to submit your application.

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