Zarifakou always knew she would be an art teacher. “It wasn’t even a choice. Even from when I was at primary school my parents used to get complaints from my teachers saying: ‘She’s just so bossy, she tells us what to do.’ It was a vocation. I just knew.” Born in north-west London to Greek-Cypriot parents, and state-educated in Brent and Camden, she was promoted to deputy head of art within a year at Alperton, and is now associate deputy school head. Married to a fitness instructor, with two daughters aged 7 and 9, she is at work every morning by 7.30am, leaves at 5.30pm if lucky, often much later, and starts work again at home once the kids are in bed. “I don’t watch TV. I don’t ever even go into my living room. Even in my lunch, I’m working. The only time I break is when I’m in my bed.”
I tell her that while she was away in Dubai, a report on teachers’ pay was published. The average teacher earns ￡17.70 an hour. “See, that’s disgusting,” she says with feeling. When I ask what she would change if she were education secretary for a day, though, she doesn’t mention money, but proposes the introduction of a reward system of praise and appreciation for teachers, to acknowledge the extraordinary work they do.
A condition of the Global Teacher prize’s $1m pot is that the winner continues to teach for five years, but this clause strikes me as laughably unnecessary. Zafirakou plans to spend the money on projects to promote the arts, both in the school and the wider community of Brent, but I’m not sure the money has even fully sunk in. She seems to be still trying to absorb her new status as the best teacher in the world – but when not dazed and reeling she is already thinking about how to use her new platform to influence education.
If she could go back in time to her first day as a teacher, and tell herself one thing she has learned about the job since then, what would it be?
She thinks carefully. “That it’s all about building relationships. Instead of worrying about teaching the curriculum or making sure that you’ve got a strict classroom environment, build your relationships first. Get your kids on board, connect with them, find out what it is that they’re interested in. Build the relationship, build that trust. And then everything else can happen.”
It occurs to me that this is exactly what business people always say about their jobs. So do bankers, estate agents, marketing executives, hedge fund managers. Why our education system is premised on an assumption that the same does not apply to teaching is a mystery, but Zafirakou thinks she can explain.
“We are too frightened. Some teachers feel that they need to know everything, and always be the person with the knowledge. But I think sometimes the most beautiful thing about being a teacher is when you ask the child to teach you.”