Andria Zafirakou has been functioning on three hours’ sleep a night for weeks, but looks radiant. “It’s adrenaline, it’s excitement, it’s everything.” Nominated by current and former colleagues for the Varkey Foundation’s annual Global Teacher prize, dubbed the Nobel for teaching, last month Zafirakou learned she had been shortlisted from a field of more than 30,000 entries. She flew out to Dubai last week to join nine other finalists from all over the world for a star-studded awards ceremony hosted by Trevor Noah, and arrived home on Wednesday the winner of the $1m prize. The nominees were judged on, among other things, the progress made by pupils, achievements outside the classroom and in helping children become “global citizens”.
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politicians and dignitaries, the media and 100 of her schoolchildren were waiting to welcome her at Heathrow, from where she was whisked straight to parliament to meet Theresa May. The prime minister and education secretary’s praise for the arts and textiles teacher could not have been more lavish; she is, declared Damian Hinds, “truly inspiring”.
Zafirakou still hasn’t made it home to Brent, north-west London, when we meet later that day. The 39-year-old has the dazed air of a woman who barely recognises herself as she stares at her photo on the front of London’s Evening Standard. “My whole life has been transformed,” she laughs breathlessly. Amid all the wonderment of her fairytale week, however, there is one obvious irony. Had Zafirakou prioritised the targets the government sets for her profession, and focused all her energies on its official performance measures, she would never have been considered for the award. She won, instead, by being the kind of teacher our education system actively discourages.
Zafirakou has spent her 12-year career at Alperton Community secondary school in Brent, teaching some of the most disadvantaged, ethnically diverse children in the country. She suspects most of us couldn’t “have a clue” about the depth of deprivation she sees in her classroom every day. “This is what deprivation looks like. Deprivation is when you have got six or seven separate families living in one house, sleeping one family to a room, sharing one bathroom and rotating the use of the kitchen. I had a girl who was truanting in my class, so I investigated and found it was because she had to go home during the middle of my lesson and cook for her family because that was their slot on the rota.” Children routinely arrive at school hungry and dirty – “I’ve put clothes in the washing machine for the kids, and we provide a free breakfast to every child” – while gang violence haunts the school gates.
These are the very conditions that put so many people off teaching, but when I ask if she wouldn’t rather teach orderly, motivated pupils, she looks amused. “Bor-ing! No, I love trying to figure out: how can I get in to that child? How can I get them to trust me and how can I help them? Trying to figure out, right, OK, that didn’t work, what do I need to try now? I love that.”
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To that end, Zafirakou taught herself phrases in many of the 35 languages spoken by her pupils. She set up a female cricket club for girls from conservative faith backgrounds, and rescheduled after-school clubs, so that children burdened with domestic duties all week could attend at weekends. She uses art to unlock pupils’ creativity and confidence, visits their homes to understand their family lives, and personally escorts them off the school premises on to buses at the end of the day, to protect them from violence. Her school teaches mindfulness, offers yoga classes, runs a boxing club, and is ranked in the top 1 to 5% of all schools in the UK for improving children’s achievement.