best teacher

This London woman has been voted the best teacher in the world

Continuing our #WomenWhoWin series, we speak to Andria Zafirakou, the inspirational winner of the 2018 Global Teacher Prize.

Andria is an art and textiles teacher at Alperton Community School in north-west London and, after being nominated by former and current colleagues, was announced as the winner of the Global Teacher Prize 2018 in March. This annual award from the Varkey Foundation that names the best teacher, is worth $1m (about £720,000) , and is presented to an exceptional educator who has made an outstanding contribution to their profession.

Andria’s passion for helping her students, as well as her knowledge of the challenges they face is clear from the beginning of our conversation. She says, ‘We love our students. Brent is not the most affluent borough, we’ve got lots of deprivation so it’s not right to just keep it in the classroom… we like to make sure that [the students] are okay outside school.’

True to her word, on top of being the best teacher and her senior leadership roles, Andria escorts pupils to their buses after school to protect them from recruitment into local gangs, has introduced an after-school boxing club and can be found at the school-gates every morning, greeting children in one of 30-something languages spoken in the school.

As one of Andria’s colleagues said in her entry video, ‘You grab on to that enthusiasm that [Andria] has, and it drives you forward as well.’ Victoria Fell sat down to chat with Andria about her childhood ambitions, proudest moments and the changes she would make if she were education minister for the day.

Tell me about your background?

‘I was a very happy child. My parents are migrants, I went to a multicultural primary school in Camden and was Head Girl at my secondary school. My music teacher was an incredibly inspirational teacher. He was in love with teaching his subject, he was so passionate that when you were in the room, you didn’t know what was coming next!’

Where did your ambition to become a teacher come from?

‘I’ve always known I was going to be a teacher – it wasn’t a choice. When I was 4 years old, I used to play ‘teachers’ with my teddies and younger brother, or with my cousin, where I’d be the teacher and she’d be the librarian. When I was older, during my GCSE art lessons, I used to look around the room and think, “Well, in my art class, I’m going to have a wall there, I’m going to have things hanging from the ceiling…” – I was actually visualising my teaching environment!’

Andria Zafirakou

Andria winning the 2018 Global Teacher Prize. Credit: Varkey Foundation

What inspired your love for art and textiles?

‘I only found out when I went to university that my grandmother in Cyprus was a weaver by profession. She used to grow her own silk worms and weave silk on a loom. During the conflict between Turkey and Cyprus, the British government told her that she had to give them silk so that they could make parachutes. She would weave silk for them during the day and then secretly by candlelight in the evening, she made her own garments to provide her family with an income.’

How did you feel about being named best teacher?

‘I felt honoured that I was the one 
who got recognised out of 33,000 others worldwide. This award is all about the impact that teachers can have within their communities and what they are doing to go above and beyond. Teaching is an underappreciated profession, but we’re changing lives and creating destinies.’

What has been your proudest moment?

‘I feel proud when I watch my daughter as the star in her school Nativity play, and also when my children who have left the school come back and say, “Miss I’m now an architect” or “Miss, I’m working for Google designing gaming apps”. The fact that I’ve helped children be inspired to go out and achieve, then come back to me to tell me what they’ve done gives me such a incredible sense of pride.’

Andria Zafirakou

Andria with some of her students. Credit: Varkey Foundation

What would you do if you were education minister for a day?

‘I would bring the arts to the forefront. STEM subjects are important, but when you get young people to think creatively, it teaches them focus and resilience. Looking at the children in my north-west London community (a deprived area), arts, drama and music are the subjects that inspire and motivate them.’

Is there anything you refuse to compromise on?

‘I have really high expectations, but in a positive way. I need the people I work with to be on it, to be giving the best they can and to feel confident in making mistakes. I think making mistakes is the best thing that you can do, because that’s how you learn!’

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