Dubai: A UK teacher has won the Global Teacher Prize, worth $1 million (Dh3.67 million), on Sunday night in Dubai.
Andria Zafirakou was selected from among 10 international finalists who had flown in for the two-day Global Education and Skills Forum (GESF), held at Atlantis, The Palm, and organised by the Varkey Foundation.
The prize was handed over by His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, who is also the award's patron.
Zafirakou, 39, has inspired her ethnically diverse students at the Alperton Community School — where 130 languages are spoken — to rapidly progress through sports, music and other activities during their five to seven years at the school, a point recognised by the UK national inspection team.
This is the fourth year of the award, an initiative of the non-profit Varkey Foundation, which also launched the annual GESF six years ago.
This is the fourth year of the award, an initiative of the non-profit Varkey Foundation, which also launched the annual GESF six years ago. UAE-based philanthropist and educationist Sunny Varkey is the founder of the foundation.
UAE-based philanthropist and educationist Sunny Varkey is the founder of the foundation.
South African comedian and TV host Trevor Noah showed up on stage as the surprise host of the ceremony. He pretended to ring up Formula One racing star Lewis Hamilton to deliver the trophy.
A video showed Hamilton drive to the venue escorted by police supercars, and then he actually walked in to handover the trophy.
Among those who attended the two-day event were Al Gore, former vice-president of the United States; Nicholas Sarkozy, former president of France; Jennifer Hudson, Oscar-winning actress and Grammy award winning singer; Sir Mo Farah, four-time Olympic champion and six-time world champion in long-distance running; Julia Gillard, former prime minister of Australia; Simon Schama, world-renowned historian, Tariq Al Gurg, CEO of Dubai Cares and Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May congratulated the winner in a video message. May said: “Being a great teacher requires resilience, ingenuity, and a generous heart. These are the qualities that you share with your students everyday. So thank you for all you have done and continue to do. I would also like to extend a huge thank you to His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum. for his support of the teaching profession and patronage of this prize.”
Reem Al Hashemi, UAE Minister of State and Managing Director for the Dubai World Expo 2020 Bid Committee, also spoke during the ceremony, saying this year the award is being given in the Year of Zayed in the UAE, marking 100 years since the birth of the founder of the UAE.
She described him as “a great teacher”.
Speaking about teachers, the minister said “teachers can change the world… they show the best values of society”.
The ceremony concluded in a performance by US singer and actress Jennifer Hudson.
Speaking on stage after her win, Zafirakou thanked Shaikh Mohammad and the Varkey family, as well as her own family, students, head teacher and colleagues.
She teaches arts and textiles at Alperton Community School, a secondary school academy in the inner city borough of Brent, UK.
'Our schools must be safe havens'
Taking the stage on Sunday night, Zafirakou said: "Whatever is missing from the lives of the school’s pupils — or causing them pain — our school is there for them. Our schools must be safe havens”.
Zafirakou, of Greek origin, said art provides “a sanctuary” for her pupils.
She said students from “stable homes” also chose to come to the school because of its support and guidance for all students. She added that to dream, aspire, learn and succeed was “a right that nobody can take away from you.”
She also said she was proud to be an art and textiles teacher.
Zafirakou said it was “so wrong” that art is not taken seriously enough in the general education and school system, with the subject being the first to be dropped in budget cuts, for example.
She said “we know” students who spend more time in arts also do well in other studies, adding her students were “evidence” of this.
Inspiring, recognising talent
In an interview with Gulf News, Zafirakou said: “I had a student who arrived to school when he was in Year 10, the last two years of the GCSEs. He had special educational needs, he was mute.
"So selectively he would not speak or communicate with anyone. He joined my class and I noticed he actually had a very good drawing ability.
"With support, his confidence grew and now he is able to speak, communicate, have a conversation, be sociable, but also he has passed his GCSEs and he’s doing A-Level art and photography, and he will go on to do a degree in the arts.”
Last year, adventurer Bear Grylls parachuted into the awards ceremony with the trophy, before Canadian teacher Maggie MacDonnell was announced as the winner by astronaut Thomas Pesquet from the International Space Station.
WHO IS ANDRIA ZAFIRAKOU?
Andria teaches at Alperton Community School, a secondary school academy in the inner city borough of Brent. It’s no easy task. Brent is one of the most ethnically diverse places in the country and 130 languages are spoken in its schools.
Its pupils come from some of the poorest families in Britain, many sharing one house with five other families, many exposed to gang violence.
Children arrive at the school with limited skills and already feel isolated from staff and one another, making engaging with them all the more vital, but all the more difficult.
The odds were stacked against her succeeding, but Andria has defied them. Working as an art and textiles teacher and as a member of the senior leadership team tasked with earning the trust of her pupils and their families to understand the complex lives they’ve come from, she redesigned the curriculum across all subjects from scratch – carefully working alongside other teachers – to have it resonate with her pupils.
Learning the basics of many of the 35 languages in Alperton’s pupil population, Andria has been able to reach out to her once marginalised students to earn their trust and, crucially, establish relationships with their parents.
Thanks to her efforts, Alperton is now in the top 1 to 5% of the country in terms of qualifications and accreditations.
This as 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 the national inspection team.
Introducing real life situations in maths classes helped Alperton’s maths department win the TES 2017 maths team of the year. In her own art classes, Andria has creatively redesigned the curriculum, even bringing in an “Artist in residence” to promote inspiration and help pupils cope with the responsibilities of their complex home circumstances.
As a result, Alperton has been awarded specialist school status in visual arts. Andria is proud when her students go on to university, get jobs and set up their own businesses.
Andria’s determination to move beyond an identikit school curriculum has seen Alperton awarded the Institute of Education’s Professional Development Platinum Mark, an honour fewer than 10 British schools have ever achieved.