Andria Zafirakou, who works at Alperton community school in Brent, was chosen out of more than 30,000 nominations from more than 170 countries.
The nominations were announced by technology billionaire Bill Gates via a video message. The Microsoft co-founder said: “When you think about what drives progress and improvement in the world, education is like a master switch – one that opens up all sorts of opportunities for individuals and societies. And research has shown that having a great teacher can be the most important factor that determines whether students get a great education.”
Other finalists include a history teacher at a private school in South Africa, a Turkish pre-school teacher, a creative writing teacher from the Philippines, a maths teacher from Australia and an English teacher from Norway.
Education is the “master switch” for progress in society and individual lives, said Mr Gates.
The Varkey Foundation prize was set up to recognise exceptional teachers who make outstanding contributions to the profession and to highlight the important role teachers play in society.
“I found out that I was shortlisted about 15 minutes before a Year 9 parents’ evening,” said Andria. “I nearly fell off my chair, and hearing Mr Gates say my name was mind-blowing.
Andria joined the school as a newly qualified teacher in 2005 and has worked her way up to become a member of the senior leadership team. The school said her success was built on being rooted in the local community, which had given her an understanding of the deprivation that affects many of her pupils’ lives.
360 degree viewpoint
Andria has been described as “going against the grain”, taking the time to understand student lives beyond school by visiting their homes, riding with them on the bus and sometimes standing at the school gates with police officers to welcome pupils as they arrive at the start of the school day.
To break down the barriers and crucially help in beginning to establish relationships with their parents, many of whom do not speak English, Andria has also learned the basic hello-and-goodbye greetings in many of the 35 languages spoken at her school, including Gujarati, Hindi, Tamil and Portuguese.
One of Andria’s greatest innovations was to bring police officers, mental health workers and teachers to the school table to discuss pupils from a 360 degree viewpoint, enabling everyone involved in their lives to work together to help them succeed.
“By getting pupils to open up about their home lives, I discovered that many of my students come from crowded homes where multiple families share a single property,” Andria added.
“In fact it’s often so crowded and noisy I’ve had students tell me they have to do their homework in the bathroom, just to grab a few moments alone so they can concentrate.”
“I also found that some were being forced to play truant to cook meals in the allocated time slot they were permitted to use their shared home kitchen. Others could not participate in extracurricular activities after school because they had to take on parental responsibilities like collecting their brothers and sisters from other schools.”
“Discovering all this prompted me to organise additional provision within the school day and often at weekends to help students have the opportunity to progress.This included giving them access to a quiet place to do their art work, as well as time to participate in extracurricular activities.”
One-size-fits does not fit all
The prize committee were impressed by her efforts to reach isolated young people to help them engage in school life and perform to the best of their abilities. “She quickly realised that a one-size-fits-all curriculum would not resonate with all her students so she set about redesigning it from top to bottom, alongside fellow teachers, in order to make it relevant to her pupils’ lives,” the committee said.
Andria was one of four UK teachers who made the shortlist of 50, including Eartha Pond, a deputy headteacher at the Crest academy also in Brent, north-west London who raised more than £100,000 for survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire.
The committee makes its assessments based on the candidates’ success in the classroom, their innovative teaching practices, their achievements in the wider community and their example to others who might want to become teachers.
Andria said “The whole experience so far has been amazing. The Alperton community has been incredible in getting behind me. I have had children hugging me in the playground.”
“I am a bit out of my comfort zone, but it is amazing for the teaching profession, art and the borough of Brent to be recognised.”
“You don’t come into teaching if you want to do a 9 to 5 day,” said Andria Zafirakou. “You do it because it’s in your blood”
The winner will be announced at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai on March 18.
February 20, 2018