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When I found out the art and textiles teacher Andria Zafirakou had won the Global Teacher Prize in 2018, I punched the air in delight for Britain’s first title holder. This wasn’t just a win for Andria but for all those VIP teachers making a difference in Brent and beyond where children have hard lives.
Having taught in Brent myself for 5 years I knew where Andria was coming from and the huge challenges she has faced to truly make a difference.
This is not an easy place to develop your craft and earn your stripes and it isn’t for everyone. It’s the borough where 100 languages are spoken, a place with high levels of deprivation and poverty, a volatile place where gang violence and radicalisation are a daily concern.
To be selected as the cream of the crop from 30,000 teachers and crowned the Noble Prize of teaching by the Varkey Foundation is no fluke. This is awarded to a role model who goes above and beyond and exceeds the extra mile every day – someone who is confident, enthusiastic, inspiring and humble.
So what’s Andria’s story? Her book Those Who Can, Teach gives us plenty of insights into who she is, what makes her tick and what teaching means to her. This is a memoir of her time in the classroom told through the lives and experiences of some of her pupils and their stories will break your heart.
They shed light on the long shadow of childhood adversity and illustrate how chaotic home lives, poverty, abuse, loss, neglect, paediatric grief, and trauma can have protean effects on children’s physical and mental health. The odds stacked against them are enormous.
But they also inspire and illustrate the remarkable power of having a creative teacher and role model that won’t give up or take no for an answer. For Andria failure is not an option and through her art lessons she gives children a secure environment to find freedom, unearth talents and discover their identities.
Like Andria herself, this book is outspoken and outstanding. It’s wrapped in kindness, it is full of spirit and is focused on relationships, empathy and unlocking potential.
You get an immediate and really honest sense of just how much her school, the students and their families mean to her.
She is irrepressible, fiercely passionate about the arts and doggedly determined to change the lives of her students and unleash their self-efficacy and wellbeing through creativity. She fights their corner like Rita Pierson but with a bossy North London left hook.
Her book shows us the value of persistence, being a warm demander and the central role relationships have in learning and why we must always place students before the curriculum.
A condition of the Global Teacher prize’s $1m pot is that the winner continues to teach for five years. This is hardly a big ask for Andria though as teaching is clearly her life.
She is still teaching at Alperton Community School because she has plenty more to give and believes in what she does as being the most incredible job in the world. She turned down a Government job offer to be the new face of a recruitment drive because of its decision for introducing the EBacc and marginalising the arts.
Rather than living it up as a millionaire, Andria is living it up as part of the SLT. Now Associate Deputy Headteacher, she has used her prize money and founded a new initiative to promote creativity in schools called Artists in Residence.
This is the measure of a truly world class teacher and thought leader – one who keeps on giving, champions all students in the spirit of Rita Pierson and gives them a voice.
Those who can, teach and don’t leave. They break rules, they challenge and they are feisty. They are crucially full of passion, wisdom and righteous indignation able to connect physically, cognitively and emotionally.
They aren’t many magic-weaving threshold adventurers but Andria is definitely one of them and that’s why she won her world’s best teacher title and a year later received an MBE. It also shows why Bloomsbury fought tooth and nail in a seven-way auction to publish her story.
You have lost your teaching mojo and need inspiring to go out there and learn to love teaching again with ambition, grit and fire in your belly.
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