Award-winning teacher hails the power of the arts

An art and textiles teacher from an inner-city school in the UK has won a million-dollar prize.

Andria Zafirakou, who works at Alperton Community School in Brent, north-west London, was one of 10 finalists shortlisted for the fourth annual Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize.

The 39-year-old hailed the power of the arts after being named as the winner of the award, which recognises an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession.

In a congratulatory video message played during the glittering ceremony in Dubai, Prime Minister Theresa May said the prize was a "fitting tribute" for everything Ms Zafirakou had done.

Andria Zafirakou is congratulated(Varkey Foundation/PA)
Andria Zafirakou is congratulated(Varkey Foundation/PA)

Alperton Community School is in one of the poorest areas of the country and pupils come from a variety of backgrounds.

Ms Zafirakou has learnt how to say basic greetings in many of the 35 languages spoken at the school, including Gujarati, Hindi, Tamil and Portuguese, to help parents feel welcome and included.

She redesigned the curriculum with fellow teachers to make it relevant to pupils, helped set up girls-only sports clubs for those from conservative communities and is also known for taking the time to understand students' lives by visiting their homes and even
joining them on the bus.

Ms Zafirakou, who is the first UK teacher to win the award, told reporters after the ceremony: "I was shocked. I was completely overwhelmed. I didn't realise it was me."

She said teachers in the UK "work extremely hard", adding: "This award goes out to all of us."

Asked what she will do with the prize money, she said: "I'm going to be patient, I'm going to reflect, but as you know I think it would be really fantastic if I could think about how the arts could be celebrated even further within our school community."

The ceremony at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai included a performance by singer Jennifer Hudson.

Andria Zafirakou teaches at Alperton Community School in Brent, north-west London (Varkey Foundation/PA)
Andria Zafirakou teaches at Alperton Community School in Brent, north-west London (Varkey Foundation/PA)

The trophy was delivered on stage by Formula One's Lewis Hamilton.

In her video message, Mrs May said: "You have shown enormous dedication and creativity in your work.

"Being a great teacher requires resilience, ingenuity and a generous heart.

"These are the qualities that you share with your students every day. So, thank you for all you have done and continue to do."

As she accepted her award, Ms Zafirakou said: "The community where I teach in Brent is beautifully diverse and indeed is one of the most multicultural communities in the world."

She said many students live in "challenging circumstances" and have "tough lives".

"What is amazing, is whatever issues they are having at home, whatever is missing from their life or causing them pain, our school is theirs," she told the audience.

When she reached the top 10, she revealed the hardship faced by students, many of whom come from "crowded homes" and were being forced to "play truant to cook meals".

She said: "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."

Ms Zafirakou, who has been at the same school for 12 years, worked in the art and design industry before becoming a teacher.

Education Secretary Damian Hinds said: "Andria's story of selflessness and dedication is truly inspiring, and I am thrilled that she has received international recognition for her fantastic achievements.

"Great education is all about great people and Andria embodies the huge difference teachers can make to children's lives."

The other finalists, drawn from 30,000 entries from 173 countries, were from Turkey, South Africa, Colombia, Philippines, United States, Brazil, Belgium, Australia and Norway.

Ms Zafirakou will receive one million US dollars (around £715,000) and be asked to serve as a global ambassador for the Varkey Foundation.

She will be required to remain working as a classroom teacher for at least five years and will be paid the prize money in equal instalments.