Three years ago, a miraculous thing happened to Andria Zafirakou, a 42-year-old art teacher at the Alperton community school in the north London borough of Brent. Out of all the 100,000,000 teachers in the world, she was named No 1, Global Teacher of the Year. Zafirakou, who had been nominated by students and colleagues, was awarded that honour at a ceremony in Dubai, along with a cheque for $1m, hers to do with as she pleased. She was so gobsmacked to have won the award, to be up there on the stage clutching the trophy and the cheque, that she had not the first clue what to do with the money.
She still felt that way the following day when she was driven by limousine straight from the airport to Downing Street, where she had been invited for tea with Theresa May, the prime minister, and afterwards when she met with the schools minister, Nick Gibb, and a roomful of education grandees, and representatives of the Varkey Foundation, which made the award. Gibb, it turned out, was there to offer Zafirakou another “prize”, this one a job: he was delighted to announce that the government wanted her to become the new face of a recruitment drive to bring more people into teaching.
You don’t have to spend long with Zafirakou to realise that she doesn’t stop smiling very easily. (“Have you seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding?” she asked me when we met last week at her school. “Well, that’s me and my family.”) But when Gibb offered her a promotional leaflet concerning that job, the grin left her face for the first time in 48 hours. She said that she would think about his offer – which was not the answer the minister, primed for a photo opportunity, wanted to hear. Why the hesitation, she was asked, and the room fell quiet.
And so, she explained. “I don’t think this government has done enough to support the arts,” she began. “For example,” she said to Gibb, “you introduced the EBacc [the narrowed exam metric that insists schools concentrate on “core” subjects]. The British fashion industry has some of the best designers in the world, yet you killed the textiles curriculum. My curriculum. Where will the designers of the future come from now?”
The minister started to speak, but Zafirakou had not finished. “In my world, I teach children who often have English as a second language,” she said, “and the arts are one of a handful of subjects, alongside maths, that give them a level playing field. Why is that not important to this government?” And then, as the minister tried to head her off again with data and jargon, she told him how, contrary to his understanding, education was not about schools meeting targets, or league tables, it was about two things: it was about children, and it was about teachers. And as she was saying that, she knew immediately what she wanted to do with the million dollars she had just been awarded. “If the government isn’t going to do anything to help these kids,” she thought, “then I will.”
* * *
Zafirakou still teaches art at Alperton community school. She passed on the opportunity to become a millionaire. Instead, she used the prize fund to establish a charity that promotes an artist-in-residence model in schools like hers – providing students not only with inspiration and practical advice, but with living examples that a creative career is possible. Sitting across the room from her in her school office, as she explains some of this, I can’t help but wonder if the thought ever crossed her mind that she might keep just a little of that million dollars for herself – at least enough for a new car, or a holiday with her husband and their two daughters?
Not for a second, she says. “I literally grew up in this school. And I think if I was to go and just take this money, I wouldn’t feel comfortable. Even my mom said to me, there’s no way you were ever going to keep that money, was there? You know, if it had been the national lottery… hell, yes. But this? I am who I am because of the colleagues around me, and the kids that I teach.”
Zafirakou’s Global Teacher award is on a shelf in one corner of the room. All the walls around us are covered with dazzling paintings and artwork from some of the students she has taught in the 15 years she has been here. She makes a point of buying the pieces. “I remember when I did my own GCSE,” she says, “and two members of staff bought some of my work, my chemistry teacher and my English teacher. I could not believe that they would buy something I’d made – it was, like, £30 or something at that time. So what I do, when students of mine through the years have an exhibition, I just ask: ‘How much do you want for this?’, and I buy bits and pieces.” She always likes to give her students an idea that there is real-world value to what they do. And she likes to keep the art around her, because each piece tells her a story.
Zafirakou shares some of these stories in her new book, Those Who Can, Teach, a memoir of her time in the classroom, told through the lives and experiences of some of her most memorable and hard-to-reach pupils. Alperton school is just off the North Circular in London, not far from Wembley stadium, in one of the most diverse corners of the capital, high on every measure of social deprivation. One of the reasons that Zafirakou won her award was that she taught herself the rudiments of the 35 languages that her students spoke, so she could greet each of them and make them feel a little more at home. Some of her pupils have been recent arrivals to Britain; some have escaped war; many have chaotic home lives, families living in single rooms, forever anxious about food to eat, clothes to wear. The stories she tells, of bringing these students to life in her art lessons, are little parables of possibility. They tell of students who have unlocked trauma through their drawing, or who have spoken for the first time because they found a home in the art room.
There is, for example, the story of Alvaro, who spends the first weeks of his school life entirely silent, staring into the space ahead of him, desperate it seems to just disappear. Slowly, with the help of pencils and paper, Zafirakou explains how she first helped Alvaro to draw: tiny, lost, little images in the middle of huge sheets of paper to begin with; then how to speak, and then how to belong. Or there is Leroy in year 7, whose single mother works every night as a nurse. Leroy sleeps through lessons and term after term arrives at school in unchanging clothes – Zafirakou, typically, eventually starts washing and drying his uniform while he has an afternoon of PE, and returning it to his peg so the other kids won’t notice. Or there are the dozens of kids who need safeguarding, or who do their (inspired) homework on loo roll because it’s the only paper at home, or who explain that they did their best but had to sit on the stairs or in the bathtub to find a bit of quiet to concentrate. I haven’t read a book for a long time that so often had me close to tears – not for the deprivations described, but for the everyday efforts to overcome them.
Since her award, Zafirakou has been invited to many conferences and forums across the world as a guest speaker. To begin with she did not know what to say – she had no grand philosophy of education – so instead she told these stories of her pupils, the stories in her book, the kind of stories that every good teacher “has ingrained”, she believes. They are, obviously, not all stories with happy endings. She is haunted by the children who disappear from the structure of school, back into chaos. “You always learn from a child,” she says, “and those lessons stay with you.”
Sometimes, the lessons reappear out of nowhere. She laughs. “There was this boy who was like a kleptomaniac in year 7. He used to always do our heads in, constant battles and detentions. A couple of months ago I was on duty by the bus stop and this car screeched to a halt by me, black tinted windows and this huge guy jumps out and runs toward me, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, what’s this?’ I had my shield on and my face mask, and he comes up and he lifts me up in this huge hug. It was this boy. ‘Miss, do you remember me? Miss, I’m so proud of you.’”
I mention to Zafirakou that old cliche that insists “teachers shouldn’t have to be social workers”. But her book, page by page, makes a nonsense of the phrase. Does she wish there was more of a separation between those roles?
“Anyone who teaches in a school like this one knows that comes with it,” she says. “I don’t think it’s the same in every country. But in the UK, it is assumed the school will do absolutely everything. It shouldn’t be that way.” There is a sentence in her book that might seem reductive to many people, but which seems a useful starting place: “The whole point of school,” she writes, “is to get every student through the day as a normal child.”
She talks me through some of the measures that a school like Alperton has to invest in to achieve that, the mental health first aiders and the mental health supervisors and the visiting psychologists – all provisions that have been stretched to breaking point by the pandemic. But then, at the same time, she tells me how every day in her art room is an invariable joy, and you don’t doubt her. “The first day back after lockdown I had my crazy year 8s,” she says. “I came out of that class absolutely exhausted, my throat was hurting me. But we all loved every second back in that environment. They were loud, teasing and joking. But brilliant work was getting done. It takes you weeks to get to that point with those classes, but then they are with you.”
Zafirakou grew up in Camden Town. Her parents, the children of Greek immigrants who left Cyprus when war broke out in 1959, tried to prevent her from doing art at GCSE, and from going to art school, impressing upon her that she needed a “proper profession”. It was only through the intervention of a cousin, who had seen her art work, that she managed eventually to follow her vocation. She has the same conversations now with the predominantly Hindu and Gujarati parents of her students, and comes armed with statistics.
“The kids will say they want to do art and the father will insist they are going to be an accountant,” she says. She tells them about architecture and graphic design, points to the research that suggests kids who pursue a passion for creative subjects make better scientists – and happier adults. The constant messaging from the government that creative subjects are not “real” doesn’t help.
“One of the best things about winning the award,” she says, “was the fact I was an art teacher. I think what we’ve become really good at in this country is segregating things. If you have a look at any science, the relationship with creative thinking has always been huge. So why are we still putting our students in boxes? I remember when I was training at Saint Martins, people used to just go: ‘Oh, if you’re a British designer, you’ll be getting a job just like that.’ Why do we refuse to recognise that talent?”
One of the things she takes aim at in her book is the prevailing political idea that schools should be results-focused and concentrate on discipline. That might be appropriate for some schools, she suggests, but Gavin Williamson’s “silent corridors” model is never going to be the answer for the kids she writes about. They need spaces to create and to find their voices; she has been instrumental in helping to shape an out-of-hours and weekend roster of clubs and activities – including the “simple acts of kindness” club – that would be a match for any public school.
“The problem is, every education secretary comes along, and if they have had a good education, they believe that’s the model for everyone: ‘I failed in art, therefore art is useless.’” The first principle of any school, she believes, has surely to be that every child is different.
When the news of her prize was first announced, there was predictable sniping in the readers’ comments section of the Daily Mail: “Teachers should only talk in English”, all of that… What’s her response?
“How would those people connect with a child who has just come to the school and can’t speak a word of English? A few words help, but give them some paints and a bit of paper and they might just blow you away, GCSE standard already. With that little bit of confidence, the amount of progress they make elsewhere is incredible.”
While we are talking, after the end of the school day, Zafirakou’s elder daughter is waiting in the classroom next door; it is, I discover, her 12th birthday today, and her admirable patience has been bought with the prospect of a Wagamama takeaway later. I wonder how her daughters feel – the teacher’s curse – about having to share their mother with so many other children. She laughs. “I’ve got that brilliant support mechanism – my family, parents, brother and sister all live round the corner. I don’t think I would have ever been able to do what I’ve done if it wasn’t for them. And, of course, the girls like the fact that their mum’s on Google.”
Still, as she has taken on more and more pastoral and leadership responsibilities at school, the work never stops. She often gets asked by newly qualified teachers: “What’s the secret to work-life balance?” “And, honestly, in this job, I’ve no idea what it is,” she says. “Because I haven’t mastered it.”
One of the things that has struck me reading her book, I say, is how far removed it is from the detail of those classic myths of teaching – Goodbye, Mr Chips, To Serve Them All My Days – yet how similar it is in principle. Her commitment to this particular school reveals the power of longevity – she was inspired by a brilliant headteacher when she first arrived – and the way that, with staying power, you can make incremental positive changes in even the toughest environment. She agrees with that, and has no plans to leave. “But I am the anomaly,” she says. “In teaching, these days normally, it’s three years, five years, then you move on. But since I’ve been here we’ve had different heads, the school’s been rebuilt, and the challenge has always been there,” she smiles. “It’s never comfy and cosy here, you know, there’s always something that you need to get your teeth into. But that’s what I love.”
• Those Who Can, Teach: What It Takes To Make the Next Generation by Andria Zafirakou is published by Bloomsbury on 15 April (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply