EPISODE 09: THE STORY OF

The Best Teacher in the World

with Andria Zafirakou

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They may struggle in the academic subjects but for them, the arts subjects are the ones which they thrive on because it helps them to communicate, showcases their skill, their talents, um, and it just is something which makes them feel so independent and which they have, can say, that this is me, this is who I am, this is my identity. And for a young person that’s so powerful.

Jamie
Kalispera, Namaskaar, Hello! The best teacher in the world greets her students using 35 different languages. I’m Jamie Hipp, and this is Teaching Trailblazers, a show about teachers, artists and leaders in arts integration and STEAM. On this episode, we spend time with Andria Zafirakou, an arts and textiles teacher in northwest London and winner of the Varkey Foundation’s 2018 Global Teacher Prize. She beat out 30,000 applicants from 170 countries to win the Nobel Prize equivalent for teaching Andrea. Yet as we record this, it is a school day, and I know you’re probably running on very little sleep. So thank you for taking the time to have this conversation with us today.

Andria
Well, it’s my pleasure. Thank you.

Jamie
Can you tell us a little about the students you teach in the London borough of Brent?

Andria
Absolutely. I work in a school called Alperton Community School, and it’s a school that houses approximately one thousand six hundr ed students. Um. the age range that I teach is from 11-year-old order up to 18-year-old. We call that King Stage three, four, and five in the UK. It’s… in terms of the local air in the community, it’s a very, very multicultural area that we have approximately 150 languages spoken in our London borough, and it’s probably the most diverse borough in the whole of the UK. But with that, there’s also high levels of poverty, um, and with poverty we have social problems, which our students live in, are aware of, and also, and also a part of. So it’s quite challenging there. It’s not safe for them, but that’s where school is the opposite. The opposite, complete opposite. It’s a place where they can come. They feel safe, they feel nurtured. They feel inspired. Uh, and they achieve.

Jamie
It sounds very similar to many of our communities here in the United States, where schools often become sometimes the only safe haven students have. We’d love to hear about your art and textiles classes at Alperton.

Andria
I mean, it’s, um it’s so strange knowing how much we’ve come as a school in terms of the the way the arts are valued. When I first started, it was it was very dire in terms of… I remember going into my art room during my interview and I’d look around, and it was just  so depressing and oh my God, look, there’s not even great images and inspiration. The room was dirty, no materials and now, um, and children were really not enjoying the experience. I think behavior management was a challenge. You know, years later, we have got kids who are coming back during their, break,  lunch time, after school, just wanted to be in the art rooms. Um, we have got a huge classes, lots and lots of option classes. So exam-based classes and I think it’s because we really worked hard on making change in the curriculum to really be inspiring and engaging for them by bringing in contemporary artists,  contemporary work and really bringing enough and I think the key for this one is like bringing real artists and your designers to work with the students and to inspire the students. And I think that’s been how we’ve really managed to kind of help things move on. But the beauty about the arts and textiles and all the graded subject is um, there’s no language barriers. So many of our students who do not speak English or they have English as a second language. They may struggle in the academic subjects but for them, the arts subjects are the ones which they thrive on because it helps them to communicate, showcases their skill, their talents. Um, and it just is something which makes them feel so independent and… which they can say that this is me, this is who I am, this is my identity. And for a young person that’s so powerful.

Jamie
Absolutely! It sounds like the opportunities to create in your class truly impact students in a variety of wonderful ways. To your point about bringing in contemporary artists, are the artists from the local community or beyond?

Andria
So many are from the local community, but some are friends from university, um, and who we have kind of kept in touch with… and all of their friends… But it’s people… I truly believe that, you know, when it comes to the arts, there’s no enough done to celebrate the profession and what opportunities could be created from studying the arts. And so, by bringing in the real artists, the real designers, the real craftspeople that show actually, you can make profession from this, and this is my journey. That inspiration is so powerful for a young person. And as a teacher, we can teach them how to draw, we can teach them how to print, we can teach them… You know it’s great project, but that we can’t teach them the actual job. And that is why bring in the real people the real professionals of role models into our classrooms is is the icing on the cake, I would say. It’s the thing that guarantees pure engagement, pure inspiration for our young people.

Jamie
I think we can all take a page out of that book no matter where we live, showing those opportunities for growth and careers in the arts. Does your interaction with students end when the last class leaves your classroom?

Andria
Well, it’s the thing about the arts is that the conversation, the dialogue is always going, isn’t it? I mean, it is. It doesn’t stop in and to answer your question is no. Never, Um, I I there’s something about the community. I don’t know if it’s a reflection of myself being a migrant coming from a migrant family, but I understand…  I understand a lot about them, their troubles, their backgrounds and also how important education is for them. And how important the arts is for them as well and how much it heals, how much it inspires. And it’s just part of your soul sometimes. And um, you know, I think my problem is, is getting rid of the kids. You know that, right? Can you please go? Because I need to get home… and hurry up, get out the art room! So I think that’s been our.. . that’s been our problem that we’ve been having so we’re quite lucky. If that’s our challenges. We’re very, very lucky.

Jamie
For sure! Did I read somewhere that you visit students’ homes?

Andria
Yeah. I mean, especially when I was a young teacher, uh, because again, coming to about this community, it was an eye-opener for me. I’ll give you an example that the amount off deprivation, the amount of poverty is, it’s very stark here. Um, we would have children who would who would sneak out of school to go home to cook for their families. Because what would happen is is that that time slot was the only time that a family were able to use the kitchen in a house that was shared by 15 other people. So that was the children’s responsibility to do that and so, by being able to go home and communicate with parents and say that this is not right? Or if we had them, a child who was, you know, who was having a lot of social problems, involved in gangs, involved in issues like that, you know, just being able to kind of help the family communicate and deal with their problems. I mean, it’s because our families really trust us, trust the school as well. I mean, it’s it’s been there’s been an eye-opener, a privilege to do that. It was also kind of bridges, the gap between school and home, and sometimes it’s very necessary to do that.

Jamie
I think every parent or caregiver hopes their child lands in the class of the best teacher in the world, both in the classroom and outside of school hours. How can teachers listening to this podcast emulate your practices and become the best teachers, maybe not to the world, but to their own classrooms of students?

Andria
You know, I think they are already. I mean, I’ve been I’ve been nominated and I’ve received this award and I’m very honored to receive this award, but I I honestly don’t think that there’s anything special about me because there’s so much good practice that’s out there. You go into teaching because you care, because you want to inspire. You want to help, you want to nurture, you want to see something that you’ve taken part of, to create and thrive and glow. And that’s what, that’s why I went into teaching and this is what it is to be a teacher isn’t it, and it’s a very selfless job and we don’t get enough praise and we never get enough acknowledgment. So I don’t think that there’s anything that that I am doing that other teachers aren’t doing. It’s just, you know, if one says, I’ve been recognized, you know, it’s just been a privilege and honor to have all these colleagues around the world being part of my, being part the same team.

Jamie
Your global teacher prize came with a well documented $1,000,000 prize. Of course, we want to know how you spent the funds.

Andria
Well, yeah, now it’s probably been the most stressful part of having that prize, having a $1,000,000, I mean, my God. But what I decided to do was put my money where my mouth is as the saying goes, and really do something, which I think is is important. Um, as I said to you before, one of the things which I found was really important, unique in my community and for myself as a young person was putting the role model in front of the child, showing them what their career could be. When I was young, my teachers always used to bring in their friends to, eh, who were either print designers or textile designers to tell us about their job and what it’s like. When I think on that, that planted the seed of aspiration in my in my gut that actually I can achieve if I was to do art, arts as a GCSE. So in my own school with my children, one of the problems have been again is the barriers and the misconception of “the arts do not provide a good career.” And our children have challenges. They have challenges from their own parents because their parents, who want their children to study English, maths and science, or core subjects, because these are the subjects that will get you jobs. So what my, em, what I did with the $1 million was set up a foundation, a charity, called Artists in Residence. And our mission, our job is to inspire young people to take up the arts and it also helps curriculums, the school curriculums in places where there is the high deprivations by simply connecting artists with schools who will then undertake a transformative residency project which has been designed by the teacher and the artist. So I connect schools with artists.

Jamie
Your plan to give back in such a profound way to arts education is truly inspiring. What changes have you seen directly from this foundation and your donation?

Andria
Oh, that’s really lovely of you to say. But, I mean, it’s, um you know, my heart has just been so fulfilled. Seeing the, hearing about the good stories are coming back. So it’s small things. For example, one of the head teacher’s or, the principals from a school, said to me, “Oh, by the way, a parent noticed that their child was happier since undertaking that project.” Now that flippant comment, you know, left me glowing for months and other things was, Is that teacher’s are reporting that they’re actually feeling much more confident of delivering an art project because they’ve done work with an artist. So in terms of teacher professional development, that’s been absolutely cool. But for me, the most beautiful thing has been the legacy of what it causes and what it’s left. So we have schools who have we have partnered with last year have said this year we’re doing a very similar project. We’re doing it with another year group because it was so successful, and there you can see that the plant the seed has been planted on that they’re taking this and moving it on. And I think that’s what we’re really proud of. The fact. The fact that it’s being used as a way finding mechanisms just grow and advocate the importance of the arts in education.

Jamie
So do you plan to teach for the rest of your career? Or would you consider a role where you could affect change in multiple schools or districts instead of one school?

Andria
That’s a difficult question. I can’t imagine ever not being a teacher. At the moment. I’m not sure how I’m actually coping because I’m doing, I’m teaching. I’m doing quite a lot of traveling and visiting other countries…  and staying married and I’m a mom as well, um, but I think it’s what you’re what’s in your blood and my blood is that I love, I’m inspired, every day I come into my school. It’s not easy. It’s challenging, like you have bad days, you have days you want to rip your hair out. But it’s the greater determination of seeing these young people. That’s that’s what I enjoy. And at the moment I haven’t got any plans. My charity is doing extraordinary Well, it’s growing. It’s it’s, it’s we’re in London now. We’re moving out of London because schools across the UK wants us, they want us in there. So that’s been brilliant. So I just think it’s that now you know, as long as I have got energy, as long as I have got support from everyone, from whoever you know, let’s keep going and see what else we could do to help.

Jamie
In the vein, to keep it going, how can we learn more about Artists in Residence and about your work?

Andria
Oh, thank you very much for asking. We have a website. It’s called www.artistsinresidence.org.uk. Please visit us, see what we’re doing. We are growing. We’re trying to kind of put all our projects on that again, inspire teachers to try new things out, and yeah, any support, we’d love to hear from you, so please get in touch with us.

Jamie
Teaching Trailblazers is a production of the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM, and I’ve been your host, Jamie Hipp. This podcast is produced, edited and mixed by Jaime Patterson.