$1m prize for UK teacher named ‘world’s best’

London-based educator Andria Zafirakou wins global teacher prize in star-studded Dubai ceremony

A teacher from north London has been announced as the first British winner of a competition worth $1m to find the world’s best teacher.

Andria Zafirakou, an art and textiles teacher, became the fourth winner of the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize in Dubai on Sunday, beating nominees from more than 170 countries.

She accepted the award at a lavish ceremony hosted by South African comedian and The Daily Show host Trevor Noah, and attended by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, former US vice president Al Gore and Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton.

“Being a great teacher requires resilience, ingenuity and a generous heart”In a congratulatory video message broadcast during the ceremony, UK prime minister Theresa May said the award was a powerful celebration of the work of teachers.

“Being a great teacher requires resilience, ingenuity and a generous heart,” said Ms May. “These are the qualities that you share with your students every day; so thank you for all you have done and continue to do.”

Zafirakou, who was one of 10 finalists for the award, used her acceptance speech to call for more support for the “power of the arts”, saying schools can help to transform children’s lives – particularly in poorer communities.

“I have seen how the arts help students to communicate. The arts help to give so much confidence and really create incredible young people.”

Zafirakou was recognised for her work at Alperton Community School, an inner-city school in Brent, where more than a third of children live in poverty and where pupils come from a variety of backgrounds. Some 140 languages are spoken in the borough.

In an effort to build ties with pupils, Zafirakou learned basic phrases in languages such as Hindi, Tamil and Gujarati, and visited family homes.

“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,” she said.

“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.”

In response to this, Zafirakou organised extra lessons during the day and the weekend, including giving pupils a quiet place to work.

She also redesigned the curriculum with fellow teachers to make it more relevant to pupils, and launched girls-only sports clubs for those from conservative communities.

Sunny Varkey, founder of the Varkey Foundation which runs the competition, said he hoped Zafirakou’s story would inspire those who wanted to enter the teaching profession.

“[It] shines a powerful spotlight on the incredible work teachers do all over the world every day.”

The 10 finalists were drawn from more than 30,000 nominations in 173 countries, including Colombia, Norway, the Phillippines and South Africa.

Zafirakou will receive $1m and be asked to serve as a global ambassador for the Varkey Foundation. She will be required to remain working as a teacher for at least five years and will be paid the prize money in instalments.