A Chat With the ‘World’s Best Teacher’: Andria Zafirakou Advocates for Arts in Schools, Creates Nonprofit to Connect Students With Artists
During her recent trip to New York City, Andria Zafirakou had a jam-packed schedule filled with prestigious events. She spoke at an event in her honor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, took part in sessions at the World Economic Forum, interacted with students at a Brooklyn high school, and even had the opportunity to throw out the first pitch at a New York Mets game.
Zafirakou’s whirlwind visit was befitting of a celebrity or a foreign ambassador, and it’s not hard to see why. She was crowned the "world’s greatest teacher" earlier this year, an esteemed title awarded to her as the fourth annual recipient of the Global Teacher Prize. This honor, presented by the Varkey Foundation, came with a generous $1 million prize.
Hailing from Brent, a neighborhood in northwestern London, Zafirakou teaches arts and textiles. She plans to utilize the prize money to establish a program that will connect schools in London with professional artists. The artists will visit the schools and engage with students, discussing their work and career paths. While she was in Manhattan, Zafirakou spoke with about her plans.
Despite being based in London, Zafirakou’s message resonates strongly in the United States. The performance of American students in art and music on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, colloquially known as the "Nation’s Report Card," has been lackluster. This is partly due to the limited access to arts and music classes, as they are typically the first subjects to be cut when schools face budget constraints.
The importance of Zafirakou’s message is deeply personal to her. As a child in London, she aspired to pursue a career in the arts. However, it was challenging to convince her Greek-Cypriot parents that it could be a viable path. After persevering and succeeding in the arts herself, she now helps her students navigate similar conversations with their own parents. Zafirakou hopes that by bringing artists into schools through her non-profit organization, she can provide positive role models for students interested in the arts and inspire them to pursue creative subjects despite any skepticism.
Zafirakou’s organization aims to introduce various artists, such as dancers, musicians, painters, writers, and actors, into schools. These artists will have the opportunity to engage with students and discuss their careers. The program will initially launch in London schools and gradually expand throughout the entire United Kingdom.
Since winning the Global Teacher Prize in March, Zafirakou has become an ambassador for arts education on a global scale. When asked about her motivation for advocating for arts education, she speaks passionately about the joy it sparks in her students, conveying her intimate understanding of this joy through her infectious smile. She also emphasizes the economic value of the arts, highlighting their contribution to the billions generated in the United Kingdom and worldwide. Additionally, she underscores the practical skills that students acquire through engaging with the arts, skills that are highly valued by employers.
Zafirakou and her students share more than just a passion for the arts. She vividly remembers the challenges of transitioning from her Greek-speaking home to a school in the United Kingdom. Many of the children she teaches are also recent immigrants, and the community is rich with diversity, comprising individuals who speak numerous languages. Zafirakou has made a concerted effort to greet her students and their parents in their native languages. She firmly believes that this gesture fosters strong relationships, ultimately enhancing the effectiveness and meaningfulness of her lessons.
In addition to establishing connections with her students, Zafirakou holds a leadership role among the educators in her school. As the director of teaching and learning, she collaborates with teachers to enhance their skills and provides opportunities for their professional development.
Her greatest joy comes from supporting others, helping her colleagues grow and evolve as teachers. "That’s my favorite thing," she says, "assisting someone else and supporting them in their practice, ultimately enabling them to become the teacher they aspire to be."
Ever since being recognized as the world’s best teacher, Andria Zafirakou has gained celebrity status. She has had the opportunity to meet Prime Minister Theresa May and has made numerous appearances in the media. However, despite her newfound fame, Zafirakou remains actively involved in managing the non-profit organization she established with the prize money. In addition, she continues to teach full-time, proving her dedication and passion for her work.
Zafirakou acknowledges that the days seem short in her life, but she genuinely feels a deep passion for what she does.
In June 2018, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Zafirakou, the winner of the 2018 Global Teacher Prize, visited an exhibition in Geneva that focused on girls’ education. The exhibition featured a large temporary arts structure and a damaged classroom in the grounds of the Palais des Nations.
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