A UK teacher on the shortlist for the million-dollar Global Teacher Prize has spoken passionately about the power of the arts to transform lives and helps people “become better human beings”.
“I’ve got students who are doing game design, who are graphic designers, who have started their own fashion label – there is so much potential there,” said Ms Zafirakou, an arts and textiles teacher at Alperton Community School in Brent, north-west London.
“That’s what ignites their imagination, that’s what develops them into their own specialisation.”
She added: “I’ve found art a relaxing subject – students love to come into the art room and there’s an element of therapy to it.”
Ms Zafirakou is on the final shortlist of 10 for the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize, which will be announced on Sunday, with the winner receiving a million dollars (about £720,000).
She fears that the arts are still more vulnerable to budget cuts than many other subjects. If money were no object, she said she would open a new specialist school of the arts – covering art, music, drama and other subjects – attached to her own school.
She spoke of one boy who, aged about 12, who in art finds “the only subject where he is on task for the whole session and produces outcomes that are up there with all the other students – if not better than them”.
A maths teacher remarked recently that this student was now noticeably calmer and focused. Ms Zafirakou said the arts were capable of helping struggling pupils “get in their own zone” and be resilient. “That’s the whole thing about the arts – you have to make mistakes to improve your work,” she said.
Ms Zafirakou, whose school is in one of the poorest areas of the country and has students from a diverse range of backgrounds, said the most important quality in a teacher is that “you need to have great relationships with your children”.
She added: “By doing that, everything else falls in place – the classroom environment will be incredible, the work the students produce will be far more than you expected, and you will have lifelong learners engaged.”
Ms Zafirakou, who has been at her school for 12 years, redesigned the curriculum with colleagues to make it more relevant for pupils, helped set up girls-only sports clubs for those from communities who are more comfortable with such an arrangement, and has learned how to say basic greetings in many of the 35 languages spoken at the school – which can have a profound effect on pupils.
“They glow because they feel that you’re interested in them, that you are connecting with them – and you automatically have buy-in from the child and the family,” she said. “They feel appreciated and that their culture is respected – and at the end of the day, that’s important to me.”
The other nine finalists for the Global Teacher Prize, drawn from 30,000 entries from 173 countries, are from Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Colombia, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, Turkey and the United States
The winner will be required to remain working as a classroom teacher for at least five years and will be paid the prize money in equal annual instalments over 10 years.