A woman from north London has been announced as the first British winner of a prize worth $1m (UShs3.6bn) for the world’s best teacher.
Andria Zafirakou, an arts and textiles teacher from Alperton community school in Brent, north-west London, was presented with the fourth annual Varkey Foundation Global Teacher prize in Dubai on Sunday.
She collected the honour at a ceremony attended by the former US vice president Al Gore, Tony Blair, and Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton.
In a congratulatory message played during the ceremony, prime minister Theresa May said the award was a “fitting tribute” for everything Zafirakou had done.
Zafirakou, who is the first UK teacher to win the award, told reporters: “I was shocked. I was completely overwhelmed. I didn’t realise it was me.”
She said teachers in the UK “work extremely hard”, adding: “This award goes out to all of us.”
Asked what she will do with the prize money, she said: “I’m going to be patient, I’m going to reflect, but as you know I think it would be really fantastic if I could think about how the arts could be celebrated even further within our school community.”
She called for more support for the “power of the arts”, saying schools can make a positive difference in children’s lives through creative subjects.
“I have seen how the arts help students to communicate. The arts help to give so much confidence and really create incredible young people.”
May’s message said: “Being a great teacher requires resilience, ingenuity and a generous heart. These are the qualities that you share with your students every day. So, thank you for all you have done and continue to do.”
Alperton community school is in one of the poorest areas of the country, and pupils come from a variety of backgrounds. About 130 languages are spoken in the borough of Brent.
In an effort to build links with her pupils, Zafirakou learned basic phrases in languages including Gujarati, Hindi and Tamil and has 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,” Zafirakou 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.
“What is amazing is that whatever issues they are having at home, whatever is missing from their life or causing them pain, our school is theirs.”
She also redesigned the curriculum with fellow teachers to make it relevant to pupils and helped set up girls-only sports clubs for those from conservative communities.
Nominations from pupils at Alperton community school spoke of Zafirakou’s dedication and ability to inspire potential in her students and the local community.
Last year, Canadian teacher Maggie MacDonnell won the prize for her work with indigenous students in the remote and isolated village of Salluit in north Quebec.
The other finalists at this year’s ceremony were from Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Colombia, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, Turkey and the US.
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 classroom teacher for at least five years and will be paid the prize money in installments.