Andria Zafirakou has been functioning on three hours’ sleep a night for weeks, but looks radiant. “It’s adrenaline, it’s excitement, it’s everything.” Nominated by current and former colleagues for the Varkey Foundation’s annual Global Teacher prize, dubbed the Nobel for teaching, last month Zafirakou learned she had been shortlisted from a field of more than 30,000 entries. She flew out to Dubai last week to join nine other finalists from all over the world for a star-studded awards ceremony hosted by Trevor Noah, and arrived home on Wednesday the winner of the $1m prize. The nominees were judged on, among other things, the progress made by pupils, achievements outside the classroom and in helping children become “global citizens”.
Politicians and dignitaries, the media and 100 of her schoolchildren were waiting to welcome her at Heathrow, from where she was whisked straight to parliament to meet Theresa May. The prime minister and education secretary’s praise for the arts and textiles teacher could not have been more lavish; she is, declared Damian Hinds, “truly inspiring”.
Zafirakou still hasn’t made it home to Brent, north-west London, when we meet later that day. The 39-year-old has the dazed air of a woman who barely recognises herself as she stares at her photo on the front of London’s Evening Standard. “My whole life has been transformed,” she laughs breathlessly. Amid all the wonderment of her fairytale week, however, there is one obvious irony. Had Zafirakou prioritised the targets the government sets for her profession, and focused all her energies on its official performance measures, she would never have been considered for the award. She won, instead, by being the kind of teacher our education system actively discourages.