In March 2018, Central Saint Martins alum Andria Zafirakou was awarded the Global Teacher Prize. Initiated by the Varkey Foundation, The Global Teacher Prize is a $1 million award presented annually to an exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to their profession. Zafirakou is an Art and Textiles teacher at Alperton Community School in Brent, North London. Here, she talks to us about her foundation year at Central Saint Martins, the impact of winning the international prize, and the state of UK arts education.
Could you tell us a bit about your time studying at Central Saint Martins?
I absolutely loved my Foundation course at Central Saint Martins. It was one of the best years of my life as it is where I explored and discovered my identity as a designer. I remember the atmosphere in the college being friendly, eccentric and inspiring; I very much doubt that would be different today.
What made you want to go into teaching art and design?
I knew that teaching was something I enjoyed from a young age and I wanted to teach a creative subject. I pursued a Fashion and Textiles with Business Studies degree at university, specialising in woven design – this was inspired by my grandmother in Cyprus who was a silk weaver. After university, I exhibited my textiles at interior design exhibitions and was fortunate enough to win an IBFX award. I worked in the fashion and textiles industry to gain experience and knowledge, informing my understanding of what art and textile design as a curriculum subject could be.
What has the reaction of your school and students been to your win?
It’s an amazing feeling and a real honour to have won this year’s Global Teacher Prize, especially as there were so many inspiring teachers in contention for the award. The reaction of Alperton staff and pupils has also been incredible. I wouldn’t have won the award without them – it’s been a real team effort.
Will this prize make a difference to how you teach and how your creative ideas progress?
The prize won’t make a difference to how I teach, but it will allow me to increase the profile of teaching and that of arts education and the impact it can make on pupils’ development. When the founder of the Varkey Foundation, Sunny Varkey, came up with the concept of the prize, it was all about not just rewarding one teacher, but recognising and celebrating the impact teachers across the globe can have, and raising the profile of the profession.
How do you think art college education prepared you for the challenges of teaching art and design in schools?
It enabled me to experience the basics in many medias and appreciate the process of other art forms, which I have been able to transfer into the classroom.
Was there a particular teacher from your own education who inspired you?
They were all so inspiring, but my favourite was the Textiles department!
How do you think studying art and design subjects helps to prepare your students for their future careers?
Creative subjects have a positive impact on student development in other areas as it helps stimulates their minds and encourages them to take risks and ask questions. My students engage with creative thinking as we explore and learn new techniques, their choice of materials, and so on.
When I introduce them to what is produced in the wider world through artists, designers and movements, they embark on a journey to explore their own innovations. Different types of mediums and resources help stimulate their innovative design as they transform objects. Deconstructing and reconstructing materials and objects challenges their perceptions, and engages them in making new forms, which is the greatest form of creative innovation.
Taking risks which extend a piece of work that they feel is complete but can still evolve has a remarkable impact on the daily classroom. This also helps them develop as individuals. In the modern workplace, job holders need to learn new skills and be adaptable to change. Creative subjects help develop the skills that pupils will need in their future careers.
You are a big advocate of debunking the white Western narrative which often dominates historical and cultural teaching. Could you tell us a bit about how you overcome this in your classroom, and how directly acknowledging the different cultural identities of students has impacted their time at school?
Many children arrive at Alperton with limited language skills and so they can feel very much alone. I made an effort to learn basic ‘hello’ greetings in the many languages spoken in our school because I want students to know they are welcome.
I want them to know that whatever their baggage is and whatever culture they come from, we’re here to help them learn. We also have teachers that are passionate about their subjects. When you love your subject students feed off your energy and get inspired to learn and create.
Our school also demonstrates values that foster understanding of different cultures. We’re located in one of the most multi-cultural parts of London and we work hard to ensure that learning takes place in a culture of mutual respect. It’s all about being highly inclusive, embracing all cultures and beliefs and having a strong sense of community.
As some schools have stopped teaching the arts altogether, due to the government focus on STEM subjects, excluding some arts subjects from the league tables, how do you deal with the new challenges presented to you as a teacher in the field of art and design? And what do you think are the biggest risks we face when arts education is approached in this way?
Personally, I’m frustrated that arts subjects are often seen as “second class” subjects, which is why I’m so frustrated with funding cuts to arts education. Sadly, the proportion of pupils in England studying arts subjects such as music and drama has fallen to the lowest level in a decade as a result of the arts being slowly squeezed out of the curriculum.
It means that thousands of children across the country are missing out on finding their true calling. Arts education is all about helping pupils become well-rounded people. Unfortunately, fewer students are choosing to take creative subjects. We need to change that. Subjects such as drama and art help to build self-esteem and social skills – both of which are crucial when entering the workplace or further education.
What changes would you like to see in art and design education, to improve the system for both students and teachers?
As I say, I want to see arts education duly recognised. That’s why I’m passionate about using my new platform as the winner of the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize to get arts firmly back on the curriculum.
What advice would you give to our students who are thinking about going into teaching?
Good luck. You have entered the most noble profession and it is indeed the best job in the world!
Image Courtesy Varkey Foundation