Global Teacher Prize Winner Andria Zafirakou visits MIT

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By Kate Stringer

Founded in 2015, the Global Teacher Prize is awarded yearly by the Varkey Foundation and is rapidly gaining a reputation as the “Nobel Prize for Teaching”. On September 27th, in conjunction with the Scheller Teacher Education Program, the pK-12 Action Group was pleased to host 2018 winner Andria Zafirakou, an arts and textiles teacher at the Alperton Community School in northwest London, England. In a brief but wide-ranging talk at the Action Group’s monthly luncheon, Zafirakou spoke about her approach to arts education as a path for opening up opportunities for students of all interests and abilities, and some of the challenges affecting pK-12 education worldwide, including funding cuts, teacher exploitation, and the difficulties of keeping pace with ever-evolving technology.

An arts educator hailing from a multi-lingual, multi-cultural urban community, Zafirakou gave a passionate defense of the arts as integral to an egalitarian school experience. Citing her experience working with students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, she commented that arts education, often the first item on the list of budget cuts in less affluent communities, is a vital means of opening doors to modes of expression and collaboration that transcend skill gaps, cultural differences and language barriers. In her own words, “Arts education is inclusive, doesn’t stereotype and is available to everyone.” An ebullient speaker whose remarks were interspersed with moments of self-deprecating humor, Zafirakou described her opinions as “ferocious,” but it was obvious that this ferocity is born of a deep commitment to her students and to the field of education.

While advocating for cross disciplinary approaches to teaching, Zafirakou voiced criticism of STEM and STEAM initiatives as not inclusive enough, asking “who else are we leaving out?” in those acronyms. When asked about assessment tools for student learning, she expressed wariness of models that rely too heavily on testing: “Are we assessing everything that child is? Are we assessing everything they’re capable of? Or is it just that 1.5 hours of writing?” Wondering aloud about the practical purpose of teaching students to be brilliant test-takers, she commented, “We have got children who have got the best results you possibly can but… they’re not employable because all they have learnt is to study for the test.” To counteract the repetitive, uninspired nature of test-based teaching, Zafirakou advocated for strong, open-minded school leadership and an emphasis on teacher collaboration as key to creating both a healthy school ecosystem and the most impactful student experience possible. She also continually returned to the theme of treating students as individuals with unique viewpoints and capabilities, saying “[I] appreciate the fact that [students] have other ideas or concepts that will not fit into my world and that is okay.” She particularly stressed the need for teachers to learn alongside their students: “We need to constantly be improving and see what’s new… Our children are running parallel with us because they’re using technology. I’m on this journey with them. It’s about the mindset of, ‘I want to learn too.’”

Later that day, Zafirakou also spoke at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. That talk can be accessed via the School’s Facebook page.