This week on Small Talk, we sat down with Andria Zafirakou, an extraordinary woman paving the way towards thoughtful and creative education. Crowned ‘Best Teacher in the World’, we dove deep into what it truly means to be an educator in the classroom and the world.
“I first taught when I was about five years old. I remember always playing teacher or librarian with my teddys and my toys. We had a parent consultation meeting when I was about eight years old, and my mum came home and told me, ‘you must stop being so bossy and telling your teachers what to do!’ So, apparently, I was teaching my teachers how to teach.”
Oftentimes, we feel as if we were born to do something. For athletes like our friend Kevin Love, basketball seemed to be written in the stars. Andria Zafirakou, on the other hand, was born to teach.
“When I was around fourteen or fifteen, I remember sitting in the art room and thinking, ‘when I’m a teacher, I’ll put the chalkboard over there, and the paints on the other side because they don’t work where they are now, so I’ll need to move them.’ I was more or less organizing my teaching space.”
Andria Zafirakou is an Arts and Textiles teacher. Having had a passion for the arts since a young age and an innate and driving desire to teach, Andria was destined to merge her passions into one.
“I think art has always been within me. My earliest memories were painting and drawing. I remember the process of creating and the decisions I had to make in the creative process, and it really shaped me.”
Best in the Business:
In 2018, Andria Zafirakou was awarded The Global Teacher Prize, being crowned The Best Teacher in the World. With over 30,000 entries and candidates from across the globe, we wanted to know, in her opinion, what differentiated her from the rest.
“Well, that’s an excellent question, and I hope that someday someone will tell me. What is it that made me stand out in the application? The answer is, I don’t know. What is it that they saw in me? I can’t be sure. But what I’m hoping, and what I would like to be celebrated for, is the arts, and the fact that for once, the arts themselves are really showcased for the life-changing and transformative subjects that they are.”
Since before we knew how to walk and talk, art has been in our lives. Whether we drew on the walls, in the dirt with a stick, or made paintings with our hands, we’ve been innately drawn to art and the self-expression that it grants.
“Art can be a catalyst to young people’s further achievements.”
Being as humble as she is, Andria shares her recognition with the subject she teaches, praising and giving thanks to the arts for all that it has done for her, as well as her students. Yet, being acknowledged as Best Teacher in the World comes down to much more than the subject taught.
“It could be that fact that it's more than a job for me. It could be the fact that it’s what I do; it’s who I am. I still pinch myself sometimes, but I stand for all of the art teachers and am advocating a subject which I love.”
Above and Beyond:
It’s all about relationships.
Andria Zafirakou demonstrates her leadership and dedication towards teaching and her students, both in and out of the classroom. Having learned greetings and phrases in over 35 languages to better connect with her diverse group of students and visit their homes to understand their family lives further, Andria goes both above and beyond to get to know each student as an individual.
“It’s a huge pressure we have as teachers, making sure that our classrooms are making progress and reaching the targets. But I think the trait to ensuring growth and progress is building relationships. When we’re genuinely interested in our students and show interest in their interests, it really helps connect young people with adults and teachers. When you have that, I think the space and the environment for teaching happen so naturally; it happens in a really kind of powerful way.”
When we develop true and genuine connections with those in our lives, trust and willingness begin to form. We begin to trust ourselves and trust our relationships, thus becoming more willing to go above and beyond for those we care for and those who have cared for us.
“They don’t want to let you down. When you work really hard for them, they’ll work really hard for you.”
Mindfulness in the Making:
The Alperton Community School, where Andria teaches, is an inclusive comprehensive school with a student intake that reflects a wonderfully diverse and vibrant local community.
Her school not only promotes inclusion, but encourages attention towards mindfulness. Offering students outlets such as yoga, boxing, and the arts, those who attend this school engrain thoughtful practices into their lives that they will surely carry throughout their journeys.
“As adults, those of us who practice mindfulness; know how incredibly powerful it is for us just in terms of being present and shutting out the noise. When you’re a teacher, noise is everything; it’s always there. So, to have those opportunities to invite calm and peace, and feel connected with yourself, is important.”
As schools begin to re-open after the devastation and tragedy that COVID has caused in the world, children's minds remain confused and, in many cases, filled with unresolved questions.
“The young mind is very confused, and it's asking lots of questions. It’s scared and it’s nervous, and there’s lots of anxiety, anger, and frustration. Where is the outlet for these emotions and feelings, what spaces are safe? It’s a school. But you need the vehicles to do this, vehicles like boxing, mindfulness, yoga, sports; anything that they can completely throw themselves into which enables their thinking minds to switch off.”
By offering these mindful outlets, students have meditative ways to express their underlying and oftentimes fearful emotions. In doing so, children can feel safe, feel like unique individuals, and no longer feel the need to compare themselves to anyone else.
“It gives them that kind of resilience. When you are young, with so many pressures like social media and what’s going on in the world, resilience is what’s needed as a priority to go forward.”
“It is there, the tools to create are there, and it is essential. It heals us; it makes us better people, so why are we dumbing it down and saying it’s not important for us.”
The paradigm of the curriculum is oftentimes a set structure of discipline and academic rigor. With the government's focus on stem subjects like science, technology, engineering, and math, many of the arts are excluded from the curriculum. They are the first budgets to be cut due to their apparent unnecessary extravagance.
As creatures who thrive on expression and creativity, one could only be left wondering, ‘who in the world decided that.’
“I mean, who on earth thought of that? Who made that comment? I can tell you who it was; it was an individual in some leadership government role who probably was or thought they were bad at art, therefore deeming it unimportant. But we know it’s the opposite.”
From the age of zero, children grow and thrive by playing, coloring, exploring, using their imaginations, and experimenting with the world they are beginning to discover.
Through falling, we learn how to pick ourselves up, and it is through creating that we believe in all we can become.
“This is all part of the process that we teach in our subject; it just comes naturally. I think the thing that really frustrates me is that if we were to think of the world’s geniuses, we would think of Leonardo DaVinci, who was seen as an absolute genius; he was an artist; he was a scientist. Einstein could not stop celebrating the importance of creativity and how it helped him become who he was and aided in the discoveries he made. So, why are we segregating? Why have we just pulled the arts out of the equation and said it’s 'unnecessary'?”
Whether it be invention and innovation, literature and poetry, art in and of itself has shaped and created the world in which we live. Naming the arts as an unnecessary extravagance is to limit ourselves and our potential contribution to the world.
“My frustration is that if we could combine these subjects, inviting teachers to draw and create, mixing and mashing their curriculum, the learning would be incredible. We would have some really outstanding and happy communities in our world.”
We all learn differently. For some, science can only be grasped when diagrams are drawn, and for others, math is better understood with colors and storylines. There is no one fixed way that the brain works and absorbs information because we are all different.
The sooner we accept that, the sooner we grant ourselves and our youth space to truly make our marks on the world.
“I’ve met so many people who were either bankers or in corporate roles, and they’ve stepped away and gone into the creative world. But I’ve never met a creative who’s gone into banking.”
Open Mindset, Creative Approach:
All over the world, schools like The Alperton Community School are incorporating many different tools and tactics to better influence, inspire and educate their students.
As mention in our interview with Nathan Chen, self-expression and creative expression are crucial when intending to reach one’s full potential. Andria couldn’t agree more and wishes that teachers worldwide would become more open to introducing creativity into their ways of teaching.
“Creativity is being able to experiment. It’s being able to communicate, make mistakes and try again. It’s not just about the arts; it's every subject. Every teacher can be creative; it doesn’t matter what you teach. So, I would like there to be more emphasis on teaching in a creative way, experimental ways, and see what happens to the classroom and the learners when you have that open mindset.”
Creativity allows us to become open to every possibility.
When we are given the safe space to make mistakes, experiment, and imagine, we go beyond the boundaries we once put in place for ourselves, and who knows what wondrous experiences lie ahead.
Strength in Stumbling:
“There’s been countless times when I’ve stumbled. And I still am stumbling in some ways; I think we all are. But I believe it comes down to having no regrets and having that moral compass that if you are going to do something, it’s for the right reason.”
When we are guided by our hearts and follow our callings, the stumbles, and roadblocks that once seemed terrifying, soon become lessons learned.
“I’ve learned over the last three years that it’s okay to be in your comfort zone but make an effort to be outside of your comfort zone more frequently. It’s when you’re outside of your comfort zone that you learn so much about yourself.”
Stepping outside of our comfort zones, at first, seems scary, but in doing so, we are soon shown what we are truly capable of and what we’ve been capable of all along.
“We say ‘okay' to challenge, and we acknowledge that we’re in it, so let’s just ride it and see where it takes us.”
Loving the Journey:
Andria Zafirakou is evidently an outstanding educator. We wanted to know what the word ‘teacher’ means to her.
“I think it’s not a thing or a person, but I think the word teacher means to love the journey of life.”
When we love and embrace our journeys, we come to find that everyone can be a teacher to us, and every experience can be an opportunity to learn and grow.
“To shut up probably.”
We had a few laughs at this.
“Okay, I’ve got one. A good friend of mine said to me, ‘you don’t have a poker face; I can read you through your facial expressions, learn to have a poker face.’ At first, I actually felt quite upset at this comment, but it was a good piece of advice, and I’m learning to bring it all in.”
We all need honest and genuine friends, the type of friends that tell us what we may not want to hear sometimes, but who do so out of love.
We asked Andria Zafirakou what she knows 100% to be true, her answer….
That’s it. For me, that’s what it’s all about. It can be immediate family, it can be my school, it can be my church community, but at the end of the day, family is everything.”
At TrooMe, we believe that there is nothing stronger than the bond of family. Family is whoever we make it; family tethers us in times of trouble, and family loves us for who we are, quirks and all.
May we follow in Andria’s footsteps, expressing our true selves, stepping outside of our comfort zones, and knowing in our hearts that there is beauty and brilliance on the other side of the rainbow. All that is needed of us is to take that first step.