Andria Zafirakou doesn’t do lunch. Instead, she stands in a playground at Alperton Community School in north London, where she has been an art teacher for 12 years, eating a sandwich and discouraging 1,400 pupils from doing anything nasty to each other.
安德里亚•扎菲拉库(Andria Zafirakou)不正经吃午饭，而是站在伦敦北部阿尔珀顿社区学校(Alperton Community School)的操场上，一边啃着三明治一边盯着1400名学生，防止他们调皮。她已经在这所学校当了12年美术老师。
I don’t do lunch for a similar reason — because in my new career as a maths teacher, I’m either on duty in another playground in east London or scrabbling to prepare for my next lesson.
So we meet on a Saturday at the Langham Hotel in central London, which she has chosen because afternoon tea is her favourite meal, and there you can have it for lunch. But when I ring to book, half of London appears to want pastries at midday and the place is full. I call the press office and explain that I’m meeting the woman who has been crowned the best teacher in the world, winning a $1m prize paid for by the philanthropist Sunny Varkey and endorsed by Bill Clinton and Bill Gates. Magically, there is a table after all.
所以我们某个周六约在伦敦市中心的朗廷酒店(Langham Hotel)会面，因为她最爱下午茶，而且在那你可以把下午茶当午饭。但当我打电话预订时，一半的伦敦人似乎都想在中午吃点心，位子已经订满了。我打电话给酒店的新闻办，解释说，我要见的这位女士曾荣获全球最佳教师称号，并获得了由慈善家桑尼•瓦尔基(Sunny Varkey)支付、比尔•克林顿(Bill Clinton)及比尔•盖茨(Bill Gates)赞助的100万美元奖金。于是我奇迹般地订到了位子。
Across the marble court where a piano tinkles comes a dark-haired woman in her late thirties. I extend a hand but she enfolds me in a hug before settling comfortably into a cream leather armchair. I tell her that she is now famous enough to command a table in a fully booked restaurant.
“Wow! Really?” she beams. “Wow. I mean, wow.”
A waiter in a pastel suit asks how we are. “Good, really good!” says the best teacher in the world, turning her smile on him and returning the question. “I am just like you,” he replies. “Good. Very good.”
I, on the other hand, am a bit anxious. I have been longing to have an audience with Zafirakou since she won the prize in March, but have had to wait my turn while Theresa May, the prime ministers of Greece and Cyprus and the global educational establishment got in first.
In my notebook I have a list of questions that have been increasingly bothering me since I joined the profession last September. What does it mean to be a good teacher? Does the job have to be this knackering? Why is education so political and polarised, with the new traditionalist and the more creative schools despising each other? And, most important, what is education for?
But first I ask her if she’d like a glass of champagne with her tea. “Oh, God. Yes. That’s not a hard decision.”
We order the basic afternoon tea (which comes at a not especially basic price of £55 each) but fail to choose between the 44 teas on offer and delegate the task to the waiter.
If Zafirakou is looking paler than the radiant woman I’ve just watched on YouTube accepting the prize in a storm of golden confetti, it’s no surprise. As well as being the best teacher, she must now be the busiest: on top of the day job she has the additional responsibility of endlessly saying how marvellous it is to be a teacher.
“Look,” she says. “I have been given this incredible platform. I’m changing the world! Varkey genuinely believes teaching is the most important job there is. He said: ‘I want you to be part of the Oscars.’ It’s crazy. Crazy.”
Her outpouring is interrupted by the return of our waiter bearing two low stools on which he places our handbags.
Having set up a charity to persuade status-conscious bankers, lawyers and diplomats to start again in the classroom, I’m all for anything that makes a fuss of teachers. Yet I’m worried about the prize. I doubt if my colleagues would agree on who is the best teacher in just one school, so how is it possible to declare one person the best in the world?
“Well, I’m obviously not the best,” she says. “I’m just lucky that I was nominated — by someone who I worked with years ago. There are better teachers than me; I work with some of them.”
She contemplates the dainty finger sandwiches that have been placed in front of us and takes a bite of the smoked salmon one.
She tells me how she very nearly disqualified herself by failing to fill out the form she’d been sent. It was only at the eleventh hour, while simultaneously hemming the trousers of the man she was due to marry the following day (a personal trainer who is the father of her two young daughters) that she got around to the task. Two Skype calls later, she found herself whisked out of her playground in Brent into the glitz of Dubai, where she proceeded to beat 33,000 others from 173 countries.
But now, months later, I wonder if the charm is fading. If I’d won the prize, I’d feel mocked by it every time I gave a dud lesson. “Lucy, I’ve been doing this job for 12 years. So I know the children will always learn something in every lesson and that one child will blow my mind. They run to my classroom and they complain that you’re late even though it’s still break time!”
This description is not chiming with my own experience. I ask if it’s different in maths, but it turns out it isn’t: “At my school, children love maths.”
As she takes a chicken sandwich, I rummage around in my bag for the school exercise book on which I have written May’s thoughts on teachers: “We have those books!” Zafirakou exclaims, and then, examining my scrawl, demands: “Where’s your margin, date and title?”
I read out the three qualities the PM thinks make a good teacher: resilience, ingenuity and a generous heart. Zafirakou nods emphatically. “You can’t fault that,” she says.
But I’m not sure about the generous heart. It is not immediately apparent in some of the maths teachers I admire; neither does it seem to be part of government policy. Nowhere is it mentioned in the eight teaching standards that I had spent the morning trying to find evidence of as part of my teacher training qualification.
“You have to have a generous heart,” she insists. “Even if you are mean to a child who hasn’t done their homework, it’s because you care.”
The size of Zafirakou’s own organ is beyond doubt. She works in a community where child poverty and violent gangs are normal. She has helped set up a Somali choir, started a girls-only cricket team and has learnt “hello” and “goodbye” in 35 languages. She has even taken a child to Asda to buy him a decent uniform and paid out of her own pocket.
Such work deserves an award. Yet as one of the world’s feebler teachers, I feel more awed than motivated by her example. What I want is a role model who will show me how to be better at what I consider the true essence of my job: explaining Pythagoras’s theorem. “But Lucy, it’s your first year! At the moment you’ve got to get your pedagogy right. But ultimately, teaching is not just what happens in the classroom — we are mums, we are mentors, we are psychologists, we are role models.”
Which raises the question of how she manages to be a mother to so many — as well as to two small daughters of her own. And, more to the point, isn’t she working in a way that for normal people is not sustainable? “I’m lucky my husband works around me and I get support from parents and family. I’m lucky. Other’s aren’t, but I am.”
She describes a working week in which she wakes up at 6.15am, is in school an hour later, and for the next 11 hours teaches art classes, has meetings with senior staff (she is an assistant principal) and negotiates with social workers, the police and parents.
“I sometimes forget to go to the bathroom; that’s how busy I am,” she says.
Back home, she watches Holby City with her daughters, after which she sends emails and plans lessons late into the evening. On Saturday mornings the family goes to the cinema, then Greek school in the afternoon followed by an extended family supper at her mother’s. On Sundays it is the Greek orthodox church (her father is a priest), and by the evening she’s working again.
It seems to me a life that is both ordinary and extraordinary. Yet the drudgery and routine seem a source of joy for Zafirakou. “I was a teacher before I was a parent; I was a teacher before I was a wife; my sister’s a teacher, my parents are teachers of sorts. It fuels me.”
A basket of warm scones arrives; she takes one and cuts into it. “Great! It just crumbled open! Brilliant!”
As such a Stakhanovite herself, does she agree that teachers work too hard? And is that the main thing that puts off prospective teachers, and makes actual ones quit? “We need to value teachers more,” she says, “pay them decently; give them time to improve. We need to be like China — the only country in the world that values its teachers as much as doctors.”
She thinks teachers should learn to blow their own horns. “We aren’t good at saying, ‘This is something great I’ve done.’ We just get on with it.” A couple of months ago, she tells me, she did something great with a year eight student. “Let’s call him Fred. He can’t write and has every special need there is. But one day Fred produced the most incredible art piece. His work didn’t have a name on so I raised it and I was like, ‘Let’s critique it, everyone.’ They’re like, ‘Miss, really good painting.’ So I go, ‘OK, whose is this work?’ Then he put his hand up.
“That moment for that child has transformed everything. I’ve saved him — he now does not feel inferior to anyone else in that room.”
So what exactly did she do to make that happen?
“I make environments where it is OK to fail. I’ve had kids throw tantrums. I have got sworn at. I’ve had those moments but for me, that’s OK.”
Hang on a minute. Is she advocating swearing?
“No, not at all. But if it’s a vulnerable child with a lot of issues, I would rather they let it all out with me in a safe environment than with another teacher or a student.”
This is so far from the ethos at my own school I don’t know where to begin. I ask what she thinks of such schools (much favoured by the government) where kids walk around in silence. Where there is much drilling and where poor kids get great results. And where swearing at a teacher is unheard of.
“Every child is different,” she says mildly. “Some children will really benefit from the military lining up and find it comforting.”
The response is so diplomatic I wonder if she has been media trained not to say anything that will upset any of the world’s 80m fellow teachers.
But then she goes on: “But some children won’t be able to adapt to those environments and that will cause mental health issues.”
Which leads to the most fundamental question of all: what is education for? Is it about passing exams? Is it about knowledge, or something else altogether?
“Good question. In my opinion schools are there to enable students to achieve beyond their wildest dreams.”
Surely, I say, this is over-egging it. What if their wildest dreams are being Beyoncé or Messi?
“OK,” she agrees. “Then it’s to open the doors to whatever the possibilities may be.”
I wonder where all this zeal comes from. She was brought up in north London by Greek-Cypriot parents and I suggest that the experience of coming from an immigrant family might make her better understand the kids in her school.
She dismisses this out of hand. It was the happiness of her childhood — not its difficulty — that motivates her. “I’ve been very much loved and very much cared for and because of that if I don’t see it in other people, I go, right: how can I fix this?”
She tells me about an encounter the previous week with a 12-year-old student who arrived late, looking glum. “He goes: ‘Miss, I’ve had a bad day.’ I go: ‘Why?’ ‘Because, Miss, the landlord was meant to fix the boiler six months ago but he hasn’t, so I couldn’t have a shower and I didn’t want to upset my mum ’cause she’s just come out of hospital again. There’s damp in my mum’s room and there’s a man who said he’ll come and fix it but he’s going to charge £300. Where are we going to get £300 from?’ ”
She looks at me, eyes shining with indignation. I suggest that there’s not much she could do about this tale of woe. She disagrees.
“I say to him: ‘Right, you haven’t had breakfast. Let’s go to the canteen and get the chef to make something for us.’ I tell him I skipped breakfast, too, even though I never skip meals, as you see,” she gestures towards her body. “Then I’ll check his PE kit, see if it needs a wash. Then I’ll ring Mum and ask if she’s OK, and see if she wants the school to write a letter to the landlord . . . ”
Our waiter is back to describe the miniature confections in front of us. I hear the words dandelion, hibiscus mousse and lime and basil puff pastry. There is something that looks like a toy fried egg, but turns out to be white chocolate and mango jelly. Too fancy, I complain when he’s gone.
“I’m loving the fanciness. And, come on, we’re paying for it.”
She whips out her phone and starts taking photos. “Wow. This is amazing. Sorry, I’m being tacky.”
When she’s done, I ask about the million dollars.
“The thought of so much money is so stressful. It’s mind-blowing. I am in a position now that I’m going to change the world. I want to bring artists, designers, musicians, actors, into schools — and I’ll be using the funds to help me do that. You see, the children in my school — they don’t go out during the weekends.”
I interrupt to tell her one of my pupils recently mistook St Pancras station for Big Ben.
我打断她说，我一个学生最近把圣潘克拉斯火车站(St Pancras)和大本钟(Big Ben)都搞混了。
“Oh Lucy, you get it!” she says.
But wouldn’t it be nice to use the money to pay off the mortgage instead? “I have everything I need,” she says. “My family are healthy, there’s a roof over our heads. I don’t want to go out and buy an expensive handbag.”
I glance at her bag, perched on its stool. “£36 from Fiorelli,” she says.
Tea/lunch is nearly over, but before she goes she wishes me luck. “You’re a fierce force, you’re going to make it work. I would recruit you!”
As I digest this cheering news, she asks something I don’t expect:
“Do you have a husband?”
From anyone else, this’d be darn cheek, but I’m pretty sure she only asked because she was fretting about my wellbeing. It is not enough for the best teacher in the world to help all the vulnerable students at her school; a random journalist-turned-teacher is treated to her same magic combination of belief and compassion.
Lucy Kellaway is an FT contributing editor and co-founder of Now Teach
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