Gold confetti rained down on Andria Zafirakou, an art and textiles teacher from London, as she was named winner of the US$1 million (Dh3.67m) Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize 2018 at a star-studded awards gala in Dubai on Sunday.
Ms Zafirakou was feted by an audience of more than 2,000 education, entertainment, business and government leaders in a lavish ceremony at Atlantis, The Palm, hosted by South African comedian and The Daily Show host, Trevor Noah. The trophy was delivered by F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton.
A video broadcast followed Mr Hamilton as he drove to the awards gala in a convertible white Mercedes escorted by Dubai Police. When he finally arrived on stage to hand Mr Noah the award, the comedian asked what took him so long.
“There were speed bumps everywhere,” quipped Mr Lewis, as the audience laughed.
“I said I needed the fastest man in Dubai,” said Mr Noah. “And then you were, like, cruising with the police. I thought you were going to be flying, what happened?”
“I got lost, I’m sorry,” said Mr Lewis. “The navigation wasn’t working.”
“Yes, because they keeping building new things in Dubai, man,” said Mr Noah. “It’s like they can’t stop building.”
The surprise appearances by both stars were the first of many during the presentation, which was attended by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, and other local sheikhs and ministers. Also in attendance was former president of France Nicholas Sarkozy and other global dignitaries and leaders.
The winning teacher’s name was announced by pupils in a video broadcast, 2,000 of whom set a new Guinness World Record by standing in the largest human hashtag symbol.
The also audience gasped as UK Prime Minister Theresa May appeared on screen to congratulate Ms Zafirakou.
“Being a great teacher requires resilience, ingenuity and a generous heart,” said Ms May. “These are the qualities that you share with your students every day, so thank you for all you have done and continue to do.”
Ms May thanked Sheikh Mohammed for his support of the teaching profession and patronage of the prize and she congratulated the Varkey Foundation “for giving us such a powerful celebration of the work of teachers and your commitment to education throughout the world”.
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In a message to all teachers, Ms May said: “Your profession is so important, sparking curious young minds and educating the leaders, artists, scientists and entrepreneurs of tomorrow. That’s why as well as saluting Andrea’s achievements, the Global Teacher Prize is a tribute to all teachers. So to our winner, her fellow finalists and every dedicated teacher around the world, thank you.”
Ms Zafirakou was recognised for her work at Alperton Community School, an inner-city school in Brent, a multicultural community in London where more than one-third of children live in poverty and more than half of the residents were born outside the UK.
In describing Ms Zafirakou’s work, organisers said she “transformed her school’s approach to reach often isolated young people so that they can engage in school life and perform to the best of their abilities”. She helped a music teacher launch a Somali school choir and created all-girls sports. Ms Zafirakou also redesigned her school’s art curriculum and learned to greet her students in many of the 35 languages spoken at her school.
“One of the most important things that we can do as teachers is to show that our schools are safe havens,” said Ms Zafirakou. “Our school celebrates diversity and shapes [students] into real citizens who accept and appreciate one another.”
Ms Zafirakou also made a case for arts in education.
“I am proud to be an art and textiles teacher,” she said. “The arts have to fight for space in the curriculum and for funding. They are often the first budgets to be cut. This is so wrong. The arts teach students how to think creatively, which will be important for the jobs they are likely to do when they leave school. They also teach resilience and that perseverance can pay off. For my students, the arts provide a sanctuary. A place where they can safely express themselves and connect with their identity.”
Four women and six men were selected as Global Teacher Prize 2018 finalists from more than 30,000 nominations and applications from 173 countries.
The awards ceremony, which concluded with a live performance by American singer Jennifer Hudson, capped off two days of the GESF, an annual gathering to address some of the greatest challenges in education. The forum featured a large number of celebrities from the world of entertainment and sports as well as renowned academics, business leaders and leading public intellectuals.
“We live in a world – good or bad – where in order to draw attention to something you need celebrity, you need star power, you need the convening agency of people that have an incredible amount of influence,” said Dino Varkey, chief executive of Gems Education, which sponsors the annual forum. “By having them here, we can use their ability to convene their voice, their network to further the cause of education. Their power is to carry on this cause beyond this event, beyond this moment. That is something we are very proud of them doing.”