There will be many quiet and unrewarded teachers who work hard under very difficult conditions encouraging children to learn successfully. Particularly as they must feel that the political climate is stacked against them doing so, with its heavy focus on tests and objectives and league tables.
So it especially uplifting to read how Andria Zafirakou, the teacher who won the award, has an approach which tends to disregard that.
In her recent interview with the Guardian she explains that she probably wouldn’t have been considered for the award if she had focussed entirely on obtaining expected government-set targets, as teachers for the most part feel compelled to do. Instead her approach is to focus on personally connecting with the pupils to discover the best way to help them as individuals. And it is this personal approach, she feels, which gets the best results. And perhaps what won her the award.
This approach, using art, drama and creative work to develop students’ trust and confidence, may contradict many of the political ideas about ‘problem’ children needing tough regimes and strong academics in order to succeed. There are many challenged children in the school where she works, she says. But gaining their trust is what helps them progress, she maintains.
Zafirakou is more concerned with helping the children overcome their personal issues than anything else, even down to nourishing themselves properly and getting them to school, both common issues. By showing an interest in their challenges, she believes, and when personal things are taken care of, the academic success will follow. She also believes that through art and drama practices, often so readily sidelined in schools, valuable life skills are built enabling pupils to develop further.
She says teaching is all about building relationships and clearly puts in much time and energy in order to do that.
It is inspirational to read about her; her work highlighted by winning the award. But she is the first to admit that she would really like all teachers to be recognised for the extraordinary work they do along the same lines.
Teachers have a very tough job fulfilling the demands of rigid curriculum and government objectives, often in fear of criticism or their jobs. Many of the pupils in their care have, like Zafirakou describes, many obstacles to overcome before any learning can progress that trying to reach often unrealistic governmental targets is sometimes impossible. But Zafirakou demonstrates that a more personal approach can work.
Her work illustrates that teaching and learning is all to do with people, not policies. It is about humanity, about developing care and consideration, trust and responsibility in the next generation. And it is warm, brave, imaginative teachers who do that.
And it’s that invisible work which so many teachers do that, for the most part, remains unrewarded.