DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A school teacher from the U.K. won a highly competitive $1 million teaching prize on Sunday for her work with inner city children in London, helping students feel welcome and safe in a borough with one of the highest murder rates in the country and where English is frequently spoken as a second language at home.
Greek-British Andria Zafirakou beat out some 30,000 applicants from around the world to win the Global Teacher Prize, which honors one exceptional teacher a year who’s made a significant contribution to the profession.
The Alperton Community School teacher was awarded for her work in the London borough of Brent, one of the most ethnically diverse places in the country. Her students come from some of the poorest families in Britain with parents who don’t necessarily speak English.
She is the first British teacher to win the award. After her name was announced, British Prime Minister Theresa May congratulated Zafirakou in a video recording, saluting and thanking her for her achievements in teaching.
“Being a great teacher requires resilience, ingenuity and a generous heart,” the prime minister said. “These are the qualities that you share with your students every day. So, thank you for all you have done and continue to do.”
Stunned and excited, the secondary school teacher began her speech saying, “Wow!”
She thanked her parents, who were in the audience, saying with laughter, “The Greek family have arrived.”
Zafirakou also praised the “beautiful” diversity of the school population and said the students are intense in their pursuit of education despite living in crowded homes where it is hard to find a quiet place to study and where many have to care for their siblings after school.
“For many of our students, English is not the main language spoken at home. It’s also a community where many of our students unfortunately live in challenging circumstances,” she said after accepting the award.
“What is amazing is that whatever issues they are having at home, whatever is missing from their lives or causes them pain, our school is theirs,” Zafirakou added.
Zafirakou, who works as an art and textiles teacher, stressed the importance of funding arts programs in schools, saying they teach students resilience and perseverance, as well as how to think creatively.
She was awarded the annual Global Teacher Prize during a star-studded ceremony in Dubai on Sunday hosted by Trevor Noah of the “Daily Show”. Other celebrities present included Hollywood star Charlize Theron and Indian actress Priyanka Chopra.
Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum was also on hand to present the prize.
The award is presented by the Varkey Foundation. Its founder, Sunny Varkey, established the for-profit GEMS Education company, which has more than 250 schools around the world.
Last year, Canadian teacher Maggie MacDonnell won the prize for her work with Inuit indigenous students in a remote and isolated Arctic village. Previous winners have hailed from the U.S. and Palestinian territory in the West Bank.