DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A British art teacher 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.
Andria Zafirakou, 39, 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 was credited for her efforts beyond the classroom, which include establishing relationships with parents, riding with students on the bus and standing at school gates with police officers to welcome students at the start of the day.
"It's always a nice thing sometimes to say hi to them in their language and then that just automatically makes them smile and it makes the connection with the child," she told The Associated Press.
Zafirakou is the first British teacher to win the award. Prime Minister Theresa May congratulated her in a video recording at the award ceremony.
"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 (high 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, who is born in London, also praised the "beautiful" diversity of her school's 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 on stage.
"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," she said.
Zafirakou, who works as an art and textiles teacher, stressed the importance of funding arts programs in schools. She said the arts help students think creatively, and teaches them resilience and perseverance.
She told the AP that with the million-dollar prize she'd like to think about a project for her community that celebrates creativity.
The Global Teacher Prize was awarded in 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 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. In previous years, the winners included a Palestinian and an American.