Sometimes it’s not just the victory; it’s the manner of the victory.
Just last month, London teacher (and IOE alumna), Andria Zafirakou, beat more than 30,000 entrants to win the Varkey Foundation’s annual Global Teacher prize. Leading the tributes, Theresa May highlighted the qualities of ‘resilience, ingenuity and a generous heart’ that earned Andria the closest thing teaching has to a Nobel Prize – and with it, a nifty $1m.
For all its sincerity, the Prime Minister’s eulogy must jar a little. The English education system, with its obsession with academic performativity, is at best ambivalent towards ‘progressive’ art and textiles teachers like Andria. Had she been nominated for a national ‘best teacher’ prize, adjudicated by May and her education ministers, one can’t help feel she wouldn’t have made it out of the group stages.
Andria, and teachers like her, are motivated not by the numbers game of dragging a proportion of their pupils over some arbitrary – and often slippery – grade boundary, but by how they can change the lives of them as individuals. All the more so if they have the additional challenge of social disadvantage.
Andria’s triumph is a victory for those who see teaching in terms of the deep and vital connections teachers nurture with children and young people, and the transformative power this has in unleashing their learning potential.
Someone who’ll be quietly cheered by Andria’s success is Baroness Mary Warnock.
Between 1973 and 1978, Baroness Warnock, a philosopher and former headteacher, chaired the most comprehensive enquiry into special education ever commissioned by a UK government. The enquiry marked a pivotal change in the provision of education for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) – away from segregation towards more inclusive approaches – and led to the blueprint of the SEND system we have today.
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Baroness Warnock as part of preparations for an event we’re holding at the IOE to mark 40 years since the publication of the Warnock Report (details below). You can watch the interview or download the podcast version here.
For me, the most impassioned points Baroness Warnock made in our discussion related to the importance of teachers’ attitudes to their children – regardless of whether they have SEND. For Mary, the role of the teacher “isn’t a matter of conveying information to their pupils, but a matter of loving them”.
Arguably, of course, it’s both. But Mary’s comments are a reminder that a teacher’s engagement with her or his pupils – what she calls the “personal connections” – is the foundation on which educational success is built.
Andria’s relentless curiosity about the lives and backgrounds of disadvantaged young people at Alperton Community School in Brent, where she teaches, and her thoughtful acts – setting up a cricket club for girls from conservative faith backgrounds; learning basic phrases in their home languages, such as Gujarati and Hindi – are the basis for enduring relationships. “How can I get in to that child? How can I get them to trust me and how can I help them?”, Andria asks. It’s these bonds of trust – vital for the most vulnerable pupils who perhaps have limited experience of nurturing relationships with adults – that allow them to thrive in school.
Mary believes these human and humane qualities are in short supply within the profession, and ought to be “the core of teacher training”. Teacher training, she says, “doesn’t give enough attention to the personal relationship that must hold between teachers and pupils” in order for them flourish.
“I think that loving their pupils is what the teacher has to be trained to do, and then they’ll see as they go along who’s floundering, who’s in difficulties, who really does need a bit of extra help”.
The extent to which this is a teachable skill is, perhaps, the million-dollar question. In the current climate of high stakes accountability and pressures of workload, it’s one at risk of getting overlooked.
The best teacher in the world, however, would see it otherwise:
“Instead of worrying about teaching the curriculum or making sure that you’ve got a strict classroom environment, build your relationships first. Get your kids on board, connect with them, find out what it is that they’re interested in. Build the relationship, build that trust. And then everything else can happen”.
About the event
The IOE is holding a public debate to mark the 40th anniversary of the Warnock Report:
5.45pm—7.15pm, 8th May 2018
Location: Jeffery Hall, UCL Institute of Education, 20 Bedford Way, London, WC1H 0AL
The evening features a discussion by panellists, including writer and actress Sally Phillips, special school principal Vijita Patel, disability rights activist Tara Flood, and Klaus Wedell, Emeritus Professor of SEN, UCL Institute of Education.