Having covered the Global Teacher prize since it started in 2015, it has become a staple on the Teach Middle East Magazine calendar. Each year we publicise the call for entrants, then we look forward to the top 50 being named and then we anxiously await the announcement of the top 10. Once the top 10 have been named, we start taking a more in-depth look at their individual stories, in readiness for meeting them personally, once they arrive in Dubai, for the annual Global Education and Skills Forum (GESF), as well as The Global Teacher Prize ceremony. We are normally afforded the privilege of interviewing all ten finalists on the eve of the start of GESF. This is our opportunity to really get to know the finalists before they get swept up in the frenzy of what has been rightly dubbed the DAVOS for education.
Every year we argue in the office about who our favourite finalist is and why, but we never admit it publicly, so I know I am breaking protocol by admitting that Andria was my favourite ever since the finalists were announced and I learned more about her story. Like Andria, I spent several years teaching in an inner city school in North London and I understand all too well the challenges the students and teachers in these schools face on a daily basis. Unlike Andria, I left that life behind when I moved to the United Arab Emirates with my family. I also identify with her story because I owe all my success to educators like Andria, who go above and beyond, every day, to ensure that the students in their care receive the best education possible. This is no easy feat as the challenges are great.
When I met Andria, we started chatting like old friends. I felt as if I had known her for quite a while. We had a lengthy conversation about London, teaching in the inner city and what it takes to make a difference in the lives of children. We swapped stories about situations we had encountered teaching in London and we also talked about North London, a place we are both very familiar with. Her enthusiasm was palpable. It was clear, she loves her students and she absolutely believes that she is making a difference in their lives every day. If you have not yet seen the short film done about her by the Global Teacher Prize then I encourage you to do so. It can be found at this link: https://youtu.be/BrMaive-xiU.
Andria teaches at Alperton Community School, a secondary school academy in the inner city borough of Brent in London, England. It’s no easy task. Brent is one of the most ethnically diverse places in the country and 130 languages are spoken in its schools. Its pupils come from some of the poorest families in Britain, many sharing one house with as much as five other families and many more exposed to gang violence. Children arrive at the school with limited skills and already feel isolated from staff and one another, making engaging with them all the more vital, but also, all the more difficult. After chatting with Andria, I could not help feeling like I have just met a real-life hero. I reflected on our conversations the days following and wrote down some key life lessons I learned from her, which I wish to share with you in this article.
Lesson 1: Teachers really matter
“There is no other job like being a teacher. In what other profession are you selfless and completely devoted to creating the right opportunities for another person to achieve? Being in a classroom and watching a student have an idea and transform it into a formidable outcome, is so satisfying and fulfils me.” Andria noted. I am convinced daily of this fact and the more I reflect on the work that teachers do in shaping society, I cannot help but think that they deserve the highest regard. The Global Teacher Prize is a great initiative in bringing this to the forefront of our thinking annually, but so much more needs to be done.
Lesson 2: We all have the ability to make a difference
The odds were stacked against Andria succeeding, but she has defied them. Working as an art and textiles teacher and as a member of the senior leadership team tasked with earning the trust of her pupils and their families to understand the complex lives they’ve come from, Andria redesigned the curriculum across all subjects from scratch – carefully working alongside other teachers – to have it resonates with her pupils. She helped a music teacher launch a Somali school choir and she created alternative timetables to allow girls–only sports, that would not offend conservative communities, leading the girls’ cricket team to win the McKenzie Cup. These steps taken by Andria will have far-reaching effects. Making a difference starts with you and me doing what we can to make someone else’s life better.
Lesson 3: Building relationships is key
Learning the basics of many of the 35 languages in Alperton’s pupil population, Andria has been able to reach out to her once marginalised students to earn their trust and, crucially, establish relationships with their parents. Thanks to her efforts, Alperton is now in the top 1 – 5% of the country, in terms of qualifications and accreditations. This is a colossal achievement, given how low the students’ starting points were and how rapidly they have progressed during their five to seven years at the school, a point recognised by the national inspection team.
Lesson 4: Passion is important but your “why” will take you further
Andria is proud when her students go on to university, get jobs and set up their own businesses. Andria’s determination to move beyond the school curriculum has seen Alperton awarded the Institute of Education’s Professional Development Platinum Mark, an honour fewer than 10 British schools have ever achieved. Andria’s “why” has remained firm, she believes that all students have potential and all they need are adults in their lives who care enough to help them realise their potential. She not only believes in the potential of her students but also that of her colleagues and she inspires them to be the best teachers they can be. As the leader of professional development in her school, Andria also works with teachers to help them improve.
Lesson 5: Never give up because a lot is riding on your perseverance
When I asked Andria what kept her going when the going got tough, she smiled and said: “If I give up, who will help the students?” Giving up may sometimes seem like the easier option, but giving up can have detrimental effects on the lives of those depending on you. In a place like Northwest London where poverty and deprivation are rife, the students are used to being let down by society, their parents and adults in general. In an area where gang culture is prevalent, giving up on a child could lead them straight into the waiting arms of a gang.
Andria has shown us that we all can make a difference no matter how small. She is a worthy winner of The Global Teacher Prize 2018 and we wish her all the success!
By: Leisa Grace Wilson