Created to recognize an exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession, the prize includes a $1 million cash award to be paid over ten years. The annual prize is awarded by the foundation under the patronage of HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and emir of Dubai.
Zafirakou teaches at Alperton Community School, a secondary school in the inner-city London borough of Brent, a poor and diverse neighborhood where the student population speaks thirty-five languages and many kids are exposed to gang violence. A member of the senior leadership team tasked with earning the trust of students and building relationships with their families, Zafirakou learned the basics of many of their native languages and redesigned the curriculum across all subjects to meet student needs and interests — including helping a music teacher launch a Somali school choir and creating alternative timetables to allow for girls-only sports. In her own classes, Zafirakou — who believes that art and textiles "help students unlock all of their language barriers" — not only redesigned the curriculum but also brought in an artist-in-residence to inspire students and help them cope with their complex home circumstances.
She also worked with the police to prevent gangs from recruiting students while they wait for the bus and set up a boxing club to teach students to protect themselves and blow off steam. Thanks to her nationally recognized efforts, Alperton is now in the top 5 percent of schools in England and Wales in terms of qualifications and accreditations. The school also has been awarded the Institute of Education's Professional Development Platinum Mark, a distinction awarded to fewer than ten schools in the UK.
As for how she will use the cash award, Zafirakou told the Associated Press that she'd like to develop a project for her community that celebrates creativity.
"There is no other job like being a teacher," said Zafirakou. "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 fulfills me."