Review of Those Who Can, Teach: What It Takes to Make the Next Generation
Author: Andria Zafirakou
Reviewed by David Towell
Andria Zafirakou is an excellent story teller. Well, in truth, together with her ghost writer. Not so important: the stories are from Andria and the story-telling is great. I can't offer a better complement than to say this book reminded me of Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. But the small things here are no less than the everyday story of school life in a West London secondary school, as it happens about a mile from where I spent my teenage years.
Alperton Community School is a vital public resource at the heart of an area characterised by economic deprivation and a very diverse, multi-ethnic population. Most of our cities have many areas like this. The importance of this book is captured in the sub-title: What It Takes to Make the Next Generation.
Let me start with three stories of my own about Andria. She is the daughter of an immigrant family - a Greek Cypriot - who went to school in a neighbouring inner city area. From an early age she knew that she wanted to be a teacher, an arts teacher. Well, she did well. In 2018 she won the Global Teacher of the Year Award. Not bad for a teacher from Alperton, and certainly not expected. The prize was $1 million. Also not bad. And Andria decided to invest this in creating a Foundation dedicated to offering 'artists in residence' to similar schools in areas serving many poor students (measured by the numbers accessing free school meals).
Then it turns even more interesting. Returning with her $1 million prize, government ministers - including the Prime Minister - were keen to meet her. Indeed the Schools Minister rushed to offer her the lead role in a teacher recruitment campaign. She declined. Frankly, Ms Zafirakou is somewhat less than enthusiastic about Conservative Education Ministers and the policies they have advanced over her time as a teacher. For a start their efforts to prescribe a national curriculum have neglected the arts she loves. (Her book explains fully why this is a foolish mistake.) But more than this, these Ministers who nearly all went to richly endowed private schools seem to think that what worked for them should be prescribed for everyone else. Her complaint - I would say fully justified - is that they have no idea of the everyday reality that this book describes.
Interestingly then, the book itself is the best contribution to a teacher recruitment campaign we can imagine. Yes, it tells it how it is in typical schools....but it also shows the huge personal rewards that come from helping young people, often the victims of low expectations, discover their potential in life.
Probably the best know British educationalist before Andria was Sir Ken Robinson, who sadly died last year. In his book 'Creative Schools', Sir Ken offers a short definition of the aims of education as 'to enable students to understand the world around them and the talents within them so that they can become fulfilled individuals and active, compassionate citizens'. Like Andria, Sir Ken was also a great advocate for the arts as an essential part of a broad and flexible curriculum. If you are a boy with a talent for ballet-dancing (or a girl who wants to be a future clothes designer like Mary Quant), you need the chance to discover this.
I think that Andria would appreciate this definition....but she would also ground it in recognition of the need for teachers to create the conditions in which students in their classrooms can open themselves to learning and discovery. Education starts from student well-being.
Andria explores these ideas not through theorising but rather by telling us stories about the lives of her students, what they bring to the school and the wider challenges they face. A lot of families in Alperton are poor: students come to school hungry and their parents cannot afford school uniforms. The school has a breakfast club and it now provides Year 7 students with a free blazer. (Some continue wearing this for the rest of their school days.) Some students live in multi-occupied housing and have no quiet place to study at home. Some are at risk from gang membership or from gangs. (Andria tells a story of driving one student to and from her home when girls from another school were out to get her.) Almost all students face the 21st Century problems thrown up by social media: struggling to achieve false ideas of perfection; obsessions straying into addiction with computer games; cyber-bullying that means disputes in the playground carry on into one's bedroom and vice versa.
She concludes that school needs to become a safe haven for students and teachers need to invest heavily in their pastoral role, seeking to understand their students diverse circumstances and cultures and offer them support to find their way in life. Put more strongly, although not necessarily much trained for this, teachers are on the front line in safeguarding the young people in their classrooms.
Then there is the importance of the arts. Andria tells the story of 'Alvaro', a student said to have 'special educational needs' who transferred from a Special School. When he arrived he didn't speak. But he could draw. Indeed he had considerable artistic talent and later took this subject at the advanced level. Before then, Alvaro came to see that his work was treated as worthy of respect. More confident he started to talk. Of course other students arrived at school with little English: art was one medium that some could use to communicate. Others too had faced great traumas in their young lives. 'Fatima' had arrived as an 'unaccompanied minor', fleeing the conflict in Syria: the art class was one place where she could find a way to express some of her fear and anger.
More than this - and despite the assumptions of some parents - Andria argues that talent in the arts is an important route to a wide range of future employment.
My own most recent pamphlet on education Teachers As Leaders: Achieving Inclusive & Quality Education For All, written with good teachers from three Continents, identifies the 'seven habits' of successful teachers: teachers who are achieving both quality and inclusion in diverse classrooms. In her practices, Andria Zafirakou demonstrates all these habits. More fundamentally she shows what it really means to say that teaching is a vocation. Her book is eloquent testimony to the importance of investing in quality education to enrich the futures of all young people.
The publisher is Bloomsbury.
Those Who Can, Teach: What It Takes to Make the Next Generation © Andria Zafirakou 2021.
Review: Those Who Can, Teach © David Towell 2021.
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