The winner of the 2018 Global Teacher Prize Andria Zafirakou, “All teachers should establish trusting relationships with students”
How is the education sector transforming during the pandemic and how should the educational policy change in the future?
In 2018, Andria Zafirakou, a 39-year-old art teacher at Alperton Community High School in North West London, won Varkey`s 2018 Global Teacher Prize. Her main achievement was creation of a favorable educational environment for the children from ethnically diverse and disadvantaged families. Zafirakou challenged the popular view that multiculturalism is an unsolvable issue and a failed experiment and that migrant children will never be able to integrate into British society, if their national culture is properly respected at schools. Vласть asked Zafirakou about the changes that educational institutions are going through during the pandemic, which of them will function after it, how these transformations will affect the long-term educational programs of educational institutions and what the educational system of the future may look like in general.
It is impossible to begin with any other question: how deep and lasting will the educational transformations be during the pandemic? Which of them will remain with us after resolving the coronavirus challenge?
It is very interesting. Teachers were forced to recover almost instantly from all that had happened and to do it very quickly, literally in 48 hours, to rebuild the pedagogy in order to get out of the emerging conflict zone. All the teaching practices of the past 3,000 years and the personal experience of teaching in classrooms have suddenly become irrelevant. Teachers needed to change their approach to learning and integrate to the situation. Distance education creates the threat that we do not know how mentally and physically students attend lessons. In this regard, teachers have to create a lot of assessement elements. It is important for them to make sure that the students have mastered the material and are ready to continue studying. Here is an example. If the lessons were held in the previous form, that is, live, I would prepare presentations for each lesson. The questions included would help me to track the students` understanding of the material and assess how well it was explained. Now the lessons take more time, we have to focus on them more and make the information presented more accessible and different from the one we worked with before. Moreover, it is important for us to add also entertainment components and think how to make them more engaging. Our students will spend a lot of time on such lessons, so they should be constantly motivated. Besides, I realized that my previous approach to planning lessons was untenable. Now I spend about three hours planning an hour-long lesson because I try to use additional resources that students can get access to and not just leave them to use search services. From the current point of view, it is difficult to make long-term forecasts, but it seems that in the future we will have to find the most harmonious combination of familiar models with distance education.
The problem is that many young people face domestic violence while staying at home. At the same time, they see how their parents massively lose their jobs, after which our students begin to think about the necessity to spend so much effort on education, if in the end it may not guarantee employment. However, difficulties for children can be caused not only by the consequences of violence or worsening of the family's financial standing. They can be triggered by loss or even a sense of happiness, it can also be experienced traumatically. When we teach our courses, we should always remember the need for mentoring, educating, an atmosphere of well-being and goodwill while attaching great importance to students` feelings, which are becoming more and more obvious. We will have to help young people even more intensively paying due attention to their traumatic experiences. Teachers are not only responsible for academic training, they also have to take care of children and build friendly relationships with them. The expansion of responsibility is the most significant thing that has happened to education during the pandemic. All this makes the issue of language relevant: we need to constantly make sure that the speech patterns we use are accurate, safe and supportive enough.
We will also have to make sure that we are actually able to teach children in virtual classrooms. Our educational programs include a large amount of information and we will need to understand why we use it to such an extent. Perhaps now we should be more concerned with applying our knowledge. It demands to develop ways to assess how well children themselves understand this application process. In general, I have noticed that my students strive for knowledge regardless of whether the lessons are held at home, remotely or in public, in a classroom. Another thing i also noticed in my students was an insistent desire to see if they were making progress in their studies. They need incentives and encouragement. This year, the UK has cancelled the traditional summer exams and I fully support this action. Perhaps we should think about giving up such activities that cause so much stress for students in favor of regular and less stressful testing of knowledge during a school year. Moreover, it can be organized so that it encourages children and helps them track their progress.
The worst thing that can happen to the education sector is the loss of our students. By this I mean a weakening of their engagement. As soon as they are firmly stuck in the negative zone feeling lost, especially teenagers, not only their skills but also more subtle matters like trust in the world around them can begin to dissolve. It will be extremely difficult for us to re-establish it. I am afraid that this is the challenge that many teachers will face in the near future. Yes, we have many technical challenges, we constantly need to master new systems and devices. No matter how we feel about it, we always need to worry about how well we can teach children using gadgets. However, it seems secondary against the revealed scale of social inequality the evidence of which we cannot ignore.
In the past, it was easy for teachers to maintain direct contact with students. Now we are limited in time and availability of safe space. How much does the lack of privacy affect the educational process and what consequences will it have in the future?
If we imagine ourselves as school students for a second, we may be surprised even by the first e-mail addressed by a teacher to us personally. This personal appeal via email or phone call can prevent the emergence of any strong barriers between teachers and students. This is a really big problem but I believe we will find the courage to deal with it. The efforts of educational institutions' administrations can be crucial: they should try to create as many opportunities as possible for small group lessons.
Biographical articles about you often highlight that you pay great attention to the issue of culture and identity as many of your students are the children of migrants, racial and ethnic minorities and disadvantaged or not the most affluent families. It seems clear they need other forms of involvement in the complex system of the modern society`s affairs. How have their problems heightened now and what importance should educational policies of the future attach to these aspects?
I cannot answer this question without considering my own beliefs. My parents are migrants from Greece who moved to the UK in search of better living conditions. Throughout my growing up, I observed the intense zeal of my family trying to preserve the details of national culture in our family. However, they did their best to combine its various manifestations with British culture. My parents were open to this synthesis of synthesis. Although I clearly remember the fear and height of the language barrier in the way of our entry into a foreign culture. At first, it was so enchaining my parents and my grandmother that they went only to Greek stores and stayed within the borders of the community of their compatriots where they felt completely safe. It took them time and a lot of effort to get used to it. I think that is the problem. As soon as migrants move to another country, they are faced with a natural desire to build relationships with people who are culturally understandable for them. As a result, they isolate themselves in a community of their former compatriots. In addition, having arrived in large groups of well-known people they cause concerns of local residents because they are different and refuse to voluntarily interact with local residents. This is why schools are extremely important as they allow to change the paradigm of thinking of new members of the society who may initially be quite unfriendly and even radical. Schools help students to think not only about their personal cultural boundaries but also to imagine themselves as part of the community and the world as a whole. I believe that through my subject, I teach art, we are in the best position to develop thinking in this way. We have a great chance to welcome other cultures but not at the expense of knowledge about our own one. This allows us to understand the differences and similarities of the cultures around us. Moreover, with the spread of the coronavirus, we have seen that the pandemic affects every country and nation without falling within the framework of our political stereotypes. It becomes clear that we should overcome them not through separation from each other but through even greater cooperation. We have a lot of opportunities for this given all the modern technical means. They allow us to interact not only with people and organizations within our city but also from other countries. Territorial barriers have been partially broken down and this gives us a chance to tell young people that they will be able to work anywhere in the world if they get a proper education. We need to start thinking globally, start thinking about the skills that will allow us to be competent in any of the countries.
How can educational programs based on the principles of multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism that you mentioned be organized?
A very good question. I think the main thing they should focus on is giving teachers a chance to speak. In other words, they should allow them to teach in any part of the world, get together and share their experience, their best practices and decide together what approaches will or will not be successful. Teachers, in my opinion, have very good problem-solving skills because we meet them at all stages of our work. However, we cannot ignore these contradictions: all challenges should be resolved at least to some extent. Otherwise, we may face even more serious consequences. Most likely, we need to establish a global community of educators to learn from each other. Of course, it is extremely difficult to change the established systems of ideas when people do not have anything against the current situation in their countries or believe that any changes are just impossible. However, children and teenagers have access to global information, which allows us to discuss the diversity of social life and help them think of themselves as citizens of the common world. We are in desperate need of teachers who can support the interest in this information and all the aspirations generated by it.
An equally important issue for you is the relationship between students and teachers. We know that in the past they had a vertical structure, although it can still be observed in many countries. Teachers take an authoritative position transmitting knowledge to children as if from above, without joint critical discussion. Should they become more horizontal? What role should teachers play?
One of the most important things I have learned thanks to pedagogy is that any learning process has a triangle structure. It consists of a teacher, a student and their parents. In many countries, parents believe that learning is their child`s and teachers` responsibility. I believe children do much better if all the participants work together. However, teachers often tell me about their fear of communicating with the parents of their students because they regularly interrupt this process by reminding that their responsibilities are limited here. In my opinion, this is a misconception. If we look at the experience of African countries, bringing a child up there often requires the efforts of the entire village. These efforts may be excessive but we need to explain to children that their learning process does not end after school. In fact, all of their lives, all of their daily interactions with other people are part of it. I am not sure that we should talk about the role model of a modern teacher. it would be more appropriate to talk about who a modern teacher is. In my opinion, a today`s teacher is someone who develops students` career skills, supports motivation and always remains a reflective practitioner able to analyze students` actions and change tactics. A modern teacher is the one who engages in constant self-study and at the same time constantly searches for the best educational approaches. At the same time, a teacher maintains regular interactions with other teachers, works and shares the knowledge with them.
However, it is much more important to establish trusting relationships with students, that is, to understand the conditions in which young people live: whether they live in a full family, whether they live with one parent and the reason for that, the financial situation of the family, whether they can provide themselves with food, whether they have an opportunity to live with their parents in different rooms, whether they suffer from domestic violence, etc. Awareness of these circumstances allows us to choose the form of interaction with students, have an idea of their existing traumas and explain to ourselves why a child is shunned or rejected by their classmates. This is the role of a modern teacher, not only in the constant academic pressure when a student is required to make an incredible effort to memorize various facts. As children change, they experience many things, they ask a thousand different questions and want to find answers to them. Sometimes they find it difficult to trust their teachers and the information they are taught. Students want to test everything themselves, which is great, no doubt. What I also know for sure is that children are much faster and more willing to learn from each other. Now young people have access to the Internet and a vast number of social services and computer games. In this regard, the society is alarmed at the prospect of dulling children`s social skills, which can lead to the inability to communicate with each other. Here the involvement of a teacher can be very useful because a teacher can tell students about the ways to interact with different people.
You also regularly appeal to two values, freedom and creativity. In your opinion, how can they be applied in the educational policy?
Creativity is almost a muscle. The more you develop it, the easier you can use it. There are many models of creativity. The only danger is that we associate creativity only with objects from the sphere of art, whereas creativity shall be all-pervasive and exist at all levels. After all, creativity implies collaboration, communication, analysis, and discovery. It includes problem-solving, decision-making and mentoring. You can make creative even the teaching of natural sciences. Creativity is determined mainly by how you use the language and what environment you create in your classroom. This is where it correlates with freedom. State educational institutions can significantly strengthen the status of these values. Of course, it is very difficult to force all educational institutions to create their own curriculum, although they should have the right to do this. On the whole, we need standard manuals designed for different schools that try to meet the diverse needs of the society. Therefore, creativity cannot be reduced only to development of national educational programs. What might be more necessary are training projects for teachers that would allow them to practice creativity as part of their curriculum. However, for the most part, teachers are afraid of the word creativity, because the price of each mistake is always very high. In my opinion, it is possible to change this attitude through trainings, during which experts would talk about new language practices and teaching methodologies that are based on live-based experience. Starting with training of experimental groups of teachers these trainings would later allow to disseminate knowledge among teachers at all levels of national educational systems.
In the field of education, there is a fundamental conflict between natural science and art subjects. If we assume that this conflict is unlikely to ever be resolved, how can we balance these paradigms within the school curriculum? Especially in a situation when the budgets for humanitarian research areas are subject to severe cuttings, which can put their existence in question.
Firstly, we should ask ourselves the following question: who is one of the greatest and most famous scientists today? Leonardo da Vinci comes to mind almost immediately. Who do we often remember as one of the most important artists in history? Also Leonardo da Vinci. As an outstanding scientist, we can also mention Albert Einstein. On the Internet, we often come across his quotes, which always touch on the topic of creativity. Even at this superficial level, it is clear that all knowledge is interconnected. That is why we should refuse to carefully categorize all subjects insisting that we must need a special and unique subject for studying maps, mathematics, history or art theory. We need a synthesis of these areas of knowledge. If you pay attention to Islamic art, you will notice how it is dominated by various mathematical elements, remember at least of symmetry. This happens in many other areas of human activity. This fusion is the fundamental principle of creativity. In my opinion, we should abandon the position that discriminates against certain types of the human culture. Each area should be strengthened by the public policy equally, whether it is music, accounting or natural science. The decision about which paths to choose and how to self-improve should be made by students. It is important for us to focus on bringing people together through various subjects, removing barriers to their cooperation and exposing all sorts of stereotypes about each other. Young people need to be supported to become bolder, address various issues with greater confidence, such as nationalism, discrimination against various forms of identity and attacks on multiculturalism. We cannot do it without the unity of knowledge.
Vlast.kz prepares a series of interviews about the future of education in partnership with Chevron and Caravan of Knowledge, an initiative to research and discuss best educational practices with the participation of leading Kazakhstani and international experts.