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How access to art can help all kids succeed

Andria Zafirakou won the Global Teacher Prize in 2018. Throughout her career she’s seen children exceed all expectations when given access to art
Illustration: Joseph Joyce

There have been many Sunday nights over my career as a teacher when I have lain in bed wide awake, my mind full of the endless to-do lists that need to be attacked once I get inside the school building. 

I was not surprised, then, that on the evening of Sunday March 7, I would be one of many hundreds or thousands of teachers unable to sleep. On this occasion I could identify exactly why: in a few hours, we were all going back to school. I, for one, could not wait.

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I have wanted to be an art teacher ever since I can remember, my mission being to help young minds get excited about being creative. I have now been an arts and textiles teacher at an inner-city secondary school in the London borough of Brent for 15 years, and indeed what extraordinary years they have been so far. I could tell you hundreds of individual stories of how studying the arts has transformed the life of a young person. I have seen how, through participating in regular art lessons, my students have exceeded their own and others’ expectations. 

One of these stories is about a 12-year-old boy, who we shall call Peter. Over the years, Peter had been diagnosed with many forms of special educational needs and found attending school a challenge, struggling to get through the day without incidents. Due to his condition, Peter had poor handwriting skills and would very rarely write more than two lines as this would take him a great deal of time to achieve. He was embarrassed and lacked confidence.  

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However, in the art room, you would hardly notice these labels. He would willingly undertake all activities, focus continuously, and participate and engage with everyone in the room. Peter was also able to hold a pencil or a brush accurately, mix and apply all media and stay focused on the task while carrying out a sustained piece of work. More importantly for me, he would contribute to class discussions, produce exciting work and clearly enjoyed the experience of being in an environment where there is no wrong or right answer. 

For many students like Peter, the art room gives them the opportunity to be different and the freedom to develop their skills and ideas. They feel respected in environments where making mistakes and failing is part of a journey, and is even invited. They feel safe and happy to be somewhere that their identity is accepted, and labels do not exist.  

Now more than ever we need to help our young people heal, regain their confidence and to support them in finding their way bravely in this new world

This is just one of many stories that demonstrate why protecting and promoting the importance of arts education is vital, and why I am on a mission to ensure that we must protect our school art rooms to ensure that every child has access to an enriching arts education. 

Through my charity Artists in Residence, which I founded after winning the Global Teacher Prize in 2018, I have worked to bring professional artists into schools across the UK. I am proud that these residences have helped students develop artistic skills, create lasting relationships with practising artists and envision a career in the artistic industries.

Now more than ever we need to help our young people heal, regain their confidence and to support them in finding their way bravely in this new world. We can do this through the power of our art rooms. 

It has been almost a year since the first lockdown, when, like many if not all teachers across the world, I had to transform my practice and learn a new language called online teaching. Our classrooms, which in my case I had worked so hard to make a busy, lively, colourful, inspirational space, became 14-inch computer screens in our own homes. 

Overnight, my teaching resources and materials became mostly useless. I am one of the thousands of art teachers out there who really struggled to feel that they were teaching well, and sometimes the guilt and pressure I put on myself was exhausting. In some ways, it was almost like training to be a teacher all over again. To add to that, I also inherited the ‘joy’ and complexity of joining the community of ‘homeschoolers’, with my 10 and 11-year-old daughters becoming my new desk buddies. Learning to teach in a new way was one thing, but to also support the learning and wellbeing of your own children was a completely different ball game. Where some may say that the pandemic turned their world upside down, I felt that mine was also turned inside out. 

So on Monday March 8, after making the 30-minute drive from my home to the school car park, I sat in my car tired but also smiling. Through the windows, I could see my awesome colleagues as they entered the building and the familiar, long line of black and grey uniformed little people queuing outside the school gate, catching up with their friends and desperate to come in. 

Soon, I was exactly where I wanted to be: back home in my classroom.

Andria Zafirakou’s Those Who Can, Teach: What It Takes to Make the Next Generation is out now (Bloomsbury, £16.99)