he title of this book is a twist on the old gag: those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.
But if you take out the comma and put some dots on the end, you get to the gist of this book: those who can teach... have something to teach the rest of us.
Andria Zafirakou is an art and textiles teacher at Alperton Community School in Brent and the winner of the Global Teacher Prize, the Nobel of the teaching profession. She’s written a book about teaching art and about handling a school where children speak over 30 languages, not invariably including English. This, folks, is diversity, as seen in Brent, and as she shrewdly observes, it was her experience in dealing with cultural and linguistic diversity which helped get her the prize - there are lots of other countries out there having to deal with just this challenge.
The award is given to a teacher who is willing to go “above and beyond” for her pupils. It is the first thing that strikes you about her account. This is a teacher who went out and spent over sixty pounds of her own money to buy a uniform in Asda for a boy who had no chance of getting one from home; this is a teacher who took one boy’s clothes to the school washing machine during PE lessons so he’d have them clean and dry afterwards and wouldn’t stink; this is the teacher who called in social services to take charge of an Afghan girl whose father had threatened to have her “cut” and learned what the signs were for female genital mutilation.
You can call this good teaching; what it looks like is love. It’s not an entire surprise that Andria’s father is a (Cypriot) Greek Orthodox priest who comes out of his church after services to hand out what he can afford to the people waiting outside.
Actually, what jumps out at you is that teaching, like so many other professions, is an hereditary business; it’s either in your DNA or it’s not. In her case, her sister Maria is a teacher, and she played school with her teddies when she was small just like born nurses or doctors play at bandaging them up. When she was at school, she plotted her own classroom. The truth is, with some people, there’s no doubt about their direction, all you need do is get out of the way.
She gave her parents short shrift when they tried to get her to do history rather than art. And coming from a stoutly matriarchal Greek Cypriot family, she doesn’t stand for nonsense. Her grandparents and parents were forced out of Cyprus by the Turkish invasion; there’s an interesting story to be told there, of which we get just hints. But it does mean she sympathises with children who come to Brent as refugees; there are many at her school.
Art is, like music, the universal language, and what’s striking is how many children, who find it near impossible to communicate in any other way, can communicate through art. She starts with Alvaro, a pupil with special educational needs, who began class by drawing finely a tiny jar the size of a stamp in the middle of an A3 page; it expressed how he felt in the world. She encouraged him, gave him materials and gradually he grew more confident, finding there was one thing he could do well, until he got an A-level in art, for Andria managed to get him into an A-level class.
That’s the lesson of story after story; the most difficult children can come into their own when they learn that they are good at something, at art, and are recognised as good. She observes that the one thing a child needs is recognition from just one adult. When a difficult boy from a difficult class manages to draw his name beautifully, off she goes to the photocopier before class starts, blows the lettering up and hangs it on the wall. He blossoms after that. When she comes across a pupil with aptitude, she can’t wait to thrust paper, pencils and pastels at her, so that, even if she doesn’t have room at home, she can draw on the stairs.
We learn too about the hair-raising challenges of a school that was once poor, then became outstanding under a good head, then lapsed again and rose again. She describes Lord of the Flies classrooms where riot control is what’s actually needed, but she manages to get the pupils sufficiently interested to engage in an art project to keep them quiet. Imagine what it’s like for the maths teacher. She talks too about handling poor teachers, including one woman who wore short skirts and didn’t believe in discipline; she ended up as an accountant.
What’s striking is that she is on the receiving end of society’s much larger problems. When there’s a single parent household, it may be that the working mother is too tired to look after the children, so the school has to cope with a child who’s unruly or hungry (her school has a breakfast club where unfed children are fed); when a girl is married off at the age of 16, she loses a good student who comes to her later for help.
And when there’s an influx of migrants, legal and illegal, including unaccompanied children whose parents send them ahead by themselves for other people to care for, it’s schools like Andria’s that have to cope. She always sees the positive aspect of these backgrounds, but when children don’t speak English, the school must devote time and resources to them.
If she’s endlessly patient with children, she doesn’t have much time for the Government; like every teacher she’s impatient with the Education Secretary of the day and wants more resources for schools. Unlike most teachers, she got the chance after her award to say so in Downing Street to the schools minister. And I should say, her subject is art, not English.
But you don’t read this for the prose style; you read it for an account of how a good teacher can transform her pupils’ lives. Lucky Alperton Community school; lucky children.
Those Who Can, Teach: What It Takes to Make the Next Generation by Andria Zafirakou (Bloomsbury, £14.99)