Why the best teacher in the world says other countries should be more like China

A teacher helps a boy as he writes Tibetan characters during a Tibetan language class at the Lhasa Experimental Primary School in Lhasa, China, Friday,…
A teacher helps a boy as he writes Tibetan characters during a Tibetan language class at the Lhasa Experimental Primary School in Lhasa, China, Friday,…
Image: AP Photo/Greg Baker
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Andria Zafirakou is the best teacher in the world. That’s according to the Varkey Foundation, an international education-focused NGO, which awards a $1 million prize every year to “an exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession.”

Zafirakou, who teaches art and textiles at Alperton Community School in the London borough of Brent, beat more than 30,000 applicants to earn the 2018 Global Teacher Award. Her school serves “some of the poorest families in Britain, many sharing one house with five other families, many exposed to gang violence,” according to the Varkey Foundation.

In a recent interview (paywall) with the Financial Times, Zafirakou had a key piece of advice for any country or culture that’s looking to improve education: Start treating teachers the way they’re treated in China.

Advice from the best teacher in the world: Respect teachers

Teachers’ impact on their students’ lives cannot possibly be overstated. Educational research spanning two decades has shown effective teachers help students succeed academicallycontribute to students’ overall well-being, and can help close (pdf) the achievement gap between poor and rich kids. As a 2010 feature in The Atlantic explains, “more than any other variable in education—more than schools or curriculum—teachers matter.” A 1997 study (pdf) by researchers at the University of Tennessee affirms, “the most important factor affecting student learning is the teacher.”

But while the teacher-student relationship is crucial to education, the world faces a shortage of teachers. Teachers’ status, pay, and well-being (pdf) have dropped, and a record number of them are leaving the classroom globally. Meanwhile, millions of young people in low and middle-income countries are getting inadequate educations. So what can be done?

“We need to value teachers more,” Zafirakou answered. “[We need to] pay them decently; give them time to improve. We need to be like China.”

Reports suggest that China is one of the best places in the world to be a teacher. A 2013 study (pdf) conducted by University of Sussex economics professor Peter Dolton with the Varkey Foundation found that Chinese teachers enjoyed the highest levels of public respect of 21 countries surveyed. It was the only country where people saw teachers as having equal value as doctors, and the country where parents were most likely to encourage their kids to become teachers. Chinese culture—and more broadly, Asian culture—has a long history of treating teaching with reverence, according to Dolton.

At the end of the day, the world needs strong teachers to address the global learning crisis. A simple step toward in the right direction would be treating the profession with more respect.