Kenyan science teacher wins global prize

Franciscan brother who gives away 80% of his salary scoops $1m prize for his contribution to teaching.

Improving lives in a school that has a single computer, patchy internet, and a student teacher ratio of 58:1 sounds like an impossible task. Yet that is what Kenyan teacher Peter Tabichi, who on Sunday won the $1m Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize, has achieved.

Accompanied by his father, the 36-year-old teacher received the prize in front of a star-studded gathering in Dubai, with the award presented by Hollywood actor Hugh Jackman.

“I am only here because of what my students have achieved,” Tabichi, who is a member of the Franciscan religious order, told the audience. “This prize gives them a chance. It tells the world that they can do anything.”

The award recognises the teacher's commitment to pupils in a rural part of Kenya's Rift Valley. Tabichi left his job at a private school to teach maths and physics at Keriko Secondary School in Pwani village, Nakuru, where 95 per cent of pupils come from poor families. Many have to walk 7km to school along roads made impassable during the rainy season, and drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, early marriage and suicide are common.

Tabichi gives away 80 per cent of his monthly income to the poorest students, who could not otherwise afford uniforms and books.  

Despite these challenges, the teacher has helped raise the number of students going to college or university from 16 out of 59 students in 2017, to 26 in 2018.

Tabichi's founding of a 'talent-nurturing club' and support for the school’s science club also helped his students win the public schools category at the 2018 Kenya Science and Engineering Fair, an award from the Royal Society of Chemistry, and qualify for the International Science and Engineering Fair 2019 in Arizona.

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Tabichi gives low-achieving pupils one-on-one maths and science tuition on evenings and weekends to help them meet their grades. Photo: Getty Images.

Accepting the prize, Tabichi paid tribute to the potential of Africa’s youth. "As a teacher working on the front line I have seen the promise of its young people - their curiosity, talent, their intelligence, their belief,” he said.

"Africa's young people will no longer be held back by low expectations. Africa will produce scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs whose names will be one day famous in every corner of the world. And girls will be a huge part of this story."

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said in a congratulatory video message that Tabichi was helping to build a brighter future for his country. “You give me faith that Africa’s best days are ahead of us and your story will light the way for future generations,” he said.

Tabichi’s commitment to teaching includes giving low-achieving pupils one-on-one maths and science tuition during evenings and weekends, helped by four colleagues. He also manages to incorporate ICT into 80 per cent of his lessons, despite infrequent internet access. Girls’ achievement in particular has been boosted.

Now in its fifth year, the Global Teacher Prize is the largest of its kind and is backed by the Varkey Foundation, which aims to improve access to quality education round the world.

The award recognises exceptional commitment to teaching, and has previously been awarded to individuals from the US, UK, Palestine and Canada.

Last year’s prize went to Andrea Zafirakou, an arts and textiles teacher from Alperton Community School in the UK.

“Every day in classrooms throughout the world teachers light the spark of curiosity,” said Sunny Varkey, founder of the prize, adding that he hoped to “shine a spotlight on the truly inspiring work teachers do to make tomorrow brighter than today”.

The $1m prize money is paid in installments over 10 years. The prize is conditional on a five-year commitment to teaching, and winners are encouraged to replicate and scale their innovative teaching methods for impact.

The awards rounded off the three-day Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai, an event that saw high-profile ministers and global education experts convene to discuss the future of learning. The closing plenary featured 9-year-old Syrian refugee Bana Alabed in discussion with 10-year-old British vlogger Braydon Bent on the power of education to give children a pathway to progress. - PA

“Every day in classrooms throughout the world, teachers light the spark of curiosity."

Sunny Varkey, founder, Varkey Foundation.