Teaching Profession

Kenyan Science Teacher Wins $1 Million International Education Prize

By Sarah Schwartz — March 25, 2019 3 min read
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Peter Tabichi, a math and science teacher in Kenya’s Rift Valley, was announced as the winner of a $1 million international teaching prize Sunday in a star-studded ceremony in Dubai.

Tabichi, who has led his students in a remote, rural area of Kenya to win national recognition in science, is the fifth educator to win the annual Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize. The award honors outstanding contribution to the profession and impact in the community.

Actor Hugh Jackman announced Tabichi as the winner at the Global Education and Skills Forum, and the crown prince of Dubai, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, presented him with the award. In his acceptance speech, Tabichi thanked his father, who was also a teacher, the Associated Press reports.

Tabichi works at Keriko Secondary School, a public school in Pwani Village, Nakuru. There, classrooms are underresourced, and the average class size is 60 students. Famine and drought are persistent problems in the community, and the vast majority of Tabichi’s students come from poor families.

In the face of these structural challenges, Tabichi has raised student achievement and college attendance, the Varkey Foundation says, and has led his students to win national and international recognition in the sciences.

With his colleagues, Tabichi spent time outside of the school day and on weekends tutoring students at their homes. He expanded the school’s science club and started a new group focused on mentorship and academic enrichment.

Tabichi also formed a peace club, which seeks to unite students from different tribal backgrounds in an area that has been beset by violence between rival ethnic groups over the past decade.

Now at Keriko Secondary, more students go on to college, and girls’ test scores, especially, have increased.

Students have also garnered national attention for their academic achievement. A science project designed by Tabichi’s students, in which they generated electricity from plant extracts and sewage waste, won first prize in the chemistry category at the Kenya Science and Engineering Fair. His students have also qualified to compete in the INTEL International Science and Engineering Fair 2019, in the U.S.

“Africa’s young people will no longer be held back by low expectations,” said Tabichi, according to the BBC. “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.”

Tabichi’s work in Pwani Village goes beyond the classroom. He has taught families how to plant drought-resistant crops, and he donates 80 percent of his salary to support community projects. In addition to teaching in the public school, Tabichi is also a Franciscan brother.

Tabichi plans to use his prize money to fund improvements at the school, which currently lacks a library and lab space, and to feed the poor, he said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Working with the community to integrate new farming methods “is a matter of life and death,” Tabichi said, in a video produced by the Varkey Foundation.

“Students in this school face so many challenges,” he said, in the video. “They come from very poor families. Even affording breakfast is hard. When they are in school, they are not able to concentrate, mainly because they are not able to get enough meals at home.”

The Global Teacher Prize is the brainchild of billionaire education entrepreneur Sunny Varkey, the founder and executive chairman of GEMS Education, an international private school operator.

Varkey has said that the award was created to show respect to teachers and elevate their work—and the weekend-long celebration definitely seems designed to lend some glamour to the profession. The Saturday night before the award announcement, the foundation hosted “The Assembly,” a concert featuring former One Direction member Liam Payne, singer Rita Ora, and British girl group Little Mix at the Dubai Media City Amphitheatre.

One American teacher was also in attendance. This year, one of the 10 finalists for the award was Melissa Salguero, an elementary music teacher in New York City who raised thousands of dollars to form a band at her underfunded school.

Last year, British art and textiles teacher Andria Zafirakou won the award for her work to support her school’s economically and ethnically diverse student population.

Photo: Kenyan teacher Peter Tabichi, center, actor Hugh Jackman, left, and Dubai crown prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, right, react after Tabichi won the $1 million Global Teacher Prize in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Sunday, March 24, 2019. Tabichi is a science teacher who gives away 80 percent of his income to the poor in the remote Kenyan village of Pwani. —Jon Gambrell/AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.