The quality of education offered to African students partly depends on the quality, dedication and passion of its teachers. But Peter Tabichi is truly special. reGina Jane Jere spoke to the Kenyan science teacher who not only won the $1 million Global Teacher Prize 2019, but the hearts of many worldwide.
Despite the ever-increasing din about Africa’s economic progress and ambitious political statements about the continent’s future, the anaemic progress in the area of education is something Peter Tabichi is well aware of, but it has not dampened his morale.
When New African catches up with the soft-spoken and affable 37-year old, as he takes a break from teaching a science class at the underfunded Keriko day secondary school in the village of Pwani, Nakuru, it is clear why the world has fallen in love with his story.
The school rests right in the heart of a remote, poorly-resourced part of Kenya’s Rift Valley. But his passion for his calling is palpable. When asked if he has ever been tempted to give everything up and seek better pastures elsewhere, his answer is heart-warmingly honest:
“Someone has got to bridge the gap, despite the challenges. And challenges are everywhere, no matter where you are in the world. They come in different forms. We have to find ways of dealing with them. And I am just happy to contribute my services here at Keriko.”
In March this year, Tabichi became the first African to win the $1m Global Teacher Prize, awarded by the Dubai-based Varkey Foundation. He beat 10,000 other nominations from 179 countries. The award was presented to him by Hollywood actor Hugh Jackman.
On a continent where it is well documented that teachers are some of the lowest paid and make do with basic or little resources, Tabichi spends 80% of his monthly income on his school and community. It a rare story of selflessness that caught the attention of millions. But for Tabichi, the prize will not change him.
“I am still the same person, and Nakuru is where this prize found me and Nakuru is where I will always be,” he tells New African.
“Winning this prize is a blessing to myself, my students and my community. Although I have now been given this global platform, and I have been receiving a lot of invitations to speak at events abroad, I want this award to motivate others, that no matter where you are, your contribution can make a positive impact. My fellow teachers, students and even government officials should be inspired by this story and let us see how we can all contribute to making our societies better. That should include even the media.
“If you listen to the news in Kenya, it is always about politics. As you may be aware, we have elections coming up. We want to work more with the government to push for quality education. This is why during the campaigns, officials should also talk more about the importance of education, quality education. That would be a big motivator for people in rural areas, to hear from their leaders that education is very important,” he adds.
“My students are the seeds that we are planting for the future, and that for me is something that drives my passion as well.”
Tabichi, who is a Franciscan Friar, only joined Keriko as a maths and physics teacher in 2016, and in those 3 short years, he has not only transformed his students’ mindset towards education with limited resources, but boosted morale in his community.
Tabichi has also gone further since joining the mixed school, fostering the interest of girls in studying STEM subjects. They had previously shied away from the field.
“Now that Keriko has this platform and the blessing of the prize money, I will continue to promote and advocate more for STEM, and ICT education. And I have been encouraging parents in the area to encourage their daughters to be part of this journey, and I must say we are seeing a lot of improvement, receiving good feedback and we are seeing a change in mentality.”
Tabichi’s efforts are bearing fruit as Varkey Foundation reports that girls are now leading boys, going by the results of all four tests set in the last year.
Two years ago, Tabichi started a talent nurturing club and expanded the school’s Science Club, helping pupils design research projects of such quality that 60% now qualify for national competitions, according to the Varkey Foundation.
Turning lives around in a school with only one computer, poor internet, and a student-teacher ratio of 58:1, is no easy task, but Tabichi has been determined. According to the Foundation, in 2018, against all the odds, Tabichi ardently mentored his pupils to the point where they even made it through to the Kenya Science and Engineering Fair, where they showcased a device they had invented to allow blind and deaf people to measure objects.
Tabichi also saw his school come first nationally in the public schools category. The Mathematical Science team also qualified to participate at the INTEL International Science and Engineering Fair 2019 in Arizona, USA, for which they’re currently preparing. His students have also won an award from the Royal Society of Chemistry after harnessing local plant life to generate electricity.
He and four other colleagues also give low-achieving pupils one-to-one tuition in maths and science outside class and on the weekends, when Peter visits students’ homes and meets their families to identify the challenges they face.
Despite the poor computing resources, Peter uses ICT in 80% of his lessons to engage students, visiting internet cafes and caching online content to be used offline in class.
Passionate against all odds
Through making his students believe in themselves, Peter has dramatically improved his pupils’ achievements and self-esteem. Enrolment has doubled to 400 over three years, and cases of indiscipline have fallen from 30 per week to just three. In 2017, only 16 out of 59 students went on to college, while in 2018, 26 students went to university and college.
Since his win, Tabichi, who had never flown out of Kenya before, has been receiving numerous speaking opportunities and accolades. The most recent being appointed as the first ‘Champion for Children in Conflicts and Crises’ by the not-for-profit organisation, Education Cannot Wait. In this new
role, he will be travelling globally to motivate children affected by conflict or natural disasters and speak at high-level events.
As for the prize money? Tabichi has already started putting it into what he does best. The initial sums have already been dedicated to science and ICT:
“With the money, we are already planning to get a new computer laboratory with the most effective internet connectivity we can get, taking into account our geographical position. We will also build the best science website in the region, which will showcase to the world and other parts of Africa, the works in STEM, as well as innovations our students at Keriko in rural Nakuru can do. This to me will be very empowering, not just for my students, but others like them,” he tells New African.
This is an inspirational story that should keep giving.