Kenyan Science Instructor Peter Tabichi Wins $1 Million Global Teacher Prize


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Peter Tabichi from Kenya won the 2019 Global Teacher Prize (Credit: The Varkey Foundation)

Teachers don't just educate students — they also act as counselors, problem-solvers, and in some cases, even social workers to help kids in need. Yet, these incredible individuals, who inspire kids to dream big and help them reach their potential, are often unappreciated and overlooked. To change that, since 2014, the Varkey Foundation — established to improve standards of education and raise the status and capacity of teachers worldwide — has been honoring the world's "real superheroes" with an annual $1 million Global Teacher Prize. This year's award, presented in a star-studded ceremony hosted by Hollywood actor Hugh Jackman in Dubai, UAE on March 24, 2019, went to Peter Tabichi from Kenya, Africa.

Following the award announcement, the excited high school math and physics teacher gushed, “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.”

Peter Tabichi spends 80 percent of his salary to pay for his student's needs (Credit The Varkey Foundation)

Tabichi, who beat out 10,000 other educators from 179 countries to win the $1 million cash prize, which will be distributed over 10 years, began his teaching career at a private school — one with state-of-the-art laboratories, a well-stocked library, and even a computer room, However, a field trip to the neighboring rural area made him realize his true calling was helping kids in underserved communities.

In 2016, he joined the faculty of Keriko Mixed Day Secondary School, a newly-opened public school in Pwani village, located in a remote, semi-arid part of Kenya’s Rift Valley. With a student to teacher ratio of 58:1, no library, a single science laboratory, one school computer, and intermittent internet connectivity, it was a far cry from Tabichi's previous school. To make matters worse, the students, many of whom commuted up to 4 miles (7 kilometers) by foot each way, came from households where basics like food and clothing were hard to come by. While these challenges would have caused most people to flee, Tabichi tackled them head-on.

Tabichi ( 2nd right) poses with Hugh Jackman (C) and the ten finalists for the Global Teacher Prize (Credit: The Varkey Foundation)

Realizing that starving kids make for poor students, the dedicated teacher began using as much as 80 percent of his monthly salary to buy food and supplies for them. Since the region is prone to droughts every three to four years, he also taught parents how to cultivate drought-resistant crops and, in many cases, even paid for the plants to get them started.

He established a science club to get kids interested in the topic and began frequenting cyber-cafes after school to download science lesson plans.“Our laboratory does not have everything, but I challenge them to think wider and use local resources in coming up with something that will have an impact. In 2017, our students qualified for the Intel ISEF [International Science and Engineering Fair] with their project of producing electricity using euphobia sap and lemon juice, things that are easily available,” Tabichi says. This year, two other students will compete in the 2019 Intel ISEF scheduled to be held in Phoenix, Arizona, the week of May 12, 2019, for their mathematics project, which won top honors at Kenya's 2018 National Engineering and Science Fair.

Tabichi spends 80 percent of his income on food and supplies for his students (Credit: The Varkey Foundation)

The educator and his four colleagues regularly visit low-achieving, at-risk students at their homes to provide one-on-one tutoring and to understand the challenges these children face daily. Tabichi also encourages parents to allow girls to continue their education, instead of marrying them off at a young age, as is the local custom.

Tabichi's efforts have yielded amazing results. School registration has more than doubled since he started, from 200 to almost 400 currently. In 2017, 16 of the graduating 59 seniors went to college, while in 2018, the number rose to 26. Even more encouraging, girls are now outperforming boys in test scores. The school's principal, Daniel Mwariri, says, “The growth has been tremendous. Mr. Tabichi is that go-to teacher who is selfless and dedicates almost everything for a change, a change we are already feeling as a school and as a country. Being the only one that has made it this far in Africa is a story worth defining the destiny of hard work and dedication."

Tabichi's dedication has doubled enrollment at the rural school (Credit: The Varkey Foundation)

The modest teacher, however, credits his success to his students, saying, “I am only here because of what my students have achieved. This prize gives them a chance. It tells the world that they can do anything." As would be expected, Tabichi plans to spend the prize money on his school community and to feed the poor.

Sunny Varkey, the brainchild behind the Global Teacher Prize, hopes Tabichi’s story “will inspire those looking to enter the teaching profession and shine a powerful spotlight on the incredible work teachers do all over Kenya and throughout the world every day.”

However, Tabichi is not the only one who can do that - we all can celebrate the dedication and effort of teachers by recognizing the extraordinary ones among us. So instead of acknowledging the "superheroes" in your school with a token gift during Teacher Appreciation Week (May 6 - May 10, 2019), make them feel special all year, by showing them the respect and admiration they deserve.



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