Best teacher in the world
The Kenyan winner of the Global Teacher Prize shares the secret of his success and why his vocation pleases him with Joanna Moorhead
In March, when Peter Tabichi was announced as the world’s greatest teacher, it took him a minute or so to realise. He was sitting in the audience of several hundred delegates in a conference hall in Dubai when actor Hugh Jackman announced that the 2019 recipient of the Global Teacher Prize was the 37-yearold from Kenya.
But Jackman slightly mispronounced Tabichi’s surname. “I thought: ‘The winner has a name a bit like mine...’” says Tabichi. “And then everyone turned towards me and I realised. It was an unbelievable moment,” he says, with an enormous smile – not just because the prize comes with a $1m cheque.
Tabichi, a Franciscan friar who teaches science at a secondary school in a remote part of Kenya’s Rift Valley, entered the teaching award on a whim. He knew he was making a huge difference to his pupils, in difficult circumstances – his school has a student-teacher ratio of 58:1 – but he didn’t for a moment expect his achievements to be recognised on a world stage, beating 10,000 nominations from 179 countries.
Finding himself on the longlist was a surprise. When he got through to the top 10 – which included Andrew Moffat, the assistant head at Parkfield Community in Birmingham, the school at the centre of a row about lessons on LGBT rights – Tabichi was stunned.
Being shortlisted brought another thrill: his first chance to fly. “In the movies, people always go up steps to board the aircraft,” he says. “So when at the airport we moved along a corridor to some seats, I thought it was another lounge. And suddenly they said fasten your seatbelts.”
Tabichi, who is on his first visit to the UK, teaches at the Keriko Secondary School in Nakuru, where drought and famine are common. His pupils are from families that eke a living from the land, and often go without food. But Tabichi, who gives away 80% of his income to support students with books and uniforms, has transformed Keriko into an internationally recognised science academy. Under his leadership, youngsters have won awards around the world for their inventions and cuttingedge research. One group was recently recognised by the Royal Society of Chemistry for their work in harnessing local plant life to generate electricity.
“When pupils know you believe in them,” he says, “they start to believe in themselves. That’s how you unlock their potential. It is all about finding the thing they can do well.”
The key was starting a series of school societies, notably the Talent Nurturing Club. “Everyone had something they were good at: and then they started to believe in themselves, and they started to do better at everything.”
Expanding the Science Club proved another big success. Due to poor internet coverage, Tabichi spent his days off in internet cafés, capturing content that helped the children become more ambitious in their projects. At the 2018 Kenya Science and Engineering Fair, a group of his students were able to showcase a device they invented to help blind and deaf people to measure objects.
Tabichi knows first-hand what it is to struggle for recognition. Born in a village outside Kisii in south-western Kenya, he was the fifth of eight children: “My father was a primary school teacher, and my mother was a farmer. We lived in a mud house, and we ate maize and vegetables grown in the garden.” It must have been unthinkable back then that he’d go on to be fêted as the planet’s top teacher, cheered in the street by thousands and greeted by the president. “I don’t think anyone would have imagined it,” he says. “Least of all me.”
His mother died when he was 11, and his youngest sibling just one. “After that, I had to go to the school where my father taught, and that was a 7km walk each way,” he says. “It was hard, but I knew I was lucky to be getting an education. My father took out loan after loan to put us through school.” He left school with some of the best results they’d ever had, and went to university – but he already had an inkling of his vocation to the Franciscan life.
“I felt increasingly inspired by the life of St Francis of Assisi. His humility and simplicity appealed to me.”
Tabichi qualified as a teacher before joining the Franciscans, and took his lifelong vows at the end of last year. “It’s a challenging life, but I knew it was the right path for me,” he says. “There are big commitments to make – but this life brings me much happiness.” —