Peter Tabichi, a Kenyan math and physics teacher, won the $1 million Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize at a star-studded event in Dubai Sunday (March 24).
Accompanied by his father, Tabichi said the prize showed that “teachers matter” and that “teaching is a noble profession.”
Tabichi left his job at a private school to join the Keriko Secondary School (in Pwani Village, Nakuru, Kenya), where 95% of the students are poor and almost a third are orphans. Drug abuse, teen pregnancies, drop-outs, and suicide are common, and the school has one computer, poor internet access, and a student-teacher ratio of 58:1.
In spite of those circumstances, Tabichi’s science students have won various national science competitions, and qualified to participate at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair 2019 in the US. In 2017, only 16 out of the school’s 59 students went on to college, while in 2018, 26 did.
Actor Hugh Jackman awarded the prize at the Atlantis in Dubai, performing music from The Greatest Showman and offering heartfelt tributes to each of the 10 finalists. Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, in a video message, said Tabichi’s story showed that Africa is “a young continent bursting with talent.”
The teacher prize ceremony caps the Global Education and Skills Forum, a glitzy three-day conference considered the “Davos of education.” Dozens of education ministers and leaders from around the world joined to discuss teaching, technology, and learning science. On Saturday night, a concert included performances by Rita Ora, Little Mix, and Liam Payne.
The prize was set up by the Varkey Foundation to shine a spotlight on teaching at a moment when there is a severe global teacher shortage and research shows that it will take poor countries up to 100 years to close the learning gap with richer ones. “By unearthing thousands of stories of heroes that have transformed young people’s lives, the prize hopes to bring to life the exceptional work of millions of teachers all over the world,” the foundation said.
The event is a massive celebration of teachers, who often work with little recognition and poor pay in severely resource-constrained environments. Tabichi is the fifth winner of the prize, which has also been won by an American, a Brit, a Palestinian, and a Canadian. Last year’s winner was Andria Zafirakou, an art and textiles teacher at Alperton Community School in the UK whom Quartz recently interviewed.
“Africa’s young people will no longer be held back by low expectations,” Tabichi said. “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.”
The prize is paid over 10 years. Recipients are meant to have practices that can be scaled, are innovative, and impact the community beyond the classroom. It also awards practices that help children become global citizens, “providing them with a values-based education that equips them for a world where they will potentially live, work and socialise with people from many different nationalities, cultures and religions.”
“If you don’t fail, you don’t learn, and if you don’t learn, you can’t change,” Tabichi said.