In March, when Peter Tabichi was announced as the world’s greatest teacher, it took him a minute or so to realise.
He was sat in the audience of several hundred delegates in a conference hall in Dubai when Australian actor Hugh Jackman announced that the 2019 recipient of the Global Teacher Prize was the 37-year-old 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 million-dollar cheque.
Tabichi, a Franciscan friar who teaches science at a secondary school in a remote part of Kenya’s Rift Valley, entered himself for the teaching award on a whim, after being alerted to the award’s existence by friends. He knew he was making a huge difference to his pupils, in difficult circumstances – his school has 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 – including, among others, Andrew Moffat, assistant head at Parkfield Community School in Birmingham where protesters have disrupted an acclaimed lesson programme teaching a 99 per cent Muslim intake about LGBT relationships – Tabichi was stunned.
Being shortlisted brought another thrill: it meant his first chance to travel by plane, to the award ceremony in the Middle East. “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 this was another lounge. And suddenly they said fasten your seatbelts, and I realised we were about to take off.”
Tabichi, who is on his first-ever visit to the UK and wears an African-style embroidered top with a cross round his neck, comes from a similar background to that of his pupils, teaching at the Keriko Secondary School in Nakuru, not far from where he grew up, 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 per cent of his income to support those students who could not otherwise afford books or uniforms, has transformed Keriko into an internationally recognised science academy.
Under his leadership, youngsters have won awards from around the world for their inventions and cutting-edge 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, where pupils’ talents could be allowed to shine. “They would come along to the club and we realised they could draw, or they could sing. 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 at school, Tabichi spent his days off in internet cafes capturing content he could use offline in school; this in turn helped the kids 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 eighth 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 feted as the planet’s top teacher, cheered in the street on his return by thousands and greeted by the president. “I don’t think anyone would have imagined it,” he says. “Least of all me.”
His early life was far from easy, especially after 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 to university – but he already had an inkling of his vocation to the Franciscan life.
“I grew up in a strongly Christian community, and as I read more about it 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 final, 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.”