Most people can look back on their school days and remember one teacher who really inspired them. If you are lucky enough to have been taught by Peter Tabichi, he may have transformed your whole life.

Peter is this year’s winner of the $1 million Global Teacher Prize, awarded by the Varkey Foundation, a UK-based charity dedicated to improving teaching and the status of teachers worldwide.

Teaching maths and physics at Keriko Mixed Day Secondary School in Pwani Village, in remote Nakuru, Kenya, Peter, a member of the Franciscan religious order, has overcome poverty, food shortages and violence to give his students opportunities that even scholars in the rich world could only dream about.

The school’s Mathematical Science team have qualified for this year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and in May two students will be travelling to Arizona, in the US, to take part.

Last year, they came top at the Kenya Science and Engineering Fair, beating some of the country’s top schools with a device they invented to help deaf and blind people with measurement.

 Peter Tabichi and his students show their prize winning project.
Peter Tabichi and his students show their prize-winning project.
Image: standardmedia.co.ke

Poverty, famine and conflict

Peter’s achievement is even more formidable considering his school only has one computer and a pupil-teacher ratio of 58-1. A third of his students are orphans or from single-parent families, 95% live in poverty, and some have to walk more than 7km to get to school over roads that can become impassable in the rainy season.

His dedication to improving the lives of his students is such that Peter donates 80% of his teaching salary to local community projects. His work goes well beyond the classroom. In a region prone to regular famines, he has been teaching local people how to grow famine-resistant crops.

He set up talent-nurturing and peace clubs to help heal divisions after the violence that followed a disputed election result in 2007. He overhauled school assemblies to bridge divides between students from different religious groups.

Africa’s school age population is growing fast. More than 480 million of the 1.2 billion people living in Africa are aged under 15; two-fifths of the continent’s population. That figure is predicted to rise to 585 million by 2025.

 More than two fifths of Africa’s population is school age.
More than two-fifths of Africa’s population is school age.
Image: Statista

The importance of technology

At the same time, research for the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report last year found employers in sub-Saharan Africa want to recruit people with technology and communication skills. They expected big data, machine learning, cloud computing, apps and the internet of things to drive economic growth in the continent.

School Aid, a charity that supplies books and equipment to schools in sub-Saharan Africa, says that although literacy rates are improving, the need is most acute at the vital early stages of education where children are building the “literacy foundation” that helps them to learn.

Peter is determined to equip his students to succeed in the modern world. “To be a great teacher, you have to be creative and embrace technology,” he says. “You really have to embrace those modern ways of teaching. You have to do more and talk less.”

And it is paying off. Student numbers are rising, girls are outperforming boys in examinations, and incidents of bad behaviour at his school have fallen from 30 a week to just three. “I’m immensely proud of my students. We lack facilities that many schools take for granted, so as a teacher I want to have a positive impact not only on my country but on the whole of Africa,” he says.

Peter’s commitment to his job was inspired by his family - his father, uncle and cousins were all teachers. He now wants to inspire others to join the profession. Accepting his prize from actor Hugh Jackman at the Global Education & Skills Forum in Dubai, Peter said: “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.”

Last year’s Global Teacher Prize winner was Andria Zafirakou of Alperton Community School in London. She learned the basics of the 35 languages spoken by her students before redesigning the curriculum to make it relevant to them. The school now ranks in the top 5% of UK schools for achievement.

Andria Zafirakou spoke at this year's Annual Meeting in Davos about the importance of social skills among future generations.