If there’s one thing Peter Tabichi says he’s become adept at recognising over the years, it’s a student on the verge of giving up education.

And he’s become equally adept at swooping in on that child, giving them one-to-one attention, reassuring them through their wrongs, cheering them through their rights, until that child doesn’t recognise his old self anymore, the one who didn’t think he had any potential or any talents or any hope for the future.

Hours after winning the Global Teacher Prize, where he scooped up a $1-million (Dh3.67 million) award at the closing ceremony of the Global Education and Skills Forum on Sunday at Atlantis the Palm Dubai, there are two words that can describe Peter: jubilant and hopeful. ‘When you keep struggling it can seem like one long stretch. But this recognition has told me I’m on the right path,’ he says. And a struggle it is as a teacher in Keriko Secondary School, in Pwani Village of Nakuru, in a remote, semi-arid part of Kenya’s Rift Valley. Here students from diverse cultures and religions — 95 per cent of them hailing from impoverished families — learn in poorly equipped classrooms.­

As actor Hugh Jackman took to the stage and announced Peter’s name, a different scene far removed from the glitzy lights was unfolding before the teacher’s eyes — one where his students were rediscovering hope and scaling heights undreamt of.

Under the patronage of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, the award, in its fifth edition, is the largest prize of its kind and an annual accolade to an exceptional educator.

Peter received the award from Shaikh Hamdan and actor Hugh Jackman in a glittering, emotional ceremony at Atlantis The Palm on Sunday night

Out of a staggering 10,000-plus nominations and applications from 179 countries, a Prize Committee shortlisted 50 names in December 2018 that was further whittled down to 10 finalists in February.

A night before the announcement, a Global Teacher Prize Concert saw girl band Little Mix, Brit pop princess Rita Ora and boy band One Direction star Liam Payne put on a crowd-pleaser of a show at Dubai Media City Amphitheatre.

[What's life like after winning the Global Teacher Prize? Friday speaks with two former recipients of the prestigious award]

On Sunday, when Peter stood on stage to accept the prize, the Kenyan educator knew he shared it with three other recipients: his students, teachers and an entire continent.

‘I’m not much into what this award is going to do for me,’ he says softly, in an exclusive interview with Friday. ‘This is not about me. God is using me as a mediator to bring transformation to society. I’m not that special, but I’ve been chosen.’

He might be chosen, but his choice of profession spells more of a legacy. His father was a science teacher in a primary school who ‘did a lot not only for the family but for society too. He was a very dedicated man. So I knew teachers do a lot, and I aspired to it. As a child I was very hardworking thanks to my dad. He didn’t earn much as a teacher but he was somehow able to buy most things for me and my brothers and sisters. He struggled — we all struggled. But I managed to rise above that, went to junior secondary school, did very well, and went to college.

‘And I knew once I became a teacher something good would happen. I didn’t know what. I didn’t know I had much potential to bring about transformation.’

Peter first started giving away most of his earnings when he joined the Franciscan Brothers about six years back: 'We don’t own the salary we get, we give it back to society.’
Anas Thacharpadikkal

Over the past few days, a headline that’s dominated worldwide media on Peter Tabichi after the award’s announcement is one of him giving away 80 per cent of his salary to local community projects, which also includes his school. Peter first started giving away most of his earnings when he joined the Franciscan Brothers about six years back, in a practice that’s ‘our way of life. We don’t own the salary we get, we give it back to society.’

It’s a custom that many who join aren’t comfortable with and give up at some point, but Peter says getting his money to make a difference has given him so much happiness, he doesn’t plan to quit it anytime soon.

He says what’s left of his 40,000-Kenyan-shilling (Dh1,456) income, he needs for things like transport, or to be able to make phone calls. He almost seems guilty to be keeping that small part of the money he earns for himself.

It’s a guilt that’s finds rationale when you hear him talk of the way his students survive.

In a region that’s prone to drought and famine, majority of the kids come from families where meals at home are scarce. Teenage pregnancies, drug abuse and young marriages are commonplace. Peter alludes to his students talking about suicide a lot. ‘So when the kids are in school learning, their level of concentration is at a low.’ Adding to that, the schools have hardly any resources. Many kids walk to school barefoot over stony dirt tracks as they can’t afford shoes. Much like Peter did when he was a child.

He says one key way of inspiring students is to encourage them to realise that despite everything they face, despite their poorly resourced school, this doesn’t put them on the back foot as far as what they can accomplish is concerned. ‘Constantly pushing them gives them the confidence to try, and once they discover they have that confidence, they work even harder in other areas, in academic areas, and they start doing so well. I’ve seen so many students joining institutions of higher learning and universities, and this is a number that’s increasing. Getting them to believe in themselves makes such a difference.’

While he talks of the indiscipline among children, he’s quick to excuse them for it. ‘When students have low self-esteem after the situations they encounter, they tend to misbehave. In almost all cases, they react solely because of the stress. Which is why motivating them through various programmes is necessary.’

The loss of his mother is one that seems to have hit him hardest — he talks frequently of how both parents are needed when a child is growing up, his pain shared by almost a third of the children in his school, who are orphans, or depend on one parent for everything. ‘I lost my mother at a time a child needs to be close to both his parents, when you’re in dire need of love. I loved her so very much. My father took over excellently though, doing everything my mum was doing, preparing meals, educating us.’

It’s perhaps this early lesson in equality and the lack of a housework gender gap that makes Peter an advocate for girls’ education becoming a priority. He admits that so many forces can combine to keep them out of school, owing to the ‘culture in Africa whereby they are seen as those who prepare meals at home. Even going to get water — boys are told they must not do that, only girls should. What automatically follows is that girls don’t have enough time to concentrate on homework and assignments. So they are entering the school from a disadvantaged position.

Add to that dated attitudes to women, where they are also seen as a source of income for parents due to the dowry system when they get married, and the odds just keep getting stacked higher and higher. ‘Parents there are happy when they have a girl, as that means money. They try to encourage her to get married quickly, in case she dies and they lose out on the money. So girls are not given that attention for education, and it puts them in a very bad situation. So I come up with programmes that empower them, that make them realise that they also deserve recognition and can influence the world. I assist them in innovations and projects to help them gain a sense of achievement.’

Once you inspire a girl, you automatically inspire the boys, he says. ‘Boys wake up when they see the girls are beating them at academics. Then they start working hard. So getting one girl educated can have effects on the whole school or the society as a whole. And people do what was done to them, like in my case with my dad — so that girl will follow up her education years later by educating her children.’

He’s become more gender sensitive in all his lessons, and in a group says he always pays attention to the ratio of boys versus girls. The efforts have markedly increased the number of girls coming into — and staying — in class.

He has a similar plan of action for low achievers — giving them one-to-one tuitions in math and science after regular school hours and on the weekends. ‘You can’t meet them with other students; they won’t get the attention required and will lag behind. I try to come up with programmes to cater to the needs of learners of different paces.’

There aren’t enough hours in the day for all the projects Peter has visualised — and actualised. But he doesn’t consider making time for himself as a privilege he needs to be guilt-ridden about. ‘I’m very careful to get time for myself to relax,’ he says. ‘You can fit in everything if you plan well. I can’t wake up and go with the flow — I have timetables, schedules, diaries. I go to the school very early in the morning, about 6 or 7, and I leave very late. But I ensure I do things that build me and give me energy — swimming, drawing, painting, jogging...’

He alludes to the heavy workload teachers shoulder in general, but more so in Kenya where there is a shortage of teachers. Peter often gives seven to nine lessons a day, each for 40 minutes, apart from doing a slew of other tasks to improve the lives of his students. ‘But we manage because it is our passion. Once you do that, you won’t see it as a lot of work.’

But has change been seen on the horizon for the educational landscape in Africa over the past decade? Peter nods in affirmation. ‘It is indeed improving now. Over the past 10 years there’s been a lot of effort to introduce a new education system: a move from teacher-centred to student-centred. Teachers are being trained for it. Lots of students are hence taking up activities like science or innovations.’

Despite teaching in a school with just one computer, Peter has mentored his students through award-winning science projects

In tune with the endeavours, last year, under Peter’s guidance, his students participated in the Kenya Science and Engineering Fair, where they showcased a device they had invented that allows blind and deaf people to measure objects. His school came first at the national level.

His Mathematical Science team qualified for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair 2019 in Arizona, US, for which they’re now preparing. His students have also harnessed local plant life to generate electricity, winning an award from The Royal Society of Chemistry in the UK.

How did all this come about in a school with just one computer and sporadic internet access?

‘Through proper mentorship,’ says Peter. ‘Through encouraging and guiding students. You can’t just instruct them and leave — you have to be there to correct their mistakes, encourage their little wins and build their self-belief.’

Peter says that a reason he chose to teach science was to bring forth solutions that can address the problems society is facing. Another reason is the creativity it affords him. ‘I was fascinated by science from the very beginning, very comfortable with it, more than other subjects.’

Finding solutions are crucial not just in science but also in the community and especially when some students harbour extremely negative self-harming thoughts. ‘When I know they’re at risk [of ending their lives], I try to talk to them. Often they come from homes of domestic violence. No one supports them. I visit their homes, talk to their parents; most of the time they aren’t aware what they’re doing isn’t right. I teach them the value of being united.’

Many of these at-risk students have gone on to become teachers themselves, and have returned to tell Peter how he inspired them to carry on.

It’s a trend Peter wants to see continuing, and he plans to use the $1 million to initiate a wide range of projects, especially tackling poverty and food insecurity for both those he teaches and others in his society.

[2018 World Teacher Prize winner Andria Zafirakou believes in the 'power of arts’ in helping the poorest communities]

More than the prize money, receiving the award has given him new-found confidence that what he’s doing deserves recognition, he says.

As he prepares to leave Dubai, he takes along with him fond memories of the ceremony, a highlight of which was his emotional interaction with X-Men actor Hugh Jackman. ‘When he said all those kind, wonderful words about me, it made me shed tears as it reminded me of this whole journey I’ve gone through. I used to see these superstars as people high above me. But when I met him he spoke to me as just an ordinary man. These past few days have helped me change my perspectives about people. At times you fear people, but now I’m developing more confidence in approaching people.’

He plans to use his new-found fame to motivate other teachers and raise the status of the profession as a whole. He says teachers worldwide need to reject a lecturing, teacher-centred approach. There’s not much good in ‘just talking eloquently but doing little. Teachers need to do more, talk less. Action, action, action. Integrate ICT, and even if you have no apparatus, improvise. Introduce games, make learning lively. Work closely with students. Have patience, be resilient — otherwise you’ll want to leave the teaching profession in a day. And at the end of the day facilities and a great salary will only go so far. Passion is key.’

It’s been a journey of finding himself too. ‘I don’t usually like sharing much about myself. I’m an introvert, but this new recognition is forcing me to share.’

His first time on a plane brought him to a city that propelled him to a new space. ‘I had always looked forward to a time when I could fly. I used to dream of having wings — I didn’t realise how far these wings would take me.’