Image : The author, Olusegun Adeniyi
Why are you in the teaching profession? Ordinarily, you would expect a teacher who was in the final rounds of an interview for a life-changing national award to be prepared for such a question. But after a momentary hesitation, the respondent said she chose teaching because it is a profession that “offers me opportunities to do other things by the side.”
For us, that summed up the tragedy of the education sector in Nigeria today. But that was just the beginning of the revelations that would come as we interacted with the ten finalists in the bid to pick someone who approximates to the best teacher in Nigeria. In the process, we learned that there are secondary schools in our country called “Miracle Centres” where many students usually pass the West African School Examinations Council (WAEC) even when they don’t know anything; simply because they are allowed, in fact aided, to cheat in the examination halls by the proprietors of the schools with the active connivance of the invigilators.
We learned that several of the teachers training colleges in Nigeria no longer teach specific subjects, preferring to offer professional courses, including in business administration and law! We were also availed the story of a student who was dismissed from school for failure to meet the required grades but who, on the way home, met the principal stranded on the road because his vehicle (most definitely a Tokunbo!) broke down. Since the boy spends his after-school hours at his father’s mechanic workshop, he was able to fix the vehicle for the principal who immediately recalled him back to the school that had no place for his vocational knowledge. And perhaps to cap it all, one of the teachers told us: “In my school, we teach computer on chalkboard”.
At an impressive ceremony in Lagos on Monday evening, the Nigerian Breweries Plc-Felix Ohiwerei Education Trust Fund held the first Maltina Teacher of the Year Awards. Moderated by Frank Edoho (‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’), it was a night of fun with a fantastic Jazz band, “Platinum Blazers,” and comedy merchant, Gbenga Adeyinka, reminding many us of those good old days when men were boys! As an aside, interviewing the finalists provided its own entertainment and drama. One of the men who called himself the “Barack Obama of teaching profession” gave us a lot to laugh about. Another said he is so good that his students call him “Obama”. And yet another said he is known in his school as Barack Obama because of his teaching prowess. So among just five male teachers, we had three Obamas. Just how lucky can a nation be!
On Monday, Mrs Rose Obi Nkemdilim from Anambra State emerged the “Best Teacher in Nigeria”. She won N1.5 million on the night plus five million Naira cash spread over five years. Additionally, she will be sent abroad for further training while the Federal Government Girls College, Onitsha where she teaches, also gets a fully furnished block of six classrooms, courtesy of NBL. “Teaching is a noble profession, it is a calling, it is a commitment to building the nation” said the 37 year—old teacher of mathematics and chemistry whose mother, also a teacher, could not contain her excitement at the occasion.
The second prize went to Mrs Binta Lawan Mohammed from Federal Government College, Maiduguri, Borno State, who bagged a cash award of N1.5 million. She said most memorably that teaching is her life and that not even insurgency would prevent her from following her passion. Daniel Sunday Udiong from Akwa Ibom State who came third got N1.25 million. In all, there were 19 state champions and 16 of them (outside the top three) went home with N500,000 each.
However, notwithstanding the glitz and glamour at the Monday event, what our experience on the assignment has signposted clearly is that there is crisis in the Nigerian education sector, even though I hasten to add that there is also hope, if we do the needful. But we must commend the NBL for the idea of celebrating and motivating teachers in Nigeria with a focus on public secondary schools. “Everywhere in the world, teachers play a vital role in training, coaching and determining the quality of education, and this is critical to sustainable national development. Our objective is to create an avenue where exceptional teachers will be showcased and rewarded annually and continuously”, said Kufre Ekanem, the NBL Corporate Affairs Adviser, while inaugurating our panel of six judges in August this year.
Chaired by Professor Pat Utomi, other members included: Professor (Mrs) Mopelola Omoegun, Faculty of Education, University of Lagos; Professor Thomas Ofuya, Vice Chancellor, Wellspring University, Benin City; Professor Tijani Abubakar, Dean, Faculty of Education, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria; and Dr. (Mrs.) Fatima Binta Abdulrahman, National President, All-Nigeria Confederation of Principals of Secondary Schools (ANCOPPS). Among the six judges, I am the only one who doesn’t operate within the education sector.
The process itself kicked off in May when the entry forms were advertised in the media with interested teachers asked a set of eligibility questions which included how long they have been teaching, the subjects being taught and in what class. They were also expected to list the awards (if any) ever received. In Section 2, each applicant was asked to write, in not more than 750 words, their “strategic approach in teaching students that impacted or improved their performance in the last 12 months.” Under this section, each teacher was to provide a case study with the topic and background of strategy, innovative and instructional practices, challenges encountered, how such were resolved etc.
Before our work commenced, the consultants employed by the NBL were able to work through the entries to shortlist 275 valid application forms from 32 states of the federation and Abuja. But at our first meeting in Lagos on August 11, we agreed on the marking schemes and what scores to award to each question. The idea was that each of us would separately mark all the 275 scripts and the marks would be tallied with the average scores taken. We initially set the pass mark at 55 percent but it was later reviewed downwards to 50 percent after marking the scripts, for obvious reasons. But we also agreed from the beginning that we would have a final interview session with ten states champions and that held on October 2 this year. That was the session that clinched it for Mrs Nkemdilim who was crowned Teacher of the Year on Monday.
However, our experience, marking the scripts (which cost me sleepless nights for more than a week) was very revealing. Many of the teachers did not understand the questions they were asked and thus wrote, for want of a better description, utter nonsense! What makes that a serious issue is that this was a form each filled without any supervision and at their pleasure. “The process was particularly enlightening in the weak comprehension skills of those who teach young minds. This is alarming and shows the need for intense use of English in further education for teachers”, said Professor Utomi. As he argued, even for those who teach science subjects, “knowledge can be of limited value if they cannot communicate what they know to students”.
Notwithstanding, there were also some silver linings. For instance, there is something that the Anambra State education authorities must be doing right not only because the best teacher comes from there but also because it is the state where many of the teachers scored above average. Perhaps that accounts for why candidates from the state continue to come tops in WAEC examinations every year. It is also gratifying that the teachers who performed well in the exercise are in the sciences (especially mathematics, physics and chemistry) as well as English. We could also see the commitment of many teachers who have taught for decades, including those who have written instructional books etc. These old war horses need greater encouragement from us all.
Whether those in authority understand it or not, teachers are central to the production of high quality human capital and providing incentives that would make life easier for them could make all the difference. After all, we all owe much of what we are today to our former teachers. However, while we must commend the Mr. Nicolaas Vervelde-led NBL management for the initiative of rewarding teachers in the public schools, the point we need to underscore is that the challenge of education in Nigeria is beyond the poor reward system. The environment too must change in terms of the infrastructure critical for learning and the disposition of those in authorities.
From our interactions with the teachers, there are many schools without functional laboratories while in one particular state, public primary schools were effectively closed for almost one year due to non-payment of teachers’ salaries. With such foundation, has the future of children in that state not already been compromised? But the greater challenge is that the critical stakeholders in both the private and public sectors do not seem to be paying the much needed attention.
The 21st Nigerian Economic Summit, with the theme, “Tough Choices: Achieving Competitiveness, Inclusive Growth and Sustainability” ends today in Abuja. With the tone set on Monday by the CEO of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG), Mr Laoye Jaiyeola and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (who led discussion and stayed throughout yesterday’s session on reforming public institutions), one thing most participants were agreed on was that human capital development is essential to any efforts to rebuild the nation.
Unfortunately, aside Mrs Oby Ezekwesili, who used her public service experience to draw attention to some systemic problems, there was not much discussion on education at the all-important session and it was not a prime issue in other sessions either. Yet, if the education sector is not reformed in our country, all other developmental efforts would be in vain. It is therefore my hope that President Muhammadu Buhari will put a serious and reform-minded person in the ministry of education to tackle the rot within while putting in place enduring structures to reposition the sector. It is very important for this administration and other critical stakeholders to understand that the classroom remains the central location of Nigeria’s hope for change.
The Verdict by Olusegun Adeniyi; email@example.com