In 2004, the Universal Free Education Act, guaranteeing nine years of continuous free and compulsory primary and junior secondary education, became law. Yet, according to UNICEF, Nigeria has the highest number of out of school children in the world, with 10.5 million not enrolled, a grim statistic for Africa’s second largest economy where children under the age of 15 make up nearly half its 180 million population. Underage marriage, poverty, lack of toilets in schools, a paucity of schools and qualified teachers, the distance of school from home, have all been cited as attributable reasons.
However, those fortunate to attend school are not any luckier as quality education, the preserve of private schools boasting white instructors and charging millions of naira in school fees, is unaffordable for most Nigerians. Instead, overcrowded classrooms—if they’re lucky to have them, underpaid teachers and a fate one can only describe as the twilight zone between illiteracy and literacy await them. In the end, many are rendered unemployable to a competitive labour market.
Meanwhile, the Federal Ministry of Education’s goal to provide ‘universal and equal access to quality basic and secondary education that will ensure self-reliance, preparedness for further education, good citizenship and effective participation in democratic governance’ and ‘promote gender parity through sensitization’ seems like a mirage. As it stands, roughly sixty percent of unenrolled students are girls, teaching isn’t considered a noble profession, and once vaunted federal and state schools have become shadows of their former glories. Still, teachers like Itodo Samuel Anthony remain undaunted, doing what they can to make the most of a seemingly unredeemable situation.
An engineer by training, Anthony teaches chemistry, math and physics at Gateway Excel College, a rural private secondary school in Ogeneago Otukpa, Benue State. In a series of Facebook posts titled Diary of a Nigerian Teacher, Anthony recounts the joys and tribulations of teaching in Nigeria, from lamenting about his students’ poor grammar to delighting in forgoing lunch breaks to explain difficult concepts to them. He does it all with a hint of humour. His recent post, a commentary on how boys have been conditioned to see girls as subordinates to be subjugated by them, went viral garnering positive reactions.
By employing Socratic questioning, a technique that involves challenging opposing opinions with questions rather than counter-arguments, Anthony led his male students to uncover for themselves the fault in their logic. Rather than dismiss or talk down to them, he seized the opportunity to engage in a dialogue. What’s more, he got the girls to speak for themselves.
Now, if more teachers (and society at large) followed Anthony’s example, challenging assumptions with reflective inquiry and thinking, chances are Nigeria’s lot would improve tremendously.
One of the most important bedrocks of a society are teachers, yet the profession continues to be undervalued, poorly compensated (if salaries are not delayed as is the norm in government schools) and looked upon with disdain, predicaments Anthony alludes to in the edited interview below.
You have a Bachelors and Masters degree in petroleum engineering. Why did you choose teaching, a profession where salaries and working conditions are often deplorable?
After I graduated from secondary school, I job hunted while waiting to be admitted into university. I stumbled on a teaching ad and applied even though I thought I wouldn’t like teaching as I was a timid teenager. I got the job and fought through my first day in that Primary four class, but before long I fell in love with teaching. Watching those kids’ eyes light up when I made an ‘impossible’ concept in mathematics become simple gave me joy. I was happy to be part of someone’s development, a part of another person’s story. Though the experience lasted six months, it was deeply fulfilling.
Since then, every opportunity I got to teach I grabbed with both hands. I taught extra lessons for free, organised lessons for my mates in university, taught part time in my dad’s secondary school during long breaks. I fell in love with the profession. It’s about the only thing I am willing to do for free, so salaries and teaching conditions have never been my primary concerns.
Do you have a diploma or degree in education?
I am not a teacher by profession. But what I lack in professional training I have more than made up for with the passion and creativity I put into teaching. I have a firm grasp of the subjects I teach so my aim is on learning other aspects of the profession on the job. To do that, I have attended a few seminars on teaching methods and done some personal reading. I’ve also flirted with the idea of getting a PGDE but the financial costs are crippling.
How long have you been teaching?
Since I was 17. My first stint lasted six months in a primary school. I taught for four months or so after university before NYSC (National Youth Service Scheme), and then there was the one-year teaching experience during NYSC. I’ve been teaching for almost three years since my MSc. My cumulative teaching experience is a little over five years.
What challenges do you face as a teacher in Nigeria?
My primary challenge is the lack of drive on the part of students. Students have to be pushed to do practically everything now, which, frankly, is sad. Primary education is a mess, hence the calibre of students entering secondary schools is subpar, making the work of secondary school teachers challenging.
Also, widespread examination malpractice—which allows students to pass without working—has promoted an indifferent attitude towards studying. For a teacher hoping to meet their student half-way on the teaching/learning journey, it can be quite frustrating.
Another aspect is teacher’s salaries. Though money has never been my primary motivation for teaching, at this stage in my life I have responsibilities to take care of, and I am thinking, ‘I can’t start a family on my salary’.
There is also a lack of regard by society for the profession. You know how too many people view teaching as a passing phase in someone’s career? It is depressing when people you love pray ‘for you to find a job’, as if teaching is not a job. It’s as if the fact that I enjoy it doesn’t matter. That said, I believe my Diary of a Nigerian Teacher posts are changing perceptions. I see teachers taking pride in what they do.
You wrote on Facebook that your ‘students are still horrible in grammar and abysmal in their vocabulary’. How is the education system in Nigeria failing students?
First, there is a dearth of quality teachers, especially in primary schools. Secondly, that we employ anybody to teach primary school kids because we think it is ‘simple’ isn’t helpful. Incompetent teachers are destroying students.
Our education system has been deliberately or unintentionally structured such that the bulk of people who end up in teaching colleges are folks who couldn’t gain admission into university. Many have no interest in teaching.
Also, poor pay and working conditions are driving our best minds to more financially rewarding professions. If our teachers earned as well as doctors, I bet the trend would reverse.
Examination malpractice is another glaring failure of our education system. There are leaked WAEC (West African Examination Council) and NECO (National Examination Council) [final year secondary school exams] questions on the internet which anyone can access with as little as 200 naira. How are those questions getting out there?
What’s your idea of quality education?
Many of us have been programmed to seek knowledge for the sake of passing exams. As a result, there are many knowledgeable and literate graduates from universities lacking true education. Education should make a person think, create, identify problems and to proffer solutions; to see a need and take charge.
This idea informs my approach to teaching. I push my students towards critical thinking and applying theoretical knowledge to real life issues.
Quality education instils leadership traits, traits Nigeria badly needs. Prefects in my school are required to write action plans for each term and provide reports on executed programs. Education means instilling accountability and responsibility, characteristics missing in our Nigeria’s current leadership.
You mentioned in a Facebook post that ‘teaching is my life…the only thing I do without an iota of restraint.’ How has teaching provided the vehicle for you to be and express yourself?
One of my biggest concerns about Nigeria is its leaders. We have a value system that glorifies wealth and titles, a system that fuels corruption in that unrestrained quest to be relevant. So I am passionate about leadership. We lack genuine leaders.
Teaching is a powerful opportunity to shape the values of young people. I try to impress integrity, responsibility, diligence, courage and accountability on my students.
What has been the reaction from parents and colleagues to your Diary of a Nigerian teacher: Changing Gender Paradigms post since it went viral?
I do not interact with parents and colleagues on social media. So the reaction has mostly been from Facebook friends and whoever else saw the public post. I got loads of emails expressing goodwill towards the work I am doing at school, which was heart-warming.
I had one of the male students from the class mentioned in the post say to me, “I love you, sir. I don’t know what this school will become without you.” I was touched. I wasn’t expecting the reaction that post got.
Lead Photo: Itodo Samuel Anthony/Facebook