Editor’s note: The Nigerian Union of Teacher says over 600 school teachers have been killed, and 19,000 displaced by Boko Haram attacks. Apart from living in constant fear of terrorist attacks, like the rest of Nigerians, the Nigerian teachers face multiple other hardships. Although President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration had, on October 5, voiced its determination to raise teaching standards and empower teachers more, the profession still has low pay and low prestige.
The Nigerian commentary space has a lot to digest and analyse at the moment. From the Saraki trial which continues later this month, to the ministerial nominees that will be screened this week by the Senate, to the arrest of the former Petroleum Minister Diezani Allison-Madueke in the UK that may signal the start of an anti-corruption war, to upcoming governorship elections in Kogi and Bayelsa, a lot is going on.
I was tempted to pick one of the above topics for my weekly musings here, but this week, I prefer to dwell on an area of our national life whose influence goes far beyond the latest headline.
Say “thank you” to those who shaped you as a person
Monday, 5th October, was World Teachers’ Day, and teachers all across the country were hailed for their contributions to society. On Twitter, the hashtag was #ThankATeacher, for example, with everyone remembering those teachers who have impacted their lives positively.
I am no exception. In primary school, Mrs Helen Osugo (God rest her) was strict and fair. A model teacher. In secondary school, Mr Nweke and Mrs Ibezim helped me get to love physics and chemistry. In the university, Dr Ogunwolu and Ayomoh stood out; and most recently, my lecturers at the Pan-Atlantic University’s School of Media Communication – Richard Ikiebe, Dr Momoh, Dr Obiaya, and lots of others – reminded me again of why teachers at all levels are crucial to the way we build citizens and societies.
Unqualified, dissatisfied teachers are a huge problem
Parents are the first teachers of a child, but past the first few years of life, children spend most of their time in school. The result is that everything right or wrong about a society can be traced back to good education, bad education, or no education. Parents and teachers pass on much more than just knowledge of arithmetic and English and other subjects. They pass on their world views as well, for better or worse.
Teachers are so important that at every level, the quality of instruction, and not the amount of money put into buildings, equipment, and so on, remains the best predictor of educational performance. What it means is while a good teacher can surmount the problems of poor infrastructure, all the infrastructure in the world will find it difficult to surmount the obstacle of a bad teacher.
Any nation that is serious about advancement has to prioritise the training of teachers and the retention of the best ones. In Nigeria, this is hardly the case. Here, the salaries of teachers are owed for months on end, and they constantly complain about their conditions of service. Prolonged strikes then lead to negotiations with state and federal governments, and often there is no follow-through on the agreements. The cycle continues, leading better teachers to private schools, abroad, or to leave teaching altogether.
From the Nigerian Union of Teachers to ASUU, these strikes leave many young people out of school, compounding an already bleak situation. Everyone who can goes private or goes abroad.
Lack of hands on deck
Apart from the issue of teacher welfare, which concerns what the government owes the teachers, there is also that of the quality of instruction which concerns what the teachers owe the government and the students.
In August 2013, the nation watched in horror as an Edo state teacher could not read the affidavit in which she declared her age while Adams Oshiomhole was present. There are several instances like this, where teachers are ill-equipped to pass on anything of value to students, but any moves to improve the situation by letting the worst of the worst go is blocked by the unions. Kayode Fayemi, Adams Oshiomhole and other state governors have tried to address the issue of teacher quality in recent times, but have been forced to backtrack as a result of the political consequences. In the end, it is the students, and society, who pay the price.
The challenges of education in the 21st century demand a certain type of teacher: one who is very comfortable with using technology, and can guide students in their journey of discovery in a sea of information. The saying, “You cannot give what you don’t have,” has never been more accurate, so when you read about teachers declining to take needs assessment tests, it is clear that they have their own share of the blame.
There is also the small matter of a lack of teachers to begin with. The teachers are simply not sufficient to deal with the large numbers of children, both who are out of school and those entering the school system. There is no evidence that state and federal governments have made plans to recruit teachers to cater for future demand.
Securing our future
Now that President Buhari has finally begun the process of naming his cabinet, the position of minister of education remains a very important one. Such a person would need to put together a comprehensive plan for the recruitment, training, and welfare of sufficient numbers of teachers, and coordinate with various stakeholders – local and international – to see that plan remains on course in the long term. Our bad education system worsens the unemployment situation, because the products of that system are not equipped to make it in the real world.
Nigeria’s path to prosperity rests with a workforce that is prepared for the demands of the 21st century, and good teachers are the means to achieve that. Teachers’ Day reminds us that investing in them means securing the future.