‘A National Campaign Will Boost Image of Teaching Profession’

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Henry Anumudu is a strong advocate of quality education and has worked as a Teach for Nigeria fellow improving the quality of education in Ogun State public school system. In this interview with Funmi Ogundare, he explained why teachers must embark on a national campaign to restore the image of the teaching profession and get more passionate young people into the fold, among other issues. Excerpts:

What is Teach for Nigeria Fellowship and what influenced your decision to be part of it?

The Teach for Nigeria fellowship is a movement of young Nigerians causing transformational change in the country’s education system. We believe deeply in the vision that one day every Nigerian child will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education, regardless of his/her socio-economic background. To realise this vision, Teach for Nigeria recruits promising leaders from varied disciplines to teach in Nigeria’s underserved schools, in low-income communities. In 2017, I was a communication and media officer for a media firm in Abuja when a friend told me about the Teach for Nigeria Fellowship.

At that time, I was volunteering an hour weekly at a public secondary school in Abuja for LEAP Africa. But Teach for Nigeria challenged me to go all out. I applied for the fellowship, quit my job, and became a teacher. It was an easy decision for me. Teach for Nigeria showed me the crisis of the education sector and the coming cataclysm if nothing is done about it. It was an easy decision for me because it intersected with my personal values: life is worth living if it is lived beyond the self.

What state did you teach in and what were the challenges you faced during your two-year fellowship?

I taught in Abeokuta, Ogun State. The teacher in the Nigerian public school system is faced with very unique set of problems. These problems arise from the school, the parent, the environment and even the teachers themselves. The school is designed to perpetuate tradition. So, it resists change and will fight any individual that seeks to bring in a different practice.

A constant phrase I heard at the beginning of my fellowship in the classroom was: “that is not how we used to do it”. Also, our public schools are designed structurally for learning to take place. The goal is simply for schooling. That’s all. This is visible in the lack of conducive classrooms. It is also visible in the composition of the classrooms.

How will 82 children packed in a single classroom learn effectively? Also, most parents/guardians of children in our public schools do not fully understand the power of quality education on the future of their children, and in changing the narratives of their families. So, working from a place of ignorance, they would prefer the children to hawk throughout the evening without time for them to read and do their homework. In addition, the children come from environments marked by truancy, bad examples, and low achievement.

This makes the education in public schools and the job of the teacher critical and difficult at the same time. Seeing all these, it becomes evident that the teachers in our public schools are neither trained nor paid enough for the tasks the public classrooms present. They come to school every morning to children who are probably hungry and have not done their homework nor read their books. They do not know how to teach this kind of children from this kind of background. They teach anyway and the children fail term after term.

What do you find most interesting about your experience at Teach for Nigeria?

The Teach for Nigeria Fellowship gave me a first-person insight into the problems affecting our education system at the grassroots level. Every day I interacted with the children, the parents, the teachers, government representatives; this gave me invaluable insights into the dynamics of our education system itself. So, in designing solutions that affect us as a nation, I do not do this as a spectator, but as an actor who has lived in experience of this reality.

How would you describe your most impactful service to the community during your fellowship period?

I built projects that were predicated on community involvement in the education of the children. One of such projects was a vocational education project that had some women around the community, with specific skills, coming into the classroom twice a week to teach the children their skills. While equipping the children with invaluable skills that will be useful to them now and in the future. The project also exposed the community to the classroom, the importance of education and the role of every member of the community in creating a successful future for every child. I also started a mentoring programme that connected the children in my classroom with young Nigerians who have shown excellence in their fields. The relationship built from this programme showed the children what is possible if they believe in themselves and work hard.

It taught them to look beyond their environment. By this, the children transcend the limitations of ‘low income communities’ and hold on to values such as hard work, integrity and excellence. My most impactful service to the community during my fellowship is therefore the creation of an ecosystem of collective leadership around the education of the child. A system that unites everyone; teachers, head-teachers, parents, market women, school cleaners around a shared vision for every child.

What are the most rewarding benefits of the programme?

The Teach for Nigeria Fellowship gives you an opportunity to redefine yourself. Being a fellow of the programme marked for me a transition from passivity into a young Nigerian who was making change happen, transforming lives and making a difference in his country. The most rewarding benefit of the programme is the opportunity to truly solve a problem, or more appropriately, become part of a movement of people solving an important problem so crucial to the progress and development of Nigeria; and it is only in solving, or in trying to solve such problems that we can say we have lived.

What is your view about the education system in Nigeria?

I think we can make it work, and the revolution will begin from the teachers. Teachers play a central role in determining the academic success and self-esteem of the child. The teacher is, in fact, the single most important factor in learning. We must then begin first by showing the teacher how important she is, how powerful she is in the life of every single child. Because the teacher must believe in herself and her ability to create change before she can believe in the child and be able to cause a change in the child’s knowledge and belief system. Too many of us believe that the role of the teacher is to package and transmit specific knowledge.

This is inadequate, especially in underserved schools in disadvantaged communities. So many things have been said about training and remuneration and policy. I have chosen to focus on leadership because I have seen its place in the transformation of our education system. Teachers must become leaders in their classrooms and even beyond it. Because it is the relationship we build outside the classroom that will create the currency through which we demand hard work, rigour and a high level of academic achievement from the children, as well as communal cooperation from the parents.

Do you think there is a dearth of qualified teachers, and what can be done to improve the situation?

It is unarguable that there is a learning crisis in our education system. We must also accept what this means: we have a teaching crisis. Given the essential role teachers play in learning, we must be provided with consistent and relevant training in professional development opportunities. The training of preservice teachers must also be updated to meet 21st century requirements and tailored to meet the needs of the children whom the teachers will serve.

Finally, we must embark on a national campaign to repair the image of the teaching profession, and therefore get more passionate young people into the fold. The profession is crippled by years and years of bad publicity. This image problem is a barrier that keeps out so many vibrant Nigerian youths. But now, more than ever, we need a sweeping campaign to reform the education space. It can be achieved. For the past two years, I have taken it upon myself to tell my stories of impact in the classroom.

One of the many letters I received as a result read: ‘Good morning, I love your work. Right from secondary school I wanted to be a research scientist or a teacher. I am in my second year in university, I came across your page last month and I love what you are doing. The excitement I get from your page makes me want to pursue my dream of being a teacher and inspire the generations to come.”

Now that you are an alumnus of Teach for Nigeria, what are the next steps?

As an alumnus, I will remain in the education system as a social entrepreneur working to build a Nigeria where every child will have access to quality education regardless of socio-economic background. To achieve this, I founded ‘Sharing Life’, a mentoring programme that connects children from disadvantaged communities with young professionals and local artisans who will mentor, fund their education and empower them with vocational skills with which they will build a successful future for themselves.