Chinedu-Okoro: Why Govt Must Provide Basic Amenities, Reduce Taxes for Schools to Thrive

Mrs. Doris Chinedu-Okoro is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Evergreen Group, a conglomerate of schools in Enugu. In this interview with Funmi Ogundare, she explained why the government must provide basic amenities such as water, light, and good roads and reduce taxes, especially for private schools to survive. She also emphasised teacher education and welfare so that the teaching profession can attract the best, among other issues. Excerpts:

You recently held a conference on South-East educators. What is your assessment? Did it make the necessary impact that you envisaged?

I will take the assessment from the participants or delegates from the points of vendors and educators in the South-East generally. So what I can is that the conference was very impactful. Honestly, we’re still getting responses and feedback from all the participants. The delegates were so excited. As I said, the first time we had an interview, I told you the main objective for this South-East is for them to know. You can only desire what you know and desire what you’ve seen. We realised that there were lots of things that the educators were not aware of, so bringing industry experts and some vendors into Enugu state, was for them to know that it is possible and it is also obtainable. So they were so excited and they felt like, Oh, my God! This is what we’re looking for. From the vendors, some of them sold out completely what they came with. From the southeast, we had a lot of participants from Anambra, Enugu, Abia, and Imo, and they were asking how they could be of help for the 2025 programme so they can start organising their people from those states. So the programme was very impactful, useful and rewarding.

What are the challenges you encountered in putting such a programme together? 

First of all, finance because it was very expensive to do that. We needed to get industry experts from all over and most times take up their bills for their accommodation, flights and all that. So, finance was a huge challenge initially. However, we started getting vendors who were buying up booths, so we had to raise the money. Another feature we encountered was their mindset. The mindset of educators in the South-East is still being worked on. So, this is the first of its kind, so I can’t tell you that, Oh! everybody got involved. Not all of them, but we can score ourselves 80 per cent. However, we want everybody to be involved. We want every educator in the southeast to understand the trends. So, it was a huge challenge. I can tell you, most of the time, we did leg work. We were visiting them in their schools, educating and telling them what they stand to benefit from and if they got involved and become part of the South-East educators’ conference, so that’s basically the challenge. 

Another challenge is government responses. We expected huge support from the government not just in terms of finance but also in sponsoring educators. Anything you’re doing in the education sector, you should be mindful of the fact that if it’s only one sector going in this particular industry, it can’t work. The private and public sectors are complementary in the education industry. In this country, you notice the wide gap between private and public schools. When a conference like this comes up, you expect the government to key into it by sponsoring some of their school leaders to come so that they can understand that as the children from private schools are coming up to navigate their world, it will also be the same with children coming from public schools. So, it was also another challenge having a government buy into it and sponsor a lot of school leaders coming from public schools.

You talked about mindsets; how easy was it to make them buy into the idea?

Yes, mindset is a huge challenge here. What you don’t know, you don’t know it. One thing about this sector is that it is the most dynamic. The education sector changes like the speed of light. As to learning the best practices, if you turn, there has been a change. The mindset that we are trying to change is to tell them to come out and learn.  Don’t stay on what you learnt 10 years ago because it is no longer relevant. So, people’s mindsets are so fixed the way they used to be? It can’t be the way it used to be. You need to come out and find out what is obtainable now.

How would you describe the education landscape in the South-East as of today?

I don’t know whether I am the only one feeling it,  but I feel something shifted. I can tell you that for free. So there’s a mindset shift. Recently,  somebody came to meet me in my office. I had never met her, but she said she had heard about the conference but had missed it. She asked that I include her in whatever we are doing. So there is a sort of shift now, which is what we were actually gunning for. Not everyone attended, but as many that came, there was a mindset shift. When we started this conference, I never thought we were going to run it again, but with the way things are looking, we need to start planning for 2025. Even if we don’t want to do it, people are already requesting it.

What’s your view about teacher education and recruitment?

For you to be who you are, somebody needs to educate you, somebody needs to teach you. Because of the way I look at learning and teaching, teacher education needs to be looked into with all seriousness, even if the government decides to look into other departments or other sections of education. So, even a teacher education curriculum needs to be structured to ensure those skills for the teachers. We are the recruiters of labour in this industry, and we realised that each time people come and write tests or do oral interviews, we see foundational gaps. You see somebody who studied the English language and graduated from university but does not know anything about nouns. So, most of the time, we recruit and start training. Basic training is not just about skills, but starts with basic grammar structure, sentence structure, etc. These people are supposed to have an impact on the field. You can only teach what you know. 

You can’t teach what you don’t know. So teacher education needs to be looked into seriously by the government and policy makers or formulators who need to see how we can get it right. They are supposed to be transforming our children. But once your child knows more than the person, it brings about the big question of what is happening. So, for teacher education and recruitment, you can’t talk about recruitment until you are educated because it becomes double work for you, the recruiter. However, it’s even worse now because we don’t even see anybody to recruit. Nobody wants to work anymore. That’s the funny thing.

So, how do you think we can attract the best to the sector and ensure the respect of the teaching profession?

Attracting teachers to this sector is simple. When you talk about attracting them, you need to talk about their welfare package. You know, even in the public sector, they’re not well paid, and it is the same thing in the private sector. The private sector is leveraging on the public sector. The public sector needs to review the salaries of teachers so that the private sector can respect them, but because they pay them peanuts, the private sector is also paying peanuts when they can pay more. If we are talking about attracting the best hands,  if you are paid peanuts, you should look for somewhere you will be better paid, where the take-home is attractive and good even if you studied English, Mathematics or English literature. Teachers will come, and when they come, all other benefits, including staff welfare, should be well looked into. We talk a lot as teachers so I feel that every school should be able to get them lunch. Yes, unless the school is not doing well. Any school that gives lunch to the pupils should be able to do that to the teachers as well so that when the children are eating, the teachers are also eating. 

Aside from just giving teachers lunch, what other incentives can be used to attract them?

Other incentives should include housing because this will make them feel they can thrive. Provisions need to be made for their housing and professional growth so they can begin to measure it. Once they can do this, the teachers will stay because they can see the benefits. They’ll be so motivated that they will stay back.

What efforts can educators make to meet current realities on the ground?

First of all, one of the efforts should be training. Sometimes, educators do not understand the essence of training. Training is important. As an educator, you’re trying to tell people that you have knowledge of your field. Like I always say, doctors and lawyers are forgiven, but nobody can forgive a teacher. When you go to the hospital, and the doctors give you a prescription, you can’t read the prescriptions, but you are okay. Even lawyers go to court, and they lose cases, and it’s okay, even with their carelessness. If a teacher should make a mistake in your children’s books, they will get queried by the parents because they expect the teachers to know everything. That’s why you are a teacher. So because of this concept on the part of every other person, teachers should know that what they owe themselves is to meet current realities by exposing themselves to opportunities for training.

How do you think the government can make a better impact in the sector?

First of all, government support is needed in all businesses. To be honest with you, I can’t say they do not support it. When you look at the current realities on the ground, you feel that they do not support you. The government will bring all kinds of tax tips. Recently, they brought some taxes for me. It’s so expensive, and I was asking myself that despite all these taxes, you don’t enjoy water, you don’t enjoy light. Some basic things that you expect that the government should provide, they don’t do it. The only way the government can help is to provide simple amenities of water, light, and good roads as simple and basic as. They should also look into the tax because, as a private school, if you are going to do that on your own, they are taxing you so much! Most of the time, we run on diesel, yet they bring tax. If  I am going to pay tax, then they should be able to give me power so I don’t run on diesel. It frustrates everybody and every business owner. 

What should be the way forward regarding all the challenges in the education sector?

We need government intervention. There is little the private sector can do as much as they are pushing themselves now, but if the government intervenes, it becomes easier.

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