Abdul Kalam once remarked: “Teaching is a very noble profession that shapes the character, caliber, and future of an individual.” This is a sentiment that has become axiomatic in our understanding of teachers and the teaching profession. From Aristotle down to our contemporary age, philosophers and intellectuals hold the consensus opinion that the family remains the fundamental basic unit on which the human society is founded. I doubt that, given Kalam’s opinion, anyone would contest seeing the teacher as one of the defining elements of that society. For instance, it is very easy to see how the teaching profession serves as the very defining source of all the other professions in the society.
Gone were those days, I suspect, when the teachers were a definite part of the maturation of their students. The teachers, for most of us, played significant roles which, sometimes, our parents were jealous of. I owe much of my love for education and the reform of the education sector to my early admiration for a number of my teachers at different levels and most significantly, my celebrated aunt and one of the most outstanding professionals and virtuous teachers in Nigeria that I have ever known – the late Mrs Aime Aina Olaopa (nee Williams). It is through her dedication and professionalism that I developed an abiding respect for teaching as a noble vocation. Mrs Aime Olaopa was from Sierra Leone. She was married to my late uncle, Chief Alfred Adejumo Olaopa in the 50s. Both of them met as undergraduates at the Fourah Bay College. Mrs Aime Olaopa later taught mathematics at St. Anne’s School, Ibadan from the late 1950s to the 1980s before she retired. She later passed on in 1995 at 68. The many generations of her old students I had encountered—Mrs F. F. Ogunlade, former permanent secretary at the Oyo state Ministry of Education; Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former Minister of Finance, and many others—all have testimonies about her commitment and how she had greatly impacted their lives and worldviews.
Little wonder therefore that when I met my wife who is a trained teacher, it was not difficult for me to nurse the ambition of seeing her incarnate Mrs Aime Olaopa’s legendary qualities. My ambition for her picked up when she started as an education officer in Oyo state before transferring her service to the Federal Ministry of Education. Unfortunately, my wife’s eventual resentment and rebellion against a profession I believe she was born to project as a model of integrity, professionalism and dedication leaves a sore taste in my heart, even till now. The bitterness is all the more bitter because I know her resentment is not for the teaching profession, but against the systemic dysfunction that keeps the truly born teachers out of the profession they were meant to uplift. But more than this, it reflects that the teaching profession is bled dry of all those who could have kept increasing its status as a profession for the noble-minded. The cooling of my wife’s passion for teaching speaks glaringly to not only the declining fortune of that profession. More fundamentally, we are confronted by the lamentable loss of a development variable that has remained unharnessed in Nigeria’s development thinking since independence. My reflection today is further heightened by the bittersweet event of the retirement of my former classmate and boyhood friend, Bolaji Abiodun. LSF Keke, as we all know him, is retiring from the Lagos State Ministry of Education as an indefatigable Director. My friend and I had our little beginning together as young boys with many dreams and hopes. We later reconnected as classmates at the Higher School Certificate (HSC) class at Olivet Heights. LSF later went on to define his life around the teaching profession to which he gave all his life and commitment ending up as the celebrated principal of the Ransome Kuti Memorial Junior Secondary School, Lagos.
We can indeed commence our reflection about the teaching profession with the example of people like LSF, and the host of others who remained a sad reminder of the development pillar neglected by the Nigerian state in its efforts at nation building. Whether we know it or not, the teaching profession has since lost its glory. Unfortunate for us, however, and this is my argument, Nigeria’s predicament can only begin to be resolved if teaching as a profession is redeemed. Many developed nations across the world have come to this realization. Today, for instance, we are daily informed about the education miracle that the Scandinavian countries are becoming. This is especially most true about Finland. The secret is that most of these nations recognize the fundamental place of human capital development in national development. And what better place to recondition the link between education and development than through the transformation of teaching as a development-defining profession?
As the head of the Policy Division in the Federal Ministry of Education in years 1999 to 2002, I came to a very deep understanding of the myriad of issues that internally frustrate the teaching profession and undermine its potential as a source of human capital development. All over the world, education is recognized as the key to development. It is a solid educational dynamics that anchors the human capital which the state harnesses for its material and national development. The 1990 Jomtein World Declaration on Education for All; Article II of the Declaration states categorically: “To serve the basic learning needs of all requires more than a recommitment to basic education as it now exists. What is needed is an “expanded vision” that surpasses present resource levels, institutional structures, curricula, and conventional delivery systems while building on the best in current practices.” The Universal Basic Education (UBE) commenced in Nigeria in 1999. This scheme was calculated to meet the Article I of the Jomtein Declaration which declares that “Every person – child, youth and adult – shall be able to benefit from educational opportunities designed to meet their basic learning needs.” Thus, apart from the Early Children Care and Development education which takes care of children from age 3 to 5, there is also a framework that takes care of children from age 6 to 15.
However, my experience at the Federal Ministry of Education, as well as with the Education Sector Analysis that was carried out at that period, revealed a lot that is still wrong with the UBE that makes the scheme more of rhetoric than strategic action on behalf of education and national development in Nigeria. The major culprit is funding and poor planning and implementation. This has a serious impact not only on the curriculum system and student learning process, but eventually on the teaching framework and the emergence of a great teacher and a significant learning experience in the school and for the students. In the final analysis, it is the teacher that determines the learning process. The outcome of the learning experience for the students, and the eventual preparation of the human capital for the development effort in any nation, depends on the competences, skills, responsibilities and perception of the teachers. Finland, and the Finnish educational system, is a great example. And this example is not farfetched. Finland has the record as one of the best educational system in the world. And the cornerstone of this success story is not only the attention paid to the curriculum system, but the training and trust invested in the teachers. After close to ten years of formal training, the average teacher enters into a professional career of dignity and continuous updating that has the students as the focal point.
In Nigeria, certification serves as the final end in the process of molding a teacher for the teaching experience, and this in an educational system that is highly subjected to the vagaries of politics, and where the structures are near arbitrary and even dilapidated. The certification process, unfortunately, is centered on the higher education system, and especially the university. This has two implications. The first is that little or no attention has been paid to the origin of the teacher’s educational process which commenced from primary and secondary school. An excellent teacher emerges from a good foundational education which starts from the basic elementary education. If this is neglected, the foundation is already compromised. The second implication is that attention has been taken away from teacher training institutions, especially the colleges of education while the focus has been on the university system. With the sorry state of the colleges of education and even the universities in Nigeria, it is impossible to escape the empirical fact that the future of millions of future generations of Nigerian children is entrusted into the hands of half-baked graduates of education.
The teacher, and the teaching process, in Nigeria therefore stands locked within the complicated grip of governance lopsidedness, and a power politics that pays lip service to the significance and urgency of human capital development and the education system, but fails to see the role of the competent and dignified teacher in the emergence of a competent and knowledgeable human capital. And so, teacher education has been embroiled in the crippling dysfunction that afflicts the education sector and system in Nigeria. And the first pointer to the predicament is that in the first place, there is a gross inadequacy of teachers in Nigeria. The Teachers Registration Council of Nigeria (TRCN) announced in 2017 that 300,000 out of the 700,000 teachers in Nigeria are unqualified. Thus, it should not be a surprise that the teacher-students ratio is 1:80 (compared to the recommended 1:35 ratio). And forty percent of primary school teachers are unqualified to be in the classrooms. This implies that 58.3% of the students cannot learn effectively in classes.
We can then imagine what it means for someone like my late aunt, Mrs Aime Olaopa, to have struggled to distinguish herself in a profession that speaks of the teacher with utmost indignity. We immediately understand why someone like my wife refused blatantly to subject herself to such denigration by a state that refuses to acknowledge the significance of teachers, the same way countries like Finland did. Of course, my aunt and my wife would have both been celebrated in a state like Finland. But we are in Nigeria where celebration of teachers could only commence after a deep-seated reform of teacher education.