Many people often refer to Barack Obama as the president of the world given that he is the leader of the United States of America, the country that have despite its challenges in recent years remained the symbol of freedom and the most sought after destination for people of all races and creed.
As a good citizen of the world therefore, I joined in keeping vigil about a fortnight ago in order to listen to President Obama's State of the Union address. In all the speech, which was richly packed and delivered with the trademark Obama charisma, one line stood out for me and this was that teachers matter.
Yes, teachers matter. Indeed Nigeria teachers matter greatly. If you are able to read this piece, you do so because some lowly fellow many years ago introduced you to the 26 English alphabets and patiently guided you through recognising each one, until you could chant them like a rhyme and even scribble them on your slate.
For this you should be eternally grateful. But do we really care about the teachers?
That teaching is perhaps one of the most disrespected professions in Nigeria today is an obvious fact. Teachers and teaching have been relegated to the background and have lost whatever respect due.
There is a historical perspective to this trend. A broad consensus is that, prior to independence, teaching was considered by almost all sections of society as a highly respected profession. Teachers played key leadership roles in local communities and acted as role models.
However, after independence, when the demand for educated labour grew rapidly, many teachers left the profession to take up jobs elsewhere in the public and private sector. This marked the beginning of the teacher motivation crisis in Nigeria, as the public began to look down on those teachers who remained in the classroom as second-string public servants.
The growing tendency for school leavers to opt for teaching only if they are unable to find other more lucrative public or private sector employment further compounded this problem of lowered professional status.
Today, any child who ventures to his parents that he wants to become a teacher might have his skull examined for traces of madness.
The reasons are not far fetched. The Nigerian teacher is poorly motivated. He/she is poorly paid in relation to other professions and thus enjoys very low status in society. The working environment is at best laughable, with years of very poor government funding of education; and the teacher in addition has very slim chances of career advancement and self development.
This works in a negative feedback. With the least intelligent students already buoyed by low self esteem being the ones taking up courses in Education, the result is that our schools are supplied with low quality teachers whose abilities are hampered even more by poor motivation and the non availability of the right teaching aids.
Teacher quality matters a great deal. Teacher experience makes a profound difference in student performance, as do teacher literacy levels. This does not require any elaborate research work to prove. So the more we de-motivate teachers, neglect the funding of education and look the other way as teaching slips into obscurity, the more we are endangering the future of this country; the vast majority of who live below the poverty line and thus depend on public schools for their education.
We need some sort of affirmative action in this regard. A couple of years ago, the American Congress passed the “No Child Left Behind Education Act” which was intended to correct the corrosive inequality that had plagued public education. Congress specified that in return for federal education funding, states would have to end the destructive practice of staffing schools serving poor and minority children with disproportionate numbers of inexperienced and unqualified teachers. In other words, a teacher quality requirement was set which states had to meet to access federal funding.
We need a similar law in Nigeria and urgently too. This law should be for the overhaul of the education system with emphasis on teacher training and on the job motivation. This certainly cannot happen over night or by a single pronouncement, but every single step counts. We need a National Teachers Policy and an elaborate plan for making teaching a sought after profession.
It’s the only way for the country to improve the educational picture for the poor and minority students who will make up such a large part of the work force (or dependent ratio) of the future.