Why teachers are critical to modern civilisations, by Utomi

Professor of Entrepreneurship and Political Economy, Pat Okedinachi Utomi. Photo: FACEBOOK/UTOMI

Professor of Entrepreneurship and Political Economy, Pat Okedinachi Utomi, in this chat with News Editor MARCEL MBAMALU, speaks on the need to revive Nigeria’s education sector by restoring quality and teachers’ prestige. But this, he says, will take a holistic effort in strategic curriculum overhaul and public-private sector partnerships.

October 5 was World Teachers Day; why should that be significant?
Teachers are critical to modern civilisations. A civilisation based on knowledge needs to be able to acknowledge the great burden bearers of the epoch, the people through who we transmit the knowhow, know why, and values that enable the community of people to elevate the quality of their living and culture. They deserve to be acknowledged, celebrated and encouraged. It is therefore appropriate that the world community set-out the date, the 5th of October, to recognise the value teachers bring to the world.
 
Besides parents, the first true teachers of their children, and whom teachers support, the classroom teachers are the anchors of our civilisation. Their work deserves rewards both on earth and in heaven.

 
People keep pointing to a decline in the quality of education. Is this decline factual and if so how much different were yesterday’s teachers from those of today?
The myth is that the quality of education is declining. Teachers’ prestige has also surely sagged. There has to be a correction. I do see some thoughtful remedial efforts here and there though. I will return to those efforts.

But I believe Education is generally thought to be in decline because of a number of factors in the colonial and immediate post-colonial era. Access was limited and the few who entered that league were specially treated both as students and in the prestige, they enjoyed as teachers.

Prof. Steve Okecha’s anecdotal fable in his book on the Ivory Tower, Nigeria universities, which was quite critical, points to rumour about a sighting of Prof. Kenneth Onwuka Dike in Onitsha market in the early 1960s when Dike was Vice-Chancellor at the University of Ibadan. The merchants were said to begin to shut their stalls so their eyes could behold this intellectual. Okecha then wonders if any merchant in Onitsha market would notice if troops of Onwuka Dike’s marched through the market today.

There is also the fact that many of the teachers of those days were either missionaries, motivated by making impact on their transcendental journey, or career track civil servants in the government schools. Today, nationalization of schools has cost the system those social impact-driven missionary teachers and the government teachers have had their prestige dramatically diluted with expansion, and recruitment affected by cronyism. It is normal to experience a watering down of quality.

But I have been Chairman of the panel of judges of a Teacher of the year competition sponsored from the private sector, Nigerian Breweries Maltina Teacher of the year competition. For five years, I have watched that do a lot to motivate Teachers and begin to restore prestige. I have seen the National Union of Teachers contribute to seeing a raising of professional requirements for teaching. There is a long way to travel still. I think our path forward should lead us towards Finland.

If there is one thing we cannot joke with, it is the standard of education. It is more valuable than infrastructure. The rightly educated will create infrastructure but the infrastructure cannot produce the rightly educated who are central to production that raises income and quality of life. And the kicker for education standards is teacher quality.

The Maltina Teacher of the year competition whose panel of judges you have chaired from inception is naming its fifth annual Teacher of the year competition this October. What have you learned as the challenge to teacher quality through this process?
Many, very many lessons. One of the first is how not to leave everything to government. The Nigerian Breweries initiative reminds me of the purpose and outcome of the Aghan Khan Foundation Conference on a tripartite approach to development, which took place in Nairobi in 1985. It was to build a partnership between the Government, Private Sector and Private Development Agencies (PDA), that is the NGO/Civil Society Sector, in facilitating development.

Another lesson is that our country is full of heroes. Many of these teachers in very bad conditions of remuneration, environment of learning challenges and even with young people so poor they lack the nourishment necessary for learning actually achieve miracles with their passion and personal commitment.

I have seen transforming impact of winning the competition in the lives of several of the winners and the communities they serve. I have been so impressed by them that I have had to invite some of them to speak at events to inspire others.
I have also found through that initiative, the huge deficit in infrastructure for education, the philosophy of education and teacher quality which is key to getting education right.

I have always identified with the doctrine that parents are the first teachers of their children. The teachers in school are supplementary. I find that the process we have deployed for Best Teacher selection which among others includes an Assessment Centre reveals how little many parents are doing, beyond paying fees, to ensure a good education both in character, skills, and knowhow, for their children.

When people ask you to introduce yourself you are often brief and the key thing in that brief introduction is’’ I am a teacher’.’ Why does being a teacher mean so much to you when many are ashamed of a profession that is often of low pay and poor prestige?
I feel very good about the privilege of being a teacher. Nothing beats the social impact a teacher can have and since my greatest desire is lasting social impact, it makes me feel special. A teacher who does a good job will live in the hearts of people for at least a generation. If he or she is particularly good they become legends and are around in the hearts of many for generations after their mortal lives expire. Whether I am hosting a TV Show or in a Board meeting or playing public intellectual on the stump I see myself essentially as teaching.

Part of the reason I am quick to announce myself as a Teacher is to make young people see it as a noble track. If someone they see as being of some influence can be taught, then it must be worth doing.

You may teach from several platforms but what delights you about the classroom. Many who have been in your classes at the Lagos Business School often talk about the experience with excitement.

The truth is I like to teach. I have found that quite a few like to be in my classes. A hectic travel schedule has reduced how much I teach but I still get requests from colleagues who say certain MBA classes complain I have had little or no time with them. I usually quickly adjust and do one or two more classes with them. In the LBS system feedback comes literally immediately after every class from the evaluation forms filled. It makes me feel good to receive the generous feedback that shows students value the adrenalin pump that keeps me going nonstop in class.

How can teachers help revive the educational system?
First I think increased professionalism by teachers will not only improve teaching quality but make teachers activists for the cause of better education.

This does not necessarily mean radicalization of teachers. My view of ASUU, for example, is that radicalization of university teachers ultimately has taken away from the goal of university teaching. The poor condition of the universities and the military government’s suspicion of academics and desire to control that tribe led to radicalization of ASUU to a point that I think has become dysfunctional even though they have enough things to be appropriately angry about. But unionization, in the end, became bad even for the spirit of protest.

From a colleague, many years ago I learned a good definition of a university faculty – a collection of anarchists united by–common car park. That suggests individualism in pursuit of ideals. Unionization has not advanced that character of the intellectual.

But teachers at the NUT level have shown more sobriety in organizing for system upgrade. NUT used to be very conservative but they are improving. They need to channel their enhanced status in pushing for higher standards.

What do you consider the biggest challenges to education in Nigeria today?
There is the dominant role of the Federal Government, especially in Primary and Secondary education that should be Local Government and State Government domains. Add to that problem the over-emphasis on tertiary education. Primary and Secondary education with a healthy dose of technical and vocational education is more important for our industrialization and development than the universities. Quite a few of the leading tech companies in the world were university dropouts but Secondary School education had equipped them well already.

I think part of the obsession with universities as education came from the Military in their battles to tame academics who became the main source of voice for the voiceless under military rule.

Then there is the obsession of government with brick and mortar over learning. Take the case of private low-cost schools in poor neighbourhoods. Many governments are forever trying to shut them down without looking at research that suggests those schools cater to a majority of the children in school in those blighted neighbourhood as the government has proved unable to provide adequate school space for the population. To compound matters, research shows that the children who go to those schools tend to perform better than those who attend the government schools in the same neighbourhood.

I have been privileged to become National Patron for the Association for Formidable Education Development (AFED) which brings together owners of private low-cost schools. We have been working on introducing technology to those schools and the results, monitored from the UK have been incredible. We truly can win the future if we try.

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