COVID-19 schools closures exposed the lapses in the education space – highlighting problems of poor technology adoption, ill-equipped teachers, and poor data. In this interview, FOLAWE OMIKUNLE, CEO of Teach For Nigeria (TFN), a not-for-profit that trains and deploys the brightest graduates to teach in underserved communities in Nigeria tells KOFOWOROLA BELO-OSAGIE the steps Nigeria must make to get education right in the next decade.
Children were home for almost six months because of the pandemic. How should the government on addressing learning gaps post-COVID?
This is a mammoth task. Even if the government decides to invest and prioritise education, we are not going to see things get better overnight because the issues are so vast, so complex. We need long-term investments. We need investment in leadership. When you think about the different agencies in charge of education, we need to have the right people with the right capacity, with the right mindset to be able to drive policies, to be able to execute and implement these policies.
What does infrastructure mean for us? Whether as a nation, as public or private sector? Infrastructure has gone beyond just brick and mortar, it is being defined by the digital devices, you are thinking internet, you are thinking electricity, and you are thinking data, which is also internet.
You also find teachers who just have not been equipped. There is no overnight trick to getting our teachers to where they need to be – to be able to think critically, to be able to solve problems, adapt, be flexible and leverage technology as they should.
When you think about it from even how we recruit teachers in the first place, we already even had challenges with teachers teaching in a brick and mortar schools not to talk of teaching remotely. When I was engaging (some) students, one of the things they said is they could not listen to some of the radio or TV programmes because they were not engaging. Some of the teachers were just reading scripts on screen and on radio. And so for some of them they could not learn anything.
Learning gaps will continue if we do not think about how to train and equip our teachers; how to invest in the infrastructure needed to create access and equity for learning during this time and beyond; if we do not figure out how to recruit teachers, invest in them, train them, and support them to be able to close the learning gap; if we do not figure out clearly how to define clearly the critical roles of community, the parents, in the process of learning of their children; and if we do not figure out how to invest in the leadership of education management. We need to figure out how we can intentionally invest in leadership development and also identify the right leadership for these different agencies and units.
I don’t know that we are prepared to make those investments. Those are not investments we can make overnight.They are investments that countries that were able to get over this (pandemic) already had in place. They already had certain technology, data system already in place. But with the right leadership, with the right attitude, mindset and commitment, if we have leaders across the different areas of the system who are working together, who can say this is our vision and mission, they can put plans in place to achieve it. But it is not going to happen overnight. But we need to start the process, the journey of it now.
What would you prescribe as a template that Nigeria could adopt in getting teacher training right?
Doing this work and being part of the Teach for Nigeria movement has really opened my eyes to a lot of things and opportunities to compare lessons I am learning from not only Nigeria but other parts of the world. And it comes to one thing – no nation can exceed the quality of its teachers. So, when you think about teacher training I find out that the quality of teachers that we recruit is absolutely important. So, we cannot expect excellence if we continue to recruit poor quality teachers.
We already see that there is a flaw when we see the JAMB requirement saying that if you want to study education all you need to score is between 100 and 120. And then you wonder that these are the teachers who are going to raise and develop the aspiring doctors, the engineers of tomorrow.We ourselves have watered down the need and importance of having people who ideally should be the most outstanding citizens to be teachers, because it would be easier to train them if they have a certain level of quality and standard. But, unfortunately, in our own case, we recruit from the bottom of the pyramid and then we start to invest in training. There is nothing that we should expect than the result that we are getting.
From nations like Finland, Singapore where they are investing in outstanding citizens, and recruiting their best and brightest individuals as teachers, you can see the results in their children; you can see the results in their human capital development. So, it is not really negotiable.We just need to get the recruitment of teachers right and stop using education as the default choice for the people who cannot get into other programmes and other degrees. Right now, you cannot even talk about training until you get the recruitment right. And that is what TFN is doing differently. For us we want the same people who are aspiring to go to other top organisations to work, the same people who are sought after. We want to put bright minds, promising individuals, outstanding graduates in front of our learners to inspire them and also impact them.
Would you say that the TFN template is good for Nigeria to adopt in recruiting teachers?
Absolutely! The reason I say this is that through our programmes, we have also brought in teachers. One of the things I have seen is some of them are passionate about teaching; a good number of them have not been trained in years. It is not enough to recruit these individuals because they would go redundant if you do not provide ongoing training, mentoring and coaching as well. I find that to be really critical for continuous improvement and professional development of teachers. So, let’s recruit our best minds to teach, let us support them well, let us pay them well, let us invest in their welfare. Then let us continue to train them and if we do that and five to ten years nothing changes – there is no way we won’t see the results we want.
What else is TFN doing?
We recognise this is a complex problem and is one that is quite systemic. To truly solve it would require collaborations, collective effort, and collective leadership across this education ecosystem. We are working towards overwhelming the system with leaders with bright minds who will find themselves in leadership positions, school systems, communities, helping to drive the change needed for us to see transformation in our education system. So, we are working deliberately investing in the leadership capacity of young Nigerians that could in five, 10 years from now be in leadership positions and be making the right decisions that will transform our education system.
COVID-19 has just really shone light on what has really existed in our education system. TFN is asking how do we accelerate and double our efforts because the inequities is widening. We can see children of the haves who are graduating and nothing is stopping their education but we are seeing children from poor homes whose education has been halted in these past six months we have been at home.