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‘Teachers should be trained to embrace 21st century teaching approach’

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Opeifa

Olasunkanmi Opeifa, winner of the 2018 Maltina Teacher of the Year is currently named among the top 10 teachers in the world in the ongoing Global Teacher Prize. In this interview with IYABO LAWAL, the founder of several initiatives speaks on why the 21st century teacher should embrace technology, and the need to revolutionise the profession to attract young and brilliant minds.

What have you been up to since winning Maltina Teacher of the year award?
I have been up to a lot of things. Shortly after the Maltina award, I won another one in FCT as the best teacher, organised by a non-governmental organisation. That same year, I started two initiatives. One is what I called the Phenomenal Readers Club, where I encourage students to read at least a book in one week, and they were doing that.

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The other one is “Read for Fun” for orphanages. We would go to any orphanage around and read for them, just to inculcate critical thinking, collaboration, and other 21st Century skills in them, because they don’t really have the opportunity that some of us had, as some of these children don’t really read books. That was what I did throughout 2019. In our readers’ club, we were giving gifts to the best readers. Once you are able to read about four books in a month, we would give you a gift.
 
It was supposed to be a community programme, but we didn’t have so many schools around, so only my students were the ones participating.  When the lockdown started, we were not prepared for it. So, we could not continue.  But I didn’t rest. A few days after the lockdown, I figured students around me did not learn anything, and so I invited so many teachers across the country on a WhatsApp platform, that we should come together to produce online content like video lessons and put it on social media randomly so that students would not just be loitering on social media, and when they resume school, would not have anything in their heads.
 
So, we came together, about 40 of us at the beginning, and we taught one another how to create videos, using our phones and laptops, and we kept on doing. Now, we are about 257 and have released over 100 videos on different subjects. 
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You were recently nominated as one of the top 10 for the Global Teacher Prize Award. How does that make you feel?
Shortly before the lockdown, I was selected as one of the top 50 in the world. Global teacher award is the initiative of a foundation that started in Dubai, and currently in the United Kingdom. Every year, the group organises award for teachers. It releases a form, which applicants would fill and answer a lot of questions about his/her teaching style, and community service, among others.
 
This year, over 12,000 teachers from over 140 countries applied, and a number of Nigerian teachers also applied, and the group selected 50 out of the applications. They would pick the top 50 regardless of your country. Interestingly, I was the only one selected from Nigeria this year and entire West Africa. It was released on March 19.  Out of the 50, the group selected the best 10 across the world, and this year, probably because of the pandemic and the time, they decided to celebrate one person per week and so far, they have celebrated seven. I was the sixth person, an Indian this week, and then we have three more to be released before the end of the programme, by December 3, a winner would emerge, and would be rewarded with one million dollars.
 
What informed your choice of teaching? What is the motivation?
It is what I can call the discovery of your purpose, or who you are very early in life.
I just realised in my mind that I love reading, and anytime I read, I just want to rephrase it in a simpler way, maybe even in the Yoruba language. I like writing; I like describing, and so I just saw that my life is shifting towards teaching more than any other thing. Maybe I would have chosen police as another job, but I just chose to teach. And from then on, anytime anyone asked me what I wanted to be, I would just tell him or her teacher. I remembered when I was in primary five, and we were given an essay on what we wanted to be in the future, and I wrote teaching, I remember, my teacher picked my essay and read it in the class and asked the students to clap for me. That was an encouragement.
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I was initially scared because people picked other professions like law and medicine, but my teacher at the time made me realise that teaching was prestigious, but my friends in SS 2 always laughed at me. So, I had to lie whenever people asked me what I wanted to be because it was becoming a discouraging. So, I had to lie that I picked law but I knew what I wanted.
 
How rewarding would you say is the teaching profession in Nigeria?
I can say it is more of an idealistic fulfillment, as the emotional fulfillment when you see your students gaining admission into the university; those who could not read, being able to read, and so on. But financially, it is not beneficial, unless for those who are teaching in very big schools and less than one per cent of us in Nigeria can say they are really earning big in six figures. For the rest of us, our standard is a little bit low.
 
Now, the second part is those who discovered the opportunities in teaching.  Education gradually is becoming technological. For example, the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) has become computer-based. So, at a point, some young guys in technology saw an opportunity in education, and they picked it up. So, those who can look at the opportunities in teaching can actually make a whole lot out of it.
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How many teachers are really willing to embrace this technology?
That is really the unfortunate thing in teaching. I don’t know the type of reprogramming we are going to do for teachers so that they will know that the world has gone past the old ways of teaching – cram and pour it down, write on your lesson note and they want to see whether your handwriting is fine or not.
 
A lot of teachers are not embracing technology. However, the lockdown forced many to forcefully embrace technology, but immediately we were released to resume the physical teaching, many of them quickly reclined and went back to their old ways of teaching.
 
During the lockdown, I had to do a lot to ensure that over 200 teachers learn to embrace technology. Children of nowadays are technologically wired, and so you cannot be teaching them like the 19th Century teachers, while they are in the 21st Century. So, a lot of them are still looking up to some of us in the area of technology, and they still want to learn more, and we are creating bigger platforms where we can have more teachers, especially young ones, who can actually take over in technology.

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What are the things you do differently in this profession?
Starting from technology, I have decided that nothing will make me go lower than that. I started with typing my lesson notes; I compute my continuous assessment and make use of technology in my teachings. Then there are cases where I won’t be able to use technology due to some challenges of power shortage. So, I embrace other creative ways of doing things. For instance, I compose songs. I turn some of my teachings into songs, and I embrace teaching and training other teachers too. I encourage them to be active on Facebook and other social media platforms by posting their lecture videos and lesson notes there, and the more they do it, the more they will impact lives.
 
How can we revolutionise the profession to attract young and brilliant ones?
For my colleagues who belong to my generation, they are really looking up to me to mentor them. Whatever assistance they need, I usually tell them that I can always give them. For the government and education managers, this is the best time to revamp the education system.
 
How would you assess the nation’s educational system, and how can it be improved?
Sincerely, our education system is backward. We got to know the reality more during the lockdown. Interestingly, I don’t think any of the federal schools went online.  COVID-19 actually opened our eyes to see that we have been backward. We were defeated even before the battle started. So, I would urge the government to work on our facilities, enough of just thinking of building classrooms and then leaving it like that.

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So, facilities should be worked upon and then the curriculum should be looked into because it is too backward. This same curriculum was not bad at the time, and it still isn’t bad, only that they no longer meet our needs. It met the needs of the likes of Prof Wole Soyinka when we were looking for poets in Nigeria; it met the needs of people like Nnamdi Azikwe when we needed them to be giving us speeches, and the rest.
 
We enjoyed cramming, but this is the 21st Century. The needs of this generation and generations to come to need to be looked into again. It is painful to know that the last time people sat down to hold a conference about this curriculum in use was in 1968. We need to look at a curriculum that can address global needs, and I will advise that we should look into the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to draw new curriculum because that is where the world is heading to in 2030.
 
So, if that is how the entire world is going, why will Nigeria still be using the curriculum that never even met MDGs and other things?  We need to do away with the curriculum and design a new one for this emerging society and the emerging generation.
 
Finally, teachers should be trained to embrace 21st Century teaching approach because we cannot be the same teachers when the curriculum is changing.
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Can you share with us some of your methods of teaching?
We need to realise that no single method is the best. Whatever method the teacher wants to use should be student-centered. Interestingly, these children know exactly what you know too; you as a teacher only know it in a formal and structured way. You need to just teach them based on who they are, that is, student-centered.
 
Other methods you might now want to use are a project-based method, activity-based- method, and inquiry-based method. Teachers should also look at 21st Century learning designs, where students’ learning must have a collaborative element. Hence, collaboration, knowledge construction, solving real-life problems, and integration of ICT are key elements.

How can the government attract more people to the teaching profession?
Thankfully, the president, on two occasions now, has talked about teachers’ salary scheme. He mentioned that teachers’ salaries would be upgraded so that young people can join. I think that’s one of the things they can do.

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Another thing to do is to make the environment of the job attractive. Bad school environment gives some mental depression. If they increase the salaries, we may not need a loan to buy a car. Once the salary and environment are well taken care of, I believe so many people will see the teaching job as an enviable one.
 
What is your advice to your colleagues and the young ones who are thinking of joining the profession?
To those who are coming in, just come with the mind that you are not joining because of the salary.

Instead, come with a mind that you want to come and impact the next generation. The future of this country lies on the shoulders of teachers. If we can get it right with education, we can get it right with everything. And personally, I’m using my position as one of the top teachers in the world to call on young teachers to please come into this job with the mind that you want to impact lives and build the nation; you want to touch the lives of those young ones, such that when they become soldiers, medical doctors or anything they desire, they will value human life much more, and always have empathy for others.

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How do you plan to spend the money if you win the Global Teacher Prize?
I’ve been teaching since 2008, and if or when I win the global teacher prize, a lot of things will be done. I would like to build a free digitalised school that would run as a non-profitable organisation; we are going to bridge the gap between the children of the rich and the underprivileged, and there will be a lot of scholarships for students around. I would build nothing less than eight to 10 libraries across the country.
 
However, if I don’t win, between now and the next 10 years, I would still try and see how God can help me fulfill this dream. But going forward, in less than three months, we are going to be having a collaborative space for teachers. We are creating a bigger collaborative space now on social media space, where we can accommodate as many teachers as possible, and from the result of what we are going to have, Nigeria’s education system would experience a change.
 
Has there been any time that you ever regretted going into the teaching profession?
I can’t think of any time. I’ve always enjoyed teaching; it has always been a blessing, and I am fully satisfied. I would not mind if any of my children join the profession.
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