An ode to teachers by Ray Ekpu

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For most people, including teachers, serving and retired, it was a very pleasant surprise when, on October 5, a day globally recognized as Teachers’ Day, President Muhammadu Buhari did the unexpected.

He stepped into the coldly imperfect world of Nigerian teachers with a mouth-watering basket of goodies that will inevitably lift the sagging spirit of our long-suffering, long-neglected and long-despised toilers in our educational vineyard.

That masterstroke by Buhari represents a belated but fundamental appreciation of the reality that teachers are the engineers of development anywhere in the world who deserve to be treated like royalty.

All our past governments, military and civilian, have for decades treated with disdain the welfare of teachers as if they do not matter.

Teachers, especially at the primary and secondary school levels, became the butt of cruel jokes by comedians who bought into the silly slogan that the rewards for teachers are reserved for them only in heaven.

With this decision, Buhari’s name will be written on the blackboard of history.

Here are the items in the Buhari basket of goodies: a new special salary scale for teachers in basic and secondary schools; increase in retirement age from 60 to 65 years or from 35 to 40 years of service; newly introduced rural and peculiar allowances; increased science allowance; automatic admission and free tuition for kids of teachers at their places of work.

To pour on more pleasure, Buhari approved automatic recruitment of Bachelor of Education graduates, bursary awards for Bachelor of Education students.

TETFUND will also be funding teaching practice from now onwards. For a journey that has been very bad, the arrival is sweet. When this gain is activated, the pain of waiting for this day will be easily forgotten because, for decades, they were deprived even of hope of a good life for those who dispense knowledge to Nigeria’s children.

As teachers have now chalked up some rewards for themselves right here on earth, they and their families must be clapping for Buhari now. They are, theoretically, at the port of happiness.

I say theoretically because the devil is always in the implementation. The only teachers not clapping now are those in the trade union called Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).

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ASUU and the Federal Government have been locked in a battle of wits since March 23, but since the universities were shut because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of the ASUU strike was not obvious.

With the Federal Government’s decision to throw the gates of our universities open for studies, beginning from October 12, the wahala has resumed too. The combatants have two grounds of contention.

(a)   Alleged failure of the Federal Government to honour its 2019 agreement

(b)   Disagreement over the Integrated Personnel Payroll Information System (IPPIS).

ASUU has given two conditions for the lecturers to return to work, namely, payment of arrears of salaries and improved teaching and learning environment.

According to the national president of ASUU, Professor Biodun Ogunyemi, “The ongoing strike will continue and schools will not reopen until the government provides good lecture halls, equipment for the students and also pays salaries of teachers.”

Even if all of ASUU’s demands are genuine and necessary, they are not such that may be provided by government with a snap of the fingers, considering the high level of impecuniosity of our governments, federal and state.

If ASUU sticks to its guns, it is likely that our universities will stay padlocked for a long time. Both sides must make some concessions so that our education is not brought to the point of near paralysis. It is true that our education is not robustly funded, if we go by the UNESCO prescription of 26 per cent of national budgets.

What goes to education at the federal level in Nigeria is always less than 10 per cent. That low budget has contributed to the poor state of education in the country at all levels. Graduates from Nigerian universities have a hard time convincing potential employers that they have the capacity to deliver.

Employers now ask for graduates who either have first class honours degrees, or two or three degrees or graduates with degrees from foreign universities.

But we must acknowledge that the foundation for the quality of graduates produced at the tertiary level is laid at the lower levels, primary and secondary schools. That is why the decision by Buhari to improve the lot of teachers at the foundation levels is significant.

Teachers at all levels are the geese that lay the golden eggs in the education sector. Therefore, the effort to improve the country’s education must be comprehensive, total, holistic and futuristic. We are very far behind the rest of the world in the advances made even by some developing countries in STEMM (Science, Technology, Mathematics and Medicine). So, we are not trying to catch up, because we can’t, but we must strive not to be left too far behind.

For starters, we need to convoke a colloquium on education that will give us a realistic idea of how low our educational standard has dipped. That is when we can realistically be in a position to formulate policies for the salvaging of our education and retrieving it from the jaws of decay.

That salvaging process must have the teacher at the pivot, if we hope to reach that point of unspoiled paradise. A few years ago, I was invited by Mr. Udom Inoyo, who recently retired as the vice-chairman of Exxon Mobil, to give a talk at an event to honour teachers for their excellence.

He and his wife, Ntekpe, had set up a foundation called Inoyo Toro Foundation, to build capacity for teachers, and deepen the foundation for the teaching of STEMM subjects. For me, this was a novel niche in philanthropy in the education sector.

Most philanthropists in that sector concentrate on offering scholarships to students or supporting library development. I was thrilled to find that this foundation decided to pay attention to teachers, who are the purveyors of knowledge, and to discover for decoration those of them who had exhibited electrifying brilliance.

At the last count, 238 teachers had received Excellence Awards, which included monetary compensation. The benefit here is not so much in the number of teachers honoured but in the fact that a much forgotten area of educational development was receiving the attention of a philanthropist.

That niche is unique. For teachers in Nigeria, nothing was cotton candy. They seemed to be moving for ever around an urn doing a great job of moulding young minds but receiving compensation that was far from being commensurate with their exertions.

Now Buhari has changed the narrative, he has given teachers a new song, a new lease of life which has stirred the emotions of teachers nationwide. They now have something to crow about. They are going to receive their just reward right here on earth.

Whatever they will receive in heaven will simply be the icing on their cake. Whatever they will get, we will not begrudge them because they have been the tour guides for many generations of our children; they have been the explorers, those who have helped our children to discover the wisdom, the wise cracks and the witticism that are securely buried within the covers of books.

They are the ones who have made the illiterate, who are technically blind, to see. They provide the compass with which we see the world, and find our direction. Let us all give a standing ovation to our teachers for the huge part they have played in making us who and what we are. This is my ode to all teachers.

Teachers, thank you.