…after God, comes our parents, then our teachers. Between our parents and teachers, our future is defined. That is why we must give them their dues. That is why we must treat them with respect and dignity. That is why those whose lives are affected positively by teachers should join in the clamour to get the best bargain for our teachers. Without teachers, there is no future. Without them, society gropes in the dark.
Today, as I have done in the past 43 years, I remember him. He was a special breed of human being in whose heart a fountain of love flowed. In him, the fatherly and the godly converged. He was an epitome of excellence; a quintessential teacher, a peerless mind moulder and mentor of an uncommon kind. In the golden age of classical education of the 1960s and 1970s, he distinguished himself as not just a teacher but as an angel of some sort who held a powerful light to illuminate our youthful path. He was a teachers’ teacher.
His name is: Rev. Amos Olubunmi Ijitona.
My first contact with Rev. Ijitona was in January 1970, the year the 30-month-old Nigeria’s internecine civil war ended. It was also the year I was admitted to Class 1P in the Obokun Campus of Ilesa Grammar School, Ilesa, in present day Osun State. Ijitona, who joined the school, then known as Ijesa Comprehensive High School, in the 1960s, taught us mathematics and Religious Study (R.K.). He was also the school’s organist. Morning after morning, he took us to paradise in the assembly hall with his dexterity on the organ and music conducting. His favourite hymns were: “Christ is our cornerstone” and “Immortal, invisible, God only wise”.
In class, he made learning a delight through a simple but very methodical style of teaching. He demystified and simplified mathematics and made many of us fall in love with the subject. He made RK an attractive bonus for us. There were other great teachers in Ilesa Grammar School who made huge impacts on our lives. The great team was led by Rev. J.A. Oni, our principal at the time. Other members of the pack included: Mr. Bifarin, the vice principal who also taught us History; Pa Aderogba, another R.K. teacher; Pa Osunloye, our Agriculture teacher, Pa Oriowo, who taught us Yoruba language; Mr. Bamkefa who made me fall in love with Chemistry, especially Organic Chemistry; Mrs. Fajemisin, our English teacher; Mr. Ojo, another Agric. teacher; Mr. Aregbesola, the Geography teacher, and Mr. Coker, another Geography teacher who specialised in Regional Geography.
There were also Mr. Ogunleye, another great English Language teacher; and Ms. Aregbesola, who also taught us English. The list is long.
All these great men and women had one thing in common: They were dedicated. They were contented with whatever salaries they were earning. They were a classical study in dedication. They were so committed to moulding lives that after the regular school hours, most of them still organised extra classes between 2.30 p.m. and 4.00 p.m. at no cost to parents and without claiming overtime. Their motivation was to see Ilesa Grammar School excel, both in the West African School Certificate Examination, O’Level, and for the sixth formers, the A’ Level.
Their methods worked like magic. Ilesha Grammar School had outstanding results, year after year. The results motivated the teachers a great deal. They gave their best to the job, and did not engage in trading, private practice or any external activity that might distract them. Of course, their salaries were decent and regular. Please, don’t ask me how much. I don’t know. What I know is: teachers, like farmers, were treated like royals. They were like kings. And most of them shone like a thousand stars. That era, now long gone, was the golden age of education in Nigeria. Little wonder, Ilesa Grammar School gave Nigeria an ample share of the country’s best brains. This is verifiable. It is not an empty boast.
Owing to the beautiful ambience they worked in, and the good conditions of service, teachers of that golden era worked their best. To them, teaching was like religion. They gave it their all. They were methodical. Their methods would inspire the dumbest of numbskulls to learn. One cannot forget their tolerance and fatherly and motherly corrections of the indiscretions of our adolescent years. They corrected us with love. By their efforts, those indiscretions of those youthful years long gone have become sweet memories in the youth of old age that we have suddenly found ourselves.
Let’s contrast all that with the present state and fate of teachers in Nigeria. In a country crying for development, government at all levels treat teachers like derelicts; like ragged strangers. They are paid pittance that cannot take them home. Many states have several months backlog of unpaid teachers’ salaries and allowances. Where they are paid regularly, what is paid amounts to something like throwing a pebble into the ocean. The result is that teachers live in perpetual debt. They borrow to survive. Those who can’t borrow take to trading or other means of survival. Trading has become the primary assignment of many teachers, while teaching is the back-up. Some trade right inside the schools where they teach. As a result, they skip classes and students are left to wander about like sheep without shepherd.
In terms of staff development, there is little or zero budget for training and retraining, an essential tool for keeping teachers abreast of developments and best practices in their profession. The work environment is uninspiring. The infrastructure and architecture of education have crumbled in many states. In some states, pupils learn under trees. In some, they receive instructions in classrooms with hanging roofs. These are just a few of the problems facing teachers and their noble profession.
The tragic irony of teachers in our country is that they laid the foundation on which past and present rulers who have treated them like slaves built their prodigal lives. Teachers trained the governors who now bloat and gloat in opulence but refuse to pay what rightly belongs to those who moulded their lives. Like salaries, most states don’t pay pension. Even with the release of two tranches of the Paris Club Refund to states, most states are still not paying their pensioners. Pensioners are still dropping dead in many states waiting and queuing for pensions the governors are not in a hurry to pay. If this is not wickedness, what is it?
Last Thursday, October 5, was the World Teachers’ Day. Celebrated since 1994, it is a day set aside by the United Nations to celebrate teachers worldwide and focus on problems confronting them and their profession. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), significantly, prescribes a benchmark of 20 percent of Gross Domestic Product, as well as 20 percent of national budget set aside for education. This has been observed in the breach by government after government. The benchmark, as designed by UNESCO, recognises teachers “as part of the solution and not the problem in ending the learning crises being witnessed around the world. (And that being so,) Governments must support them with the right incentives, training and deployment to the part of the country where the disadvantaged reside.”
Based on the foregoing, I submit that teachers deserve to be celebrated in perpetuity, not just for one day. All of us are where we are by the grace of God, and the commitment and benevolence of teachers. They inspire in us the love for knowledge and truth. They light our path and brighten our future with each lesson they teach (Kevin William Huff). As Huff wrote in his tribute to tutors, called Teacher, “the dawn of each poet, each philosopher and king,” each professor and professional, each priest and politician, each lawyer and journalist, each doctor and engineer, each accountant and artiste, etc., “begins with a teacher and the wisdom they bring.”
For me, after God, comes our parents, then our teachers. Between our parents and teachers, our future is defined. That is why we must give them their dues. That is why we must treat them with respect and dignity. That is why those whose lives are affected positively by teachers should join in the clamour to get the best bargain for our teachers. Without teachers, there is no future. Without them, society gropes in the dark. Now is the time to redeem the times for teachers and reverse their appalling state. This is the only way to make my teacher, Rev. Amos Olubunmi Ijitona, who died in November of 1978, to smile wherever he is.
I rest my case. God bless Nigeria.
Shola Oshunkeye is the CEO of Omnimedia Nigeria Limited, and executive director of the non-profit, Sustainable Development and Transparency Foundation.