In this interview, Anthony Itodo, one of the two Nigerians shortlisted for the Global Teacher Prize, talks to Esther Mark about his students, lessons from the remarkable feat and plans for the future.
Itodo teaches Chemistry and Physics at Gateway Excel College, a small school in Otukpa, Benue State. A PTDF Scholar, he studied Petroleum Enginerering for his first degree at the University of Port Harcourt and went on as a PTDF scholar to study Reservoir Evaluation and management for his Master’s at the Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh Campus.
How did you hear about the Global Teacher Prize?
I think it was in September of 2016 when I was looking for opportunities for teachers on the internet that I stumbled upon the Global Teacher Prize via Google. I felt it was an amazing initiative to not only reward outstanding teachers but to also help elevate the status of the profession globally. I couldn’t send an application that year but resolved to send in one the following year, which I did and it got me this Top 50 nomination.
What qualities earned you the nomination, from thousands of entries worldwide?
I think the Global Teacher Prize is looking for teachers who stretch the frontiers of teaching outside the conventional, to not only cater to the all-round development of their students but also to positively affect their communities – acting as worthy ambassadors of the teaching profession. As a teacher I have shown sterling leadership within my school and the community; I sought out problems within my spheres of operation and provided solutions.
You have a UK Masters Degree, amongst other qualifications. Could you say your international exposure changed your orientation towards teaching and the innovative ways you employ to teach in the classroom? What really changed your mind towards making this career shift?
My international experience provided me some perspective on how education can be better than what we offer here, and to be honest when I started teaching here I immediately started replicating the group projects and presentation methods I was exposed to while abroad. However before going abroad I had come up with an idea of education different from the conventional one we were served in secondary school – an idea of the kind of education that will stimulate secondary school students to actually think critically rather than study to get good grades; a kind of education that would push students to create, to be solutions to problems identified within their localities, and to be leaders. I had wanted to implement this idea while in university, when I thought about forming a group of engineering students who would strive for innovation and create technologies we could use locally, while still in university. The university system however stifled this dream, I mean with lecturers insisting on students duplicating the content of their usually shallow materials for them in their exams – this system limited creativity and further frustrated me. When I decided to teach after my master’s degree, I thought it was a perfect chance for me to implement those ideas I had kept for years, with the secondary school a perfect stage, where students are still amenable and the desired qualities could still be inculcated in them early enough.
And just to add, I have been a teacher since I was 17. Teaching was always part of the plan, maybe I got my timelines distorted, but I was always going to end up in the secondary school classroom at some point.
Why did you opt for a school in a rural community school, when you could have gone to more ‘sophisticated’ schools?
I was teaching in a school in Port Harcourt in 2014 but I resigned after three months because the school’s policy didn’t encourage students to study or inculcate good morals – the school primarily prepared them for examination malpractice in their final exams; it was a business setup that wasn’t genuinely interested in education and I felt like a fish out of water. My dad asked me to come back home to Makurdi to teach in his school; at Makurdi I didn’t think they needed me that much, so I decided to go to the village school (which my dad set up) where they really needed teachers and lacked quality teachers.
I have always enjoyed challenges, and teaching in a rural community was going to present me several of them to surmount. I am not one to settle for the ordinary, regular is boring and it will kill me faster than a bullet. I wanted to be a part of some of the challenges students in rural areas faced, I also wanted to implement my ideas of education in this environment where there was a default disadvantage, so that I could tell almost for sure that if my ideas worked here they could would almost anywhere else where I am sure to have better resources.
In my time abroad, I saw some of the world’s finest cities, so ‘sophistication’ and the city allure are not motivations for me. My life is dedicated to serving humanity, and I can’t find a better place to serve than where the need is greatest. Working in this rural community has been deeply fulfilling, especially as I have been able to motivate several lads here to aspire to bigger things in life. Together, we are unlearning, relearning, changing long-held mentalities and becoming solutions to local problems.
In an era where students are mainly concerned about grades and great certificates, what inspired your founding of the community-based initiative, New Frontiers Youth Forum. What impact have you made so far?
It isn’t really ‘an era’ thing; in my time the concern was same – get great certificates. But then I have got a lot of exposure, especially from my interaction with the western world and I learned quite early in life that grades alone won’t cut it – students had to learn life skills and prepare themselves for the tasks outside classrooms. I always encourage my students to engage themselves in out-of-class activities, to become rounded humans, because in the end we don’t live in classrooms.
My community-based initiative was a platform to provide students an excellent opportunity to develop leadership and act as leaders from a young age; an opportunity to make them develop a culture of volunteering, community service and social responsibility, because in the end this country and our continent need leaders who will think differently from the current crop and imbibe a value set outside the present one that glorifies wanton wealth accumulation even at the expense of others.
Our Youth Forum is barely eight months old but we have achieved quite some results. As a result of our several conversations and debates during meetings, several young people within community are now challenging long-held cultural beliefs that are harmful to us and impede our development. Young people have also had opportunities to show social responsibility as we have a welfare committee that has provided relief materials to surgery patients in our local general hospital. The Youth Forum has also set up the first library in this community; we have over 600 books. We also have a mini-skill acquisition programme where young people, especially students have already received training on certain catering products and are already raising money for the Youth Forum through production of sales of these products while still in school.
Our Youth Forum also helped set up a small library of 22 books in a Primary 5 classroom of a primary school around. On another occasion we provided learning materials to primary school kids. We also have a health intervention fund to help students who need surgeries with funds; we already gave N25,000 to a member of the forum who had a surgery last month.
There is quite a lot going on here and we need support to scale up our community engagements. There is a whole lot of enlightenment to do to steer young people away from cultism, which is rather rampant here now, plus we need to empower such people with both skill and finance to start businesses and stay away from vices.
You don’t appear an average ‘strict’ Nigerian teacher. How do you interact with your students and how successful has this method been?
I am quite strict with students, but of course I am very malleable. The key thing in my interaction with my students is the fact they can feel my dedication towards making them better, they know I will go any length to improve them academically and otherwise. So, when I turn on my strict side they never disrespect me for a second…they have to endure that bit…and soon enough I’d be joking and laughing with them. I insist on discipline at all times, which is what translates to ‘strictness’ and maybe ‘wickedness’ for the most cynical of students. I am not overly bothered about being perceived in this light because in the end they all come to realize I am always acting in their best interests.
I am very open to students; I encourage them to come to me with their issues. I provide a lot of financial incentives to students who distinguish themselves, and with funding from my Facebook friends several indigent students have gotten tuition rebates, so they know I am always open to listening to their concerns. I am usually strictest with the junior classes because if they imbibe the culture of discipline early enough then we roll smoothly; the higher students go the freer I get with them. I like to treat them like adults, rather than kids and when there is a need, I admonish them like a Big Brother, show them the consequences of their actions and encourage them to choose what’s best for them.
Several of my students look up to me as their role model so I can imagine my approach with them hasn’t been terrible.
You talk a lot about your work on Facebook. Are there specific reasons for this?
The primary reason I talk about my work on Facebook is passion – see, I could never bottle it. When I came back from my Master’s degree abroad it didn’t take long to find my way into a classroom to teach even when everyone was expecting me to end up in an oil company. Under those circumstances I was going to keep my teaching activities to myself, but I couldn’t. It didn’t take me a week before I started posting about my activities in school on Facebook.
With time however I realized sharing my experiences in school was a tool to report the teaching profession in positive light, to stimulate a change in perception. My passion seeped through several phones across Nigeria and people began to take a pause…why the hell is this guy so proud about teaching? I think it got several people to begin to reevaluate their perception of the teaching profession. I also noticed several people who I didn’t hitherto know as teachers began to show their pride in the profession online. My activities online began to act as a source of inspiration to several people, especially the young, encouraging more people to consider teaching as a career.
So in a nutshell I could say, talking about teaching on Facebook started out as a ‘failing’, an inability to bottle what I really loved doing. Today it is simply a way of life.
What has been your greatest achievement in your three years of teaching?
Smiles. I got this same question when the Global Teacher Prize evaluation committee interviewed me. I will say I have had many amazing moments as a teacher here but one moment still stands out for me, and that was having three of my students win first prize in the Beyond School Community Challenge business idea pitching competition organized by the Mandela Washington Fellowship Alumni Association, Nigeria. You can’t understand that feeling; we left Otukpa, this remote village and competed with some of the finest students in this country, and left Lagos as first prize winners.
That wasn’t a personal achievement, I have had many…but nothing felt better than mentoring those lads to reach beyond themselves; to dig deep into a reserve untapped and excel even against all odds. They came back from Lagos with a changed mindset. That victory inspired several lads in our school, it brought a belief that was before then lacking, you know, that “It doesn’t matter where we are, we can attain greatness.” Again, greatness has no catchment area after all.
How can we have more passionate and competent teachers in our educational system? What can be done to give teaching a befitting facelift?
When people say teaching is a calling, I tend to agree. If you love what you do you can’t bottle the evidence, passion cannot be caged. Yet there are several reasons we do not have people who could be passionate about teaching as teachers. We need to address the working conditions of teachers to encourage people with the passion for raising others to venture into the profession. Why can’t our government pay teachers as well as doctors? Why can’t we recognize people who have given years of excellent service as teachers, when we give every Tom, Dick and Harry with a bag of money chieftaincy awards? Pay teachers as well as doctors and some of our finest minds will be in our classrooms.
The issue of competent teachers is also tied to that of elevating the status of the profession all-round. Too many of the people who end up in our classrooms are those who never wanted to teach; those who took the profession out of frustration or as some last resort in the absence of what they truly desired. But if we changed the working conditions of teachers, bright minds will embrace the profession and we can truly begin to get great materials from our teacher training colleges.
If you were the Minister of Education, what one thing would you want to change in our education sector?
One thing? The whole sector is a madhouse! If I were Minister I would focus on getting primary education right first, and even this will take years. Our primary schools are the abattoirs where kids are usually destroyed long before they start their academic journeys. Getting infrastructure in place should be a no-brainer really, and then we need to focus on getting the best teachers for our primary schools – let our kids have a firm foundation. This brings us again to crosscutting issues; we cannot get the best teachers for our primary schools unless we make teaching attractive for passionate and intelligent people to come into the sector. So in summary, provide topnotch infrastructure for primary schools, make working conditions and pay for teachers exquisite and allow only trained and competent people to man our classrooms in the primary school. This is the starting point for me.
And let me just add this; I think we need to pay attention to our curriculum at all levels and tailor it to train people to actually solve our local problems. This country needs a revolution in manufacturing and industrial production, we should be paying more focus in the training of people to engineer this needed revolution – people who can actually get the work done not certificate holders that litter our streets with no real skills. This is something our polytechnics can be harnessed to achieve, yet we sadly have a situation where polytechnic education which provides hands-on training is relegated. We need to get our priorities right.
Are there lessons this nomination has taught you?
Of course there are. I have gotten to this point because of several years of dedication to teaching and commitment to improving my students and community; so in the final analysis, dedication pays. Again, this nomination reiterates the fact that you can be anywhere and still be a beacon, make a difference and attain greatness. Several of my kids have grown in self-belief as a result of my nomination – their teacher who lives and works in this remote village with them is being recognized as one of the best 50 teachers in the world! Now, that has got to inspire anyone here – there is the clear lesson that their background and location aren’t enough to stop them from reaching the peak, if they are determined enough.
If you win the $1 million prize, how do you intend to spend it?
I presently have a number of ongoing projects that the fund will facilitate in expanding. The community library which our New Frontiers Youth Forum started needs expansion and possible introduction of an e-library component. Our Forum also wants to set up a mega skill centre where we can train people, especially the young and women in different skills and then empower them financially so they can catalyze an economic revolution in this community. This revolution will take several families out of the grip of crippling poverty and then turn many young people from a life of crime which is unfortunately becoming a wildfire here. We presently have a trust fund set up in honor of a student Agada ThankGod, who we lost August to medical complications. The Agada ThankGod Trust Fund provides money for students needing surgery to avoid needless deaths. If I win, the prize money will be used to expand the fund. Also, so many of my students walk across long distances to school daily, and if I could I would get about three buses to convey such students to and from school for free to reduce the burden on them and allow them to be more productive academically.
As an ambassador of the teaching profession in Nigeria I find the strong need to galvanize Nigerian teachers towards large-scale collaborations that will improve teaching and learning across the country. I intend to initiate teacher exchanges, using a residency programme format that will get teachers across Nigeria during the summer break of each year to share best practices on teaching and learning as well as design innovative approaches that will tailor education in Nigeria to be more relevant to solving our local problems. These exchanges will require quite some funding and the prize money can go towards kick-starting the process.
If you were not teaching, what else would you have been doing?
I am interested in development work, and this is simply a reflection of my belief that service to humanity is the best work of life. Any chance I get to serve communities and improve the living conditions of people is a welcome opportunity. So naturally, outside the classroom I will gravitate towards organizations like the World Bank, African Development Bank, the United Nations and other organizations interested in community development. I also have a strong interest in agriculture and if I had the financial means I’d be running a farm for years now. Someday soon I hope I can start that farm in my community as it will provide students around a chance to learn farming hands-on, empower several youths here economically and also solve a food security problem on a local scale here.
Thank you so very much and I wish you all the best.