…An exclusive interview with Mr Itodo Anthony and Mr Ayodele Odeogbola, two Nigerian finalists for the Varkey’s Global Teachers Prize

As part of African Leadership Magazine’s efforts towards showcasing Africa’s best the a the global stage, our team cough up with Mr. Itodo Anthony and   Mr. Ayodele Odeogbola, two Nigerian finalists for the Varkey’s Global Teachers Prize, to discuss their selection for the prestigious prize and the prospects for the education sector in Nigeria and Africa at large. The two-part interview talks about the prize, education in Nigeria, STEM, amongst other issues. Excerpts:  


Mr Itodo Anthony, a science teacher from Nigeria, is among the 50 final shortlisted teachers for the Global Teachers Prize. In an interview with Joshua Ogbonna of the African Leadership Magazine, he highlights the work that got him selected.

Congratulations on making the final list of the Varkey’s Global Teacher Prize. How did you get shortlisted, Is this your first trial?

Yes, this is my first trial. I became aware of the Global Teacher Prize a few weeks to the deadline last year and though I flirted with the idea of applying, I didn’t think I had enough time to put in a decent application so I deferred to this year. About a month after the application deadline I got interviewed on Skype and here we are…the Top 50!

Your selection is coming at a time that there has been a lot of conversation around teachers training and quality of education in Nigeria, looking at the recent competency test carried out by the Kaduna State government for teachers in public school. What was the standout activity that brought your work to the fore and how have you managed to stand out?

It is sad to say that the ‘Kaduna disaster’ isn’t an event that stands in isolation but one that reflects a microcosm of the rot that is Nigeria’s education system. There are too many unqualified teachers in the system, destroying kids even before their educational lives started, especially at the primary levels. As a country, we have to answer the question, why competent people are not going into the teaching profession, why do we have too many teachers who didn’t choose to teach in the first place out of passion, but because teaching is some last resort occupation to pay their bills?

Passion for teaching is what stands me out. In a clime where teachers are not highly regarded, and where the conditions of teaching are not flattering, passion is the only ingredient that can make a teacher excel. I started teaching at 17, and I have always enjoyed the feeling I get from helping someone tap more of their educational abilities when I teach them. I have translated my passion for teaching a number of initiatives to bring out the best in my students. My MO has always been to identify challenges and provide solutions. The Goal Book Initiative to give students a sense of daily purpose, the Vocabulary Development mentoring program, the projects programme, student excursions, tuition rebate scheme, e-library project, the community library project, all of which I have initiated as a teacher here has stood me out from the conventional teacher. I have been able to stretch the frontiers of teaching from the conventional preparation of students for good grades to raising thinkers, creators and leaders…all while working in the difficult and disadvantaged rural terrain.

Passion has been the singular most important fuel.

To a lot of Nigerians, it begs comprehension why you chose the secondary school despite your post-graduate program in the UK and international exposure?

At the University of Port Harcourt, I belonged to the leadership organization Junior Chamber International, and we used to have a saying “see the need, take the lead.” On return from my post-graduate in the UK, I saw a need in the education sector and I wanted to be a part of the solution through innovative ideas – that was why it didn’t matter much to me that I was teaching in a village with all its obvious shortcomings.

In secondary school, I was trained to primarily pass, and the sum of my dreams at the time was to get 8 distinctions, I didn’t know better. At university, I felt my secondary school education which buried us in textbooks had shortchanged me and I wanted something more, so I thought of starting a group for engineering students where we could innovate and apply theory to create solutions to local problems. The university system too didn’t encourage this dream, I had lecturers who wanted us to read the lecture notes, digest them, and duplicate them in the exam halls. It was a bit disheartening for me, I didn’t feel like I was getting the full package of education so I engaged myself in a lot of out of class leadership activities to fill that dissatisfaction I felt.

When I returned from the UK I decided I could provide the kind of education I wish I had in secondary school; I could through innovation raise an army of thinkers and help re-write the teaching narrative. I also chose the secondary school level because at that stage students could easily be modelled to desirable qualities. At this level, I could teach them to be thinkers, creators and leaders. You know how difficult it is to teach old dogs new tricks?

In my three years as a teacher here I have been able to impress my idea of education on my students. Many of them are now critical thinkers, some even challenging certain contents in their texts. Students are doing a lot of projects with passion, even when they are not scored; students are providing stellar leadership within the school and outside the school. I believe I am stirring some wind of educational revolution that will engulf the entire country in time, with several teachers across Nigeria now seeking my mentorship and replicating some of my ideas.

I chose to teach here because I saw a need, and I took the lead.

As an advocacy expert in skill-oriented and leadership-driven education, what are the ways Nigerians can get it better in this area of education?

I tell my students it isn’t enough to know all the laws of physics and chemistry…you have to be able to identify them in play in the real world at the least, and your focus has to be how to use the knowledge you gain to create real-life solutions. It is quite unfortunate that our education system emphasizes so much on getting good grades and hardly anything else.

In school I let my science students work in teams to come up with solutions to hypothetical problems that I create for them, using their knowledge of the sciences. This stimulates critical thinking. There are also projects that allow them to create several devices. I believe this can be replicated across Nigerian schools. Nigerian students should own small businesses even while in secondary school. They should be supported to innovate and create…rather than pushed along the educational chain as collectors of near-redundant knowledge.

And leadership is a key part of my idea of education. It is not enough to raise intelligent students without the right values of leadership – responsibility, accountability, integrity, diligence. In our school prefects write a plan of action for each term, and follow it with constant progress reports – this fosters accountability. I instituted prizes in school for student leadership; to reward students for their contributions to mentoring other students, educating students, engaging in projects, showing courage in the face of persecution, among others. This is my way of redefining leadership for young people, and instituting a value system of relevance based on value creation rather than the pervasive one of wealth accumulation we presently have. If a student can be recognized in school for accountability, the message is eloquently passed.

Your emphasis is almost competition-centred. Does this affect the weaker students in class for good? If yes, what measures are put in place to make sure they don’t feel inferior to their classmates?

My emphasis isn’t competition-centred, it is development-centred. While competition can serve the purpose of bringing out the best in some students, I’d rather focus on having students develop themselves. I ask my students to strive daily to be better than how they were the day before. This development-centred approach carries everyone along. We have a mentorship programme for vocabulary development where certain seniors mentor a number of juniors by checking their vocabulary development books and providing guidance. That isn’t a competition, but teamwork for development. My approaches encourage a lot of teamwork. I give group projects where team members have to make presentations and get marks as a collective unit. The best students in a group have to carry the weaker ones along or the whole team suffers. In this setup, everyone gets a sense of belonging. This term I awarded a student a special prize for determination. When she took our entrance exam she didn’t do well and we were going to relegate her to a lower class but she begged for a term’s probation and we granted her request. At the end of the term, she came 4th in a very competitive class. Now, that massive shift from “relegation” to 4th position earned her a prize…for development.

And let me say a word on the competition. When three of my students went to Lagos in September and won the Beyond School Community challenge, they gave everyone at school a sense of belief, that it didn’t matter that they were in a small rural school, they could be the best. Shortly after that win, an educational grant opportunity came up, five of my students applied and all of them got shortlisted and ended up getting the 50,000 Naira grant each. A national essay competition also came up and about 20 students entered for it. A year ago they wouldn’t have the belief they could win…but our victory in Lagos changed that narrative. Today they are scouting for international opportunities.

What is the focus of your projects which are largely for the host community of your school, and how effective have they been?

The springboard for my community engagements is the New Frontiers Youth Forum which I founded in May 2017. The primary focus is to raise an army of young leaders who would act as agents of positive change within the community, to address identified problems. A key mandate of our Youth Forum is to provide enlightenment against certain harmful traditional practices. We have been having engagements around topical issues like bride price payment, gender equality, the celebration of funerals, human trafficking among others. The Forum is also encouraging selflessness – young people are now doing volunteering and community service; the idea is to raise a generation of leaders who’d not be consumed by the craze for illegitimate wealth acquisition.

Our projects have been highly effective. Our Charity Committee has been able to provide learning materials to two schools. We set up a small mini library of 22 storybooks in a Primary 5 class of a selected primary school. We have a community library now and several students have been using the resources there. We have a trust fund for health intervention and a member of the forum already got assistance to perform a surgery. Our skill centre already took off and a number of women are indicating interest in getting catering training. In all, I’d say our community projects have been a massive success, especially given we are just 7 months old.

How well have you been able to integrate these into the Nigerian educational sphere, considering the gap in the quality of our education — particularly the public schools?

Perhaps one strongly favourable element of our Youth Forum setup is the fact that it is dominated by students – many of who are able to replicate the leadership skills we learn there in their schools. A few of my students are already doing personal volunteering projects, even in school, helping other students to become better rather than becoming sole stars. Over the years students here have carried out enlightenment campaigns within the student body on subjects like Cancer, HIV/Aids, Laser Fever, among others. This is leadership in action, which is the primary idea my community engagements seek to push.

Outside my tiny educational space, the effects of these initiatives are spreading out like ripples through my posts on Facebook. Several teachers across Nigeria have reached out to me to provide mentorship on replicating some of these out-of-class projects and the feedback from the response of their students have been positive – a huge win for education.

Again we talk of public schools and the gap in the quality of education, but to bridge this gap, especially against the obvious shortcomings of lack of adequate funding, these schools need teachers with the passion to look beyond mere classroom instruction. I believe with teacher exchanges which I hope we can organize in the future, to motivate one another through shared best practices as teachers, this gap can be bridged.

Considering the flurry of complaints of underfunding by stakeholders in the government-owned institution, how best can the underprivileged, which are the major constituents of public schools cope out there?

I have to say the condition of several public secondary and primary schools in this country is pitiable. The neglect of education by several arms of the government is stark and to be completely unfathomable. Several public schools across this country don’t have things as basic as seats in the classrooms. Some of those rooms are only fit enough for goats to live in. It is a crying shame what our leaders are doing to this sector. Pupils and students who find themselves in such schools have their work cut out for them from the scratch; if you find someone doing so well under such conditions then that person is a gem.

The way forward without mincing words is for our governments to act responsibly and give education the due attention it deserves, especially at the primary and secondary stages. We have pupils who have been destroyed by the mess of our primary education system carrying over the rot to secondary schools, and students, in turn, transferring these defects to higher institutions. Our public schools need funding and governing boards made up of reputable members of the private sector to oversee the running of these schools. Let people who have a reputation to protect manage these schools. People who’d get only qualified teachers to be in classrooms and not mortgage the future of kids by distributing teaching jobs to unqualified people like we had in Kaduna as if it is charity. That’s how you give the horde of the populace in our public schools a fighting chance.

Knowing full well that at this stage, you are pitted against 49 teachers who have done marvellously well, what is your competitive advantage?

I have to agree, the competition is stiff, but that teachers across the world are doing marvellously is a good thing for me, a great thing for the profession. I teach in a village, I have been here for three years. When I started I met a crop of students who were satisfied with merely putting on uniforms and coming to school – no purpose. Today I have a set of students with a radical change in values from what I met – many of them are self-driven now, eager to develop themselves in spite of the obvious shortcomings of their rural environment. See, that has got to count for something.

We do not have the privileges of the high end ‘fancy’ schools in the cities. Many of my students do not have access to basic stuff like TV and the internet. But we went to Lagos and competed with some of the finest schools in this country in a Business Idea pitching competition and came first nationwide. That has got to count for something.

As at last year, only two students had an email account in my school, and then I came up with the e-library initiative that has expanded their horizon and connected them with the world. Today several of them have e-mail accounts; several are watching scientific videos on YouTube and doing research on the internet. They are making applications for educational grants online and applying for student exchanges from this remote village…aspiring to visit the USA. That has got to count for something.

The project teams in our science club have created from local resources, several instructional materials. There is a telescope, a periscope, the Hope’s Apparatus, the Kipp’s Apparatus and presently a biogas generation set-up which is still underway. See, these are lads who three years ago were happy with just being students…today they are creators, initiators, dreamers. In a way, I can say I found coal here, and I am helping make diamonds. That has got to count for something.

Aside from the competitive side of this contest, are there lessons to draw from this contest, as regards improvement in your quality and skills as a teacher?

Of course, there are. As a Top 50 finalist, I get the privilege of joining the prestigious Varkey Teacher Ambassadors Programme, which for me is one of the strongest attractions of the Global Teacher Prize. I have read the profiles of several finalists and the amazing approaches they use in and outside their classrooms to make teaching effective and I am happy to learn best practices from this community of amazing teachers and adapt them to my own classrooms and community. The several stories of giant strides teachers across the world are taking to not only elevate the status of the profession but to make their communities better have also motivated me to do more; I feel already that there is a whole lot more I could do here as a teacher and ambassador of the profession.

And more than anything else, this nomination will go a long way in changing the perception of teachers in Nigeria. The reaction of my friends online to this recognition has been massive, positively. I am sure going forward I wouldn’t have too many people praying for me to “find a job soon” like teaching isn’t one. This nomination is a turning point in my story as a teacher, and I hope a catalyst to an educational revolution in Nigeria.

How do you plan to spend the $1million price tag if you win (laughs) any project(s)?

Spending money is never a problem for someone with a clear vision of what they want to achieve. Hehe. I started a community library recently, the first in my community, which has over 600 books now from public donations. I want this library expanded, with more resources and a bigger capacity, as at present it can only take 20 persons at a time. I’d also like to integrate an electronic library component.

In honour of a student we lost in August 2017 to medical complications, I started a fund: Agada ThankGod Trust Fund for medical interventions. This fund presently has 30,000 Naira and we recently gave a young girl 25,000 Naira for a surgery. It is my hope that this fund can grow to have at least 5 Million Naira at any point in time, so no one here would have to die a needless death because they couldn’t afford a health procedure. Aside from health intervention, students from our community who are unable to afford a tertiary education can get funding to go to school. I have been raising money online for such indigent students to afford school, but this fund will provide a more organized and centralized basis for such educational interventions.

I have several students who walk at least an hour to school because they cannot afford the cost of daily transportation. Many of them struggle to pay school fees, so I understand. I want to get at least 3 school buses to convey such students to school for free.

There is also the Economic Empowerment Hub project which I and my students proposed in a business idea competition for which we came top position in Lagos recently. This Hub will provide services for local farmers by linking them to potential buyers of their products as well as connecting them to government agricultural intervention programmes. The Hub will also provide job seekers job-related services to reduce unemployment as well as act as a skill centre where trained people can get microfinance to start their businesses. For this project we need millions.

Lastly, as an ambassador of the teaching profession, I feel a strong need to get other Nigerian teachers on the same wavelength of innovative and unconventional delivery. I am thinking of organizing nationwide teacher/student exchanges where best practices can be shared to catalyze a change in approach to education in Nigeria. These exchanges which can last two weeks during long breaks will need quite some funding.

We wish you the best, and are happy to tell you that Nigerians are proud of you Mr Itodo Anthony?

Thank you so much. I am deeply honoured.