Grand Old Teacher of Nigerian Educational System

Dr Patricia Oyelola: A Grand Teacher

DR (MRS) PATRICIA OYELOLA is a grand teacher whose career dates back to the threshold of Nigerian’s independence. Dr Oyelola took Nwachukwu Egbunike (Feathers Project) into a voyage of the past, navigating through the present and peeping into the future. It’s an odyssey of a woman who has made Nigeria her home. This is a splendid discussion with the grand old lady of Nigeria’s educational system. Photographs by Bola Famuyiwa.

I graduated from the University of London in 1959 with a B.A. (Hons) in French and Latin, and came to Nigeria the same year in December during the elections. Very funny, but the first phrase of any Nigerian language I learnt was bakodaya, Hausa for ‘not even one’, referring to the performance of a political party in the elections.

My husband was in the Ministry of Works and Transport. We came to Ibadan to find out that he had been posted to Akure – then a very small town. I had not intended to teach rather to stay at home. A priest, Rev. Fr O’Shea of the SMA approached me to teach but I turned him down initially. However he was very pleasant and persuasive, saying that they had a government inspection and needed a graduate to complete the required staff strength, so eventually I agreed.

I was employed to teach English and Latin at St Thomas Aquinas College, Akure on Nigerian conditions. I was teaching boys who were older than I was! That was Nigeria in the 60’s. Nonetheless, there were never any problems with discipline because the boys knew that if they worked hard, they would have a bright future. They also knew that their parents were making lots of sacrifices to send them to school. The school was an all-boy’s school, with a completely male staff. I was the only woman in the school.

Golden Age of Education in Nigeria
I never had problems with the students, though I was younger than many of them. The ‘60’s were the golden age of education in this country. I never saw teachers skipping classes. It was unheard of, not because anyone was constantly monitoring us. No it was just inconceivable that a teacher should miss his class. Those were also the post Independence years with a wonderful atmosphere of hope and optimism.

On transfer from Akure, we came to Ibadan where I was given a job in Our Lady of Apostles School, Odo Ona. This all-girls’ school was run by the OLA sisters, the female wing of the SMA’s. Rev. Sr. Ailbe – a talented and dedicated teacher with a serene disposition – was Principal then. I taught French and English. It was a happy school with very devoted staff. I was there till 1967, when I left for the International School, University of Ibadan (ISI). Since I had decided to make a career out of teaching, I did a PGD in Education in 1966, in order to give me professional training.

World Class School
ISI in those days was a truly international school in terms of staff and students, with world class standards. The teachers were there not because they didn’t have a better job elsewhere: they were 100% teachers, totally devoted to what they were doing. We put on professional class plays which were truly memorable – “Tea-House of the August Moon” was one of these. Education was not confined to book work alone. In the ISI of those days, it was required for the students to do a project and service in addition to school work. The project consisted of an extra-curricular activity (current affairs, drama, choir, etc.) while students did community service by teaching the children of the junior staff or taking care of physically challenged people.

ISI was an extremely pleasant place to work in with a beautiful compound and stimulating colleagues. I retired from the school in 1994 as the Vice Principal (Academic). Since I have always been fascinated by African art, I did a Masters and Ph D in this field and later taught in the Institute of African Studies of the University of Ibadan. On retirement, I was invited to teach at the Ibadan International School (IIS). I prepared the first set of students for the IGSE exams and the results proved that I can still deliver the goods! After this, I look forward to calling my time my own.

Teaching cannot be boring
I have always enjoyed teaching because it can never be boring. Every year, you see new faces, different personalities; no two of the students are ever alike. As a teacher, you are always learning. When discussing a poem for instance, you always get ideas from your students that have never occurred to you before. It’s very interesting!

The teacher as a model
Teachers may complain that the students are not disciplined, but it’s extremely disappointing to notice that many of them are not any better. A teacher is a role model. If you are to insist on a certain standard of behaviour, then you must be ready to live by it. Teachers must realise that what one says, does not have the same impact as what one does.

Economic downturn
This is the reason why most teachers can’t buy books that will aid their intellectual development. You have to develop yourself intellectually to be the best.

Cheating and the rest…
If a country can’t vouch for the integrity of its exam results, then we are lost. There’s so much malpractice now that people can’t take our certificates at their face value. Of course, this is a fall out from the society itself. The children are imitating what they see around them, there’s so much corruption. It is distressing that a parent can aid his child to cheat in exams.

Really I don’t know the solution. People say that the schools should be returned to the missions. The big question is, do they want the schools back? There is all round decay, the physical environment, teaching standards and morale, etc. The huge numbers of students in a single class make it difficult for both teachers and students to cope.

Public schools are the answer
If you say that education should be in the hands of private individuals and organisations alone, it means that the vast majority who can’t afford it don’t matter. Are the children of the only ones with brains?

Every child should be given the opportunity to develop his individual talents. Every child is entitled to the fundamental human right of being educated at least to secondary school level.

I am a product of the British state education system. In my secondary school, we had all graduate teachers, including some from Oxford and Cambridge. I did not pay a penny for the high quality of education I received.

Quality public education is possible if you believe in it and make it work. What is needed is commitment by government, teachers, and inspectors. In addition, you’ve got to have integrity. If you budget N XYZ million on education, you are accountable for every naira spent.

Future of education in Nigeria
The problem of integrity is central to our society and education is part of the system. If integrity is lacking in the education system, what do you expect? The cliché that teachers are role models should be taken more seriously. For when a teacher is hardworking and honest the child will strive to be like his teacher. However, when the teacher is a contradiction of these things, then where do you expect the students to learn from?

Private schools
Some private schools are mere businesses that pay their teachers starvation salaries. Many of them have international affixed to their name as a sort of charm, a money spinner.

Government control
School inspections should be carried out by professionally qualified people of integrity. Owners of most private schools pay very little, so teachers are forced to supplement their salaries by conducting extra lessons till midnight. My son went to a public school and never had a single minute of extra tuition from anybody. He is now an accomplished professional, trained here in Nigeria.

Unity schools
The standards have gone down, down and down. The figures published recently were unbelievable. However, the question nobody seems to be asking is what were the inspectors doing? How could they have allowed this depreciation in the first instance? What was their duty, if not to maintain standards?

On my adopted country – Nigeria
The greatest malaise facing our country is that people have lost faith in her, which is also affecting education. Young people are looking for ways to leave her shores and seek their fortune elsewhere, ignorant of the many problems they would have to face in a foreign land.

The saying that, ‘from Africa there is always something new’, finds its greatest manifestation here, in the creative genius of the people. I am not just thinking of the cultural giants like Achebe, Soyinka and Osundare, Enwonwu, Grillo and Onobrakpaya, Victor Olaiya, Fela Ankulapo-Kuti and Sunny Ade, but of the younger ones who are keeping the flame alive. Writers like Adichie, Oyeyemi and Attah; artists like Anatsui, Ogundipe and Wewe; musicians like Lagbaja, Femi Kuti and Asa. Nor is creative genius confined to the literati – it flows through the fingers of the potter, the carver and the weaver, whose works are admired throughout the world.