Agnes Onyekwere is a first-class graduate in mass communication from the University of Jos and a fellow of Teach for Nigeria, a scholarship that is committed to ending educational inequality. In this interview conducted by KANGMWA GOFWEN, she talks among other things about her experience in the classroom as a teacher.
YOU are a first-class mass communication graduate. What is it like to be in class with students?
I always ended up in class, one way or another. During my time in high school, I was that student who would be the first to wipe the board and the one who would help the teacher write notes on the board. It morphed into organized tutorials, where my classmates asked me to explain complex concepts to them. I always found myself talking to empty classrooms. I did this until university, where I organized tutorial courses in my department: one for my classmates and the other for my junior colleagues who had questions and wanted to understand certain concepts. During the holidays, instead of going home, I found a school to teach.
Even after college, when I got a job helping create online radio, my radio work started at 10 a.m. By then, I had had three hours of teaching at an elementary school where I was teaching part-time. I mean I was trying to make some extra money at the time. But when I sat down to calculate how long I had been teaching, that’s when I realized I had been doing this for a long time. So right now I don’t feel any type of way to be in the classroom. It is a place that I can call my natural habitat.
What can you say about the Nigerian education system?
My work as a member of Teach for Nigeria has opened my eyes to the various issues that abound in the education sector. These problems were not so obvious when I was teaching in private schools. Coming to Ogun State, I had to manage a class of 24. The students are supposed to be in Primary 4, but the problem is that 20 out of 24 of them cannot read. By contacting my colleagues, I see that they have the same problems. One thing comes to mind: serious fundamental problems, which arise from pushing children from one class to another without any serious work being done on them in the previous classes. Then you find the blame game going on ─ government blaming teachers for failure, nonchalance in the sector; then the teachers blame the government for not motivating them properly to do their job with the students.
In the end, they both have a part in the gravity of the system — students and teachers sitting in dilapidated buildings they call classrooms for learning, and teachers who can’t afford to.” committing suicide with this government work”.
Teaching is a job that many people have relegated. What is your motivation in class?
I really can’t say what’s in the classroom that keeps me in it, but I can tell you something: I love the feeling, it’s something I would do for free, even if I don’t. wasn’t going to get paid. I feel at home teaching children. The issues I face in my classroom make me feel more involved in the welfare of these children.
I have children who cannot afford three full meals a day, but they are happy to come to class because they know Miss Agnes will make sure they are well before they go home. I have students who come to school without school materials or uniforms. I try to help with what little I have. Over time I have built a network of friends who support me and follow my work on social media and want to be part of our story. So, lately, I have received donations in different forms: school uniforms, stationery, a computer and much more.
Right now, I’m looking at my pupils and I have reason to smile, seeing that they are changing little by little. It’s a nice feeling. Although there are over a thousand students in the school that I cannot speak to because there are barely enough funds for them, I guess it is a time.
The country is almost in ruins. How do you think we can change the course of the country from the classroom?
I believe that teachers are a group of people who I believe can change the world. We are a group of people who have the future ahead of us. I do my job knowing that these students are going to be the next generation of Nigerians and I have the power to instill in them the qualities that I expect to see in the next generation of Nigerians.
I may have the next president in my class. What I am teaching him today will somehow add to how he would lead this nation. I may have future doctors, nurses, engineers, scientists, etc. Imagine what will happen if I don’t do my job well, those dreams will die. I will end up raising touts, dropouts, beggars, cheaters, prostitutes, etc. In this case, I helped make the future a horrible possibility.
This is why I believe in the Teach for Nigeria mantra which states that the best minds should be recruited and sent back to the classroom where they would help shape the future of the country. Most of us (scholars) under the Teach for Nigeria umbrella are first class graduates.
You come from the eastern part of Nigeria and are now teaching in a remote western community. How was the trip ?
It’s been a roller coaster ride, lots of ups and downs. Not being able to speak the language here was a major concern for me, even though I decided to learn it. It’s not easy to be in a place where you feel like you’re alone in the world. My mother cried when I told her that I was going to quit and take this job. She thought it wasn’t worth the risk, and there I was excited to go somewhere new and touch people’s lives in a place that was miles out of my comfort zone.
Do you plan to return to media practice?
I never left! I dare say that studying mass communication prepared me to be a fantastic educator. Educational broadcasting is one of the media that most people have not explored. I find that there are hardly any stories about the realities of this sector. There’s so much going on, but there’s less and less. I intend to tell my experiences so that people know what is happening here, because there are many.
I may not have the wherewithal to start huge, but I have already started. I received huge comments from my numerous posts on my social media platforms, especially Facebook and LinkedIn. If I had studied education from the beginning, I can say that I would not have had this level of impact. I’m still exploring. Everything will make sense soon. But if the question is whether I go back to radio full-time, the answer is… it’s not happening.
You are looking for support to keep one of your students in school. Why are you particular about her and what support do you have for her?
I am looking for support for one of my students, in fact one of my best students. She was one of the students for whom I had to make uniforms for the last term because I noticed that the one she was wearing was torn in several places.
She came to school one morning to tell me she was leaving. The other teacher informed me that when she probed in her native dialect, the girl told her that she was going to help a lady who had just given birth as a domestic helper. I called her mum and was to meet her in Lagos where she was. She told me how she could no longer take care of herself and how she had separated from her father.
Since there were no plans to take her to school, I decided to help her in any way I could. I started imagining what would happen to me if I didn’t have at least a primary education. Seeing how brilliant she was, I started talking to my friends and family; and so far we have raised more than half of the funds we need to at least enroll her and get her to school. We need another N10,000 to complete the mission.
What is it like to go from an urban environment to a very remote village?
I wouldn’t call it ‘very remote’, at least you can find most things you need. But again, where I was before coming here was more of an urban setting than Adefisan and Italupe in Ijebu Ode. For me, this experience is an adventure in which I decided to embark on a voluntary basis. So, I’ll say I’m enjoying the ride.
What is the duration of your scholarship?
My fellowship is for two years and I’m only eight months away.
What are your plans for your career, for the future?
I’m going to do a master’s degree in education. That’s all I can say for now. But just rest assured that my work with children has only just begun.
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