I began teaching last week – in a secondary school in Bokkos, Plateau State. It’s a breath of fresh air for me, from the boredom of my place of primary assignment (the state university) where I am more useless than useful.
At my new place of work (what we call, in NYSC parlance, extra PPA or place of secondary assignment, PSA), I teach English Language and Literature in English to students in the junior arm of the school. Things are bad. Very bad. 85 percent of my students cannot read. And 99 percent of them don’t understand what they read or I read to them. When I ask them to explain what I’ve just read, the most they do is stare back at me. There is Tigon in my J.S.S. 3 class – he does not understand English. His classmates often come to my rescue by explaining what I’m trying to say to him in Hausa; then he replies in Hausa and his classmates interpret to me.
And this is Plateau State, in the Middle Belt. I’m told that things are much worse in the Upper North.
Before I began teaching, my corper-colleagues had let me in on the situation of things. Wale said that once he gave a test to his students and ended up solving the questions himself. Damilare said he told his students to reproduce some calculations he had just rubbed out of the board, and nobody could. Tomisin said her S.S.S 2 students couldn’t add up 100 and 70 without the use of a calculator. Many of my colleagues tell me they often get frustrated and reach for the cane. You know it’s when a teacher flogs you out of frustration that it pains the most, right? Nifemi said once, at his wits’ end, he had no other choice than to resort to the whip.
But me? I haven’t flogged any of my students. And I hope I never have to. Because flogging them would mean I blame them for what they don’t know. But I don’t blame them. I’m well aware that it is not their fault that they don’t know. They are not the villain, but the victim. I blame the system, because I know that the system is more powerful than each of them and all of them combined.
I don’t expect too much from my students. I have prepared my mind not to be disappointed when they don’t know the things they should know. I simply tell them; like I told my J.S.S. 3 class that the comparative and superlative forms of “good” are not “gooder” and “goodest” (like they all wrote). I don’t frown at them. I joke with them a lot. They teach me new words in Hausa. We laugh at the way I fumble on the words. And everybody is happy.
But there are times I feel guilty, because I realize that I’m patronizing them in a demeaning way. I realize that I’ve already reduced them in my mind – reduced them to be inevitably, irredeemably inferior to students in, say, Lagos. It’s shameful. And I feel ashamed, that this is the much I can do. But beyond shame, I also feel anger. I’m angry at the fact that I too am caught in this malicious rut, that I am also a victim. So, this is the way I assuage my guilt and shame: I constantly remind myself that, like my students, the system is more powerful than I am.
So that I won’t begin to sound so vague and opaque, let me describe the system to which I refer. I’m talking about a system that allows schools to close down during market days. A system that does not concern itself with the quality much less competence of teachers (I was not even assessed before I was let into the classroom to start teaching).
In 2013, the Ministry of Education published its cut-off points for entry into Federal Government Colleges (also known as Unity Schools), and the pass mark was as high as 139 in some southern states like Anambra while it was as low as 2 in a state like Zamfara. The question is, what is the rationale behind such a ridiculous disparity? Recently, a friend told me that what happens in some Northern states is that corpers write SSCE for students right from their lodges; and what’s more, scripts may not even be retired to WAEC offices until three days after a paper has been written (this can hardly happen in the South).
That is the kind of faulty, imbalanced system to which my students and I have fallen prey. A system that makes degrading concessions for the North. But why do we bend the rules for the North, in terms of education standards? Why have we generally accepted that education in the North is permanently inferior to what obtains in the South? How come an average primary school pupil in the South can read fluently whereas an average senior secondary school student in the North cannot? Why are we not bothered by the status quo?
In as much as I know that Nigeria is everything but an ideal society, and that means I understand that inevitably there will always be inequalities, yet I daresay that this unevenness, this inequality (between the standards of education in the South and the North) is just too staggering. Too shocking. And too unjustifiable.