The story of Olasunkanmi Opeifa could best be likened to the proverbial Biblical stone, which initially suffered rejection but later became the corner piece. Born, bred and schooled in Lagos, Opeifa, 32, had a great conviction from his primary school days that, one day, he would become not just a teacher, but also an impactful professional teacher. How soon this could be, he didn’t know. But he focused on his academic pursuits without giving room for irrelevancies. Not even his poor financial family background could discourage him from achieving his dream.
“But my love for teaching is not money, but passion and a calling,” Opeifa told Saturday Tribune in a conversation. This inspiration, according to him, was a product of many parts. First was in Primary 3 when he usually made use of a Social Studies textbook by Ilesanmi to teach his classmates. Another motivation came from a female teacher, who was popularly known and called ‘Mama Teacher’ in the neighbourhood around Iyana Ipaja where his family once lived.
“Whenever ‘Mama Teacher’ was sighted approaching home,” he recalled, “every parent would ask their children to go and carry her bag and all of us would run, at the same time, to meet her. And any of us who also misbehaved would be taken to her for counseling. So, I just wanted to be a teacher.”
Opeifa’s brilliant performance as a little boy in class and love for teaching continued as he further his studies. But lack of money by his parent who has three other children (one male and two females) to cater for nearly diverted him to another route as his father had been considering him for an auto parts apprentice. “My father, a former soldier was a commercial bus driver then while my mother was (and is still) a petty trader and it wasn’t easy for them to send us to school all at once,” Opeifa said.
But somehow fate smiled on him as it did for his siblings. Opeifa explained how. After the Lagos State government registered him for the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) conducted by the West African Examinations Council (WAEC), just like many other states in the country do annually for final year students in public schools and his father raised N5, 500 for his National Examinations Council’s (NECO) examination, he was faced with the problem of raising N1,650, the registration fee for the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) for the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME). He had to sell some copies of a book written by Pastor David Oluwasina, founder of the Relief Club Foundation (a non-profit making organisation) at Ipaja, to raise the money. The pastor cum philanthropist, according to him, gave him the whole N1, 000 proceeds from the sales of the book as his own support and asked him to raise the balance.
“That was how I was able to sit for UTME in 2004 and secured admission to study English Education at the Lagos State University (LASU), Ojo, same year,” he noted. At that point, Opeifa’s father, now 70, changed his mind and gave him total support to go to the university and study his dream course.
Opeifa’s parents speak
Interestingly, these claims were confirmed by his parent, Mr Bolaji and Mrs Muinat Opeifa and his younger sister, Temitayo, who all said Opeifa had done the family proud through teaching when Saturday Tribune visited their Abesan Estate home in Ipaja, recently.
“Truly, it wasn’t easy raising Olasunkanmi and his siblings because there was no money, but we struggled and I thank God that today, they are all graduates and doing averagely well,” Opeifa’s father, who is popularly called ‘Baba Gebu’ in the neighbourhood, said. Now at LASU and throughout his four years there, Opeifa took teaching as a part-time vocation, taking up tutorial classes.
Lagos State government
Two years after graduation, and after his one year mandatory National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) scheme, he sought teaching appointment with the Lagos State government. This was in 2010 when the current Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Mr Babatunde Raji Fashola, was the governor of the state. The then administration carried out a general teachers’ recruitment exercise and Opeifa applied. He had his own interviews at the Education District V1, Oshodi, which served as one of the six centres across the state. But he was not offered the job despite his exemplary performance, according to him, in both the written and oral interviews.
“I was not taken and that was Nigeria’s factor for you because we later learnt from reliable sources that those of us who studied education courses and who were referred to as professionals were substituted with those they called experts, who obtained Bachelors of Science or Arts, rather than Bachelor of Education,” he said.
Interestingly, the state government, through the Deputy Director, Public Affairs, Ministry of Education, Mr Adesegun Ogundeji, reacted to Opeifa’s claim on this issue, saying Opeifa might had done well in the interview, but there would have been stronger candidates suitable for the limited space available.
The FCTA intervention
Nonetheless, for Opeifa, life goes on as the Federal Capital Territory Authority (FCTA) that same year recruited him as a full-time teacher. He teaches English Language at the Government Day Secondary School, Karu, Abuja. And the school is just 17 years old.
The MTOY angle
And amazingly, just eight years down the line, Opeifa walked into stardom on the job. He has become the best secondary school teacher and one of a few multi-millionaire teachers at that level of education in the country at the moment. This is due to the Nigerian Breweries Plc which identified him, just as it has been doing in the last four years, among thousands of his colleagues through its social arm, the Felix Ohiwerei Education Trust Fund, using the annual Maltina Teacher of the Year (MTOY) Award as the platform.
Opeifa has become a toast of the country. He accomplished this feat as the winner of the 2018 MTOY, at a ceremony which was held in Lagos last October. Many leading voices in the nation’s education sector, including the Minister of State for Education, Professor Anthony Anwuka and the Registrar of the National Teachers’ Registration Council (NTRC), Professor Segun Ajiboye, were in attendance.
MTOY is free of charge and open to all teachers in both public and licensed private secondary schools nationwide. In all, they are 590,355 (292,080 at junior and 298,275 senior levels) according to the latest Nigeria Education Indicator Report, released by the Federal Ministry of Education in 2016. Though, only 482, 992 out of the number (representing 81.82 per cent) who are holders of TRCN certificate are eligible to participate. A total of 641 teachers submitted entries this year from which Opeifa won the star prize. The number, according to the organisers, was the highest in MTOY history.
MTOY past winners speak
Interestingly, all the past grand-winners-Mrs Rose Obi, a Mathematics and Chemistry teacher at the Federal Government Girls’ College, Onitsha; Imoh Essien, who teaches Computer and Physical Education at the Special Education Centre for Exceptional Children, Uyo, Akwa Ibom State and Felix Ariguzo, a teacher with the Mastercare International School, Asaba, Delta State, graced the occasion.
They told Saturday Tribune in separate interviews how the award had changed their lives, families, students, colleagues, schools and the education sector in general, for better. For example, Essien, the 2016 winner, said the award had brought him fame, improved his teaching and other endeavours and also lessen classroom space challenges in his school.
Opeifa’s fortune is a testament that teachers’ reward is no longer in heaven as it was the claim in the past. He was sumptuously rewarded, just like his predecessors, for his effort. He got N1 million in addition to another N500, 000 as a state champion. He is also entitled to another N5 million spread equally across next five years (once he remains in teaching) and an all-expenses paid overseas training programme while his school (with a student population of 905, according to the FCT Secondary Education Board) will get a block of six classrooms for producing him.
This largess was not limited to him. The first and second runners-up, Messrs Olalekan Adeeko, a Computer Studies teacher at the Baptist Boys High School, Abeokuta, Ogun State and Samuel Popoola, a Physics teacher with Deeper Life High School, Akure, Ondo State, along with the 23 state champions (11 states failed to meet the minimum benchmark to produce winners this year) were all given cash rewards, ranging from N1.25m to N500, 000 and a certificate. Interestingly, many of them had not been paid salaries for many months.
What stands out Opeifa?
Saturday Tribune found out that when many of his colleagues were blaming the system for their ineffectiveness, Opeifa does not see dearth of facilities, overcrowded classrooms, poor remuneration, welfare package and working environment which characterised almost all the public schools across the country as challenges big enough to undermine his performance. He does not also believe in teachers engaging in petty jobs like selling biscuits and sweet etc during school hours. To him, such kind of activities causes unnecessary distraction. “So, I make optimal use of available resources and opportunity to get my work done effectively,” he said.
That philosophy made him to sometimes go out of his way, including learning hip-hop music, to ensure that learning do truly takes place with his students. Similarly, unlike many of his contemporaries who convert every service rendered to their students out-of-their normal schedules to make additional money in the name of extra-lessons, Opeifa does not only teach for free, his family also accommodates some students who are indigents.
And his wife, Tope, who he said he cherishes so much for her understanding and strong support from when they were in courtship during their NYSC days in Adamawa State, affirmed this gesture in a telephone conversation with Saturday Tribune.
Tope, an Agricultural Science graduate and civil servant, said her husband works for seven (and not the usual five) days of the week and sometimes till late hours, using their living room on weekends as a classroom. “That does not mean he leaves out his responsibilities to the family and church,” she pointed out.
The Head of Department, Language Studies at the school, where Opeifa teaches, Mrs Gladyl Adebayo, equally testified to his capability, calling him a genius and model. “He even taught my son, alongside others for WASSCE and UTME and all of them, including Boluwatife Oguntoye, who scored 314 out of 400 marks in this year’s UTME have gained admission into universities. My own son is in Nile University, Abuja. That was why the school deployed him to the senior class where his service would be appreciated better,” she said.
Also speaking, Managing Director, NB Plc, Mr Jordi Borrut Bel, explained that the company, adopting the philosophy of “Winning with Nigeria”, came up with the award as a social initiative to identify, showcase and celebrate exemplary secondary school teachers to boost service delivery and education development in the country. According to him, teachers hardly get the recognition they deserve in spite of the crucial role they play in determining the quality of education and the future of a country, hence the award.
Even at that, Opeifa, whose plans is to invest his award money on further studies and charity activities, said some people sometimes doubted his ability to have the control of his class just because of his small stature. But to him, effective teaching is not based on physical stature, but IQ, competencies, leadership, dedication, commitment, friendliness and how to make class engaging.
“So, I combine normal teaching skills with several other skills and attributes, including music as I had said. I also provide useful tools and create environment to suit effective teaching and learning, based on individual student capability to cope. I enjoy teaching and would continue to teach as long as my age and health permit,” he explained.
What then look like attestation to Opeifa’s qualities was given at the award night by Professor Thomas Ofuya who chaired the independent panel of judges that assessed their work. The team, comprising of people of credible characters and successful individuals from academic, law and the media, was said to be transparent and objective in their judgment. They included Mr Segun Adeniyi, a journalist and media adviser to the late former President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and Dr Binta Abdulrahman, National President, All Nigeria Confederation of Principals of Secondary Schools (ANCOPSS) and some others.
Ofuya, a university lecturer, who described teaching as a calling, listed professionalism, thoroughness, passion, techniques, styles, challenges encountered, resources utilised and resultant outcomes as core parameters they used in assessing the teachers and their work. He told the audience that, though, the panel received entries from almost all the 36 states of the federation and FCT, many of them were dropped because they were substandard.