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#TeachersTransform hard-to-staff schools: How a teacher helped her learners thrive against all odds

“There are so many teachers willing to go the extra mile, but they shouldn’t have to risk their lives. If there are supportive systems and structures in place, it gives them the tools they need to help their learners.”

Just a decade ago, Oke-Odo Senior High School in Lagos, Nigeria was one of the most underperforming, hard-to-staff schools in the country. Today, its students are excelling in international competitions, and the exam results have set the standard for other schools to follow. 

How did they get here?

Situated in the district of Alimosho, Oke-Odo is one of just four secondary schools serving an impoverished community of over 1.3 million people. It is just a few miles from two of Nigeria’s biggest markets, and one of the region’s main refuse dumps. The noise, the crowds, and the smell of rotting garbage can often be overwhelming for first-time visitors. 

But when Adeola Adefemi began teaching there in 2013, she looked past the environment and saw the potential in her students.  

“I looked into their faces, and I thought, ‘this is not their fault’. Where they were born shouldn’t affect their future. I realized how resilient they were, and I knew that I was here to spark change in them, so that they could transform their communities.”

Oke-Odo was just one of thousands of schools around the world struggling to attract qualified teachers. According to research by the Center for Global Development, schools in poor areas that perform badly are difficult to staff. Schools in high-poverty urban areas may have less discretionary funding or lack other amenities. This makes recruiting and retaining teachers—especially highly-qualified teachers—a consistent challenge.

Creating opportunities for her students to excel

Adeola didn’t allow the lack of resources at the school to negatively impact her teaching. Instead, she started several extramural clubs for poetry, writing, public speaking, debate, and drama at the school. Then she started entering her students in inter-school, state, and national competitions to build their confidence. 

Within a year, the school had won over 30 local and international competitions.

“One of the main things I did right from the beginning, was build connections with my students. Many of them come from very harsh environments. Some are the main breadwinners for their families, so they come to school in the day, and work in the market at night.

“I wanted to help my students believe in themselves and to realize that they weren’t trapped by their environment. So I started the Every Child Counts mentorship programme and the Child Not Bride campaign which uses poetry and plays to raise awareness about the dangers of female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage.

“One of my most encouraging moments was seeing a student overcome his stutter and learning difficulties to represent Nigeria at a competition in the UK,” recalls Adeola. “He won the essay competition! Now he is studying metallurgical engineering.”

“His story is motivating for me, and all my other students too. But, imagine how much more we could do with more access to resources and support?”

Obstacles to attracting teachers to hard-to-staff schools 

Besides low teacher salaries, Adeola believes there are three main obstacles that prevent qualified and passionate teachers from taking up positions in hard-to-staff schools like Oke-Odo. 

“One of the main issues is overcrowding in classrooms. It’s not just that it’s difficult to teach with such a high teacher-learner ratio, it’s the extra work that needs to be done. Teachers end up marking 1000 or more papers a week. It’s just not feasible.”

Adeola also believes that safety is a key issue when it comes to hard-to-staff schools. 

“When you teach in a school like this, there are lots of social issues and safety issues you face every day. In such an overcrowded and impoverished population, there’s a lot of violence in homes, and that comes into the classroom. I’ve had to help a number of my students report sexual abuse, and identify suitable support for them to deal with the trauma. And I have had to visit a girl’s parents to persuade them to allow her to continue her education instead of getting married. I have been at risk many times, inside and outside of school.”

Support for teachers is something that Adeola believes is critical. “We need support to do our jobs. From access to simple things like books and stationery to digital tools and social and governmental support structures.

“We carry a huge burden of responsibility for our learners. We’re not just teaching lessons, we are advocating for our students, and helping them to build better lives for themselves. We need to know that when we raise an issue - like one of my learners being raped, or forced into marriage – that it will be dealt with speedily by the authorities.

“There are so many teachers willing to go the extra mile, but they shouldn’t have to risk their lives. If there are supportive systems and structures in place, it gives us the tools we need to help our learners.”

What can be done to attract more teachers to hard-to-staff schools?

To help address the issue of overcrowding and lack of support, more government funding can be allocated to schools in poorer areas to help employ more teachers, build more classrooms, and develop more supportive structures. 

Research shows that in low-income countries, the share of public education resources that goes to the poorest children is 10%, while 38% goes to the richest. Governments need to adopt resource allocation policies that explicitly focus on the most vulnerable children. 

UNESCO-IIEP’s teacher toolkit highlights the difficulties of attracting female teachers and ensuring their safety. To help make schools a safe space for teaching and learning, school policies should tackle gender-based violence, promote a supportive peer network for teachers, and include mentorship programmes. 

The success of Adeola’s students proves that passionate teachers can help transform the lives of learners and their communities. But imagine how many more children could be reached if more was done to help meet the needs of teachers in hard-to-staff schools?

“I think the major thing every teacher wants is support - from other teachers, the head teacher, parents, the community, and the government. We need to know that we are not alone.”

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Photo credit:  Adeola Adefemi