The Saving Power of Teachers: A Dialogue with Darlington Chibueze Anuonye
Darlington Chibueze Anuonye is a literary conversationalist and writer. He is the editor of The Good Teacher Anthology, curator of Selfies and Signatures: An Afro Anthology of Short Stories, co-editor of Daybreak: An Anthology of Nigerian Short Fiction and editor of the international anthology of writings, Through the Eye of a Needle: Art in the Time of Coronavirus. Anuonye was longlisted for the 2018 Babishai Niwe African Poetry Award and shortlisted in 2016 by the Ibadan Poetry Foundation for its inaugural residency. His writings have appeared in Brittle Paper, Black Boy Review, Eunoia Review, The Shallow Tales Review, Praxis Magazine and elsewhere. He is a review correspondent for Praxis Magazine. Twitter @ChibuezeDarl
BY EDITH MAGAK
This conversation took place between Nairobi, Kenya and Aba, Ibadan and Owerri, Nigeria, via WhatsApp.
Edith: Thank you for joining me in this conversation Darlington. The Good Teacher is an anthology of exceptional essays and I am thrilled that we are going to talk about it.
I thought I was only going to read about teachers who were kind, and taught well, and loved us best, but no. The nuance, diversity, and direction of the stories was refreshingly pleasant. Even though these essays were appreciating teachers, they also interrogated the education systems, the reality of classroom learning, the personhood of teachers, the challenges faced by both students and educators, and the varied definition of who or what makes a good teacher.
But first, I’m curious to know the process behind the curation. Was this an open call-out to contributors, or was it just shared within a small circle? How did you decide on the final essays to include? Did you have to let go of other stories, maybe? How long did it take from the call out before release?
Darlington: The Good Teacher happened to me like a pregnancy. I could not endure the burden alone, so I made an open call for submissions around November last year. By that, I was putting my faith in the common resonance of human feelings. The collection was published in August this year. Now that I think of it, I am thrilled by the connection between the creative process of the book and the maturation of human pregnancy.
I cherish the humanistic ideals of the classroom, the exchange of knowledge, character, love, friendship and laughter. Genuine student-teacher relationships saved my teenage life from the anguish of losing my mother. My teachers created experiences that warmed my heart and rescued me from loneliness. Imagine what my life would have been were I not surrounded by good teachers who responded to my mental and emotional needs with the understanding of psychiatrists, the patience of priests and the dedication of poets. I wanted the world to know the names of my teachers. I needed to thank them for all their kindness towards me. Beyond my own teachers, Samuel Anthony Itodo impressed me with his passion for education. He still does. The success of his students, who rise daily from their local community, Otupka in Benue State, Nigeria, to global stages as thinkers and problem-solvers, proves Itodo’s uncommon talent as a teacher. I was convinced that it was important to not only document my own experience, but also necessary to create a platform for other people to share their own stories.
I received about fifteen submissions for the project. Some of the essays lacked the sparkle of reality and the nuance of craft. They did not have the kind of soul and flesh I was looking for, so I could not include them in the collection. But there were also submissions that showed some promise, even though they didn’t fit in the project. A certain writer sent me an email one week after the editorial process apologising that much of his essay was fabricated and, for that, malicious. The story narrated the experience of a school boy abused by a soldier, who doubled as his teacher. It was a traumatic thing to read. I was relieved by the writer’s confession.
Edith: When you talk about the story lacking “the sparkle of reality and the nuance of craft,” and again not having “the soul and flesh I was looking out for.” What does this mean?
You’ve edited and curated many anthologies in the past, including Through the Eye of a Needle: Art in the Time of Coronavirus, Selfies and Signatures: An Afro Anthology of Short Stories, Daybreak: An Anthology of Nigerian Short Fiction, among others. So, I am going to ask you this question as someone who’s received and continues to receive rejections, and I’m sure our readers will also identify with this. This question is the biggest mystery in the literary world: what do editors want? Could you tell me what draws you into a story? What particularly do you, as an editor, look out for? That story that you will read and say “Yes! This is it!”
Darlington: Growing up, some rejections saved me. They helped me to become better. And, in tougher times, they enabled me to accept myself as the greatest giver of the help I needed from the world. When I was fifteen, I accompanied a friend to his family house to prepare for his uncle’s housewarming party. The uncle’s wife, who was then a serving senator here in Nigeria, felt irritated by my presence. My physical poverty so contrasted with her economic affluence that she wanted me out of her house that night. I overheard her talking to my friend about it. My friend’s response to her is one of the loudest defenses of friendship I have heard all my life: “If he goes, I will go with him.” I always remember the experience as an incident of love. I have just told this story to illustrate that a writer can choose what to remember: the rejection of the editor or the acceptance of their muse.
I once told a friend that the writer is a passenger and the editor is a driver. The passenger knows their destination but still requires the driver’s service to get there. Both the passenger and the driver need to trust each other to begin the journey. But even this trust does not guarantee that they will arrive safely at the destination. There are possibilities of accidents or roadblocks. I do not know whether my friend made sense of my words, because the call went off before he could respond. But I have also wondered: why should a writer listen to an editor? In my conversations with writers, I tell them never to accept all my suggestions. I tell them it is wise to ignore some of my opinions that they think would inhibit their creative flourish. Or they could even reject them for the sake of rebellion. A writer needs some kind of rebellion to thrive in a world like ours driven by soulless ideologies. But I also work with writers whose sense of self-importance is staggeringly high. I follow them gently. I tell them they are geniuses, which is usually true. I know that beneath their performance of pride are hearts so brittle they can break easily.
I do not know what editors want. Only writers know. Many writers won’t admit this, but they still do what they imagine editors want, which happens to be what editors want. In reading the submissions for The Good Teacher, I gave myself completely to the miracle of feeling. I wanted to be touched by the stories. I wanted to meet teachers for whom, in John Dewey’s words, “education is life.” I also expected to see teachers and education systems that break students. So, I needed writers who were prepared to show the world the image of their teachers. I found them in the contributors to the collection. Some of the submissions I declined were so fixated with facts that they lacked art. What use are facts that we cannot feel? As an editor, I look out for stories that surprise me with their profound thought and poetic language.
“I believe that those who are saved should proudly proclaim who or what saved them. My teachers saved me. They believed in me even when I could not dream beyond the pang of hunger and the suffocation of lack.“
Edith: The editor as a driver and the writer as a passenger makes so much sense. It is a journey of trust, and codependency even. And the disclaimer about roadblocks and accidents is important too. Thank you for sharing this brilliant insight. And I imagine this relationship was important in the coming together of this anthology?
Darlington: I approached The Good Teacher with a sense of collaboration. Chibueze Anthony Ukwuoma and Zenas Ubere not only surprised me with the brilliance of their writings but also their willingness to read other submissions and offer editorial insights made the project possible. Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera was patient with the long editorial process. Isaac Newton Akah trusted me with his essay. At the time, he was so occupied with other projects that he couldn’t follow up with the editorial correspondences, so he placed his important writing in my hand. Chimezie Chika was so passionate about honouring Professor Isidore Diala that he wrote with the oracular luminosity of a dying god. Theophilus Mshelia Sokuma wrote his essay within forty-eight hours’ notice. I personally reached out to him to contribute to the project. I am glad I read and included the seven essays in the collection. They are empathic and full of creative wonder and hope.
I am the editor of The Good Teacher only by tag. I represent a long list of people united by our vision to honour our teachers as well as to confront the challenges in our education system. In this regard, I am grateful to my friends, Brigitte Poirson and Bernard Oka for reading the entire manuscript and making editorial suggestions that made all the difference in the project.
Edith: Reading this, I can actually feel your love and passion for the project just oozing into your words. And honestly, I cannot say I have come across any anthology on the continent that specifically celebrates teachers. So, well done in producing this, and I hope many more other people will follow in your suit.
Darlington: I am proud of The Good Teacher. My mentor and friend, Dr Nduka Otiono, read it and said he related personally with the stories. The respected literary critic and biographer, Ezechi Onyerionwu, wrote a glowing foreword to the collection, remarking its ability to command a global audience. The accomplished poet and professor, Niyi Osundare, asserted that the book demonstrates the heroism of teachers. My teacher, Professor Isidore Diala, sent me an email two days after the book was published, confessing that it gave him hope as a teacher. The project offered me what I could not give myself for many years: the opportunity to touch the lives of my teachers.
I believe that those who are saved should proudly proclaim who or what saved them. My teachers saved me. They believed in me even when I could not dream beyond the pang of hunger and the suffocation of lack. I owe much of my survival to my teachers, many of whom, poor and struggling, transcended their own hardships to offer me hope. They proved that “teaching”, as Colleen Wilcox describes it, “is the greatest act of optimism.” I imagine that the collection would lead other people to create more visibility and demand better working conditions for teachers.
Edith: Absolutely “those who are saved should proclaim who or what saved them.” And still on saving, I keep on going back to what you said earlier “Imagine what my life would have been were I not surrounded by good teachers who responded to my mental and emotional needs with the understanding of psychiatrists, the patience of priests and the dedication of poets.”
This makes me see that a good teacher is one who doesn’t just have mastery of the subjects they teach, but embodies so many other qualities too. You clearly show that when you talk about your teachers.
Darlington: Who is a good teacher? I find myself pondering this question too, especially since the publication of The Good Teacher. Some days ago, I received some scathing messages from a former classmate of mine, who was convinced that my effort in putting the collection together was worthless because it honoured the wrong teachers. He claimed that one of the teachers failed many of his students in the courses he taught us as undergraduates. How, he queried, did I consider him a good teacher? I wasn’t surprised that he had a different opinion from mine. Certainly, one of the aims of the project is to interrogate the deficiencies of our education system. But I was shocked that he could hold such demeaning opinions about a book he confessed he had not read.
Edith: Wow! Clearly goes to show that the definition of a “good teacher” is varied. Another person may not always see as good qualities the qualities we consider “good” in another. Would you say that was a fair critique?
Darlington: I agree that human beings often see things differently. And they should. I teach my students to think in the language and philosophy of their distinctive selves, to speak those thoughts courageously, even if imperfectly. The problem is not about how we see things, but about how we engage those who hold opinions that are different from ours. Criticism requires kindness to make an enduring impact. Henry James’ compelling summation of the value of kindness comes to my mind. Listen to him: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”
My former classmate was not kind to me. He did not engage me. He simply wanted to silence me.
Edith: You raise a significant point here, that “the problem is not about how we see things, but about how we engage those who hold opinions that differ from ours.” Understanding and practicing this can make a world of difference in human relations. You also talk about showing “kindness” when we critique. That’s equally important.
I’m just awed at how you have had and still have good teachers, and how much they have influenced your persona. But I will make an argument: In a government environment that does not support teachers, are we not expecting too much from them? I mean, you have had those inspiring teachers, I too had them, and life in school was much better and bearable because of teachers who saw past our uniforms and got to know us as individuals. But what about the ones who were incapable of responding to our mental and emotional needs? Those who just taught their lessons and went home. Does that then mark them as “not good teachers”? And is this a reflection of their own failure?
Darlington: Your argument seems to affirm Lionel Shriver’s striking portrayal of the predicament of teachers in the world: “Teachers were both blamed for everything that went wrong with kids and turned to for their every salvation. This dual role of scapegoat and savior was downright messianic but even Jesus was probably paid better.” You could even say I am guilty of Shriver’s accusation. But nothing is too clear that it cannot be further clarified. When I speak of the good teachers I have had, I am usually particular about the ones who brought some emotional significance to their duty. This is because of my background as a child who needed the support of a mother. It was not so for many of my classmates, whose mothers were alive and present in their lives. Perhaps, all they needed to be impressed by a teacher was a mastery of the subject matter. But I needed more: laughter, support and reprimand. I was a fortunate student, having had teachers who met both my intellectual and emotional necessities without making me feel lost in gratitude. If I am grateful to them, it is because I have chosen to be. Gratitude is best when you come to it all by yourself. So, yes, the teachers who taught me only subjects and topics, whose courses proved challenging to me, who never embraced me even when I deserved it are also good teachers. They matter to me. If only they matter just as much to the government, who knows, their laughter might be louder, their embrace warmer, their love more sacrificial than we both can imagine.
Edith: Agreed. Plus, it is not just about good teachers. In the anthology, especially in your essay, The Enormity of Silence, we see the evidence of the flip side of a good teacher. You show us the extent of harm teachers can sow into the lives of their students by their own attitudes. You write: “The inability of the teachers to recognize the individuality of the students and their swiftness in prescribing for the boys how to be are perhaps the origin of toxic masculinity.” Do you think this is what leads to student riots in schools? Seeing as most are usually accompanied with burning and destruction of property. And not only in boys’ schools but even girls’ schools. Is it because of the lack of teachers who like you can show students “the benefits of voicing their fear when it threatens to choke them, of seeking help when it matters, of pursuing love with faith and courage, of being merciful in their pursuit of truth and justice”?
You could transform your students because of the many virtuous qualities you embodied as a teacher. Were these taught to you so that other educators can replicate them, or are these inborn qualities?
Darlington: I wrote The Enormity of Silence in an hour. The first draft was an incoherent sublimation of all the anger I have repressed as a teacher for some years. I am angry at the education system that fails to recognise the varying needs and abilities of different learners. The student, like the teacher, is important in the scheme of things, if not more important. The system we have here would rather have it otherwise. In 2016, I taught in a government-owned boys’ school here in Owerri, and I have never forgotten those days. When I joined the school, I realised that my first role was to show the teachers how to know the students well. You cannot teach someone you do not know well, however hard you try. How do you tell your colleagues that the students are not weak because they express their feelings? When emotions are long repressed, they might find release in destructive forms. We may never know how fiercely people whose voices have been silenced and ridiculed for too long would speak. They might decide to speak with bayonets and tongues of fire. Only those who survive their onslaught would tell the story. Yes, toxic masculinity and the forceful feminisation of girls, both of which derive from patriarchy and deploy silence as an oppressive tool, can lead to riots in schools.
I teach my students kindness because I was taught and shown kindness by my own teachers. Ms Priscilla, my Mathematics teacher in secondary school, cared for me when I was ill. Mrs. Precious Nliam, my English teacher, invited me to her house every fortnight and served me jollof rice and fanta. Mrs Ann Onyebuchi, my Literature teacher, paid for some of my textbooks. Ms Lizzy bought me a new school uniform. Professor Diala bought me perfume the times he travelled abroad. I imagine he would be surprised if he finds out that I do not use perfumes, have not used one before. I took the gifts and gave them to other people. Who rejects the gift of a good teacher? I have had many kind students, as well: students who shared their snacks and meal with their classmates, students who visited me when I was ill and persuaded their parents to do, students who reached out to me during the Covid-19 induced lockdown and asked how I was surviving, students who gifted me books they thought I might like. I agree with Nelson Mandela that, “People can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Edith: And really, all educators, whether in school settings, or church, or hospitals wherever, should remember what you have just said here, that “You cannot teach someone you do not know well, however hard you try.” I dare say this is the key to teaching. I would like to think it is. Because it’s much easier to commune with and reach through to a person you know than a complete stranger. You, Darlington, have spilled the old-age secret to education.
Darlington: When I say that the teacher needs to know the student in order to teach them well, I mean it loosely, bearing in mind that the social media and the internet have become an effective means of teaching and learning. The internet and social media may not offer the possibility of physical contact, as we find in traditional classrooms, but they also foster friendship among teachers and students. Teachers who aspire to reach the minds and the hearts of their students should not alienate themselves totally from the personal lives of the students. They should be willing to go beyond their subject matter, to know the names of their students, to understand their strengths and weaknesses, and to guide them according to their individual talents, while also fostering a sense of family in the physical or virtual classroom. I know that this is a daunting responsibility for Nigerian teachers who lacks the essential support to excel in their field. But, beyond the Nigerian experience, I think that the condition of teachers, even in developed nations, is not as inspiring as their contributions to the growth of their nations.
Edith, you know, a book like The Good Teacher should have existed before now. No praise is too much for our teachers and no book can sufficiently express our gratitude to them. Likewise, no effort is too much to challenge the callous treatment of teachers in Nigeria and Africa. So, in The Good Teacher, the contributors and I continue the creative fantasies of daring, of hoping, of seeking to reclaim the sophistication and pride of the teaching profession. We are succeeding. I believe the government is listening to us now. I am that government. The contributors and readers constitute the government. If all of us read The Good Teacher and realise how badly we have treated our teachers, how terribly we have ruined our education system, then the government has heard us.
Edith: But tell me, do you think that even now books still have the power to influence systemic changes? In the past we’ve had novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin which was said to have caused the American Civil War, Animal Farm by George Orwell, The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx, among many others that have provoked revolutions and changes of mindsets in society. To me, The Good Teacher comes across as an anthology to make us reflect, to make us appreciate, an anthology to make us angry, to make us want to do better for our teachers. When you say “If all of us read The Good Teacher and realise how badly we have treated our teachers, how terribly we have ruined our education system, then the government has heard us.” Is this all there is to it? Or are there some more practical steps we need to take?
Darlington: Books have built and destroyed ideologies. The writer possesses both creative and destructive powers. In recent times, the quiet audacity of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, a tender love story set against the brutalities of the Nigeria-Biafra War, has paved way for the resurrection of the Biafran dream. The renewal of protests for the recognition of the nationhood of Biafra derives much of its impetus from the novel. Young people who have read several inhumane accounts of the war from the perspectives of soldiers, who were actors in and beneficiaries of the war, find in Half of a Yellow Sun a vision of human courage, a quest for freedom in the face of tyranny and death. The novel challenges us to contemplate the enormity of that war and the consequence of ignoring the situations that led to it.
And, thank you for thinking so highly of The Good Teacher. I do not like to oversimplify issues, but I find that your question about practical ways to move our education system forward comes from a place of honest concern. The Good Teacher has seven essays in it: Theophilus Mshelia Sokuma warns teachers and parents against the dangers of illegitimating the vulnerability of their students and children, Anthony Chibueze Ukwuoma, Chimezie Chika, Isaac Newton Akah and Zenas Ubere’s essays show us that it is possible to be kind, knowledgeable and productive teachers even in unorganised societies, Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera shows the importance of innovation and improved welfare of teachers in education. If we pay attention to these writers, perhaps we will find at least a reliable signpost to lead us further towards the transformation we envision.
But I find that when Nigerian leaders ask for practical ways to solve a problem, they often intend to repress the power of the evidence before them. The evidence is that people have shown that it is possible to create a new and vibrant system out of the debris of our education system. My teachers have done their bit by showing me kindness. Even as a young teacher, I partnered with Read Aloud Foundation, an agency that promotes literacy in Nigeria, to organise literacy programmes in Owerri. These projects were necessitated by the decline in reading culture among primary school pupils. During our first outing in 2016, we interacted with primary school teachers and gathered their opinions on the probable causes of poor reading habits among pupils. With the financial support of our sponsors, we distributed about 1,000 children’s fiction to over 200 participants. We are doing our part. The government can begin by effecting an improved minimum wage for teachers and providing dependable retirement plans for them. When that is done, they should provide advanced and functional teaching and learning equipment for schools. They should, moreover, not forget to cater for the mental health of students and teachers. If they can, they should also check their own mental health.
Edith: Thank you for this. It is incredible to see that we do not need to wait for top down initiatives to make changes, but even as individuals we can create our own ripples in our little ponds and still make a difference. What you have shared above is certainly very inspiring. Chimamanda created her ripple with Half a Yellow Sun, you are creating your ripple in being a good teacher and even writing about good teachers, creating much-needed conversations, and we all should certainly be the change we want to see. I honestly feel very challenged.
I noticed that none of the contributors in the anthology were women. Is it because no women writers submitted, or the submissions were perhaps not good enough, or was there a reason to have only men featured in this collection?
Darlington: There were no submissions from women writers. I did not like that, but I consoled myself by the support the project received from women I know—family, friends and colleagues. Their faith in the importance and ripeness of the project inspired me to thrive in my dream of honouring my teachers. I am seriously considering working on a second volume of The Good Teacher. This time, I would be intentional about documenting the voices of women.
And speaking of success, some of the burdens of The Good Teacher have started gaining national and global attention since my last response to you six days ago. At the risk of self-delusion, I count this as a personal achievement. On the celebration of World Teachers’ Day, agencies of the United Nations announced that sub-Saharan Africa needs an additional fifteen million teachers by 2030 to effectively overcome the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on our education system. On that same day, the Nigeria government announced that they would improve and stabilise the salary structure of Nigerian teachers. Additionally, they have promised to begin paying undergraduate students of Education in Nigerian tertiary institutions a stipend of seventy-five thousand naira and to provide them with jobs after graduation. While the Nigerian government and their agencies are notorious for empty promises, I hope that they realise, even if this once, that Nigeria needs its teachers to grow.
Edith: This is very good news! I am so glad, and I am looking forward to speaking with you again, perhaps when the second volume comes out. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
This dialogue was edited by our Editor, Wambua Paul Muindi.
Edith Magak is a creative writer and a 2020 Writing Fellow at African Liberty. Prior publication credits include Brittle Paper, Jalada Africa, Meeting of Minds UK, Jellyfish Review, among others. She lives and writes in Nairobi, Kenya. Find her on Twitter @oedithknight