Boarding school safer? Mrs. Gbemi Olowokere is the founder of Chalcedony School, Lagos. She has worked as a teacher in different schools for over thirty years. In this interview with Lekki Times she recalls her career path in the education sector, explores opportunities and revealed challenges.
We would like you to tell us about yourself and your journey in the education?
My name is Gbemi Olowokere and I am currently head of school. I have been in the teaching profession for over thirty years. I have taught in different schools. I started teaching while serving as a corps member, and from there, I have been teaching in different schools. Initially, I didn’t want to become a teacher. I come from a polygamous home where you have a whole lot of competitions. My father loves education so much and in my family, we so much value people becoming doctors, lawyers and so on. So, for me, teaching was the least profession I could dream of, even though I had two elder sisters who were teachers. I went to school with the premonition that after one year, I was going to have a change of course or institution but that still didn’t work out. But, in my first year in school, I met with this Rev. sister who was quite older than us and we became very close friends. One day, she told me that I should look the direction of teaching profession. So, when the time came for me to have a change of course, her advice kept resonating in my mind and I succumbed to the pressure and opted for teaching. In fact, as further proofs, during my Teaching Practices, I got two awards from two different schools as the Best Student- Teacher of the Year. With all of these breakthroughs, I didn’t need anybody again to tell me what I going to do. So, after my NYSC, my uncle offered me a job in his company as an accountant. After a while, I resigned from my uncle’s company and traveled to Lagos. In Lagos, I started searching for teaching job and I was referred to one school that was owned by a German. So, while working there, the vision of running the best school not just in Lagos, but across Nigeria came to my mind and I said I was going to run with that vision. After a while, I left the school for other schools. I applied to Corona and Atlantic Schools and the two schools offered me employment at the same time, but I accepted the offer from Corona Schools. I worked in Corona Schools for about ten years – that’s between 1993 and 2003 before I resigned. I also worked in Lekki British Schools for about a year. While I was working in Corona Schools, I was sent to London for training, and it was also there that my passion of owning a school became very obvious. We took off from Lekki Egbe with just four pupils comprised of my children and my colleagues’ children. And it was third term: a very unusual time. But, by the beginning of a new session, the number increased to nineteen and at the close of the session, the number again increased to twenty six. Three years down the line, we had about one hundred pupils. And by this time, my colleague’s son and my daughter were to graduate to secondary and the vision of running a secondary school came to mind. We started talking to people for donations. We took a loan from a bank; people’s investment, and we acquired four hectares of land at Awoyaya, bought another property at Egbutu and another one at FESTAC . So, that year, we were running both our primary and secondary schools from three locations of Lekki, Awoyaya and FESTAC towns. We ran for about three years or so before we started having troubles with our investors. And the rest is history. We were left with no facility to operate from, and here were my cousin colleagues’ children and those who believed in me. And I was to run nursery, primary and secondary schools, but there was no money. Again, I began to talk to people for assistance and this time, we were conscious of the funds we received from people to avoid the first incidence. We acquired a 3-storey building, used the last floor as our hostel and we started off with about seventy four children. After about three years , the landlord issued us a notice to quit because they had wanted to use the same property for school also. Tough time set in again. We approached banks for loans and there were no collaterals because of the amount of money we requested. We were referred to an estate developer whom we talked some terms, reached an agreement and that’s how the present facility came about. We have been here for the past seven years.
You had a vision of running the best school in Nigeria, here you are owning a school. Would you say your dream has come to fruition?
Yes, to a large extent. But, we are not still at our best. We are pushing gradually to achieving that vision. So far, we have received tremendous testimonies from parents of how the school has impacted their wards who had passed out of the school. I think we will get there someday.
Aside from the academic tutelage, how else have you impacted the children to enable them face the society squarely after leaving school?
Here, we don’t only teach English Language usage, but we also take them on other facets of life, like: entrepreneurship, leadership training, life skills and mentorship. For me in Chalcedony School, leadership, having strong will, believing in oneself /confident have become our culture. In fact, we offer a total and inclusive package.
How do you handle staff who do not work intandem with your vision for the school?
God has blessed me with a strong and passionate team. We are officially ten years, but I have people who have been working with me for the past seventeen years. Most of them followed me from the previous school that worked for. Some of them got to know about the vision and they resigned to join my school. In fact, if I have to travel for pretty six months, the school will be up and running because of the quality of the staff members that we have. It is part of the our routine that teachers, especially the new intake must resume 10 days before the actual resumption, so that they can understudy the vision of the school and take a decision afterwards; whether to stay or not. Be that as it may, I will not out rightly say we have not had one or two of such experiences, may be, because of the quality of employees that we have today. We also have our own share of the challenge. Sometimes, salaries are not regular. But in all, you can always spot those who are yours.
What will you say was the inspiration behind the name of your school?
Chalcedony School is a child of circumstance. It is because if everything had worked out at where I was, we wouldn’t have Chalcedony. First of all, I went to my mentor who suggested a name to us, but when we went for registration, we discovered that the title was very common and they rejected it. So, when I returned, I started thinking of a name that will have God’s, and I started praying. In the course of praying, I had my mind focused on precious stones and I went into the scriptures to actually uncover some of the precious stones that the book of Revelation has described as some of the things that are used to adorn the temple of God and there I stumbled over the name Chalcedony. The name also formed the keynote of the school anthem because we believe that we are precious. So, that was the motivation behind the choice.
Why did you integrate Special Children school into your plan?
When I was in my previous school, we had one or two children with special needs, but the school didn’t care for them as they should. So, it was there that I discovered that their lives could be improved upon. So, what actually fueled my passion was the fact that after leaving the previous school, I had the opportunity to meet with some of the children who passed through Special School doing well and at that point, I decided to establish the Special Need School.
Some parents believe that boarding school is the breeding ground for bad influence on children. What’s your on this?
I think the society is getting it wrong. It’s not about boarding school or not boarding school. From my experience, I have been running a boarding school for about 15-16 years now, and I have discovered that children in boarding schools are safer than their contemporaries at home. You see, some of the parents who say they don’t want their children in boarding schools are not even at home to watch over these children. And while at home, they are exposed to all kinds of things. At present, those who come from home are the ones with most problems. It is because they will sneak in some prohibited materials. Here, we are very disciplined. We flogged. So, boarding school is not the problem. If you can’t run your home well, children coming from such homes will give the school some problem.
How did you cope with COVID -19 pandemic?
COVID-19 pandemic was a bit challenging. Initially, we thought it was going to last for maybe a month. During the Lockdown, we had to start online classes with the children. We had about three IT companies that we worked with, in case one should fail us. Online classes were not exactly as coming to school, but at least, it filled the gap. We didn’t do third term at all, but we had to prepare the children for exams so that they could be promoted. So, it was tough. Also, payment for online classes was not encouraging. We only shared whatever we realised as allowance and no salaries . When we resumed in September, some children didn’t resume. So, we had to continue with the online classes so that those at home could participate in. The stress on the teachers was just so much.
What measures have you put in place in case there is an emergency like the Lockdown we experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic?
We have improved on our online classes facilities in case. We adhere strictly to COVID- 19 safety protocols to make sure our children are safe.
Where do you wish to see Chalcedony School in 5 to10 years from now?
The vision is to impact much more children. It’s not about raising structures. Our plan is to spread our tentacles to other cities like Ibadan, Abuja etc. It is also our plan to spread across the shores of Nigeria.
How do you unwind?
A few times when I have the opportunity, I travel out of the country to have some rest. Sometimes, I do that in hotels and I will structure my time for calls and other things. I see movies. Also, I have people I can hang out with.
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