Gbemisola Olowookere: Raising Uncommon Generation
Mrs. Gbemisola Olowookere, Founder of Chalcedony School, Lekki, Lagos, is an accomplished educationist with a passion for human capital development.
Falling into the educational system by chance, Mrs. Olowookere’s undying passion for education and the need to build an effective school system, led to the creation of Chalcedony, with the sole objective of raising an uncommon generation.
After years of work in top notch private schools in Lagos, Olowookere gained expert knowledge of the educational system that led her to her role today, as CEO and Founder of one of the top private schools in Lagos.
Amidst the challenges facing schools and the question of students’ morality in the 20th century, her dream she says is to develop leaders academically and morally, who would transform organizations and contribute to society. She shares her interesting foray into the education sector, challenges facing the sector, youth’s sexuality, amongst others.
You could have chosen to be anything, why did you choose to work in the education sector?
I think I’m just where God wants me to be. I wanted to be a lawyer, I never wanted to be a teacher, because I come from a polygamous home and I am number 7 out of 12 children. I have older siblings, older sisters, and half sisters who were already teachers. Then, I have my immediate half sister who went to medical school and I am one year older. So, if there was anything I wouldn’t want to do, it’s definitely not to be a teacher! I wanted to study Law and I was bent on that, but while waiting for admission, teaching came by the wayside. I got admission to Adeyemi College of Education, but I refused to go. My parents met with the Dean of faculty and they said after one year, I could change to whichever school and course I wanted. So, I decided to attend just for one year, but when I got to my first year, I made a lot of friends. So I was in the same class with Reverend Sister who was way older than many of us and we became very close and used to go to class together.
One day she called me and said, are you sure you shouldn’t be a teacher? And I said never, it’s not going to happen, but she kept on saying it. And along the line, we became very close that anything my sister tells me is what I would do. God used her for me to find my career path. So, by the end of the year, I decided to continue at Adeyemi College of education, to see what God had in store for me. At the end of second year, going to third year, I went to teaching practice for six weeks. I did my teaching practice in a boarding school and while there, I realised that I got interested in everything the students were doing. It’s the secondary school. By the time I was in the second week of my teaching practice, the House Mistress asked me to take over all her responsibility because I was enjoying the job. At the end of the six weeks when we were leaving, I was given the award of the Best Student Teacher of the year. Later, when I did my second teaching practice in a different school, I also got the Best Student Teacher Award and I didn’t need any other person to tell me that this is what I should do.
During Youth Service I taught and after service, and after service, I went for a teaching job and that was how this journey began.
So at what point did Chalcedony come to be?
When I started teaching, I told myself that if I have to be in the education sector, I wanted to run one of the best schools in the country. So, I started with Corona primary school; I spent 10 years in Corona. It was a good experience for me. I wanted to do it for five years but ended up staying longer. God bless my boss at the time. She was a fantastic head of school who took the teachers through almost every class. So if you work in Corona for about eight years, you would have passed through almost every class from pre-school to primary. So, even if they wake you up at night, you can teach anywhere. By the time I was leaving Corona, after 10 years, Lekki British School was starting and I went to join them. I was one of the pioneer teachers at the school. That was a big one for me, because it was a whole different experience from where I was coming from. From there, I learned how a school can take off, because the children were not much and we were merging classes. But that experience was so good for me. I didn’t stay too long at Lekki British.
After a while, I spoke to a number of my colleagues and I told them I wanted to start my dream school, which is my dream, and asked them to join me. Some people thought we were crazy when I told them, but I knew we were going somewhere. So we put ourselves in a vehicle and drove around looking for a good place to set up something. Miraculously, we got a place outside Lekki Phase 1 for 2 million. It was my boss that gave me the first N1.5 million and that was the first time a cheque of 1.5million was written in my name. We rented the place, and later got some investors who could put in money, as well as a few people who contributed some cash. So in May 2004, we started. I brought in my two children who were already in a different school, the other teachers brought in their children too and that was how we started.
It was rough, but we were determined to scale through. So by time we dressed the four children, though it was not the kind of uniform we wanted at the time, but we did not mind. We had our furniture in place, the classroom was okay and we had students in them. So, when people came for inquiries, we took them round to see what we were doing. By September, we were already 19, and by the end of that session, we were 25. It wasn’t easy but here we are today.
So how did you come about the name Chalcedony?
It’s in the Bible. It is the name of a precious stone; one of the precious stones used to garnish the foundations of the walls of Jerusalem, like sapphire, emerald, so we picked the one that is not common because we want to raise an uncommon generation.
So how were you meeting your basic needs at the time?
It wasn’t easy, the two men we had, one was into art subject, the other one was into music. So they had to pick up part-time jobs in other schools so that we could raise money. There were times we disagreed and a lot of times that we were good together.
And by the time we ended three years, we had a one grade, 100 and 102 children. And
By the time we ended the third year, we already had some of these children who were ready to go to secondary school, including my children and those of my colleagues. We presented them for exams, external exams and they did so well and got scholarships. That gave the school so much attention.
What is most challenging about running a school like yours and how do you overcome them?
I would say finances; it’s a major challenge, because you start to spend more from day one when you open a school. Also, there are the recurring salary payments you have to make monthly whether you have students or not. Then you’ll run to school, there has to be water, electricity and other things in place. So you are just spending money. Have I overcome it? No, but I will say God has been faithful, it’s been very, very challenging. We are 10 years old now, and it is still very challenging.
Attention has been drawn to activities of secondary boys and girls recently; the Oromoni case and the Christland saga. How can parents and teachers raise a child in an over sexualized 21st century?
I would say the best way is for parents and teachers to work together. Parents can’t do it alone. And, it’s not when there is a problem that you should work together. I’ve discovered over the years of running school, that parents who are more committed, who give attention to their children, who talk to the school and talk to the teachers from time to time, their children perform better and that is the truth. Not just academically, but also morally because in the process of talking to your child’s teacher, we will be able to correct some of these things at the point of observation, before it becomes a problem.
But some parents feel because they pay school fees, they expect the school to do everything. That is a problem. Because even when the school is trying to put its foot down to say, this is how we do it, the parents won’t let it work.
In the past, we used to suspend students who committed offences, but in the past six years, I’ve not suspended anybody. The reason is because the suspended student just goes home to enjoy himself like he is on holiday. So, we stopped. There is no perfect school anywhere, but we are working towards perfection.
We should realize that the children we are raising in this 21st century are wiser than us. I tell them, you may be smarter than I am, but I’m wiser than you and you owe it to me to listen to me.
For me, discipline has to do with parents working with teachers to give the best to these children.
What is your best approach to student discipline?
Discipline is on different levels. When there is a problem we call an emergency assembly. The fact that we call them out on Assembly is enough and some students do not like that embarrassment at all. When they commit any offence, the first thing we make them do is write a statement, because if you don’t let them write a statement, lies will follow and their parents will even help them lie. I am talking from experience. But after a while, we also discovered that these things affect them psychologically, so we stopped calling Assembly, especially when it has to do with boy-girl issues. So, we could suspend, flog or even expel if it comes to that.
When dealing with students and discipline, at what point is it appropriate to involve parents?
Almost at every stage we do not wait, that is very important. We may not call you officially but we would inform you to let you know your child has been scolded for this offence, will you please talk to your child? If there is any other one after now, we will make the meeting official. A lot of parents cause these problems for themselves because they are rich and want to give their children a good life, so they give them phones, which is very wrong. I advocate that children should not use phones until they are sixteen, which was what I did for my children. If they have to do assignments online, let them use your phone and return it, or buy them tabs for that purpose.
What is the Christland saga? There are many more, that girl is a 10 year old. You have six, seven year olds who do what she was caught doing, they are everywhere. Parents don’t know the problem they are in. I pray God will deliver this generation.
What security measures do you have in place in your school to monitor the activities of both students and teachers?
We have CCTV in place, but more importantly, what I do is, I set the children to watch themselves. That works more than CCTV. There was a time the senior students wanted to do something that was wrong, at the gallery, you know what they did? They climbed and turned the camera. So when you say, you have CCTV everywhere, it is only for you to use as evidence when there is a problem, but when children are out to do what is wrong, they know how to go about it. But when you have your loyalists amongst them, you make them feel that they’re very important. They don’t know that, some other people are also watching them. So this is what I do and I get all my feedback. So I have the students, the teachers and security men talking to me about everything that is going on.
What is your idea of an effective educational system generally?
When parents and the school are able to work together. I think that is basically it. This exists in the western world to a level, and it helps because there are some functions that they have in schools and parents just have to be there. Even parents here in Nigeria who have children schooling abroad, they structure themselves to make sure they get to the children’s school. The school over there cannot call for you and you say you will come tomorrow. No. You report. And that is part of the problem we have. Some parents feel they are bigger than the schools, so they cannot relate with the school. That is a major challenge and setback for both parties
So what motivates and keeps you going?
The children, let me put it that way, because when you give me a child, the child does not know so much, the ones that have issues morally and academically, those are the ones I like to take, because you will see the results within a short while. And, then, at the end of four, five years when these students are graduating, that motivates, that gives me joy.
What would you say is the greatest problem facing the educational sector in Nigeria and how can it be solved?
I think as a government, as a country, we are backward. The children we are raising are so smart and they are moving so fast with the world, but the system and the society where they are being raised is backward. We are using the analog system in an analog country and environment to raise digital children. It is a major problem. The society is backward, but the children are moving and you can’t stop them. So, something has to happen to our society and government. The government should be realistic, and set up systems and standards that will help our digital children. The government should face the reality and circle the education system to get some of these youths who will come with all the ideas and see what can be done to make things better.
What is fashion like for you?
I like to be simple but decent. I like to be fashionable. When it comes to fashion, I do what is right when I’m buying clothes. For me decency is my watch-word, even with my students, be trendy but be decent. You must not go naked because you want to be fashionable.
When you are not working how do you relax?
I like to watch movies. I also read a lot of books. I have a collection of different authors and after reading, I give it to my students to read as well.
In all of these, what is your advice for parents?
Parents should work with good schools, work with great teachers to give the best to their children because they can’t do it alone. Parents should also start raising children from when they’re young, at the point of observation, not at the point of mistakes.