When I first met Jennifer Emelife on Facebook, I was drawn to her hilarious posts about the most mundane and everyday things. She always had a way of putting a humorous spin on different topics and aspects of life. Then when I learned that she teaches Literature, I became drawn to her (because I studied Literature) and I had found a semblance.
Asides from the fact that she is fantastic at expressing her thoughts and experiences humorously, Jennifer is one of the few people I know who exude a love for teaching that’ll make you excited and curious. She constantly writes about her class, her students, the books they are reading and the interesting/naughty things that her students exhibit in class – you can literally feel her joy leaping out of her posts.
Of course, my curiosity (which knows no bounds) led me to summon the courage to talk to her and ask her for an interview.
For Creative Girls: Hi Jennifer, I love love love how you are so in-sync with your literary side through teaching! Can you share your story with us, did you always plan to be a Teacher?
Thank you! One day during one of my Literature classes (they were my favourite, by the way), I sat, clueless as to what to study in the university. I was in my final year in secondary school and the UTME was approaching, still, no ideas though everyone else wanted me to be a lawyer since I was a smart Arts student. But sitting there in class listening to my teacher say, ‘Graduates of Literature are hot cakes!’ I knew there and then that I had found a career path: anything that’ll keep me within the scope of ‘hot cakedness.’ Fast forward to my undergraduate days where my love for reading and writing and talking about books grew wide wings. Many of my course mates had exotic dream jobs but again, listening to Dr. Tahir, my favourite lecturer, pass on his enthusiasm for literature, I was greatly inspired and in my heart, I knew I’d spend my life teaching about books.
I’m not one of the privileged kids who was born into homes with libraries filled with books unrelated to academics, so I really don’t know what it means to grow up reading one’s favourite authors. I stumbled upon books myself, in junior secondary school and my choice to study Literature in the university was also informed by the fact that I wanted my parents to buy me novels. Discovering the endless possibilities reading provides, I decided to stick with a profession that will not only allow me more reading and learning but give me the platform to inspire change in the hearts of generations to come through books. Only teaching affords me both and so I stuck with it.
Suggested read: Ainehi Edoro of Brittle Paper on sharing her love for African Literature with the world.
What is it about Literature that makes you want to impact the minds of young people by teaching the subject?
I wrote a post on Medium called Literature Awakens and Empowers. This is something we are yet to fully understand in the Nigerian educational sphere and so Literature, as a subject, is evasive. Teaching in a school during my youth service in 2014, I also noticed how the subject was perfectly hidden beneath English language and as such, students were mainly taught grammar and comprehension passages, but studying books was completely eluded. I took up the task of teaching solely Literature to students from SS 1 to SS 3. The joy on their faces when they discovered that a book can actually be enjoyed, the excitement of reading out lines theatrically, of answering questions from a book and connecting it to real life experiences, of questioning the state of things, the conversations that grew out of every book we read, the state of being aware and conscious; all of these made me want to keep doing what I’m doing. In advanced countries like America, educationists/educators understand that to change a country is to empower its young through reading and so have well-structured curriculum for teaching Literature. In Nigeria, we are still battling to recognise Literature as a whole subject, let alone create structures to teach it. I look forward to a time when we’d have a group of passionate teachers working hard to produce what will become a well-defined curriculum for teaching Literature in Nigeria in a way that it appeals to the change that this nation needs. It’s not something that we can’t achieve.
In my opinion, I think teaching has a PR problem, especially in this part of the world. It is often depicted as a last resort kind of job giving it a terrible narrative. What do you think can be done to change this narrative and heal this PR problem?
It’s a thing about the history of education in Nigeria. Once upon a time, anyone who could read a few words or hold a pen was enrolled in teacher training schools to be teachers. A time came when it became the most available job in the nation and everyone flew into it, with or without passion or even knowledge. So that is how we came to have schools filled with teachers who give teaching a bad rep. But even the government isn’t doing enough to provide adequate and relevant training support to its teachers. We need more individuals passionate about education to invest in education in Nigeria, we need teachers to be more innovative. If other fields are advancing in technology and other ways, teaching must grow too, because the world too is advancing. We need teachers who must break the traditional ways of teaching that we were taught in. We need innovative teachers who will share their innovations with the world. We need young, vibrant teachers like Itodo Anthony, Ajifa Rachael, Swanta Blessing Bonat and of course, me (haha) who identify boldly with the teaching profession. We need teachers who are united in their diverse goals. When we have such teachers, the narrative changes and maybe one day, Nigeria will become a place where education and teaching make such great and recognisable impacts.
You are usually excited about talking to your students and you share your teaching journey on Facebook a lot. What prompted you to start sharing and living your experience boldly?
I love to tell stories, I mean, write stories about things that happen around me or to me. If I was working in a bank or a hospital or if I were a bricklayer, I’m sure I’d still write about my experiences. It’s how I find succour: writing. I’m a strong proponent of people loving what they do, identifying boldly with whatever their hands find to do; whether or not you are at that stage you aspire to be. Maya Angelou would say if you don’t like something, change it and if you can’t change it, then change how you think about it; stop complaining. That’s my attitude towards everything I do. As for teaching specifically, I started sharing stories of me and my students on Facebook, Instagram and now Medium, as a way of documenting moments that I consider precious and impactful so I can look back on them years later and feel fulfilled. I have bigger ideas for teaching and the internet and people will know about them when I’m ready.
We always like to ask a Productivity question. So, what does your daily routine look like? How do you make sure you are productive and focused?
I should first of all say that I’m highly disorganised for a teacher. Okay, I definitely do make plans, but my typical day isn’t the one that goes as planned, it’s the one that jumps right into my face and surprises me with how accomplished it turns out to be. Daily routine: I wake up, pray, have my bath, go to work, review my lesson plans for the day and teach. Now, this might sound monotonous, but I try to make my lessons as different as they can be. To make sure I stay focused, I like to ask myself often: what have you achieved this week, what did you learn this week, what did you read this week? Apart from teaching, I also interview writers and manage an online literary website so I know I’m productive when I feel accomplished in my teaching and correspondence paths. One thing I like to also do when I feel unexcited about everything is to read online about top organisations that share similar interests with me – in and out of Nigeria – and turn in random applications/proposals, just because. Shock of my life: one of those organisations in London actually took me serious once and considered my proposal. The thing is, don’t stop pursuing what you love. It might take a long time for everything to come together, but keep at it. That’s productivity: the continuous willingness to be successful, in spite of.
What lesson have you learned from teaching that you think applies and works well for anyone who wants to grow?
I think the greatest virtue teaching has taught me is perseverance. You’re put in a space where you’re meant to deliver knowledge, it doesn’t matter whether or not your students are willing. It’s your job to not only make them willing, but to also make sure that they learn, and in Nigeria where we are so obsessed with examinations, it’s also your job to make them pass. Someone once said that teaching is the only job where a person’s essence is measured by another person’s performance. It’s in teaching that I found courage, confidence, tenderness, persistence and most of all, patience. Alas, these are all lessons people need to grow in life, regardless of what they pursue. They’re also lessons that I try to imbibe in my kids in school. Tell us about 3 women you admire.
Everyone who knows me knows that I adore Maya Angelou. She was an embodiment of everything that I want to be: strong-willed, compassionate, resilient, hardworking, courageous, brilliant, articulate, grand, outspoken, cheerful, stylish, bold, happy and modest. Her death is a great loss to the universe and that day in May 2014, I remember weeping as though I’d lost my closest grandma and people sent me condolences. Each time I’m in a fix, I ask myself: what would Maya do? It’s like God sent her to live so that I can get a perfect picture or a human guide to living my own life. When people say we share a certain facial resemblance, I always grin like a child. Once, my mum saw a picture of Maya on my Whatsapp and asked, ‘Chinenye, who is this woman on your DP who looks so much like me?’ I laughed so hard. Maya Angelou is my ancestral mother. It’s a huge pity that I never got to meet her, but I remain grateful to Dr. Tahir for introducing her to me that day in our poetry class in 2009. Sorry, I’ve said so much about one woman. Every other woman I admire is because she, in one way or the other, share similar traits with Maya Angelou and by extension, me. Haha. But yeah, I admire Naomi Lucas, Asa, Serena Williams, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Beyonce and even Tiwa Savage. These are all women who are, unabashedly, pursuing what they want and getting it. I love independent women and the list includes my mother.
The things you do for fun and relaxation.
I always avoid answering questions like this. As a matter of fact, a girl in my class has appointed herself the head of a one-man committee she set up to help me ‘get a life and have fun.’ When she is done with the project, I’ll share a list with you, but for now, I think I love to hang out with close friends and talk about things that excite me and read good books that make me laugh, Instagram memes and staying up at night chatting with The Love or ogling at gorgeous pictures of him on Facebook. I’d say going to the beach, but I’m in Abuja where all we get are trees, rocks and hills. I miss Lagos.
You should follow this interview up with our interview with Ozoz Sokoh of KitchenButterfly where she shares how Literature is a great conveyor STEM teaching and ideas. It was one of our top reads last year. Read it here.