#LLAInterview: “Embrace yourself and find your special gem. God has placed genius in every one of us,” Grace Amoka, Regional Director of Shenation HQ, Teach for Nigeria Fellow & Transformational Speaker.

Image credit: Grace Amoka

Grace Oiza Amoka is a Computer Engineering graduate from Covenant University and has a Masters in Educational Technology. She is a passionate activist for quality education and believes in giving every child all it takes to have the quality of life they deserve. She is passionate about social impact and has worked with a couple of social innovation initiatives.

Her current work as a fellow with Teach For Nigeria gives her the opportunity to serve as a teacher and leader in Kurmin Mashi community in Kaduna State, where she empowers the children there with the skills they need to have a good life. Her methods in delivering instructions are highly innovative and have been adopted by other teachers in her community and beyond. One of her driving principles in the words of her mentor is ‘an empty pocket can never stop you from making a difference, only an empty brain and an empty heart.’

Grace has been able to engage stakeholders in her immediate community and beyond, to be part of providing a more conducive environment for learning for children in low-income communities. She considers her role at Teach for Nigeria an opportunity to be part of the transformation going on in the Education sector in Nigeria. She sees a brilliant future of a world with limitless possibilities for herself, the kids in her community and every Nigerian child. They are the future, and the future is NOW!

Grace consults for schools at their start-up or growth stage, and considers herself the Teacher’s Coach, as she empowers other teachers to find love in what they do, and learn systems of creating wealth while they pursue their passion for imparting knowledge. She currently works as a consultant for Quest Academy, a tuition-free ICT-driven elementary school established to deliver the highest quality of education to children from low-income communities in Ibadan, Nigeria.

As a Regional Director for SheNation Girl and Women development initiative, she works with a team of talented young women to design and deploy programs that empower girls and women to live out their full potential. She is a member of Toastmasters Club International and is a corporate MC, trainer and transformational speaker.

In this interview with Leading Ladies Africa, Grace shares the inspiration behind becoming a teacher, her work in the educational sector and what she’s doing to open children’s eyes and minds to a world of limitless possibilities.

The inspiration behind becoming a teacher (Teach for Nigeria Fellow) (what are your roots, what connects your childhood to what you do now? Who are the most important people in your life and how did they impact you? )

Hmmm! I never get tired of narrating this story. I remember between ages 6 and 8, my sister and I had our imaginary classrooms and imaginary stages. We were always ‘teaching’ and performing on a stage in our imaginary worlds. We even had names for our students at the time.

Three popular ones were Abachi, Ikemu and Basange (don’t ask me where we got the names from). At the time, the best we knew about teachers was their flogging prowess, and so we would flog our imaginary students all the time. Fast forward to years later when I felt I wanted to be a teacher, but then I never had the courage to voice it out, because teachers were poor and at the bottom rung of the ladder in society. No one I knew aspired to be a teacher. It was an occupation taken on when all else failed.

In 2012/2013 during my National Youth Service, I taught in Greensprings School, Lekki Campus, and that spark from my childhood started to come back. I met a phenomenal young man whose teaching styles were different from others, and you could see the spark in his eyes when he was with his students.

We had a conversation once, and I asked him how he got ‘stuck’ teaching, as I did not think he willingly became a teacher. His expression that followed shocked me. “Stuck is so far from my reality in this area,” he said. He recounted to me how he always knew he wanted to be a teacher, and that at age 8, he even had a score and record sheets for his ‘imaginary students’. My light bulb came on, and that was all the validation I needed. I realized my not-so-popular dreams were valid after all.

I moved on to get a Master’s degree in Educational Technology and started to scout for Edtech companies to work with. I started organizing summer edutainment programs at no cost to children in Kaduna state where they would learn vocational skills, have back to school preparatory classes and network with children from other schools.

I heard of Teach for Nigeria in 2018 and it just described me. I knew I wanted to take up this cause for the next two years of my life. It has been such an honour for me to be part of igniting hope in the hearts of these children. I remember Mr Essien, my teacher in Primary 2 who took it upon himself to meet with my parents when he felt I could be doing better in my academics if I put my heart to it. I remember Miss Michael, my Junior Secondary English teacher who made coming to school worth it for me. I want to be like these heroes and much more to children around the world. I want to be that one person who believes in the power of their dreams, and borrows them my dreams until they have the courage to find theirs.

The most important people in my life are my family. They have always supported me 100% and given me the wings to soar. They provided enabling spaces for me to grow. Even through my seasons of ‘experimenting’ and trying out different life paths, they were there, and are still there. My sister, Eunice was especially my number one fan, and she believed in me so much even when I did not believe in myself.

Image credit: Grace Amoka

The impact of your efforts on your pupils?

Education is the key to a better life for every child and the foundation for strong societies. Teachers have an all-important role in birthing this better life for these children. One of the most important roles for me as a teacher is to nurture the genius in every child and set the tone for the life ahead of the child. This is a responsibility beyond simply teaching numeracy and literacy that I have never taken for granted.

My children are growing to have greater confidence in themselves and their abilities. The ones that were timid are stepping up to speak and are not afraid to try because they know that in our class, everyone is a winner and it is okay to make mistakes. A line from our morning affirmations is “today is a fresh start”, and so they understand the gift of each day to create the kind of life they want for themselves. As a result of the values I model, they are always quick to offer a helping hand to anyone that needs it.

When I started teaching in that community, my children aspired to be ‘garage boys’, dishwashers and petty traders. My personal project, The Emerald Dream Center is opening their eyes and minds to a world of limitless possibilities. They have greater aspirations and know it is possible to achieve them. When I visit the homes of my pupils, the parents are so excited at the transformation going on in the lives of their children. They see the work that we put in, how genuinely we care about their children and are encouraged to do their own part. For my children, I have been instrumental in setting a spark in their hearts as to the ideals that exist beyond their current disadvantaged backgrounds.

Mistakes and lessons learned.

One mistake I have made is ‘waiting’ to plunge myself into my purpose, and living my best life. As Marianne Williamson said, that as we let our lights shine, we unconsciously give others the opportunity to do the same. I realize now that people are waiting for a train to move so they can hop on. I want to be the train that sets people on course towards living their best lives, loving what they do and making the best out of every phase of their lives.

Another mistake I still fall into, but not as frequently as before is giving into fear. O my God! This one almost killed me. The reality is that this fear thing is not real o. I would stay in the bubble of ‘what if’ and never do anything. I would overthink my next steps to the point where I crippled them before they even had the chance of coming to life. I feared I just got lucky in life, and I was not as smart and talented, and would soon be discovered. This fear and limiting beliefs made me shrink myself and just take life as it comes. I know better now. I am learning to demand from life what I want and create the kind of life I desire.

Then in my work in the communities, I never appreciated the value of involving the entire community in the work I do to make a maximum and lasting impact. However, when I realized the importance, it was a game-changer for me. People would go any length to achieve a vision they helped co-create.

I have also learnt that life is too long to be miserable doing what does not inspire you, and yet too short to not appreciate the everyday blessings. After my sister passed on in August of 2019, it made me appreciate every moment spent. I found a deeper understanding of why she never left any task unfinished, always had an urgency about life, and never took NO for an answer. Her life will still speak to me in decades to come because she embodied a life well invested in service to God and humanity. We do not need to wait until we lose important things or people before we appreciate their value.

Milestones and achievements.

Some of my major milestones and achievements at my current role include over 90% of pupils attendance, which is remarkable for a community like mine that does not place a premium on education. It is one of my joys to create lifelong learners that are hungry for knowledge and would go after it at all cost.

When I started my work in this community, it was troubling to me that kids had to sit on the cold bare floors to take their classes. The effects of this both short term and long term are not to be simply looked over. I started searching for grant opportunities to change this narrative for as many kids as possible, and I eventually got support to provide desks for a little over two hundred of these kids. I can never forget the day the desks arrived at the school community. I had tears in my eyes at the reactions from the children and staff as well. I knew my work was important, but that day made me realize how much these precious lives were dependent on me to make the huge potential difference for their future and that of our dear country.

Under my Emerald Dream Center project, I started a literacy centre which has resources for the children to build their literacy skills. Because their ability to receive and process information as well as communicate their thoughts is foundational to success in other areas, this intervention centre is a great achievement that helps in the acquisition of basic literacy skills.

Some other projects the centre handles are exposing these kids to opportunities they ordinarily would not have had. We set up a career education program where they are exposed early enough to the vast possibilities that exist for them in choosing a career path. Of course, we have registered an increase in their academic outcomes. A little over 70% of them can now read and write and solve basic mathematical problems. They can also relate the relevance of topics to their daily lives.

Image credit: Grace Amoka

Advice for the younger females in our community.

Don’t  spend all your life ‘trying’ to figure everything out. One of my coaches, the CEO of Karika Republic always reminds me that the vision gets clearer in the doing. Take one step at a time, one foot in front of the other is all you need most times. Your dreams are valid. Your dreams are valid. Your dreams are valid. I wish I could shout it long enough for you to believe.

They do not have to be popular. Embrace yourself and find your special gem. God has placed genius in every one of us. Believe in yourself and do not wait for anyone to give you permission to succeed. Remember to always lay the foundation of loving yourself, so you can love the work that you do and love other people (there’s just too much hate in our world. People need love). Celebrate your process and learn to live in the moment even as you look forward to a brighter future.

You are unique, and so is your journey. You are not in competition with anyone. Keep your eyes on your prize, because if you end up running full speed in another person’s lane, you have lost the race. Never forget the place of community. That is your greatest asset: from mentors, coaches, role models and co-labourers. One of the most remarkable African proverbs for me ‘If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together’, and then Thomas Edison’s ‘If I have seen any further, it is by standing on the shoulder of giants’. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Leverage the gift of people. They could be your greatest assets. Finally, let your values drive you. Uphold them like your life depends on it because it really does.

Legacy/ What you would want to be remembered for.

I want to be remembered as a transformational and iconic woman who let her light shine, thereby giving others the opportunity to do the same. A committed leader who gave her all to the work and service of defending the downtrodden and promoting equity in different spheres. Most importantly, the woman who refused to waste her pain, but transformed every bit of it into testimonies for herself and others.

 

The Leading Ladies Africa weekly interview series focuses on women of African descent, showcases their experiences across all socio-economic sectors, highlights their personal and professional achievements and offers useful advice on how to make life more satisfying for women.

Do you know any woman of African descent doing phenomenal things? Send an email to lead@leadingladiesafrica.org and we just might feature her.

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