Daniel Dotse is the Founder and CEO of Teach for Ghana, an organization that fosters high quality leadership in education and contributes to ending educational inequity. Prior to establishing Teach For Ghana, Daniel worked as a biotechnologist at a large, US-based pharmaceutical company. Before he ventured into the pharmaceutical world, Daniel studied biomedical engineering at Cornell University with a keen interest in nanotechnology. Daniel received his undergraduate degree from Arcadia University, where he majored in chemistry and minored in economics and physics.
CEO of JA Africa, Elizabeth Bintliff sat with him to find out more about his passion for education.
EB: Tell me about your life story; start with your childhood. Where did you grow up? What was it like?
DD: As far as Teach For Ghana is concerned the journey started in the northern region of Ghana. I come from a middle-class family. My dad was working with the Ministry of Agriculture, and he was posted to the north of the country, so he took his family with him. My parents enrolled us in some of the top schools in Tamale at the time, which were St. Paul’s and St. Gabriel’s. My brother went to St. Gabriel’s and I started St. Paul’s. The classroom’s edifice was crumbled up, we lacked chairs to sit on, and my teacher barely showed up. The foundation of my education wasn’t very conducive. My parents moved to Accra where they put me in a private school system. That changed everything about my education. My classrooms were conducive, my teacher showed up, and we had desks to sit on. It was an entirely different environment. I was probably ten years old at the time, but I noticed the huge change.
I graduated from that private school and moved on to Achimota School which also exposed me to a different kind of the education. Looking back, if I hadn’t gone through the private school system, I wouldn’t probably have made it to Achimota School. Eventually, I ended up in the US. I went to Cornell and studied biomedical engineering, but I also knew that I had a passion for education. This started when I came back home on vacation. I checked in with a couple of friends, and I realized that my life trajectory had transformed while their life paths were either at the same point or limited, and it wasn’t because I was any smarter than them. The only difference I noticed was in my educational trajectory and the fact that my parents were from a middle-class family with access and were able to put me in some of the best schools which decided where my life trajectory was going and where their’s was heading.
EB: So how did that inform where you are now and what you are doing?
DD: So when I went back to the United States, I spoke to the president of my university and mentioned to him that I wanted to undertake an educational project specifically for libraries. The library idea came because my best friend, who was at MIT at that point, had written a fantastic essay about how he wanted to build a library in his hometown. His teacher fell in love with his essay and helped him find the necessary financial resources to build his library. I was amazed! If my best friend, who is the same age as I could build a library, why can’t I do the same? This experience taught that one did not have to be rich to be able to give back to society. I reached out to him and said “let’s expand this; let’s take one library, which is a 7,000 book capacity library and scale up nationwide across the country.’ I spoke to Books for Africa and started a book drive on campus with Better World Books. We received funding to build a huge, state-of-the-art 10,000 book capacity library serving close to 5,000 children in 30 different schools. The plan was to move into another region to build another library. However, we decided to pause and assess these libraries before building others. I went back to the schools to see how the libraries were being used and I noticed that the teachers were not allowing the kids to engage with the books because they thought they would destroy them. I also noticed that most of the teachers were not trained. Some of them were in the classrooms because it was their last resort and it also reminded me of the education I had in the North. Building libraries are great for schools, but it doesn’t solve the cause of the problem. It only addresses a symptom of the problem. We tried to find out what can address education at the systemic level, how we can improve and clean up the system so that every child that walks into the classroom in this country will have access to an excellent education.
EB: How did that experience then lead you to establish Teach for Ghana?
DD: A close friend of mine who had just finished Teach for America reached out to me and said, Daniel I know you are passionate about education, I think this model is right for Africa. The more I read about the model, the more it fascinated me. We reached out to Teach for All, which is a global network of independent organizations. We started talking to them, and we realized there’s Teach for India, Teach for Sweden, Teach First UK, and I thought if there was any continent in the world that needed this educational model it had to be Africa. That became the deciding factor for me to shift careers from biomedical engineering and channel my energy and resources to education. So in 2014, I went back to the US, left my job and moved back to Ghana. In January 2016, Teach for Ghana launched its recruitment program. We had 1,200 registered applicants and selected 30 individuals. This year we had 16,000 registered applicants and selected 40 people. In year two, we planned for 500 submitted applications, but we ended up with 2,500 applications. What I realized from these applications was that there are young people in this country who want an avenue and space to contribute and give back and when you give them that space they will do amazing things. When you walk into a Teach for Ghana classroom: lessons are livelier, kids are happier and more engaged, and even parents are more involved. It’s so inspiring to see young people who just want to give back because they have experienced/witnessed the inequalities that exist in the educational system. That’s what pushes us and gives us the energy to do what we do.
EB: It seems that your vision isn’t just about educational reform but a leadership reform. Why’s that?
DD: Ultimately if you have good leaders then you can solve educational issues. It’s a leadership problem, and if you can solve education disparities, then you can solve everything else. So both things work hand in hand. For us, it’s about how do we address the leadership gap in the next generation of leaders to be able to address the educational gap for the generation after that. How do we reach two generations at the same time?
We have students that will walk an hour to get to school. By the time they get to school, they are tired. Imagine an 8-year-old walking for an hour to go to school. That child comes to school tired and often find themselves sleeping. It’s not because they choose to sleep in the classroom, they are genuinely tired. If you’re a teacher who lacks the understanding of this child’s background, the first thing you do is reprimand this kid. When that happens consistently, the child stops coming to school, and you wonder why. That is a transportation issue, not an educational issue. So you need the Minister of Transportation to understand how transportation affects education. When our kids get sick in the villages we serve, it takes them about a month to get back into the classroom because they have to travel very far to the hospital. When a child in Accra gets sick, the next day they are in a hospital, and within three days they are back into the classroom. One kid misses one month of schooling while the other misses three days of school. That’s the inequality that has been generated not by the educational system but by the healthcare system, which means health advocates need to understand how healthcare affects education. This is what Teach For Ghana does; we take individuals from all academic backgrounds who all have ideas of moving into diverse sectors and provide them with the opportunity in the classroom to deliver transformational teaching. While they invest in the lives of children, they begin to understand how the different factors affect education. When you have leaders talking about inequity, you can start to close the educational inequality gap for all children in this country irrespective of where they were born or their socio-economic background.
EB: Beyond rights, why is this equity important?
DD: This is a matter of justice. The reason I call it justice is because most often we think we are doing kids from underserved backgrounds a favor. It’s not a favor; they deserve it. It is our responsibility to make sure that they have a quality education. I don’t believe in equal outcomes. What I and Teach for Ghana believe in is equal opportunities. Just make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to be able to attain their biggest dreams and to be able to realize their true potential. The only way we know how to provide equal opportunities is to provide quality education to every child. If all of them start at the same level of quality, access, and champions, then they can determine their pathways, and I think fundamentally that’s it for us.
EB: Let’s go back to your own story. You have a degree from a prestigious American university, and you put that aside to come and do this. What were your parents’ reactions when you decided to shift careers?
DD: I have amazing parents, and they’ve never really put restrictions on my dreams. I love my parents for that. It doesn’t’t mean that they don’t have expectations of me. My parents always followed what I wanted to do and I’m fortunate. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a soldier, and they started calling me Sargent Doe. When I wanted to be a doctor, they supported me, and my dad bought me a microscope and, they started calling me Doctor Doe. When I decided to come back to Ghana they sensed that there was a lot of passion and drive behind it based on my experience in the Northern region to Accra. I just reflected on my life with them. Immediately I landed in Ghana; the support was there. They were very supportive. But I had to convince them. First, I had to show them a plan and the plan had to be logical. It had to make sense.
EB: What advice would you give young people as they think about their futures and taking risks? What advice would you give your younger self?
DD: It is important to have a high sense of optimism and boldness and believing that the dots are going to connect looking backward. I just turned 31, if what I’m doing now doesn’t work out there’s a degree I could fall back on. Being young has its disadvantages, especially in our context. There are meetings that I’ve been to, and people would not look at me because I’m too young and the idea is too big, and there is the sense that who is this young kid who thinks he can come and revolutionize the education system? But there are also individuals who would listen to you if you make sense and there’s logic. You can pull on those people, and they’ll help. But be bold, be optimistic, don’t be afraid of failure. Failure is a means through which you can grow if you challenge yourself.
EB: What do you hope people take or remember about you and about this work, your legacy?
DD: I haven’t started thinking about that yet. I think what would give me satisfaction is, personally I’ve always wanted to build a pharmaceutical company in Africa that will rival Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, etc. I want to see an African-owned pharmaceutical company that deals with African diseases; like Ebola. That is a big dream! However, I think if Teach For Ghana’s program is so successful, those pharmaceutical companies, the Apples, the Googles, the Intel in this world will be built right here in Africa by the children that we serve. I do not doubt that. That’s the future outcome that I want to see; that kids don’t have to go to Harvard, but have their education right here that will be contextualized. Once that happens, I think Teach for Ghana’s job would have been done.
There’s so much talent in Africa, the resources are here, and we just need to keep developing the next generation of leaders and capitalize on that resource.