Mrs. Callahan, now deceased, was a master teacher who eventually became an adjunct professor of education. During her storied career she taught elementary, high school and college students.
She taught in public and private schools, counting among her thousands of students, children from well-heeled and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. She taught in depressed inner city schools and in leafy suburban enclaves.
In her last decades as a teacher her specialty was a Methods in Teaching seminar for prospective elementary and high school teachers. Two foundational principles were the basis for her encyclopaedia of methods tested and honed over many decades. They were not novel ideas, though it is remarkable how often they are forgotten or ignored.
The first principle was the constant reminder that elementary and secondary school teachers need always remember that primarily they teach students and secondarily a subject matter. The second principle was that most discipline problems flowed from a breakdown in the teaching and learning experience in the classroom.
The student experience was paramount for her, both the background of the student and the imperative of utilizing highly experiential methods to unleash the capacity of the student to learn.
Yet for many Bahamian students, as in other countries, that capacity cannot be unleashed because of a lack of proficiency or mastery of one of the more elemental tools of learning – language.
The ability to utilize language unlocks other subject matters, engenders confidence and enables class participation. Many discipline problems and acting out occur because a student is bored or unable to understand the material being presented in class.
Gail Wisdom, a veteran educator who rose to become principal in the Catholic education system is the founder of Academia. Over many decades she has helped scores of students with learning difficulties to overcome their challenges, which though unique to them, are commonplace.
Mrs. Wisdom, a fierce advocate of basic literacy, has repeatedly noted that barring a severe mental handicap that she can teach just about any child to read, write and to communicate orally. She has the track record to prove her ideal that no Bahamian child should be left behind in terms of proficiency in English.
Yet many kids are, and with often poor consequences for them individually and for the broader society. This crisis, found in many countries, is well-documented, famously so in the film “Waiting for Superman” chronicling the related crisis of poor teaching in many of America’s schools.
The educational pioneer Michelle Rhee is featured in the film. The former Chancellor and change agent in the Washington D.C. public school system now runs the education non-profit StudentsFirst. Rhee’s overriding mission has been to improve the quality of teaching in public schools, one of the primary reasons for poor student performance in government-operated schools.
Leon Dash might agree with Michelle Rhee. Now a professor of journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dash was a veteran reporter for the Washington Post. He is also a Pulitzer Prize author.
One of Dash’s books, “When Children Want Children: The Urban Crisis of Teenage Childbearing”, was written after he lived in an apartment in Washington Highlands one of Washington D.C.’s poorest neighbourhoods for a year researching teenage pregnancy among black youth in America.
It is a fascinating read in which Dash uses an immersion interview methodology of multiple interviews to uncover the experiences and motives of the families and teens who lived through the violence and social problems often associated with some poorer neighbourhoods.
“Most affecting is Dash's portrait of the children of Lillian Williams. Charlie III, for instance, traces his ever-present anger back to the day when he graduated from sixth grade. He waited patiently for his mother to congratulate him while she consoled his sister Theresa, who was in tears after finding out that she had failed her year in school.
“‘Instead of praising him, though, his mother told his sister, "Don't worry Theresa, Charlie will fail, too.’ (Charlie did just that in the seventh grade, dropping out of school by the time he was 16.)”
What astounded Dash was an epiphany that contradicted his presuppositions when he began his research. He thought that there was insufficient sex education or information about birth control, notions that most of the teen mothers scoffed at in the interviews. He came to realize that most of the girls were choosing to get pregnant. He details a number of the reasons in his book.
“I think the decision [to get pregnant] boosted their status among family and peers -- and filled an emotional niche, a human need, an emptiness they wanted filled." he says, "And frankly it was because they weren't getting a quality education -- even at the elementary level they knew they were not prepared to go into the job market.
“Many had low reading levels, they were acting out in class and walking the halls to get suspended -- they were ducking class because they didn't have the reading skills. It was avoidance - they had never been taught to read.”
Whether what Dash uncovered in Washington D.C. is applicable to The Bahamas would be a useful discussion. But the type of research efforts and methodology he applied to teen pregnancy among African American youth would be highly valuable in helping us better understand the reasons for male underachievement in junior and primary school, as well as gang participation and anti-social behaviour.
Such an understanding would go beyond the broad brushstroke that the problem is the family. We need to dig deeper into motivations, behavioural patterns, social networks, the development of habits and how to reinforce positives norms while arresting negative ones.
What educational and social strategies can we use to significantly improve the language and life skills of young Bahamians inclusive of disadvantaged youth and students-at-risk?
Fortunately, there are a number of people and programmes with ideas that have good results. They are ideas based less on ideological dead ends and simplistic moralizing, and more on fields such as sociology, behavioural psychology and proven learning methods.
What educators like Mrs. Callahan, Gail Wisdom and Michelle Rhee know from experience is that we can break the cycle of the too often poor learning experience in our primary and high schools.
Their passion and experience is shared by Bahamian educators like Arlene Nash Ferguson and Dr. Ian Strachan, as well as by those who pioneered the International Baccalaureate, the AfroReggae youth programme in Brazil, the Cristo Rey Jesuit schools in the U.S. and other initiatives that utilize truly experiential learning to cultivate minds, unleash the imagination, and humanize the character and discipline the habits of our children and youth.