An Imperative: The Training of Lead Learners as Classroom Professionals

Some years ago, in preparation for the yearly staff development seminars we were involved in conducting in Jamaica, I initiated our first session with the statement that is contained in the next section of this paper, (A Community of Learners). This was more than a decade ago, and this opinion is even more germane entering the 21st Century. At that point in time, school people from the United States and England were not recruiting Jamaican teachers just yet. There was, however, a phenomenon that was apparent on the eastern seaboard of the United States, where we have worked in a number of states and school systems, from elementary schools to university. This is not to say that the phenomenon was not evident in other sections of the United States at that time, as well as in Canada and England.

There were literally hundreds of trained teachers, from Jamaica, who were gainfully employed, but not in education, their chosen profession. When we tried to determine the reasons why this situation existed, the basic reason given was that these teachers were not qualified. Another equally ridiculous reason given was that the system was prejudiced. While there may have been some truth in both of those responses, there seem to have been a more rational underlying reason why teachers who were trained in Jamaica, and were successful teachers, wanted to leave the profession. The opinions expressed at this seminar at the Kingsway High School, are repeated below, and may hold a part of the code that is needed to help teachers, trained in Jamaica, to continue enriching their local community of learners, as well as any other learning community, wherever they may choose to work.

I pointed out that members of my organization got our early education in Jamaica, but were never professional classroom teachers in the Island’s schools for any long period of time. Some of us were “Pupil Teachers” even before going to high school, so we had an idea as to how the traditional teachers taught back then. By working with students who migrate from Jamaica to the United States, we are also getting an idea of what is taking place in teaching and learning in the Island’s schools at the present time. At present, one of us, Glen Cassimy, a former administrator in the City of New York, is from Trinidad, but has worked with Jamaicans throughout his educational career. He maintains that education in the Caribbean is similar, and observations about the Jamaican system are akin to what can be observed in Trinidad where he is from. We are in communication with teachers from many of the West Indian territories the Bahamas, Bermuda, and Central America. We can truly say that the world is getting more intimately related, and education is an international stage, with actors drawn from every corner of the globe.

A Community of Learners

The emphasis of proponents of “World Class Education” in the 21st Century is on the creation and establishment of a “Community of Learners”. This concept implies that everyone in an educational organization must become, and remain a learner. In an age when the world’s knowledge base doubles within a short period of time, educators can ill afford to teach without being eager learners themselves. In educational organizations that want to make a positive difference, administrators and teachers must now become “lead learners” modeling learning processes and methodologies for their students. School people are no more teachers in the narrow sense of the word but are, in fact, facilitators of knowledge acquisition on the part of their students. This calls for educators that are constantly upgrading their skills in educational methodologies, pedagogy, and information management, in order to make the most current concepts, theories, and information processing skills available to their students. John Locke’s “Tabula Rasa” theory has been proven false eons ago. Even the venerable Piaget, whose developmental education theories are still relevant, would suggest that teaching and learning theories and practices need to be reexamined, in light of recent work in the area of Brain Research.

Because the world has become much smaller with the aid of global technocracy, and what has been commonly called the information highway, a student educated in Jamaica today could well become the president or CEO of a company in the Unites States, Japan, or Australia early in a working career. As educators, anywhere in the world, we cannot afford to continue using outmoded educational paradigms and knowledge bases to educate today’s learners. There must be the sharing of educational expertise, and collaboration between countries, educational systems, and training institutions. This would result in widely accepted “best theories” and “best practices” being employed on an international level.

In-service training of educators has been used widely to help teachers keep abreast of the growing body of knowledge that is available to assist them in the education of students. Even with state-of-the-art in-service training, educators can hardly keep pace with the pedagogical knowledge base. While all systems should maximize their in-service provisions, there is the possibility that budgetary constraints can serve as a limiting factor in the efforts being made by schools, and school districts. All systems should provide a realistic minimum of in-service training to educators. While subject-area knowledge is important, it is more urgent to target learning methodologies, pedagogical processes, and classroom management practices. If funds are limited, and areas of developmental education have to be targeted, preschool and Kindergarten through Third Grade must be given preference. This is the level at which the foundation for advanced learning is laid. When a choice has to be made between disciplines or subject areas, we must choose Reading and Mathematics above other subjects. Research has proven that a good reader can master any subject area. One must read and comprehend in order to gain mastery. Mathematics is truly a universal discipline, with a standardized vocabulary. The emphasis on Reading and Mathematics does not mean that other disciplines should be neglected. Reading can be taught using material from any content area, such as Social Studies, Science, and Mathematics. This will call for a different approach to teaching and learning.

For want of a better descriptive, we can simply state that teaching can be traditional or it can be innovative. Traditional teaching is didactic. The teacher tightly controls the process, and relegates the student to responses that come from teacher prompts. In this process, the student has learned that he/she must sit quietly, speak only when required to do so by the teacher, keep hands and feet to oneself, and by all means, put his/her hand up if he/she dares to interrupt the teacher. It is safe to say that this process is pervasive in all school systems, and all countries. It is also safe to say that this is the teaching and learning methodology that is used mostly in systems that have less money to spend on educational equipment and staff development. If the teacher has a stick of chalk, and a textbook, traditional teaching can be done to a relative degree of success. Students rarely see these teachers engaged in the learning process. They seem to be always at the “giving” end, and never seem interested in what a student has to offer, unless the teacher is able to exercise tight control. Innovative teaching is based on creativity. A teacher must be able to work within basic parameters, but can use his own creativity to make the classroom an attractive place for students to learn without coercive practices that often place learners under undue stress.

Today, there may be too many new methodologies for the good of pedagogy. This has led to the use of such terms as “fads” and “back to basics” by those who are unwilling to change, as well as researchers who have proof that some of these modern methodologies do not have any long-lasting positive effects on education. For educators whose consciences have bothered them, or those who know that today’s students are readily turned off by somebody standing in front of a bunch of them, trying to treat the whole lot as though they had only one brain, there is a felt need to vary classroom practice and to include the teacher as a lead learner. Some recommendations will be dealt with in a subsequent discussion under the same topic “An Imperative.”

Dr. Hines is a member of the Jamaican Diaspora. He is an Educational Consultant who continues to contribute to educational development in Jamaican schools.