Dr. Rebecca Callaway: Never Stop Playing

“Children learn through curiosity, wonder and play,” said Dr. Rebecca Callaway. “If you’re lucky, the love of learning starts early and lasts a lifetime.” As a young student, Callaway observed her most effective teachers and discovered that many had attended the same university. Realizing she wanted to teach someday, Callaway set her sights on following their footsteps to Northwestern State University of Louisiana (NSU) in Natchitoches for her undergraduate education.

Now a professor of instructional technology at Arkansas Tech University, Callaway is well-versed in the grit it takes to obtain a college education. But starting out, she was a first-generation college student along with many others around her. Callaway had a loving and supportive family who did not have the college experience to help her navigate her university education.

Callaway persevered and earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from NSU. After teaching physical education, computer science, math and English in Louisiana high schools, she enrolled in an educational doctoral program at Louisiana Tech University.

“You go into education to make a difference,” said Callaway. “My thought was, if I got my doctorate, instead of reaching 150 students a year, I could instill good teaching into the pre-service teachers—my impact would be greater.”

By the time Callaway applied at ATU in 2006 for an opening in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, she was enthusiastic about the difference she could make by training pre-service teachers. Remembering the friendliness and dedication of everyone involved in the interview process, Callaway said there was no doubt she would accept once offered the positionTech felt like home.

Callaway describes her teaching style as constructivist. “I want my students to build on their prior knowledge,” she said. “Then I can guide them where they need to be.”

One of her favorite subjects to teach is research because Callaway enjoys teaching her students problem-solving skills. “I want my students to understand that they don’t have to be scientists or professors to be a researcher,” continued Callaway. “They can take a classroom problem and conduct research. They can hone their own skills and effect change in their own classrooms.”

One way for teachers to effect change in their classrooms is through the use of instructional technology, but only if used effectively. “Technology for technology’s sake is a waste of time in the classroom,” said Callaway. “If it doesn’t enhance learning, I say take it out. The value of instructional technology is something the new teachers must learn to figure out for themselves. Technology is no good if [the teachers] can’t integrate and use it wisely. They need to know when, where and how to use it to enhance learning.”

Technology will play an even more significant role for teachers in the future. Callaway says that a governor-mandate requires that Arkansas K-12 schools teach (computer) programming. In her office, Callaway keeps many instructional technology devices, including an assembled Star Wars R2-D2 robot that is controlled by an app on a smartphone or tablet.

“Neat toy, right?” said Callaway as she held the robot. “Sure, but what is its purpose in the classroom? It’s littleBits [electronic building toy kits for STEAM education] software. We’re also teaching Scratch [a drag and drop programming software] this semester so our students will know how to use it in the classroom.”

Access to the classroom through technology is only one aspect of the equation for some students; it’s a lack of funding that keeps other students away from higher education. That’s why Callaway recently established the Arthur P. and Daisy W. Callaway Scholarship to honor her parents. The funds benefit a traditional undergraduate student who graduated from an Arkansas high school with preference given to a first-generation college student. The recipient can use the funds to purchase items needed to complete their internship (student-teaching hours) such as professional clothing, travel costs or classroom supplies for playing, working and learning.

Callaway feels that her department does a good job of supporting all students, but the biggest obstacle can be getting students to tell professors what’s going on in their lives. When faculty know what is happening with their students, they can provide advice or a little extra help to enable students to achieve their goal of going into a challenging and rewarding profession.

“Sometimes, people who don’t teach think ‘how hard can this be to do?’ Except, I don’t know of any class that’s not revamped every semester,” said Callaway. “That takes a lot of time. In my view, if I am not revamping to see what’s out there and what these future teachers need, then they’re behind the times, and I’m behind the times. I want [my students] to see the possibilities.”

Callaway says she will continue working as long as she is able, and it is still fun. Her advice to all her students is to never stop playing. “Play is how you learn,” she concluded. “When you stop playing…well…it’s lifelong learning—the wonder and the curiosity.”

by Brandi Easterling Collins for the Tech Action, Spring 2020