We’ve Come So Far: Returning to Fall Classes

Where Did We Begin?

How did you come to teach in adult education? Was it “sideways” like many? Did you start out with a different career and somehow get connected to adult learners and were hooked?

Adult educators are a diverse group with a range of backgrounds in a field that lacks common teacher preparation or teaching licensure requirements. Yet, what almost all of us share in common is a passion for our work and a deep dedication to the adult learners we serve. When we tell people we work in adult education, we usually have to explain what that means. But if anyone wants to know what it means to be an adult educator, they need only to look at the past six months to understand just what drives this small, but mighty group of professionals.

“We are now also social service agencies; we’re in the compassion business.”
-MA ABE Program Director

In March, as we all rapidly pivoted from in-person to remote teaching and learning, most Massachusetts programs began teaching online within one week. Several conditions contributed to our capacity to mount such a quick response:

  1. The State had already been encouraging programs to adopt distance education and to fully incorporate digital literacy into instruction. Many early adopters were already offering some distance or hybrid services.
  2. SABES, the MA PD system, had a history of supporting directors, teachers, and advisors in using technology-enhanced instruction and advising.
  3. Our State Director immediately provided leadership and transparency in promoting the welfare of students as our top priority. She assured programs they could continue to pay staff and amend budgets to purchase devices to loan to students.

“We are leading in extraordinary times, and we’re going to figure it out one day at a time. Reach out to as many students as you possibly can to support them in whatever ways you can.”
-Wyvonne Stevens-Carter, MA State Director of Adult Education

Throughout this rapid response phase, it has been truly inspirational to witness the lengths to which teachers have gone to engage students. In regional Directors’ Sharing Group meetings, we heard about the creative ways that educators were meeting the needs of their learners, such as:

  • Ensuring students have access by purchasing hotspots or driving loaner devices to their homes
  • Making weekly wellness check-in calls to every student, including those who could no longer attend classes
  • Fundraising to get essentials, like grocery store gift cards, diapers, and food to students in crisis
  • Creating online classrooms (e.g., Google classroom, Schoolology) and offering synchronous instruction along with open-access “office hours” for students to check in on academic and other critical needs
  • Creating hard copy lesson packets and mailing them to students or dropping them off on their doorsteps
  • Conducting weekly instruction sessions via cell phones for students without computers
  • Promoting the Pandemic EBT program for students and families in need
  • Attending PD in droves to strengthen their capacity to effectively teach and advise online

All programs, but especially those in “hot spot” communities, reported how challenging it has been to deal with the trauma of students, staff, and their families who have been directly impacted by COVID 19.

“We are doing everything we can, knowing it’s not enough.”
-MA ABE Program Director

Our New Reality: Returning to Fall Classes

In MA, it appears most programs will continue full remote instruction, primarily because they lack access to spaces that allow for the spatial distancing needed to ensure the safety of staff and students. Still, program directors and their teams are eager to move beyond the chaos of spring toward a more cohesive, structured approach and have been working tirelessly all summer long to get there.

It’s “all hands on deck”…everyone is working to support the full range of learners’ needs. In addition to continuing their many effective rapid response strategies, programs are also:

  • Meeting in small groups (1-3 students) to conduct in-person intake, assessment, and orientation
  • Offering small group (1-5 students) in-person “technology boot camps” during September to provide students with devices and onboard them to the tech they will need to work remotely
  • Formally adopting tech platforms and tools so the program has a cohesive approach
  • Attending ongoing “State as Partner” virtual meetings hosted by our State Director
  • Sharing and accessing resources via our Online Community Discussion padlet and Distance Education and Digital Literacy web page and, including Zoom resources for students translated in multiple languages
  • Participating in SABES PD, including the IDEAL modules, adapted for MA that align with the recently revised IDEAL Distance Education and Blended Handbook; regional sharing groups, and program-based coaching in response to individual needs

Looking Ahead with Hope

While I refuse to consider “silver linings” to COVID-19 (which would imply that there was an “upside” to this pandemic nightmare), I do believe that we will emerge having learned some tough lessons that will serve us well as we look toward a brighter future:

  • It’s clear that teachers (and students) have become more adept and able to provide more robust options for students moving forward. Teachers are using every tool within reach—high and low tech—to meet the needs of their students.
  • This means we have the potential to meet the needs of new adult learner audiences who cannot attend in-person classes yet who would benefit greatly from adult education classes.
  • The 2020 crises present adult educators with both the challenge and opportunity to advocate for digital access, social justice, and racial equity.

The 2020 COVID-19 crisis has shone a light on the essential and unique role of adult education in serving the neediest adults and families in our communities. I conclude with much gratitude and deep respect for my colleagues, whose efforts are best summarized by one of our local program directors:

“We will never give up on our students.”

Carey Reid is Honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award

World Education is proud to announce that at the annual Network Conference on Friday, May 12, 2016, the Massachusetts Coalition for Adult Education honored Carey Reid with a Lifetime Achievement Award.  Carey was co-nominated by World Education’s SABES PD Coordination Center Director, Luanne Teller, and Lori D’Alleva, Director of Education at the Charlestown Adult Education Program.

With more than 40 years of experience as an ABE educator and professional developer, it’s impossible to count the number of adult educator and learners’ lives that Carey Reid has touched.  By definition, adult educators are one of the most caring groups of professionals, but Carey goes above and beyond, exemplifying each day what it means to lead by example and through service.  Highlights of Carey’s experience include:

  • 35 years as an ABE/ESOL teacher including at the Jamaica Plain Adult Learning Center where he also served as the director.
  • 20 years as a professional developer for SABES, where he coordinated the Curriculum and Assessment team, contributed to revisions of the ELA CF, and developed curriculum, assessment, ELA, and ESOL trainings.
  • 15 years of leadership in developing and supporting the MA ABE Teacher License since its inception. He earned one of the state’s first ABE Licenses, built the first SABES Licensure website, and implemented monthly face-to-face licensure cohorts.
  • Carey’s journey to STAR Certification began through work with NCSALL and the Adult Reading Comprehension Study (ARCS).  This research led to the Assessment Strategies and Reading Profiles (ASRP) findings which ultimately led to the development of STAR. In addition to being a MA STAR trainer, Carey is one of just 12 STAR trainers in the US to be invited to serve on the National Cadre of STAR Trainers.

Carey is never satisfied with the “status quo”.  Most recently, Carey:

  • Cultivated business partnerships which led to a WPE grant for Boston’s Seaport Hotel.
  • Began working with the Charlestown Adult Education program, teaching writing combined with computer skills needed for the workplace; connecting students to jobs; and helping to develop HiSET curriculum.

Here is one example of how Carey has dedicated himself to adult educators, one person at a time. One ABE license seeker had almost completed her portfolio when she learned that she needed to take a leave of absence for cancer treatments.  Carey arranged for this person’s travel costs and overnight stay at a hotel to be covered, and provided her with access to a computer at World Education to complete her portfolio.  It had been a longtime professional goal for this person to achieve her license, and we were delighted to learn that thanks to her diligence and Carey’s support, she earned her ABE License.  Shortly thereafter, she succumbed to her illness, but we were ever grateful to Carey for his persistence in seeking resources to help her complete her license requirements so she could fulfill her dream.

Carey is the definition of a team player.  Despite being nationally recognized for his expertise, we can always count on him to offer his help wherever it is needed, from substitute teaching in a program that lost its STAR teacher until they could replace him, to individually walking practitioners through their last steps to submit their license portfolios, to packing, loading, and unloading supplies for the College and Career Readiness Standards conference.

Carey exemplifies the true meaning of an adult educator.  Although he claims to have retired from teaching, he finds himself back in the classroom where he truly shines, at the Charlestown Adult Education Program.   He provides individualized instruction and has an unbelievable connection to each of his students.  He gets to know them on an academic level so that he can instruct them effectively, but more importantly, he gets to know them personally.  He makes each student feel special by taking the time to find out the goals and aspirations of each one and then assisting them in making connections to ensure that goals are met.  He is passionate, compassionate, devoted to, and extremely talented at what he does.

Many people don’t know that Carey published a novel, is a gifted photographer, and an avid recycler.  But everyone knows how funny, caring, dedicated, and brilliant Carey is.  When we say “funny,” we mean very, very funny as demonstrated in his acceptance comments.

We would like to thank MCAE for honoring Carey with this award.  From the audience response, it was evident that all agreed it is a privilege to work with Carey, and that he truly deserves to be recognized for his lifetime of contributions to the field of adult education.

Watch Carey’s acceptance speech on YouTube!

Career Readiness: In Theory and In Practice

Most ABE practitioners would agree that conceptually college and career readiness is critically important for adult learners. In addition to the academic rigor laid out by the newest College and Career Readiness Standards for Adult Education, students will need comportment skills to secure and hold jobs.

As we think about how to translate such concepts into practice, we might discover, as I have in my work experience, that preparing adults for career readiness requires targeted support and guidance. This article focuses on several concrete activities that practitioners can readily implement to help their learners prepare to be successful in employment.

These recommendations evolve from research and experience in a job skills training and placement program that led to 92% placement of adult learners in full-time jobs with health care benefits. Most of our students had never worked, and those who had worked were in low-wage, part-time jobs that were not in a professional setting. How did we achieve these outcomes? In part, our success was due to a dedicated Job Developer who was responsible to 1) teach job readiness, job search, and interview skills, and 2) connect with good employers to determine what kinds of jobs and career paths were available, and what skills students needed to be ready for those jobs.

How can the lessons we learned translate to ABE programs? Some of the strategies we implemented are identified in this article. You may need to modify them based on your students and your program, but the basic premise remains—success is not solely based on what students know; it is also based on what they can do. The distinction is subtle but powerful.

Adult learners who have never worked in a professional setting are best served when we provide them with opportunities to practice and internalize critical behaviors in the relative safety of our supportive programs before going out into the “real world” where they will be left to their own devices to either “sink or swim.” Even ABE learners who are already employed will benefit, since the majority need jobs with better wages and better opportunities for growth.

Here is a list of 10 strategies we designed to help prepare adult learners with essential skills they will need for success in careers. Which ones are you already doing? Are there others that you could try? How might you adopt or adapt these activities to provide real-life practice for your learners?

1. Invite potential students to “interview” for your program, rather than simply fill out an application. This provides the experience of articulating what they hope to accomplish, exploring what you have to offer, and understanding what you expect from them.

2. Require full and punctual attendance. Our students have many demands on their time, but realistically, poor attendance will cost them their jobs, and we are doing them a disservice when our actions send the message that somehow it’s ok. Require students to call in if they will be out sick or arrive late. Require them to ask for approval in order to leave early. When a student’s attendance suffers, hold a meeting with that student to give a verbal warning. Work to identify the contributing factors and help the student develop strategies to address the problem. Could you check with local employers to see how closely your attendance policy aligns with theirs?

3. Set a professional dress code and require students to comply. Think it’s too tough? Many a worker has been reprimanded or sent home for inappropriate dress. Do you think your students know exactly what professional dress is? Isn’t it better for them to be advised by you when they misstep than to suffer that embarrassment on the job?

4. Give students “Performance Reviews” after 30 and 90 days. Ask students to complete a self-assessment of strengths and areas for improvement, and set short-term and long-term goals for themselves. Ask them to sign their “evaluations”. This activity will benefit learners not only by preparing them for actual reviews but also by helping them take ownership of their learning and progress towards their goals.

5. Teach proofreading. In the work world, it’s helpful to know proofreading marks. Think it adds a lot of work? Not necessarily. When you teach grammar, contextualize it in the form of a business letter or report. Ask students to edit their own work, or each other’s work using proofreading marks. Have them redo the document until it’s perfect.

6. Require at least some things to be “perfect” and explain why. In a classroom, a 98% test score is impressive. But when a student gets a “98%” on a business letter, that means 2% of it contains mistakes. In the work world, that’s not acceptable, in fact it’s unusable.

7. Contextualize fractions, percents, and decimals by teaching how to calculate discounts, payroll taxes, and budget projections. Have students prepare monthly and annual household budgets to help project the minimum salary they can accept. Have them consider if/then scenarios and enter the information into Excel. “If I get x-salary and have to cut expenses by 10%, how much would that be and where could I cut back?”

8. Require students to arrange and conduct a job shadow in their desired career. They will need to prepare by networking and researching careers that interest them to learn about the working conditions, the necessary skills, the types of jobs and career pathways available, and whether or not there are good employers in the area with jobs that are open. Equipped with this information, a job shadow can be an invaluable experience as they observe and experience first-hand what it’s like to work in their desired profession. It further provides an opportunity to hear from professionals in their desired fields about their career pathways…where they began and what it took to get where they are now.

9. If students miss class because of child care or transportation, work with them to get backups. This is incredibly challenging, but again, we do students a disservice by pretending it’s not essential. Lack of adequate backups will cost students their jobs. Are there any local employers with on-site child care? Employers on a bus line? Car pools?

10. Practice asking questions. Every student should be prepared to ask essential questions in an interview; for example, “Can you give me an idea of the salary range and the benefits for this position?” or “What are your next steps—when might I expect to hear from you?” However, the need to frame and pose questions, and even ask for further clarification, will come up time and again on the job itself. Students can learn useful language in the classroom and practice with problem scenarios.

How can you build a culture in your program that promotes career readiness goals?
Imagine if you thought about your program as “on-the-job training”. What if your students were interns or employees? How would everyone’s expectations change? What would be the advantages to this approach? What if your students could demonstrate the kind of conduct that employers seek when looking for someone to promote? If they don’t learn these skills in your program, who will teach them?

You will be giving your learners an advantage by fostering their understanding of employer expectations in a professional setting while building their capacity and confidence to meet (and exceed) them. The beauty of having them learn in your program is that students have access to support and advising so they can learn from their mistakes, grow over time, and get honest feedback about where they need to change.

Help students plan for next steps. What should they look for in an employer? Can they find companies with tuition reimbursement to help them pursue further training? Is there on-site professional development to help prepare them for more responsibilities and an opportunity to grow within the organization? If already employed, what’s the “next job up” on the ladder, and what skills would students need to be eligible for that job? Do they dare to consider changing jobs if the long-term potential for growth doesn’t exist where they currently work?

Talk about success. What does it look like? What supports do your program and staff need to get there? How will you know when you’re there? Respect student voices…after all, it’s their success we’re working towards. Work with them to create your own program list of activities and strategies based on what they tell you they need.

Finally, set high standards for all. Be firm, but fair, and hold staff, students, and partners to high standards. Expect staff to model behaviors that students need to learn.

Preparing students for success will be one of the greatest gifts you can give them. It’s a gift that will “keep on giving” throughout their lives.