Making a Living in Adult Education? Working Conditions in the Field

By Kathleen O’Connell and Sally Waldron

AEFL Week LogoIn recognition of Adult Education and Family Literacy Week, we now turn our attention to the working conditions of adult education teachers and the economic challenge of staying in the field. We could just as easily look at the working conditions of advisors or counselors, many of whom face similar challenges.

Both of us have worked in adult education for many years. We’ve made a living by piecing together teaching jobs, directing programs, and writing grants.  Sally was the VP of the U.S. Division of World Education and teaches math at her neighborhood program. Kathleen is the Workplace Education Program Coordinator for World Education and also teaches an ESOL class at another program. We love the work. Recently, however, each of us has found ourselves discouraging a friend’s interest in working in the field.  The conversation goes like this:

I’d love to become an ESOL (an adult ed, a math) teacher. 

Really?  You might want to think about this some more. Do you need a full-time job?  Do you need to support yourself and your family?  It’s hard to find full-time work, so you’ll need to piece together several part-time jobs at different programs.  You probably won’t get benefits – no paid sick, vacation, or holiday time; no health insurance.  Most of your prep time won’t be compensated.  The hourly wage isn’t great, either. And then there’s the travel time between jobs. I love teaching adults, but this is a hard way to make a living if you need to support yourself and your family…

We know that teachers have a huge impact on student learning. We know that adult learners, like younger learners, need and deserve excellent teachers.  In recent years, the adult education field has developed both content and professional standards, and adult education teachers have been asked to meet these standards.  The goals of these standards are increasing teacher effectiveness and student learning.

So, on the one hand, in Massachusetts and in other states, teachers are supported through professional development to strengthen their practice to align with the standards.  While, on the other hand, teacher salaries and working conditions haven’t changed to reflect these increasing demands. The vast majority of people who work in adult education are (still) part-time.  According to national statistics for FY15, 80% of adult education teachers are part-time.  Salaries vary by state and by program.  In Massachusetts, where we work, the state-supported part-time salary is $26.65 per hour.  Preparation is compensated at a ratio of one hour of paid prep time for every two hours of teaching time (1:2).  If you teach six hours per week, you’re paid for nine hours.  But, how long does it actually take to plan and prepare two three-hour classes that align with the CCR Standards? How long does it take to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of students at varied levels?  How long does it take to go over homework from the previous class?  How long does it take to accurately track student attendance and progress?  In our experience, the time it takes to plan, prepare, teach, and follow up on six hours of classroom time per week is more like 15 hours per week.  In addition, teachers need to be able to meet with their colleagues to share materials, investigate effective teaching approaches, and problem solve around struggling students.  Teachers also need input into program decision-making. And this is at one part-time job; what if you have several?

So, what should teaching jobs in adult education look like?  The answer to this question is pretty much based on common sense.  Here’s what Cristine Smith, Judy Hofer, and Marilyn Gillespie recommended in their 2001 Focus on Basics article.

  1. Access to resources that affect how teachers do their jobs, including classroom and program facilities and access to materials and technology;
  2. Access to professional development and information, including access to written and electronic materials that helps them better understand their classrooms, their programs, and their field;
  3. Access to colleagues and program directors, allowing teachers to meet with, talk to, and get feedback from those within their program, their state, and in the larger field of adult basic education;
  4. Access to decision-making that allows teachers to participate in helping to improve the quality of services that learners receive, particularly through program policies and practices; and
  5. Access to a “real” job, including sufficient working hours to complete all of the teaching, program, and other tasks required of teachers; paid preparation and professional development time; stability; and benefits.

Similarly, in 2007, the Massachusetts Coalition for Adult Education developed Standards for Quality Working Conditions in ABE/ESOL Programs.  You can access the MCAE Standards here.

What progress are we making toward reaching these standards? For the most part, not much.  Some progress in some places, but not enough. When will adult education teachers demand and receive the working conditions that they deserve?  When will funders and policy makers support sustainable jobs that recognize ABE staff as professionals?

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Kathleen O'Connell

Kathleen O'Connell

Kathleen O’Connell is the Workplace Education Coordinator at World Education and teaches a Level 1 class in the Seaport Hotel and World Trade Center workplace education program. She also works in conjunction with English for New Bostonians and Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership (Mass MEP) to deliver the Pre-LEAN ESOL Principles of Lean Manufacturing for English Language Learners. Kathleen has been teaching ESOL for almost thirty years, and teaching workplace classes for over twenty years.