World Education will periodically honor outstanding adult educators. Wendy is an adult education teacher and professional developer. We asked Wendy a series of questions about her work.
How did you get started in adult education?
Like so many of us in adult ed, I didn’t start out here. I had been a journalist for many years when I began volunteering at a family homeless shelter near my home. Research with their former guests had shown that their strongest desire was to get off welfare; the shelter director asked if I could develop an educational program to help them do that. “Steppingstones,” as the participants named it, led to a series of other courses, all aimed at helping them move on and improve their lives. From there I moved into teaching GED for the next 15 or so years.
Where and what do you teach and do in adult education now?
I’ve been out of the classroom for a couple of years now, although I still teach students online in the Massachusetts distance learning program. More and more, though, I am working with teachers as a professional developer, particularly in the areas of differentiated instruction — helping teachers work with the multi-level classrooms we all face — and persistence, the bugaboo of adult ed. That is the most rewarding work I do.
What are you most proud of as a teacher and trainer?
Of course I am thrilled when my students earn their high school equivalency credential (now the HiSET in Massachusetts rather than the GED). But I also love it when the light bulbs go off for teachers – when they can finally develop a way of working with all the different personalities, skill levels and obstacles that confront them in a roomful of students.
Tell us about your progression from teacher to teacher and professional developer? What did you do to further develop your skills?
My early work at the shelter was a formative experience, introducing me to the philosophy and practice of Paulo Freire and a popular education curriculum called “Training for Transformation.” I tell my students that my goal has always been to change the world; as a teacher (which, by the way, as a child I said I would NEVER be) I do it one student at a time. At first I did a lot of reading (especially Freire, but also Jack Mezirow, Stephen Brookfield, Robert Kegan, Geoffrey and Renata Caine) and took an extensive training with the late Jane Vella (Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach, 2002). Participating in the Adult Multiple Intelligences Study in the 1990s (which produced Multiple Intelligences and Adult Literacy: A Sourcebook for Practitioners, 2004) was another transformation of my practice. Putting into practice Howard Gardner’s theory allowed me to acknowledge and take advantage of the many skills adult students bring with them into the classroom. Teacher-researchers in that study presented our work to a variety of audiences, and that was probably the beginning of my work as a professional developer. Somewhere along the way, I took a course on differentiated instruction, and participated in another study of teaching intermediate reading skills that offered a lot of training. Being a ham (aren’t all teachers?), I was happy to take what I was learning to other teachers.
What keeps you in adult education? What are you most passionate/excited about as a teacher and as a trainer?
Our society doesn’t make many allowances for those without the privilege of education. I see education, especially adult education, as a political act, helping those who have so often been marginalized gain the knowledge and power they deserve. One of the things my students taught me early on is that respect – something they have seen all too seldom in their lives – is the key to teaching and, more to the point, learning. This is the touchstone for both my teaching and training, my personal and passionate rebellion against inequality.
What do you see yourself doing in the future?
I imagine I will keep teaching and training as long as I can. I talk about writing a book on differentiated instruction for the adult classroom, since virtually all the resources are for K-12, but talking is about as far as I’ve gotten with that idea. Otherwise, I plan to see more operas and do more gardening.