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:
- 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.
- SABES, the MA PD system, had a history of supporting directors, teachers, and advisors in using technology-enhanced instruction and advising.
- 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.”