If you teach adults, you've a lot to learn

Colleges' rich mix of ages, experiences and cultures has as much to offer those at the front of the classroom as it does the students

I'm a wash belly. Are you? I learned the term from one of my 27-year-old students while dropping her home after our evening class. She took a call from her mum asking what time she would be home. When it ended, she said: "You can tell I'm the wash belly, can't you?" She then explained that in Caribbean culture, it meant the youngest child, for ever considered to be the baby of the household.

I canvassed friends to see if anyone else knew what it meant. They didn't. At the age of 41, I had learned something new. Best of all, I had learned it from one of my students.

I love collecting information. I am naturally curious and I enjoy hearing people's stories. I teach adults in a diverse East London borough and my classroom is full of men and women of all ages, cultures, countries and backgrounds.

Next week, two of my Jamaican learners are bringing me bun and cheese. They looked aghast when I said I had never heard of it, let alone tried it. They explained that it was their traditional Easter delicacy of tinned cheddar and fruity bread. I can't wait to taste it. And they can't wait to hear my verdict.

I work and live in the same area, so these people are my neighbours. Yet I would never have met them in my everyday life - we just don't mix in the same circles. My job provides a portal to a different world and it is one that I am learning from all the time.

As a teacher, I can feel under pressure to know the answers to everything I'm asked. So it is nice sometimes to turn the tables and see the joy in my students' faces when they have the opportunity to educate me.

It's different teaching young people. I trained in a sixth-form college where the demarcation was obvious just by dint of our age difference. Most of the students called me "Miss", for starters. They didn't recommend their music, films or interests to me and nor did I mine to them. We had very little in common and our relationship was unbalanced. I struggled to empathise with their situations and we weren't equal.

I think that's the crux of it - equality. Of course I have set up professional boundaries between my adult learners and me, and I don't see them as my friends. Yet I do regard them as my equals. I realise that behind every adult learner lies a lifetime of stories, challenges and ups and downs.

After all, I was in their shoes myself only last year when I returned to university to start my teacher training after a long career in a different sector. I know how peculiar it feels to go back to being a student, especially if your teacher is the same age as you, or younger. You feel as though you have so much to contribute but in the context of the classroom you're stripped of your identity and status. It can be quite disabling. You don't change, but people's perception of you does.

Role reversal

Take the Spanish man, the same age as me, who moved to England to find a job when the economy collapsed at home. Despite being highly qualified, he is now working in menial jobs and studying English in the evenings to improve his employability.

We have been practising interview techniques and in the meantime chatting about jobs, living in Europe (I've spent some time in Italy) and travelling the world. The content of his creative writing is superb but the spelling and sentence structure isn't, which is why he has sacrificed his free time to study. Were our situations reversed and I the one abroad, he could easily be my Spanish teacher.

Or take the student in his late thirties who has been telling me how regular meditation and mindfulness have helped him to overcome issues of anxiety. The other day, before class, I asked him to explain more about what these practices involved and how they fitted into his daily life. I told him I experienced regular stress-related headaches and he encouraged me to take up mindfulness myself. He said he would research it for me and provide me with some information.

I have also learned some serious life lessons this year. Adult education welcomes everyone and my door has been open to learners of all types and all ages, from 18 to 63. I have taught ex-prisoners, former alcoholics, the chronically unwell, the long-term unemployed and others who, for one reason or another, are going back to class to turn their lives around.

One of my students has recently had her eldest son return from a spell at Her Majesty's pleasure. Call me unworldly, but neither I nor any of my friends and acquaintances know anyone who has been in prison. Just talking to this woman about how she copes as the mother of a convicted criminal - desperate for him not to make the same mistakes again - helps me appreciate how other people live.

Many of my learners are specialists in their fields. I have taught an Italian postgraduate who was a whizz at engineering, a carpenter with sublime woodwork skills and a woman in her sixties who has spent three decades caring for the elderly.

These people have knowledge and expertise that I can only dream of. I could spend hours, weeks and years learning from them. I know that education transforms the lives of these adults. But I didn't realise how much it would transform mine. It really is an education in itself.

Kate Bohdanowicz teaches English to adults in East London. She is also a journalist

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