Nothing but a number?

Pitching classes to large groups of learners of mixed ages can be nerve-racking. Play to those who are well settled into adulthood and you may not provide sufficient guidance for the teenagers in the room. Direct the class according to the needs of the young and older students may feel patronised.

As with all behaviour management strategies, clarity, consistency and consequence are key. But addressing unacceptable conduct in mixed age groups in which some learners are older than the teacher can be deeply uncomfortable for all concerned.

A friend of mine, who is in her forties, is retraining to be a hairdresser. At the college she is attending, the consequence of being late is 30 minutes of salon cleaning. She recently arrived five minutes after the start of the session, having taken her daughter for an emergency hospital appointment and driven like a maniac in an attempt to get to college on time. She was mortified to receive the same sanction as her teenage classmates, some of whom she perceives as making little effort to follow the rules and behave respectfully. Unsurprisingly, in light of the unavoidable circumstances, my friend was unimpressed with her teacher's decision to punish her.

From a teacher's perspective, I doubt I would have played it any differently. Nor, however, would I have felt any less aggrieved if I were in my friend's position.

Although behaviour management of mixed age groups can be fraught, in academic subjects the issue of learning needs to be addressed tactfully, too. Older students may feel stupid if their abilities do not match up to those of their teenage peers.

Indeed, literacy classes can open a door to a number of self-esteem issues for older students. When learners freely announce that they "can't do maths", there is an unspoken understanding that lots of functioning adults feel the same. I've worked with students of all ages who can't read or write to a level that allows them to operate adequately in daily life. No one wears that as a badge: a huge stigma is attached to being functionally illiterate and it can be seen as a mark of low intelligence or extreme poverty, although in many cases it is neither.

If accessing appropriate resources to interest 16- and 60-year-olds presents a challenge when teaching functional English (my subject) then think of the poor authors of the exam papers, who must maintain multi-age-group relevance.

One test required students to write a letter of enquiry regarding hobbyist activities at a local community centre. It was painfully clear that this paper wasn't aimed at 19-year-old students of motor vehicle maintenance.

Returning to education to embark on a change of career or to tackle a gap in previous learning, at an age when the foundations of expertise in a subject are traditionally already solid, takes immense strength of character and deserves respect.

However, in smaller groups, individual relationships can be built quickly and a one-team ethos can be encouraged, regardless of age.

Sarah Simons works in a large further education college in Mansfield, England.

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