Don't children just love the run-up to Christmas? Nativity plays for the little ones; carols and concerts for all ages; and, best of all, games and chocolates on the last day of term. The atmosphere is more relaxed than usual and everyone - teachers and pupils alike - looks forward to the fortnight off.
It is different for the adults I teach. They don't want to waste the precious spare time they've put aside for learning to play games as a bit of festive fun. Although I sometimes bring in chocolates, some people have diabetes or allergies or are abstaining before the festive splurge. It's not that adults are immune from distraction at Christmas, it's just that their values are not the same as children's.
Adult education providers break up earlier than schools and go back later, so Christmas can mean almost a month away from the classroom. Sounds great, doesn't it? That is, until you realise that most courses are relatively short and in those four weeks a lot of what has been learned can be forgotten.
I may pack them off with homework and suggest they study and revise, but I know most won't get a minute to do so. Not only do many work full-time and have just a few days off over the holidays, but they will also be busy buying presents and preparing to cook Christmas dinners or visit family. And, of course, a large number will be attending the Nativity plays and concerts in which their own children are appearing.
So at this time of year, studying can move down students' list of priorities and festive-related stress can affect behaviour. Below are some of the issues I've come across and my tips for handling them.
Be considerate of their time
Appreciate that adult learners have less time. Would it be reasonable to suggest that someone misses their child's first school play to attend your evening class? Not really, no. So be upfront and explain to students that you realise it is a busy time of year. Ask them to let you know if they are going to be absent so that you can make allowances and give them the work another time.
Make their planning part of the lesson
Big family dinners need preparation and in the past I have discovered students writing shopping lists surreptitiously under the desk. Instead of reprimanding them, turn it into a class task. I teach functional skills English, and writing lists or following recipes embeds literacy and numeracy as well as health literacy and nutrition. Why not stage a Come Dine with Me-style activity, with pairs or small groups devising their own three-course meals to present to the class? There are lots of ways to turn the festive build-up into part of the lesson.
Embrace other cultures
Of course, not everyone celebrates Christmas. I work in East London and my classes are a diverse mix of cultures, backgrounds and languages. Refrain from making lessons too centred on the festive season as this can be alienating for some. Instead, ask students to share information about their own traditions and use this as a basis for class activities.
For some, this can be a lonely time of year. I've had students whose children are spending Christmas in prison, and not everyone shares the day with family and friends. Think carefully before assuming that everyone is looking forward to the break. You may notice some adults becoming withdrawn. If this happens, speak to them privately to see if there is an underlying problem. Part of a teacher's role is to safeguard vulnerable adults, so report any concerns higher up.
We all need to let our hair down once in a while and for some people a Christmas party might be their only chance to celebrate. Face it, some students may have a hangover. They are adults so it's allowed. Be nice. Be quiet.
Accept their anxieties
Christmas is a time fraught with expectation. Parents worry about money and how to arrange childcare during the holidays. Individuals fret about meeting up with family. I had a student in her early twenties who dreaded this time of year. Why? Because her siblings and their children would descend on the family home and she would be turfed out of her bedroom to share a bed with her mother. I found this out only after the course had finished. Not everyone will tell you what goes on behind closed doors, so be considerate.
We have all heard the adage don't smile until Christmas but that doesn't work in adult education. After all, you want to keep your students coming, not scare them off. Having said that, I'm a stickler for attendance, punctuality and not leaving the lesson until right at the end, which in my case is 9pm. But hey, it's dark, it's cold, it's the end of the longest term of the year and it's Christmas. So maybe knock off 10 minutes early.
Kate Bohdanowicz teaches adults in East London
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