It's an age-old problem

28th June 2013 at 01:00
Disciplining your young and mature students in the same way will always be difficult

Pitching classes to larger groups of learners of mixed ages can be tremendously nerve-racking. Playing to those who are well settled into adulthood may not provide sufficient guidance for the teenagers in the room. Direct the class towards the needs of the young and the older ones 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 learners are of similar age or older than the teacher can be deeply uncomfortable for all concerned.

A friend 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 in order to earn permission to enter the class. She recently arrived five minutes late, having taken her daughter for an emergency hospital appointment and driven like a maniac to attempt to get back to college on time. She was mortified to be given the same sanctions as her teenage classmates, some of whom she perceives as making little attempt to follow the rules and behave respectfully. Unsurprisingly, my friend was unimpressed with her teacher's decision to punish her.

From the teacher's perspective, I doubt that 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 when they realise that their abilities do not match up to those of their teenage peers.

Indeed, teaching literacy can open a door to a number of self-esteem issues for older students. When learners freely say that they "can't do maths", there is an unspoken understanding that lots of adults feel the same. I've worked with students of all ages who can't read and write to a level that allows them to operate adequately in daily life. No one wears that as a badge: being functionally illiterate as an adult carries a huge stigma.

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

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 on a subject are traditionally already solid takes 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 FE college in Mansfield.

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