Second chances make for first-class students

31st January 2014 at 00:00
Forget the clichs about frivolous evening classes - adult learners are dedicated individuals who deserve the opportunity to start over

Who's in your classroom? I've got teenagers, pensioners, single mums, absent dads, an ex-alcoholic and a former prisoner. Some are working, some aren't; some are native English speakers, some aren't.

I teach anyone and everyone. My classroom is a microcosm of modern society because I work in adult education.

When I asked non-teaching friends what the words "adult education" meant to them, I was met with all sorts of cliches.

They suggested it was a twilight world of evening classes delivered by teachers who couldn't hack it in a school. As for the students, adult education was apparently full of desperate singletons who had selected courses to meet a partner - motor mechanics for the women; cross stitch for the men.

Adult education was fine, they told me, if you just wanted to dabble in watercolour painting or pick up some rudimentary Spanish, but you didn't expect to really learn anything, did you?

Well, yes, you do. You can, of course, try your hand at a number of practical and fascinating subjects: my East London adult learning provider offers courses on everything from food preparation to Asian fashion. But the English and maths classes have the most takers. Enrolment days are hectic, with queues snaking down the stairs. I know how hard these learners will work once they sign up and how important it is for them to pass. I know because these people are my students. I teach basic functional English.

The question I get asked more than any other is: "Why are these people there? Did they mess it up first time around?" I always respond by saying it's not as simple as that.

We all know school is a rigid formula that doesn't suit everyone. One of my students - a creative writing genius - said he paid no attention at school and never even collected his exam results. Now in his early thirties, with a decade of unsatisfying manual work behind him, he wants to learn.

A very able 18-year-old spent her final years at school focusing on her religious studies. With that out of the way, she's now doing her qualifications. She's a couple of years behind her peers but she'll sail through.

Another missed too much schooling through illness. She has a chronic condition that means she can't attend every lesson. Yet studying with me for just a few hours each week and catching up with the work in her own time suits her fine. Outside of school's rigidity she can flourish.

Many of my learners also study subjects they love, such as film-making and photography. Having left school with few, if any qualifications and feeling dissatisfied with the choices offered to them, they now want to steer their future in a different direction.

That's what adult education provides: a second chance for those who either didn't chalk up the qualifications at school or who want to be proactive in altering their futures.

Jobs for life are a thing of the past. Contracts are temporary and all businesses are vulnerable to cuts, closure or failure by not keeping up with a rapidly changing world. Everyone knows someone who has either been made redundant or faced the prospect of redundancy. And robust migration has made the world smaller. Across the developed world, businesses employ foreign workers and many people leave their home country to try their luck abroad.

Modern society has forced us all to be lifelong learners. And anyone who doesn't feel the need to update their skill set is either deluded or on the verge of retirement.

In 2012, at the age of 40, I left my job as a journalist on a national newspaper to embark on a post-compulsory PGCE (it's not that I can't hack it teaching in a school; I've never wanted to work in a school).

I now combine both careers. Why? Because I felt I could no longer put my eggs in one basket. And also because - hackneyed clich coming right up - I wanted to give something back and make a difference.

Last week, a student of mine, a 23-year-old mum, landed her first job interview. The evening before, we went through some interview techniques. "I'll never get the job," she said. "I had to leave an entire page blank. It was the one asking for work experience."

I suggested she tell them about her English class. How she shows commitment by attending two evenings a week. How she displays effective time management by juggling the care of her young child with the homework she completes during the weekend. How she sacrifices a social life to attend my lessons, as well as maths even though she keeps on telling me how boring it is. How she is trying to better herself by focusing on passing the exams in February.

Reader, she got the job.

I know numerous people in well-paid, highly skilled jobs who spend their evenings learning about acting or sign language or cushion-making or plumbing. I learned shorthand at an evening class and it helped advance my writing career.

Learning something new when you're bored to tears in your day job can give you a boost and help you consider a different path. Many say "one day" they'll turn their hobby into a job. If the P45 arrives in the post, that day could be sooner than they think.

Working in adult education is hard. I get paid hourly, and because teachers work morning, noon and night over seven days in various locations we're like satellites - working alone with no staffroom and no mentor.

Nevertheless, I believe in the role that adult education plays in updating skills and qualifications. Give me the learners who "messed it up first time around" any day of the week. Together we can make a huge difference to each other and to our ever-changing world.

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

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