You're never too old for a pat on the back

Adult education welcomes many types of learners but all of them share a need for recognition, sometimes even more than children

Kate Bohdanowicz

Picture the scene: your classroom is calm, with no signs of bad behaviour. Your students aren't talking over you, ignoring you, playing with their phones, falling asleep or responding to your questions with grunts. There is no fighting, no shouting, no slamming of doors, kicking of chairs or showdowns. Latecomers are apologetic and missing students send polite messages explaining their absences.

Sounds idyllic, right? This is exactly what my classroom is like, because I teach in adult education.

Excuse me for a second while I adjust my rose-tinted glasses. In truth, my classroom is sometimes like that because I teach in adult education, where my students have sacrificed their spare time to attend my classes.

But that doesn't mean adult education is without behaviour problems. Low self-esteem, lack of confidence, fear of failure, fear of success and many other issues can have an impact on performance in the classroom.

If you work in adult education, the issues you face will be different from those you encounter in a school. Here are my tips for overcoming them.

Praise, praise, praise

Most adults come to my class because they are unemployed or stuck in an unsatisfying job. Either way, they arrive weighed down with feelings of failure. Many describe themselves as "thick" and walk in apologising for being the stupidest person I am ever going to meet. Praise is important and can be lacking in adult lives. It builds confidence and makes people happy. Do it. Lots.

Give it time

One of my students used to write capital letters at the start of every line rather than every sentence. She was 39 and, until she met me, no one had ever mentioned it. Getting a student to change something they have done for three decades or more will not be easy. It might take two attempts to complete the course or gain the qualification. That's fine. If they've waited 20 years to come back to the classroom, another few months isn't going to matter.

Don't hate the lateness

In my first lesson observation, I got negative feedback for not penalising latecomers. But I often teach in the evening and students tend to come from work or after leaving their children with babysitters. I defended my actions by saying I'd rather they arrived 10 minutes late than not at all. Scolding them for being tardy might scare them off. These are not children dawdling on their way to school; these are adults juggling study with work and family.

Believe in their dreams

Many of my students want to go to university. Some want to become teachers or lawyers. They have big dreams but they have a long way to go and have fallen at various hurdles in the past. The long-term unemployed often lack self-worth and ex-offenders can feel that they have messed their lives up. But every small achievement is a step closer to their dreams. Keep reminding them of that.

Don't get tunnel vision

Qualifications aren't everything. There, I've said it. When you're working towards a final exam or grade, it can dwarf every other type of achievement. I teach English functional skills. Not everyone will pass the course first time. Not everyone will pass it second time, come to that. But each student will improve their reading and writing skills and their confidence will grow. Focus on those fantastic achievements and just not on the piece of paper at the end.

Tap into their experience

I taught a carpenter who had so little confidence in his spoken English that he would barely utter a word in class. Concerned, I sat with him and we chatted. I asked him about his day job and he showed me some pictures of his woodwork. I asked him if he would show the class. Confident in his handiwork and buoyed by the "oohs" and "ahhs" of his classmates, he delivered a presentation that cured his shyness overnight. Adult learners are not empty vessels. They have careers, talents and a wealth of experience. Use them to everyone's advantage.

Kate Bohdanowicz teaches adults in East London

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Kate Bohdanowicz

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