What’s Wrong with This Picture?

Dear Mom,
You are always wondering what my job is and what I do for work. A while back I worked with a group of adults in a research project who listed all their needs before they could return to regular school. It was a huge list. What I do is try to support the programs that offer learning to these adults.
Today I am in a swank hotel in Vancouver, surrounded by glitz, food and chocolate, talking about Literacy.
What Is wrong with this picture?

Dee’s question, “What’s wrong with this picture?” is always hanging around adult literacy, adult basic education, adult ESOL and GED programs, waiting to be answered. Sometimes the question is hidden away somewhere and never looked at. Sometimes it whispers from the corners of discussions about student motivation or retention. Occasionally someone like Dee asks it right out loud.

But whether silent, whispered, or shouted, the question lives with everyone who teaches in our field. If there was an easy answer, the question would have disappeared long ago.

The teacher has a job and teaches those who for whom regular, well-paying work is at best a dream for the future.

The teacher has a home and teaches those who are homeless, or couch-surfing, or whose homes are overcrowded and often come with rats and rotten plumbing.

The teacher eats three meals a day and teaches those who come to school without breakfast, who skip lunch so that their kids can eat, who have to miss class to stand in line at foodbanks and welfare offices.

Both teachers and students live with violence and the threat of violence, but it seems the teacher has more options…

Teachers, of course, are not all in the same boat. The teacher with a college salary and a union teaches across the hall from a volunteer tutor who works for nothing. Down the street someone is teaching at a community program for half the salary and no benefits. Hardly anyone has job security, and there are always cutbacks. Some of us have “McJobs” to support our teaching habits.

However, no matter how leaky our boat may be, it is nearly always better than the boats our students are in. Figuring out what to do with that difference is part of our daily reality. Dee’s question asks itself every day.

This postcard is one of a series produced at “So What? Reflections on Research in Practice,” a RiPAL-BC Gathering held in Vancouver, 2008. Its purpose was to reflect on the impact of research in practice in adult literacy (RiPAL) on the field, on practitioners’ work, and on learners’ experiences.

Here are some American stats on the differences I’m talking about: By the Numbers

6 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with This Picture?

  1. Hi Kate,
    I so appreciate you resurrecting this piece, and your comments to go with it. This is a reminder to me that these concerns and issues belong on “my” agenda and I need to encourage (push?) other folks to put them on their agenda. As soon as I “know this” reality, I need to advocate to the folks in positions of power who do not. And as you so eloquently tell us in so many ways, I also need to support students find their voice to self-advocate.

  2. “However, no matter how leaky our boat may be, it is nearly always better than the boats our students are in. Figuring out what to do with that difference is part of our daily reality.”

    Thank you, Kate. I was about to have a morning anxiety-party about my senile dog, student loans, health challenges, etc. But I read your post and thought, “Katherine, you might have fallen into bed early from exhaustion last night. But you got up, had food to pack for lunches, had water and munchies to give the pets and decorations to put up for fall. You have the whole day in front of you. Are you going to waste it worrying about money and things you can’t control, or are you going to do something productive?”

    I try to give my students a similar message, that it doesn’t matter where you are, you can still make a positive difference in yourself and the world. How dare I not take my own advice when I am sitting here in a comfy chair at a computer and they are in cells trying to untangle the horrible messes they’ve made of their and others’ lives?

    As to Dee’s question, “What’s wrong with this picture?” I am reminded of my experience working in middle management for a for-profit, career college that scammed underprivileged students. Career Education Corporation, owner of Gibbs Colleges and other unethical schools, threw a huge convention in New Orleans, complete with a private parade and cruise, a live band, slick hotel, shrimp dinners, cocktails, etc. They did it on the students’ and the tax payers’ dime. When I said something to my supervisor, he said, “At some point, you have to decide which team you’re on–the students’ or the administrators’.”

    I’m pretty fired up now and might have to post this response on my blog. Hope you don’t mind.

    • Many of the people I know appreciate and understand why I went into ABE/Literacy. But the fact that students are on the other side of so many of the lines that define us in this society makes our work complex in ways that many other occupations do not share.

love to hear your ideas or experiences!

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