I’ve been working in adult literacy and numeracy for more than twenty-five years, most of that time at Vancouver Island University. Although I am no longer in the classroom, my goal is to share everything I know about teaching before I retire.
Where I’m Coming From
I was born a teacher. I finished high school in 1963, just at the end of the era when a girl like me had two choices—be a nurse or be a teacher. When I became a feminist, I faced a big contradiction: I wanted women to be able to branch out of traditional work; I was almost ashamed not to be going into one of the fields newly opening up to me; but to the core of my being, I was a teacher. So after a couple of tries at teaching in the public school system, and a few heady years of feminist activism, I found my place in adult literacy and adult basic education.
But how does a feminist teach? Not in the way I had been taught to teach, surely, but how? The educational system had failed the students who appeared in my upgrading classes; I couldn’t offer them more of the same! Women came back to school because they wanted better lives for themselves and their children, yet as women they were operating under the usual conditions for women: heavy responsibilities for home and children; and violence and the threat of violence from family members and from strangers. Both men and women came to class showing the scars of violence and racism, their voices silenced because no one would listen; and I knew that a dead-end job might be the best outcome of their return to school.
How could I teach them? Slowly, over the years, because I was willing to learn, they taught me a new set of three R’s—Respect, Resistance and Reality.
First, Respect. Respect for them, and for every decision they took, every choice they made. Respect for myself.
Second, Resistance. They come back to school, that place of previous failures and humiliation, because they want what they think I offer—the key to a better life. I offer them different ways of learning: group work; choice; meaningful work; I invite them to join the teaching team and make decisions about how and what they will learn. But they resist my best efforts to do things differently, because it is not what they expect, and it scares them. They refuse to risk going back again into that position of failure and humiliation. I need to acknowledge their resistance publicly, to honour it, and to work with it. I need to recognize my own resistance, too, because it gets in the way.
Third, Reality. My work is most successful when I listen to what is really going on. Speak the unspoken thoughts and feelings. Do reading and writing that is real, in the real world. Find an audience for the voice; find information in response to questions; say yes to every chance to move the literacy work into the community, and bring the community into the class.
Just found this blog and already got some inspiring ideas to try out in the classroom. I am 7 years into basically the same branch of education as you are, although in Sweden.
Thanks for reading, Kalle. I have heard wonderful things about adult education in Sweden, and I’d be happy to have your comments/comparisons on any post on my blog. I checked out your blog, but unfortunately, I don’t read Swedish…
Whatever was here in Sweden to a great extent eroded because of New public management-practices etc. But good work is still being done of course. I only teach foreign students in what is called Swedish for immigrants. Are/were your students fluent english speakers?
I like your ideas about giving more responsibility and control over the learning process to the students. Will be thinking of how I can move in that direction.
Most ABE (adult basic education) students speak English as their first language. A small proportion are second-language students who have good spoken English, but are less skilled in reading and writing English. Generally we teach new immigrants separately in English language classes, like you do in Sweden.
Currently I am working one-on-one with refugees who are learning English, and figuring out how to give more responsibility and control in that situation is my current challenge.
LOVE your site and want to share it my next conference. 1) would you be ok with that? and if you are 2) how would you liked to be referenced?
I’m glad you like my site, and am very happy to have you share it. As for referencing me, I think just give the URL and you can introduce me as a long-time ABE/Literacy instructor. Or quote from this page–I’m easy with that.
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I loved your passion …. “I was born a teacher”
It’s true I was born a teacher–I remember when I was about 11 years old, at a community picnic, I lined up 6 or 7 pre-schoolers and took them on a walk. Brought them all back safely about an hour later, to their panicky parents–seems I hadn’t told anyone I was going off on a nature walk with those kids.
I’m lucky to have a calling–makes life so much more straightforward.
Hearing a teacher Reflect upon teaching… that’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced. Most teachers just get by pressing you down square holes (which I’m sure you have heard many times) and, like the administrators… You dare to stand up for what you think while letting students develop their own minds. It takes true leadership to do that.
Thanks for the compliment. Take a look at this graphic! https://katenonesuch.com/2012/07/09/square-pegs/
Hello Kate. I am happy to have found your blog. I am transitioning from the corporate IT world into more meaningful (for me at least) work. I am taking my first baby-steps towards working in education, considering certification in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). I will return here often and read the excellent information you are sharing from your many years of being an educator. Thank you for this.
Welcome to the field! 🙂
Great web site. Good to see you.
Thanks, Sherry. Glad you found me. Maybe we’ll meet up over there.
Hi. I’m on your site! Thank you for posting my video and saying such nice things about it. Your blog looks great and i’m excited to read it.
Glad you found me, Elana. Thanks for making the video. Do you have more videos about teaching somewhere?
Just the ones on MLOTS. Here’s a blog I made a few years ago for students to use based on GED Math and Science. http://jfynetworks.edublogs.org/. I haven’t updated it in a while, so I don’t know how many links still work. 🙂
I just discovered your blog, and enjoy reading the heart warming relfections of your experiences with adult learners. Thank you for sharing.
Thanks Jen–haven’t been writing for a while–life, you know–but have lots of ideas for more posts floating around in my head.
Hi again! I work with Academic Upgrading & Development Selkirk College. I am including a link to your blog in our department newsletter. Someone told me that you are also a feminist poet, and wrote a good poem about woman carpenters a while back… is this available anywhere online?
Thanks for spreading the link to my blog. I have new posts planned for January.
I’m not a poet, but if someone is thinking about me and poems about carpenters, I’d guess it would be one of Kate Braid’s early poems, probably from Covering Rough Ground, which is no longer in print, but could be in your library. http://www.katebraid.com/
I love this whole site! Your ‘pass if you want to’ approach warms my heart. Yes it may challenge the status quo but I find it enlightening. You are truly forward-thinking. Keep up the great work!
Thank you, Gina. Challenging the status quo seems to be what I’m always about–as are you, judging from your blog.
You are a breath of fresh air about adult literacy. I hope to learn much from you. A lonely ProLiteracy tutor trainer from northeast Mississippi.
I know how hard it is to work in isolation; I’m glad you found this blog, and hope to hear more from you. Kate Nonesuch
YES to your ideas Kate and to all the replies so far. What inspiring common sense!
My work involves teaching English, and often literacy, to adult migrants for whom English is a second (3rd, 5th..) language. I see the extra dimensions of working across languages and across cultures as both challenge and opportunity. However, I often get bogged dowon in the challenges.
Thank you, thank you thank you for this post and for the whole blog – My colleague sent me the link this morning and I am awestruck. by your wisdom and generosity… will be following the blog faithfully
Love the three Rs, especially REALITY . . . and to me, Resistance also means shared learning/expression/tools for personal and social empowerment as a ‘form of resistance’ for all of us . . . Kate, but I am also a computer and writing tutor at Carnegie here in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside . . . I’ll share your site if I may, and please keep up the postings!!!
I love this post! Love it, love it, love it. Here’s my question: do you tell this (including the resistance part) to your learners?