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.