By Katherine Reilly, Author, Teacher Trainer
Originally Published in ELT NEWS Magazine.
Throughout our professional teaching careers, we have at some point received a form of criticism as regards our efficiency in class. Be it the quality of our work or even a comment which could be misinterpreted. Such was the case during my early years as an educator, as I was still wet behind the ears and was assigned to teach my first adult class. Admittedly, I had my reservations as I was already aware of the fact that the mindset of an adult differs dramatically to that of a young learner as regards motivation, dedication as well as commitment to one’s duties. One of my adult students had a tendency to arrive late in class and on most occasions, failed to deliver the tasks assigned.
After one of our lessons, I asked him if I could help in any way as his progress was not the desired one and in accordance to the student’s ultimate goal of earning an English Language Certificate. He explained that he had been working two jobs and had little time to concentrate on his studies. In a failed attempt to comfort him and show a form of compassion, I acknowledged his claims and agreed that having most of his time allocated to work was a detrimental factor. However, I did commend his efforts in pursuing his studies, despite the hectic schedule he had been experiencing and tried to lift his spirits as much as possible. Little did I know that my support would be misinterpreted and before long, I was called to the principal’s office. “Katherine? An adult student complained that you degraded him for not working hard enough and that he wouldn’t succeed in his exams because he was working many hours. Is that true?”
Just out of curiosity… Has any of you been in a similar position? Personally, after this unexpected and most certainly unpleasant experience, I viewed adult classes in a negative light, and was always hesitant when being assigned one. Was my personal viewpoint based on solid claims? Had I overreacted in condemning adult learners altogether? After years of teaching, I ultimately realized that the problem had nothing to do with the learner or the educator, rather the approach and the mindset that must be established when assuming the responsibility of teaching adult classes. Allow me to enlighten you.
Integrating their everyday experiences in class
Adult learners have already become active members of society, thus their professional as well as personal responsibilities are their main focus, as they should be. Multiple obligations will consume the learner and, in many cases, obstruct the learning process. Adult language learning courses are usually short and demanding as these students want the fastest and most efficient outcome in the least of time. Psychological elements take effect as the learners then become preoccupied with concerns, even in class. As they usually take the initiative of sharing their thoughts and daily experiences during lesson, integrating them into the speaking segments or even writing tasks is one way to go. A wide variety of speaking tasks can be assimilated into their everyday routines. Let them play it out as it relieves them from stress and helps them adopt the target language in such a way that it would come naturally when describing their daily activities. The same can be established in writing, as it, too, is a productive skill. A multitude of writing topics, ranging from descriptions to professional emails and problem-solving tasks, can reflect the learner’s personal growth and stimulate the desire to further his studies.
Meeting their expectations
An adult learner will devote his precious time and energy to improve his skills in such a way that he would most certainly benefit on a professional and personal basis. Thus, immediate results are to be expected. As educators, it’s our responsibility to prove them that their money and efforts will bear fruit, even in the early stages of the learning course. In what way can the language play a beneficial factor in their lines of work? How can the adult learner put to good use what he had just learned in class? Each student comes from a different professional background; be it artistic, business or educational to name a few. Kindly ask your students what their reasons for learning the language are and adapt the lesson accordingly. Use examples that can be applied in their working environment. Assign tasks that reflect their work obligations and can positively add to the potential for work recognition. They will most certainly appreciate the gesture and will make an honest effort to adhere to their responsibilities as learners.
Don’t focus on theory too much
We live in an evolving society which is mostly reflected in the workplace. Real-life experience and practical application of knowledge is demanded by all employers who seek to strive in today’s competitive market. Thus, our students’ request for immediate integration of the target material is understandable. Focusing on theoretical elements and reciting grammar rules will lead to nowhere. Just cut to the chase and have your students dive deep into the lesson. Practice the new vocabulary on the spot through productive skills like speaking and writing. Practice makes perfect so repetition is key. After acknowledging their understanding of the new element, move on to the next. Students will exhale in satisfaction, eager to move on to the next focal element and will do so with a smile on their face. Each little victory in class will boost their self-confidence as well as the desire to continue the learning process.
Ask for feedback
Now, why in the world would we do such a thing? A student does not have the capacity to judge our skills and effectiveness in class. To some of us, it might also sound insulting; a smack in the face to all we have accomplished throughout our careers. Just bear with me for a second. No one is judging our capacity to teach, rather our adaptability to the needs of our adult learners. I had once personally undertaken to teach a class of bank employees through a sponsored government program. To my surprise, after conversing with them, they requested specific language elements and forms of interaction which were deemed necessary in their line of work. Learning tenses and idioms seemed irrelevant to them and I had to adjust the lesson accordingly. Professional emails and daily conversations with potential clients were what they desired most. Grammar and vocabulary did of course play a role but were not the main focus as the specific class was on limited leave from office which also demanded immediate results. Fortunately, their dedication and the alteration of the syllabus proved successful as all parties’ goals were eventually met.
What if my intentions are misunderstood?
Remember the personal experience I mentioned in the beginning? Sometimes, our genuine intentions of support will fall upon deaf ears or may even be misunderstood. I had personally disregarded adult learners as I felt disappointed, even scared to be honest. However, we must always bear in mind that we are all unique individuals with different perspectives and mindsets. It’s impossible to please everyone and in many cases, the direct approach is always best. Had I spoken with the student back then and cleared the air, the course would have flowed much smoother than it did. Being honest and dedicated to your work is what must define not only educators but all professionals alike. Having said this, we must not reprimand ourselves if an adult student has misgivings as regards our effectiveness in class rather, continue to shine and offer them our best.