I believe in adult education. There is nothing more courageous to me than the sight of an adult returning to school. Many have been out of school for years, after having dropped out. Some were or are home-makers, others may have just lost a job they thought would last a lifetime. They come perhaps to earn a GED, to receive job training skills, or simply to learn how to read better to be able to help their children do their homework.
For them, to walk in the door and admit they need help is a victory. With apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald, I believe that there most certainly are second acts in American life.
From my experience, just as often as people have dropped out of school for disciplinary, substance abuse or family issues, they have dropped out because they were bored or because no one took the time to listen and help. We all learn in different ways and at different speeds; many of my students did not function well in a traditional classroom, and did even worse with tests. That does not mean they did not have the desire or ability to learn. My adult students teach me that the desire to learn never dies, and, in deep ways, never comes too late.
I teach adults at a homeless shelter, though not all my students are homeless. They are single moms, refugees, laid-off factory workers, veterans.
Adult learners bring life experience to the classroom, and the connections they make between their own story and the material they study is profound. To see a person who never thought they could learn realize that they can is a humbling, daily lesson for me, with my own doubts and worries.
They challenge my assumptions about the world and my teaching skills everyday. I have taught at the college level, and have been a corporate training instructor. That I could be making three times what I earn teaching adults is irrelevant to me. I am where I can be a partner in a transformative experience. Every small step in learning will echo through families and neighborhoods.
Adult education has a long and honorable history of providing the space and attention needed by those who fell through the cracks in the K-12 system, or for those looking for a second chance. From its earliest days, lead by both theorists, artists, and assorted rebels, adult ed has often been on the frontlines of innovations in education, from the recognition of learning styles to strategies for coping with learning disabilities to ESL. Adult educator Frank Auerbach said “We are waging a war of amazing kindness.”
I believe in adult education because it is not only noble, but practical. It is visionary, and is on the front lines of service to those who often find themselves shut out of the economic opportunities many of us enjoy. Everyone needs to take responsibility for their actions, and adult students struggle, as we all do, with challenges forced upon them and self-inflicted.
The adult educator helps re-open that door for the student, but it is always, with courage and hope, the adult learner who boldly walks through it.
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