Adult education in the United States actually has a longer history than does elementary school, going all the way back to the colonial period. In the generations since, as American life has become increasingly complex, and literacy more necessary for social performance as well as job success, Americans have continued to develop adult education.
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During the sixties, several acts were passed by the federal government to better meet the growing needs in this area: the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, supporting basic adult education; the Higher Education Act (Title I) of 1965, providing funds to colleges and universities to engage adult education in their communities; and the Adult Education Act of 1966 (since replaced by the Workforce Investment Act of 1998). Today, adult schools are even accessed over the internet, although most students continue to attend through a public school or community organization.
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In this Article …
- Is this for me? / What is it like?
- Can I get a [decent-paying] job?
- What kind of salary can I expect?
- How do I get started?
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When most people think of teaching, they immediately think of classrooms full of children. However, adult students need teachers as well—and adult classrooms are very different, with their own unique challenges and opportunities. One cannot simply move a primary or secondary school teacher over to an adult school and expect good results. In order to teach adults properly, educators need to be specifically equipped to teach adults.
Is this for me? / What is it like?
Again, teaching English literacy to adults isn’t the same as teaching English literacy to children. Adults respond to different instructional methods, and have wildly different and more complex motivations. An elementary school teacher is a nurturer and an authority figure; however, an adult educator is a social equal. Maintaining discipline in a classroom of children involves imposing external punishments and rewards; but adults have their own patterns of self-discipline, which teachers work with instead of supplanting.
Students in Adult Education classes include:
- Adults who have not completed high school working toward their GED
- Adults seeking to improve their literacy skills for employment
- Immigrants seeking to learn English so that they can thrive in their new country
- People attending as part of welfare-to-work programs
- Prison inmates
The focus of most adult education programs is developing English literacy—listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills. Instead of developing language through a program of historical literature, adult education classes focus on vocabulary and contexts that will help students find jobs and succeed in the workplace, such as reading contracts or figuring costs for a construction project. Students pursuing a General Equivalency Diploma (GED) will also learn mathematics, science, and social science, sometimes through direct instruction and sometimes through self-paced learning modules facilitated by the teacher. Meanwhile, immigrant students may also be preparing to take their citizenship examination.
There are three major types of classes taught by adult educators: basic education (reading, writing, and math, to students who begin at below an eighth-grade level), GED education (to obtain a GED, students must pass proficiency exams in reading, writing, math, science, and social science), and English as a Second Language (and any given ESL class may have students from a variety of different language backgrounds). Teachers may teach in a classroom setting, or tutor some students individually. Classes are held when the adult students are not at work and/or are able to find child care, so many teachers work in both the mornings and evenings.
Types of Students
Contrary to some stereotypes, adult education programs are not simply places for high school drop-outs to get their GEDs. Indeed, many students were “high school drop-outs,” but not the types of drop-outs one might imagine. Sometimes a high school student is unable to complete school due to a sustained illness or family hardship; sometimes students are forced to repeatedly change schools as their parents pursue work, and consequently, miss too much in the way of instruction. For some families, economic hardship motivates teenagers to seek as much paying work as soon as they possibly can, to the neglect of their high school education.
Characteristics of Adult Learners
- They’re self-directed and goal-oriented. They want to learn what they want to learn, when they feel they need to learn it.
- Adults need to be able to connect learning with life experience. Help them see the practicality of what they’re learning.
- They’re relevance oriented. Teachers of adult students need to be able to answer the question “Why do I need to know this?”
- Adults crave respect. Instructors must acknowledge what their adult learners bring to the table, and to treat them as equals.
Immigrants also make up a considerable portion of adult students. These students are highly motivated to learn English, so that they might obtain better job opportunities, and consequently, provide more for their families. Working immigrants often have irregular vocabularies, knowing many words specific to their occupations, but fewer words outside of those occupations. For example, one may be able to discuss basic car repair in English, and yet be unable to carry on a social conversation in English. Some immigrants are also entrepreneurs, and look to develop their command of English so that they can expand the reach of their businesses, connecting to more customers. Such factors make these students highly motivated in the classroom.
A third group of students in adult education programs are those on welfare. Again, a negative stereotype exists here, portraying such people as “failures” only in attendance in order to get their welfare check; but many of these students are keen on obtaining jobs that will enable them to escape the welfare system, and adult education is an important means toward reaching that goal. The effective adult educator does not write off any students, but seeks to discover their purpose and motivation for being in the classroom, to help them reach their personal goals.
Finally, some adult educators choose to work in a correctional setting, teaching inmates at a correctional facility. Without such education, these students may not have much opportunity for gainful employment after they leave prison; so educators are an important part of the rehabilitation process, giving people the tools they need to become productive members of society and reducing prison recidivism.
Challenges and Rewards
The diverse body of students in adult education classrooms requires teachers to teach to a wide variety of skill levels: some students will be struggling with basic concepts, while other students will be more intelligent than their teachers—though they may not seem like it due to limited English. Additionally, teachers in adult education must be capable of reaching across cultural contexts, to people who do not share the same store of background knowledge and social experience.
On the other hand, since adult education is not compulsory like high school, the students who choose to attend tend to be much more highly motivated, investing more effort and showing more respect to instructors. Students hold themselves accountable, instead of being held accountable by their parents. Indeed, many (if not most) of the students in such a classroom are themselves parents, seeking to gain the skills needed to provide a better life for their children.
Can I find a job?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth for adult education is projected at 15 percent (close to the average for jobs overall), with the most significant growth taking place in states with high levels of immigration (such as California and Florida).
All employers like to hire teachers with some prior experience. As an undergraduate, you can prepare for a career in adult education by working in your school’s tutoring center, and by volunteering with community outreach programs. Classes that will help prepare you for pursuing your credential include linguistics, language acquisition and development, cross-cultural communication, and oral interpretation of literature.
It is also important to take multiple semesters of a foreign language (often Spanish, but Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, or any other language may be just as or even more helpful, depending upon your region). Even though you will not be expected to teach that language, the process of learning it will help you identify your own students’ difficulties and needs as they learn English.
What kind of salary can I expect?
Community colleges, community-based organizations and public schools employed some 86,900 adult literacy and GED teachers in 2010, at a mean wage of $46,530. The lowest 10 percent of salaries were around $27,000, while the highest 10 percent made upwards of $83,000. (For comparison, the national median average for all jobs is $33,840.)
How Do I Get Started?
Most states require adult education and GED teachers to have a bachelor’s degree, and an additional credential or certification; some employers look for teachers to have a master’s degree in education. Also, since many students in adult education programs are immigrants, adult educators often need ESL (English as a second language) or ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) certification, depending upon the state. Many teaching credential programs offer ESL certification as a component of the program. You can read more about ESL certification here.
All employers like to hire teachers with some prior experience. As an undergraduate, you can prepare for a career in adult education by working in your school’s tutoring center, and by volunteering with community outreach programs. Classes that will help prepare you for pursuing your credential include linguistics, language acquisition and development, cross-cultural communication, and oral interpretation of literature. It is also important to take multiple semesters of a foreign language (often Spanish, but Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, or any other language may be just as or even more helpful, depending upon your region). Even though you will not be expected to teach in that language, the process of learning it will help you identify your own students’ difficulties and needs as they learn English.
Adult educators are not nearly as common as elementary or high school teachers, and they don’t garner the prestige of university professors; but they meet an important need in society, equipping motivated people for success and promoting a pluralistic civic culture. Without caring and competent adult educators, significant segments of our population will be trapped or left behind, unable to acquire the skills they need to integrate and succeed. Will you be one who helps them take part in the American dream?
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