Tuesday, August 28, 2012

My First Job in Adult Education

How each of us came to the field of adult education says something about our personal mission and approach as instructors/administrators, but I have a hunch that the stories have an even greater significance as a view into the inner workings of our ABE/GED/ESOL system.  Let's be honest.  It takes a special person to choose the red-headed stepchild of education for their career, where only a small percentage of jobs are full-time, and very few political decision-makers are convinced of our effectiveness, much less the necessity of our services.  And what sane person would seek out adult ed in order to be on the cutting edge of instructional technology?  

Since I started this blog in the hopes of trading stories and perspectives with a larger public (that's you!), I think it's time for me to ante up with the story of my first job in adult education.  Besides, I've been feeling reflective since leaving the public sector and taking up a new angle on this education game.  Maybe, if we put the pieces of our respective pasts together, we'll gain some insights about the way forward (road signs, maybe?).

Integrating Technology in Adult Ed, One New Hire at a Time
When I asked Richmond's adult ed program manager for a job, he asked back, "Are you good with computers?" That question meant something different in the year 2000 than it does today. "Pretty good," I responded hopefully.  "Great. Clean out that closet and try to put together some computers from all of the parts you find in there." In this case, I was able to demonstrate my computer prowess by matching color-coded cords from keyboards to CPUs to monitors and mice and speakers.  Pretty advanced stuff (snark), but an unmet need at the time, and I was grateful for the opportunity.

After half of a summer spent dusting off old textbooks and playing IT guy, there were just a couple weeks before the first day of class.  That's when it was decided that I would teach GED classes for 16 and 17 year olds (right up my alley, still feeling like a rebellious youth myself).  I was ready to play big-brother and play an authoritative role, but I couldn't find any clear direction about a standard curricula or text that I should teach from, nor how to address a vague 'career and technical ed' requirement. But, I had a classroom and students and the promise of a paycheck at an hourly rate that I'd never reached before.    

Just prior to this job, I'd been a substitute teacher, a role that really helped me get to know Richmond better, as the schools are often microcosms of the surrounding communities.  At this point, I'd been filling in for a sick teacher who wound up not coming back at all during the remainder of the year.  So I was used to hastily preparing lesson plans, as my substitute teaching job wasn't certain from one day to the next. Really wanting to be successful in this new job, I was hoping to assemble a concrete plan for GED instruction.  And because I knew with teenagers the teacher needs to be ready to shift gears, I wanted a pile of resources for my teaching toolbox. After hounding teachers and support staff and getting nowhere, I was informed of the existence of a statewide adult ed teacher support organization, the Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center (VALRC), and it was less than a mile away. 

The Second First Coming of Blended Learning
Before classes began, I was invited to the VALRC for an impromptu training in KET's Workplace Essential Skills (and later, their GED Connection program).  The blended learning approach of KET's multimedia content immediately became my blueprint for instruction: watch videos, discuss and instruct, work online or in a workbook, give feedback and instruct and repeat.  The system gave rhythm to my work, and made me thirst for more instructional tools.  I even wound up giving a workshop on blended instruction at the VAACE conference in 2001.  I was a little insecure about my lack of a statewide or national context for adult ed and GED services (still working on that, actually), but I wound up training hundreds of teachers in those KET products in years to come. 

My enthusiasm for technology enhanced instruction helped me get invited back to the VALRC, at first to answer the statewide GED Helpline and later as a full time employee offering professional development trainings for teachers all over the state - mostly focused on blended learning and integrating free online teaching tools, but also test-taking strategies as Virginia had launched a fast-track program for near-passers.  Advocating for blended learning for over a decade has been a real roller-coaster - one I need to explore on this blog further. Whether on the phone, email, or through workshops with teachers, there has been a common thread in my practice: putting the tools in learners' hands to help them be successful, but also to encourage them as self-directed learners.

Learner Directed Learning
I'm still trying to piece together how my start in adult ed has affected my current direction. Embracing change and entering into unknown territory have always been my biggest learning opportunities (not that I've done so fearlessly at every turn - after all, I did become a public sector bureaucrat, after all).  There is definitely a theme here though: looking to instructional tools as my guide. Not because they replace teachers. They don't. Computer-based instruction (CBI) makes opportunities for teachers, setting up more efficient targeted instruction and one-on-one tutoring.  But most importantly, because good CBI helps learners reach their potential. Unlike with K-12, adult learners need to become self-sufficient, to continue their own education.   Not simply to stay on the straight and narrow, but to read and interpret the road signs all around them.  Looking for that kind of supportive CBI experience has lead me to Essential Education and GED Academy, but what do the road signs say for the direction of adult education?

And what about your story? (contribute a comment please)


  1. Thank you for sharing Jason. I just took a peek at the Computer Essentials Course and I like what I see-a face to Leonard(LOI)- with many other great features.

    Thanks for the link to that and your blog.

    Diana Miller

  2. Thanks for reading, Diana. I call him Leonard 2.0 in our digital literacy course. The link to the demo site is demo.leonrd.com, by the way.

    Now, how about your first job in adult ed story?

  3. Hello Jason,
    I was a bureaucrat too - I was told I could not advance farther because I did not have a degree. So I left and got two. After my college stint, I "fell" into adult education thinking it was a (very) temporary assignment that would pay the rent for the year. I was very "techie" at that time and found I was good at teaching reluctant students how to use this new "World Wide Web" thing. My first job was to provide district-wide technology training for administrators, staff and teachers. In 1994 they were just moving from DOS to Windows! After my initial shock, I was told I had to 'teach' the new OS, Word, Groupwise (new email system) and their student information system. I had 6 hours. Over 50% of folks had *never touched a mouse!* let alone seen a GUI based operating system. To say it was memorable would be an understatement. But I did impress the boss and I was offered a 'full time' job teaching which was 22 hours a week. I stayed in the classroom teaching technology skills for 12 years. I had to chuckle at your "red-headed step-child" comment. It was a painful lesson when I started in adult education. I remember dealing with our tech support department in a constant battle for more access and control to actually help our students learn skills in the workplace. (The systems were so locked down, my standard mantra was 'well, we can't see/do it here, but you will be able to at home!') I cajoled, I baked cookies (really!) and I marched into our Directors office and demanded they "take off the technological handcuffs and let me TEACH." It worked.

    I am thankful for my abilities, teaching and technology are still important today. And now that I've moved on to a position where I am fortunate enough to work with adult educators all over the state of California, I now get to help them integrate technology and explore distance teaching/learning in their practice.


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