Can we still have lessons in the park? Gabrielle's story
Jane Berwick, Creator of The Adult Learning Hub, sat down with enthusiastic ESL instructor & master's student, Gabrielle Turner, as she spoke about her dedication to her adult learners and the creativity and compassion she demonstrated during lockdown and now in a new world of work.
Learning in adulthood is never straightforward, is it? While we might seek out formal learning opportunities, whether it be through gaining a qualification or attending a class or two, we are humans in a messy and sometimes confusing world - sitting down to learn is sometimes the last thing on our agenda.
When I sat down to speak with Gabrielle Turner, what I learned from her is that working with adult learners is not so much about creating the ideal conditions for learning to happen or to somehow get everyone to 'stop and learn' - but she imbeds learning into lived experience, and the chaos that sometimes comes with that.
She teaches English to adults who have newly arrived to the UK. Many of them have faced and are facing difficult and challenging circumstances - depression, loneliness and isolation, being separated from family members, and struggling to come to terms with a new language in a new country. For some, attending English lessons would be their first formal experience of education. These factors, coupled with coping in a global pandemic have indeed not been the ideal circumstances for learning (or teaching!) to take place.
From our conversation together, there are 4 lessons I took away that I think every adult learning professional could apply to their own settings, as we move into a new world of work.
1. We don't just come to teach the subject at hand, and our learners don't just come to learn the same.
The opportunity to facilitate the learning for adults, regardless of the context, can sometimes present itself with complex challenges. We are all uniquely human, with our own life circumstance and experiences.
Gabrielle noticed that when she started teaching second language learners that some of them had family members back home in very dyer situations and it was causing some of them to feel distracted during their times together in the classroom. Covid seemingly made this worse.
She started to recognize, early on in her teaching practice, that learning for this demographic is more an act of release, and she took on a kind of coaching role - to guide them to develop coping mechanisms, to create a safe space for them to be themselves. For example, she came up with the idea to have her learners write their challenges on balloons and she gave them 30 seconds to pop them in class. It not only gave them the opportunity to express themselves in English and develop new vocabulary but also be able to develop strategies for themselves that they could take elsewhere, outside the classroom. To find a healthy way to release whatever it was that was hindering them.
While students come to study English, the experience of being in the classroom is so much more than just stringing new words together. It's a practice of being human. To share in humanity. How are we, as educators of adults, deepening our sense of humanity in our classrooms, be it online or face to face? How are we pushing the boundaries now and in the future? You might not be asking your learners to pop balloons, but this teaches us that we can no longer continue to maintain a wall of separation between the personal from the professional. We need to choose the right moments, for the right reasons, to let down these walls and give permission to ourselves and our learners to be more human towards each other.
2. Removing barriers should be a key part of our practice, as educators of adults.
Nowadays, our teaching practice should be adaptable and agile. There are many taken for granted barriers to participation for adult learners that we often don't think about, and our experience of Covid has indeed highlighted that.
There are a few things Gabrielle taught me indirectly during our conversation in light of this. At the start of lockdown, she made sure that her learners had portable wifis at the beginning of lockdown last year. She even helped set them up outside the center, to ensure everything was working properly and no one would be left behind.
Even when her learners felt particularly isolated, she offered to meet them in the park, in the middle of winter, with warm flasks of coffee. Upon lockdown ending, they were asking her, 'Can we still meet in the park?
When we remove barriers for learning, this can transform what we do and open up other avenues for learning and teaching to take place. Leading to the next point...
3. Learning and teaching go hand in hand.
Gabrielle is currently pursuing her Masters in TESOL and has been fascinated by how her studies and work are informing one another. As she learned about the chaos theory, for example, she understood how it can be applied to her classroom, to create clarity and better manage her learners experience of taking on a new language.
Whether learning formally or informally, being curious about what impacts our practice and how theory can be brought to life, plays a big role in shaping us professionally and how to better facilitate learning for adults. If we stop learning, we stop being able to shape that experience for those whose learning we are tasked with.
We have a mandate, as educators of adults, to uphold the value of life long learning, not as a sentence that must be endured, but as a torch to carry, bringing others along and shining a light on what is possible. It has never been more important to stay curious about our practice and continually ask good questions about the assumptions we are working under - and challenging these assumptions with a group of peers that we trust, like our colleagues or 'critical friends.'
4. Learning and community go hand in hand
We are all looking to belong somewhere. To be with those who are similar to us. For the adult educator, creating a sense of belong is evidently a large part of facilitating meaningful learning.
For Gabrielle, her classroom has become a place of celebrating successes (like citizenship for example), important milestones, birthdays, as well as sharing in cooking together or taking turns during bringing dishes from each other's countries. She has intentionally created community with her learners, not just as a nice to have, but so that they have a lifeline to each other. In time of isolation or feeling down, they have had a group of people they could call upon and share resources with.
The Adult Learning Hub loves community and what Gabrielle has achieved with her learners so far. It was a joy to be able to hear her stories and experiences, and also learn from her at the same time. Thank you for taking the time to share your story, Gabrielle!