The Joys of Adult Basic Education and ESL Teaching
Dawn Jackson-Robinson, Instructor

One day I came home exhausted, and my son quipped, “Why? All you do is stand up and talk.” I just rolled my eyes and didn’t even try to explain how much energy it takes to “stand up and talk” all day. It was as if he thought teaching was just an ad-lib gig.

Of course, there are days when we have to ad-lib because we never know what kind of questions our students will ask. At the same time, while teaching adults, we never know what kind of knowledge they will bring to our classes. Our students have more prior experience with certain topics than many of us will ever have. With the trials that some of them have endured, it amazes me that they still muster up enough willpower to come to school to improve their reading, writing, math, and employment skills.

That’s why, when our students pass their GED tests, move up to higher level classes, or start reading for the first time, it gets our adrenaline pumping. To doctors, it’s probably moving terminal patients to a hopeful prognosis; to firefighters, quenching mighty fires; to police, capturing elusive criminals; to lawyers, winning difficult cases; but to us teachers, it’s facilitating our struggling students to excel. That’s the joy of teaching.

Instructor Barbara Kimble says one of her fondest memories is of a student who scored very low on her first science GED practice test but didn’t give up until she passed, despite the amount of effort and improvement it required. Reading instructor Kelley Provence was likewise most excited when one of her students who had a history of failing tests was able to overcome her testing barriers and ace the entrance exam to a career training program. That student also advanced so many levels in one semester, working with Kelley and ESL instructor Andrew Farley, that she was accepted into the IT certification program at Per Scholas.

One of my former students, who has dyslexia, started at Literacy Action about eight years ago with her daughter. This student finished high school with a certificate of completion. She could barely read when she first came to Literacy Action, and her self-esteem was very low. Her most common response in class was, “I never learned that in school,” or “They never taught me about that.”

But today her reading skills are three grade levels higher than when she first came here, and she reads and writes like a woman on a mission.  She and her daughter call to mind the poem titled “Mother to Son,” by Langston Hughes. The last few lines read: “Don’t you set down on the steps /  ’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard. / Don’t you fall now— / For I’se still goin’, honey, / I’se still climbin’, / And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”

Seeing our students still climbing, and being able to help them on the journey, is what makes teaching Adult Basic Education a joy.