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  • Writer's pictureLiteracy Coalition

Lessons Learned in Adult Education - The Students


"The Literacy Coalition is all about learning, and I doubt anyone has learned more than I have here in the last 30 years," Bob Stephenson, Executive Director.

Since 1991 I have had the honor of being associated with the Literacy Coalition. First as a board member and then as an employee. It has been such a wonderful opportunity for me to grow and learn as an individual. I have met the most wonderful and diverse group of people over those years and I am such a better person for it.

I’ve learned so much and I want to take the opportunity to share some of this with you over my next few blog posts. I want to tell you about our students, the challenges they face, and the courage and determination they have shown me. About the tutors, what big hearts they have, and how they give of themselves to help total strangers succeed. I will even tell you about the only volunteer I let go of and why. I will tell you about the donors, the people who make it all possible by financially supporting our cause.

I will tell you of some of the mistakes I have made that have put the agency at risk even though I never intended that. I will tell of some of our student's successes and some disappointments. How watching them, changed me.

I’ll start by telling you about the students.

The Students

We have three different programs for adults. The first is our adults who are struggling with reading. Most can read a little but struggle with reading fluently and comprehending what they have read. This is the first group I interacted with and here is what I learned from them.

Honestly, the students were not who I originally thought they would be. When I first came on the board I thought of my experience in school. I believed the students must be the kids who were always in trouble or the class clowns, etc. I found they were much more likely to be the child who you never really got to know because they did their best to be invisible in class. They tried to sit in the back and kept quiet. They were so frustrated by the fifth grade that they just mentally checked out believing the “school just wasn’t for them.”

I believed they might be limited in intelligence and sometimes that is true. Most generally the problem is that they just learn differently than others. They learn at a different pace or in a way that was different than their classmates. Their lives as a child are often disrupted by family trauma and other events beyond their control that put them in a position of vulnerability. Things like poverty, abuse, and illness, are only a few of the things they have had to deal with.

Parents are often a part of the problem, Divorces where parents put the children in the middle and use them basically as weapons against one another are extremely damaging. Parents who struggled in school are often not supportive of their children and do not value education. That can cause them to underachieve. Even when those parents do want the best education for their children may not be able to provide the level of support required. I have learned that illiteracy is a condition that echoes down generations at times.

Yet, many of our students have had very supportive parents who did everything right and it still didn’t work. It is different for each individual. That is what has been so satisfying to watch as the tutors tailor their instruction pace and methods to each individual student. This allows them the greatest chance for success and to reach their goals.

Another group of students we serve is immigrants learning to speak English. I love working with this group and it is an extremely diverse population. We have served students with advanced and multiple degrees and people illiterate in their native language. They are all kind, polite, and eager to learn and assimilate into our culture.

When I first began I worked with Susan Bonness hosting a group comprised of people from 17 countries on five continents. Some spoke very little English and some spoke much better than I did but struggled to understand the idioms and slang we use in everyday conversation. “Bob, a fellow I work with told me he was ‘pulling my leg’ today. What does that mean?” is a phone call I still remember today. Another tutor, Susan Smith, worked with four women and fashioned her instruction around cooking. I was always envious reading her reports of what they cooked each week as she taught them.

I always want to talk about their home country and life experiences but have found they usually want to talk about life in the United States. What they do love to share is food and we often are treated to something fun and different in the way of snacks.

What I’ve learned is that all of these people are just like us, they love their families and are just trying to do the best they can. They work hard and study hard and enrich all of our lives by choosing to live here. I know personally, I feel so fortunate to get to know these people whether they are from Ukraine, Japan, Korea, Israel, Mexico, China or Peru. They all have made my life better and I hope I have played a small part in helping them along their path.

The third adult group we help is individuals preparing to take tests. This has included driver’s tests, employment tests, citizenship tests, and the GED/TASC test that change people’s lives. There are so many great stories I can tell about this group but I will only share a couple.

The first is about a man who was released from prison and living at the Rescue Mission. He came in and wanted help with the GED test. I have to be honest, I did not like him and did not trust him so I told him he could work individually on our computers but only when I was in the office. After a few months he signed up to take the test and I had to drive him to the Career Center for two days for testing. He passed but then just disappeared and I did not hear from him for about a year.

One morning he called me at about 7:00 am and when I realized who it was I thought he must need bail money. No, he wanted me to know he was enrolled at Ball State and just a quick thank you. Then nothing for a few years until one day he just walked into my office. He had two degrees and it was another thank-you visit. Even better as he walked through the halls of the United Way building he told them how much we had helped him and how it had changed his life. Suddenly I like him a lot more!

Another favorite story is about a man who needed help to pass an employment test to work at Subaru. His reading comprehension was low and he struggled reading at. Our goal was to help him pass the test and get the job. After months of work he passed and was hired. He decided he wanted to stay in our program. That was in 2016 and he still is participating now. We have watched as he married, had a baby, and developed a very successful business with his wife repurposing old farm implements into sculpture items they sell on weekends. He continues to work on reading and comprehension every week and has developed a great friendship with his tutor over the years.

The biggest lesson I have learned from all the students is what courage really looks like. I am a prideful person and I really hate to ask for help. I take it as a personal shortcoming when I cannot do something myself. That’s not courage, it is not even smart. Courage is when you admit you cannot do something without help. Courage is asking for help with even something as common as reading which most adults assume everyone can do. Courage is facing those shortcomings and asking for help. That takes real courage and I have to admit sometimes I still struggle with it.

Another lesson is that we are all illiterate about everything. I’ve seldom met a student here that could not do things that I cannot do myself. They can do amazing things from rebuilding the engine of their car to planning meals for a family of five with minimal groceries and $7.00 cash for the week. Being illiterate is a condition we all share, just in different subjects.

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