When I taught teen-agers, I learned early on that a lot of the job is about personal connection. The students must like you. By “like,” I don’t mean the teacher and the teen go out for breakfast and paint one another’s toenails. (Ew.) “Like” means the student accepts that even though the teacher’s subject is something lame like, say, English grammar, the class is OK because the teacher is fair (“fair” means the teacher cuts people slack now and again). The teacher does not bludgeon one student with another (doesn’t play favorites). The teacher is not a hypocrite who says one thing and does another. For a teen, a teacher should be consistent, clear, and helpful without being a pushover. Bonus if the teacher is funny or even playful.
This kind of teacher will be able to pull some effort from most students, although it must be acknowledged that a great deal of teen-agers’ passion is directed at their peers and activities rather than their academics. It also should be noted that it’s even tougher to get work out of students who don’t like the teacher, because these students suffer at their desks like prisoners serving a sentence.
With adults, however, liking the teacher is moot. With adult learners, optimal learning means squeezing out everything the teacher offers and then rolling the tube tight to get out that last little dab. There’s nothing passive about it. Whereas a teen-ager, generally, is reluctant to ask for clarification or extra help, an adult insists on it. Adult learners work jobs and rear families and have now added the burden of school. They don’t want to mess around. They want to learn, dang it, and if you’re their teacher, you’d better deliver.
I LOVE THIS ATTITUDE. When I sit down with an adult student, I deal with an equal who has gray hair and wrinkles and lumps, somebody who pays bills and hauls kids and endures hardship and knows there is no free lunch, not no way, not no how. Adult learners do not feel entitled, except insofar as they have paid for the privilege of learning and insist that it happen. An adult learner already has a full life but wants a better one. Whereas teen-agers are trapped by compulsory education laws, adults have chosen education as a means to an end. A teen-aged learner might count off the days until freedom rolls on down like a mighty river; an adult learner is that supermarket sprinter who’s dashed in for milk because he’s got to have supper on the table in one hour. They want to git 'er done.
The United States has 1.5 million adult learners, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Some adult learners are just out of high school. Some of them are great-grandparents. All of them are in school because they see education as a path to a living wage and a life of dignity. Learning new things can be fun, but going to school is hard, doubly so when it's only one item on your daily list of things to do and triply so when your skills haven't been brushed up for 25 years and many of your fellow students are half your age.
Therefore, it’s no exaggeration to say an adult learner is on a hero’s quest. The man who defined the hero’s journey in The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949), author Joseph Campbell, says the hero’s journey occurs when an ordinary person is called to leave behind the familiar and embark on an adventure in search of something important. The hero may be protected early in the adventure by a mentor or may acquire allies along the way, but ultimately faces a final battle. The hero returns home, having defeated his adversary and won the prize, which the hero then shares with those who were left behind.
“Deb” and her husband have endured hardship and raised a family. She’s training for a career that will put herself and her husband in a better place when they retire. Deb hasn’t been in school since before computers were invented, yet everything nowadays is done on the computer. Imagine somebody shutting you in a horse barn and ordering you to saddle up a creature you’ve only ever seen on TV. Luckily, this stint in school ain’t Deb’s first rodeo.
“Ruby” is divorced. Her ex hid their assets, so Ruby is back in school for the first time in twenty years so she can train for a job that will let her pay her bills and put food on the table. Ruby can’t study in the college library as long as she’d like to because she has to be home when the school bus drops off her kids. Once the munchkins go to bed, though, Ruby hits the books.
“Alan” is ex-military. He’d hoped to make the Army a career until he was injured. Now, Alan is working on a business degree despite physical pain from his injury that never quite leaves him—which means Alan’s battle doesn't end when he goes home at the end of the day. He soldiers on anyway.
“James” suffered a brain injury some time ago. He can’t remember things very well from day to day, so his learning path doesn’t run in a straight line. It loops. James has been in school for a while, though, because he likes to learn. He perseveres. He runs his race one mile at a time, round and round, without dropping out, and if he passes the finish line more than once and keeps on running, well, that's just the way he rolls.
“Felicia” was born here, but her parents came from another country. English is Felicia’s second language. Felicia has worked alongside her parents in low-wage jobs, but she wants a better life for herself, so she’s studying to make English her first language—not by birth but by choice.
“Sally,” five feet nothing in her stocking feet, always wanted to drive an 18-wheeler tractor-trailer truck. At age 72, she started a truck-driver training course, half of which was online. She couldn’t even turn on a computer when she started school. Despite that, Sally got top grades and outscored everybody in the behind-the-wheel portion of her coursework. Sally had a dream job offer in hand when she graduated, and now she's a road warrior.
These six and others like them have allowed me to mentor them on their hero’s journey. Thanks, guys, for letting me tag along.