Friday, October 19, 2007

what brought you to literacy work?

I imagine many of you are eager to talk about about working conditions. We'll get to that in a few days.

First, though, I want to share something that Sally Crawford, a recently-retired family literacy worker from New Brunswick, wrote in a wildcard for Focused on Practice:

We do it for the money
and the status—NOT

Ever examine who works in the field and why? It seems to me that it’s mostly women. Is it that the work somehow demands the “nurturing female thing”? Is the job not valued by society so the attitude is "let the women do it"? Are women more willing to put up with the working conditions because they know if they don’t, the programs will fold? Should we be more militant? I’m of the age and stage where I can do this because I love the work. Because I’m not putting bread on the table I don't need a secure salary and benefits to continue doing this work.

I enjoy the fact that everyone I talk to has come to the field by a different route. I’ve not met one person yet who woke up one morning as a youngster and said “I think I’ll be a literacy facilitator when I grow up.” And they are all passionate in some way about their work and about social justice. They all seem to be comfortable choosing “curiosity over certainty”. Such richness!

Let's start this discussion by sharing some of that richness.
* What drew you to adult literacy work?
* Once you got into literacy work, what surprised you?

Please share your stories!
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  1. Well, I expect my story is not one that is unique to this field. I began as a junior high educator, left to have and raise a child, and then started back in the public school system. Things had changed radically in that system, but my priorities had changed, as well. The high salary and benefits were no longer enough to counter-balance the stress and lack of making a real difference in lives. I left, deciding to work within the community in some other capacity. The first experience in working with adults in education was as a GED instructor-some daytime, as well as evening, programs. I was hooked! For 15 years, I've been instructing at all of the levels at one time or another in a variety of mileaus and for a couple of community based programs. I miss the regular, rather high, paycheque, but I feel as though I am a valuable contributor to the change in people's attitudes about themselves and their lives. The rewards have been so numerous. Being a positive influence and an encourager is vital to my well-being, and I know I've been as changed as any of my students.

  2. I actually wanted to do work in this area when I was younger (1971) but did not even understand that there was a 'field' or a ‘discipline’ called literacy. Even as a teenager, I felt that the key to choice in life was the ability to communicate. I also knew that books contained all the information you would ever need to know. So I reasoned that the ability to communicate and to access information in writing were the foundations on which everything else sits. I also realized that many did not have this foundation. I yearned to change the world in this way....that or just to create artwork. However with respect to artwork, it was drummed into my head that this was not actually a work choice but rather was relegated to a hobby. That's another story. After a meandering journey in my twenties, I entered into the field twenty years ago through the related area of ESL. For financial reasons, I followed a path into the management area. I am heading for retirement which will see me arrive full circle back to that adolescent passion to change the world through teaching literacy…sprinkled liberally with art making of course.

  3. I'm very surprised about the amount of creativity expected by funders and supervisors, yet there is so little time in order to do this planning.

    There is so much expected of a Literacy Instructor, and no real boundaries on what is NOT expected of us. We help our students to achieve ALL of their goals which may include becoming a better parent or spouse, getting and keeping employment, shopping for and cooking nutritious meals, learning social do's and don't's, . . . The list goes on.

  4. I came to literacy work because it was much more pleasant to beguile children with stories and scaffold emergent literacy than it was to plant trees in the summer and cut pulpwood in the winter.

    Emergent literacy, where I started, was fun and easy.

    But working with families put me in a place where I became aware of some of the literacy challenges faced by the older youth in my community. I made the choice to focus more on young adult and adult literacy, in part, because I felt the need was more urgent... or, maybe, because they seemed to have fewer friends and advocates.

    Also, I fell in among a group of dedicated, talented adult literacy professionals who inspired me. I wanted to be like them, wanted to be That Good at the job.

    By the way, it has almost always been a "job" in the sense I get paid: literacy has been my only source of income for most of the last decade. I think being able to get paid - most of the time - is part of why I'm in the field. I'm not sure I would have become a literacy volunteer.

  5. Here is why ...
    I was in Mexico having a nightcap on a roof and chatting to an old friend about I wanted to be - I had no good ideas but was sick of bartending. He said, "You like to travel. Why not teach ESL?" When I returned to Toronto I enrolled in the TESL certificate program. After registering and buying some texts, I went to meet a friend at a bar. I ran into a couple of other friends there. When I told them what I was doing, one of them said, "you don't want to teach ESL, you want to work in literacy." So I signed up to become a volunteer in my local program. As you can see, I am a very self-directed learner :-).

    But what luck. In literacy work I have found a place where my love of language and my interest in social justice can happily coexist. And even better, my desire to live a life full of surprises is also fulfilled. This work takes me to all kinds of unexpected places and people. I have loved learning to travel without a map.

  6. When I was in university, I read an article in Utne Reader about "How to get an education at the University of Life" - about informal, self-directed education. It made so much sense to me that I left school at the earliest convenience and chose to follow my own learning path. Only problem was, I wasn't entirely sure what I wanted to learn at first.

    I came to literacy work through Frontier College's Labourer-Teacher program in 2003(read about its origins in the current issue of Literacies!). I lived and worked alongside migrant farmworkers, and taught them English, literacy, numeracy, and answered their questions about Canada. As a Labourer-Teacher, I discovered that I was much more interested in collaborative, experiential learning than I had ever been in learning from a teacher. I was an L-T for 3 summers, and in between I volunteered at a community based literacy program.

    When I continued with formal education to upgrade my skills for a career in literacy, I quickly realized that you can't learn this stuff in any way that doesn't integrate practise and reflection. 10 hours talking about volunteer management (for example) in a classroom is not as useful as even one hour volunteering in a program with a mentor. So I sought to return to experiential learning in 2005, and somehow fell into my ideal job as a one-to-one program facilitator! And boy, am I learning!

    I think that my route to literacy work has helped me in my job. With new learners in the program, I stress the idea of understanding and articulating one's learning style and goals and taking control of learning. I also have experiences on both sides of a mentoring relationship and know how hard it is to maintain the balance between supporting and challenging a learner. I suspect that the community based model for learning could work not just for literacy learners, but also for others who have learning needs that are not met by postsecondary institutions (such as myself).

  7. I will keep this short as I had trouble posting the first time. However, I wanted to say that I love Literacies. I find my thinking mirrored in your pages. I see my realities described. I realise that there is an army of people out there who think in a similar way ... isolated as I may feel at times as I work in Literacy. I am delighted that you are back in business.

    My other comment is to say that after a number of years working in Adult Literacy, I feel very discouraged at the slow speed of meaningful change in government commitment to fixing our problems. To improve the service, as Pat Campbell said in her article, it is not just a matter of training people to assess and evaluate. Paid hours have to be available for the work. I have found it too frustrating, waiting to see some change coming to our system of investing in adult learners. These days I choose to put my idealism and energy into making a difference with individual learners and tutors in a very hands-on way.

    For me, this work is something I find addictive. I never cease to be inspired by the learners I work with and I don't think many other occupations could satisfy me in the same way.

    However, working in this field is a luxury that I can afford only because I have a partner who earns a good salary, enjoys benefits and will have a pension. Young, single individuals, in my province at least, would be destined to a life of relative poverty if they planned to stick in the field. Work would be on contract .. with no job security or benefits, most likely paid just 10 months of the year.

    Things need to change.

  8. I guess the seed of literacy work was planted in me in 1978 when I was teaching in in a girls secondary school on an island off of Sierra Leone, West Africa.

    The girls in the school were the privileged few - outside the window every day I taught I saw just as many young people who couldn't afford to be in school. I wanted to teach them.

    When I returned to Toronto I soon left again for St. Vincent in the Caribbean to engage in community development work. Again, issues around access to education and privilege smacked me in the face.

    This time when I returned to Toronto I enrolled in the Community Worker course at George Brown College and my first placement was very deliberate. I went to Frontier College with the goal of learning how to set up and administer a community-based literacy program.

    Through other volunteer work I did I worked for a couple years as an Advisor to the Treasurer of People First of Ontario, a self advocacy movement of people labelled as developmentally disabled. When People First members started telling me stories about how they were turned away from accessing the literacy programs in their communities because of their disability, I left People First and returned to literacy with a mission to ensure that everyone had a place and access to literacy education.

    Inclusion is my passion.

    I have worked for pay in the field for 20 years now. I also continue to volunteer as a literacy tutor.

    I wouldn't want to work in any other field, and feel very blessed to have been able to stay working in the field as long as I have.