Instructor-Student Relations in Adult Literacy Programs

Article excerpt

In 2003, I conducted a study to explore the perspectives and experiences of stakeholders connected to two provincially-funded adult literacy programs in Manitoba, Canada. These 70 research participants belonged to seven stakeholder categories: 37 learners, 2 coordinators/instructors, 11 other staff, 7 learners' parents or significant others, 2 program administrators, 8 civil servants and community agency workers who make literacy program referrals, and 2 government employees responsible for funding literacy programs.

I collected information by means of one-to-one interviews with individuals from every category, and compositions written by learners, other staff, and one provincial funding agent. The 34 compositions consisted of written responses to questions about their program experiences. The 58 interviews consisted of 45-minute conversations based on more detailed questions about the same topics.

Four themes emerged during my analysis of the data: program design, human relations, community context, and financial support. As an adult educator with many years of classroom and administrative experience, I expected interpersonal relations to emerge as a theme. What surprised me was the vehemence with which members from every stakeholder group espoused the necessity of positive instructor-student relations as a precursor to learning.

The participants viewed staff-learner relations as the foundation of their adult literacy programs. Coordinators/instructors and other staff related how students had positively affected their professional and personal lives; learners, parents/significant others, and referral agents told parallel stories about the effects of staff members on students. Several people noted the value of having a variety of instructors with whom different students could bond.

Of paramount importance to everyone was the adult nature of these instructor-student relationships. Participants from every category spoke of how staff treated students as equal partners in the learning process. Staff and learners called each other by first names, spent breaks and lunch hours together, and got to know each other's leisure interests and family situations.

Positive regard for learners characterized these relationships. The program stakeholders lauded instructors' faith in students' learning abilities and the extra efforts that instructors made to ensure academic progress. Coordinators/ instructors and other staff admired students' efforts to overcome personal adversities and expressed pride in students' accomplishments at every academic level. They saw learners' socially unacceptable out-of-program behaviors as problems to be solved, rather than as reasons to reject them as students.

However, while one instructor was more likely to suggest that learners with serious personal problems take a break from their studies in order to seek external guidance, the other instructor was more likely to address these issues within the program itself, and to recommend that students, under the care of community professionals, continue to attend the program while working through personal problems. …