How can we get more respect for ABE?

by Wendy Mongeau*

During my sixth year of elementary school teaching, I took a part-time evening job teaching adult ESL. …The ESL job opened my eyes to a realm of the education world that I had never known.

It seems to me … that ABE teachers are viewed in a different light from K-12 teachers. … Perhaps some think that once through the American K-12 public educational system should be enough. In some people’s minds it boils down to spending more tax dollars on people that they feel should be adequately educated by the time they reach the age of 18. Without having a teacher’s perspective on the situation, it’s easy to see how people could feel this way. ABE teachers work with adults on a daily basis who had life circumstances that forced them to drop out of school before their time, adult immigrants who are trying to build successful, productive lives for themselves and their families, and/or adults with learning disabilities who were not well- served by the K-12 system and “fell through the cracks.” But without this perspective, and without any personal contact with an adult in such a situation, who could perceive the vital importance of ABE?

Educating the Public

Perhaps the solution lies in educating the public about the importance of ABE and the changed lives that have resulted in communities all over Massachusetts. A recent example of such (unintended) publicity was the battle waged against the proposed ABE budget cuts. Higher visibility for the field and its contributions to society would certainly turn the tide of popular opinion regarding ABE. But this, again, takes money. Furthermore, we are too occupied with the business of doing our jobs to take the time to toot our own horns.

Nonetheless, educating the public can be accomplished one person at a time. If you are confronted with criticism for your profession, here are some facts that you can mention:

  1. I teach people who have been failed, in some cases, by the traditional K-12 system. Before the widespread attention to learning disabilities, students were often labeled as “slow,” “stupid,” or “lazy,” and no one understood or accommodated their needs.
  2. Adult education has ramifications for children. It is a research-based fact that a child’s educational success is directly related to the educational attainment and involvement of his/her mother.
  3. Crime levels decrease in communities when educational levels increase. I am providing a service that benefits society at large.
  4. I am helping to build a more productive workforce. It benefits the economy when adults are taught the literacy, computer, and job-related skills they need in order to reach their full potential. This way, all of society benefits, not just the students themselves.

Wendy Mongeau teaches ABE, ESOL, and computer classes at the New Bedford Adult Learning Center. She can be reached at: wmongeau@msn.com

*Originally published in: Field Notes, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Summer 2002)

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