3 Tips for Teaching Working Adults

What it means to be a working adult who is learning English

When you hear the term “working adult,” who comes to mind? What job do they have? What age? What ethnicity?

To take things one step further, consider the term “working adult English learner.” Has the profile in your mind changed? Who is the learner you’ve imagined?

I have designed curriculum for and taught English to working adults for half a decade; more specifically, adults who work in the food industry. So, what I’ve come to define as “working adult English learner” is different than what one might initially expect. However, the approach to teaching a working adult in the food industry is no different from how a teacher might (or should) approach a learner who is employed in any other production-focused industry.

By the learner profiles we track at my company, ESL Works, working adults are between the ages of 19 and 65. 20% work two jobs and 60% work a schedule that varies from week to week. 30% have graduated from high school or have earned their GED. 85% worked professional or skilled positions in their home country. Working adults are not taking English classes in order to lose their accent, write an amicus brief, or fulfill visa requirements. Working adults are volunteer learners who are choosing to develop themselves professionally in order to move up, be promoted, and earn more money for themselves and their family.

And while the term working adult might only be appreciated as a category of learner, we’ve come to use it as a guiding phrase at ESL Works. One that we continually cite to in order to direct our curriculum design, lesson planning, and teaching style. Teaching working adults indicates you’re leading a classroom experience different from that of “professional working adults,” “travelling adults” or “young adults.”

The first time I taught a class of beginners who were working adults, my students didn’t leave the classroom feeling empowered to use the language they’d learned. I spoke at a regular pace. I taught declensions. I didn’t incorporate games. Simply put, I completely failed at teaching that day and I instantly knew why: I had, in my own words, “over-adulted” my lesson. I had let my concerns for being patronizing overtake the more important focus: being responsible to the needs of my students. It’s 4 years later and I still keep that first day of class close to me. It taught me an invaluable lesson when it comes to teaching working adults: it’s impossible to conflate being responsible to students’ needs with being patronizing. In other words, if you are focusing on the needs of your students, then you are not condescending them.

Here are 3 tips to consider when teaching English to working adults…

Anticipate Lateness

It’s hard to grapple with the notion of lateness in a class with responsible, working people. Remember working adults are either coming from or going to their job. They’re coming on their day off sometimes, sacrificing time with their family for the gift of English. While I’m not sympathetic to lateness, I am accepting of it. I’ve tried multiple approaches to lateness (Reading a poem, or even pushups!) but in the end, lateness will happen. So, anticipate it. Our warm-up is the same in every class. For the few stragglers who come in during the warm-up, they already know what to expect, and can get to work with little effort.

Make homework an option

Class time is a unanimous activity. Everyone has agreed to attend and participate. What I appreciate the most about teaching working adults is that my students have decided to show up rather than being required to join. As a teacher, this is truly a gift — the gift of investment. Working adults understand the value of education and are proud to be learning again. So, reward their choice with options for extra work. In our classes, everyone takes a homework sheet, but no one is required to complete it. (But almost all of them do).

Teach them how to ‘do school’

When we’re training teachers at ESL Works, we encourage them to continually ask themselves, “does this student know how to ‘do school’ yet?” 50% of our students are over the age of 40. And half of those students didn’t complete high school. So, not only has it been awhile since our students have been in a classroom setting, they also didn’t complete a formal education to begin with. Also, 55% of our haven’t studied English before (called “True Beginners”) and the 45% half have started in past but stopped for one reason or another (called “False Beginners”). The point is, it’s been awhile since most of our students have stepped foot in a classroom. So, teaching working adults means incorporating academic behavior management and study skills into your teaching. Point out when students should be taking notes. Teach them to track each other when they listen. Most importantly, help students feel comfortable with paper (yes, paper) by teaching them to stay organized. Three-hole punch the sheets they’re meant to refer back to. Also, acknowledge preparedness. When students bring all of their supplies to class, they are demonstrating they’re ready to learn; however, sometimes students need to be reminded that this step is an act of learning in an of itself. You can’t get to work without the right tools in front of you. So, when a student brings all of their supplies to class, thank them for being prepared.

This is just the start of what you can do to create an environment for working adults that will increase their English retention and reduce student turnover. These tips don’t only apply to beginners though. They are best kept in mind for any student who fits the profile of “working adult.” I think it’s a great privilege to teach people who have decided to show up in spite of so many obstacles. By remaining aware of not only “what” you’re teaching but also “who” you’re teaching, you can help lift students into a more self-confident, work life.

Supporting a Path To Citizenship