May 17, 1999
In September 1997, I accepted a new position to teach family literacy, an exciting community education concept, at the Providence Public Library Family Writing Center. It turned out to be a very hectic academic year, where seven of us provided ESL and computer classes for more than 500 adults and 175 children during three 10-week cycles, in collaboration with six program assistants, three computer coordinators, 44 volunteer tutors, 15 librarians and their staff, and numerous other community partnerships (PPL FWC Final Report, 1998). Staff turnover during the year was high, and although I loved my work, sometimes I felt like we were re-inventing the wheel as we rushed to keep a day ahead of the classes. There was little time to reflect on the program's purpose or our own efficiency. After attending the R.I.D.E. Inquiry Project presentations in June and hearing that other community-based Adult Education practitioners suffer similar time crunch and staff turnover issues, I discussed with Janet Isserlis, of Literacy Resources/RI, and Louise M, my supervisor at the library, the idea of developing a staff training plan for the library literacy department. I suggested that planning for staff development would encourage professionalism in the adult education field and help the Literacy Department at the bottom line, that is, with accountability to our funders, students, and the community.
In late June 1998, before the summer hiatus, I talked with Louise and the other two permanent Department staffers about my idea for a staff development study over the break. I stressed the importance of knowing what we are doing well and what's not so good, and being able to justify what we do. We call ourselves a family writing center, but we do much more than teach writing. Before we can say we've reached our goals, we all need to be clear what those goals are. I suggested I would do the legwork and write a staff development manual for the department over the summer, but that it should be a group effort.
Good plan, but... Vacations and schedule conflicts prevented meetings in July. August meeting priorities were the summer program and upcoming tutor training. More staff turnover loomed. Staff resisted m-o-r-e meetings and groaned when they realized I was suggesting we write a mission statement together for the department. My hopes for a Big Reflection had fizzled. I decided I'd put together my list of recommendations anyway. I was frustrated and disappointed. The team couldn't even find the time to meet.
In my reflections about the question, what makes a good teacher, I thought back to my own pre-service training and wondered if the secret to teaching 'teacher' skills is the Foundation of Education courses (the core of every teacher education program)? The methods classes? Or is it the practice teaching? I concluded that all three components are essential, but what is missing in both school and adult education teacher preparation is a course in Human Relations 101. Our society does not teach children, adult learners, or teachers how to work together, how to negotiate unity through diversity, how to think in terms of goals, how to respect differences. I came to see my goal for this project as identifying the issues involved and showing the interrelationships between linked facets of the program. I also said a silent ìthank youî to the library administration for supporting staff reflection projects like this. Then I vented my frustrations to Janet, and than I accepted the continuing time crunch.
At home during July I researched other staff development programs providing adult and family literacy programs in the United States, Canada and the U.K. The CCLOW group in Canada, who wrote Making Connections (1996), reinforced for me the conviction that everyone who is affected by decisions in the Family Writing Center needs to be involved with making those decisions. To meet goals, participants must ìownî the project; to own something means to participate in creating it. I also noted from the CCLOW group process that collaborative program construction is intensely time-consuming and it is difficult to reach consensus with large groups. But I also became more convinced that this is the most direct route to our objectives and the best staff burn-out preventative available. I made notes of what I thought the Literacy Department objectives were and listed some of the issues we would need to address. This list included development of training for full and part-time administrators, program leaders, assistants and volunteers so that all the multiple factors of staff, tutor and student recruitment, curriculum, the childrenís programs, the computer component, evaluations, special projects, community collaboration, and funding issues were expressively linked to program goals.
My summer reading included descriptions of British adult education systems. From charts, graphs and diagrams, it was easy to see how one component of a program was connected to others (Nicholls & Mainment, 1988). For instance, depending on the community served, teacher job descriptions may vary. I also extracted another significant insight from this reading: for community-based programs to endure, there must be an infrastructure which supports the desired grass-roots change and evolution. Continuous funding is a critical piece. At the library, as at other community programs, scarce time is devoted to finding future funding. Ellis (1994), also, brought to light excellent ìhow toî suggestions: how to write job descriptions, how to recruit and keep volunteers, how to attract funders. Ellis, too, stressed that all parts of a system are connected, that all are affected by decisions should be involved in making those decisions, and that the key to coordinating effective complex systems is through collaborative professional development.
In my musings, it struck me that the Providence Public Library and the Literacy Department adhere to the principles of TQM - Total Quality Management - philosophy. In this management system, decisions are made at the level that the work is carried out. The goal is to have satisfied customers. Workers are considered customers too. The goal of the infrastructure of a TQM organization is to facilitate workers' ability to achieve the company's goals. This is a democratic workplace philosophy that I had come across with other employers in R.I. When I thought about it, itís what we teach students: Take charge of your education! Accept responsibility! Set goals! Learn together! When I mentioned this to Louise, she hadnít heard of TQM.
After Labor Day I went back to work - funding was renewed, big relief - and the pressures experienced last year continued, as usual: a new program leader joined us and needed immediate training; there were two tutor training sessions to plan; we still needed to hire and train assistants; and student and tutor recruitment was a priority. Not much time for contemplating the purpose of our existence. We did have several meetings together to consider tutor training: we increased the length of the training; included multicultural sensitivity, and invited auxiliary staff to meet and work with tutors. We trained the childrenís assistants, focusing on community collaboration and children's language activities; we reconsidered and rewrote goal sheets for students; talked about the need for an ABE class; provided training for computer assistants; had more regular staff meetings, and sought input from staff, volunteers and students. Before I knew it, it was Christmas and we were still short one vital program leader. Louise announced a library reorganization that affected the Literacy Department and that next year she would ask for professional development funds.
Although this project turned out differently than expected and has been a long time coming, it is evident in these pages that staff development is not something an employer does and then it's over. It is a long-term, ongoing, process. In addition to the recommendations for the Literacy Department I was able to make, there have been other positive effects from this study that would have been missed in a short-term project:
The opportunity for extended reflection time was extremely valuable personally. It helped me understand the purpose of the Literacy Department program, the importance of dynamic, on-going relationships and changes over time. I was able to see how system interrelationships can be coordinated by teams working together toward goals. Reflective process writing helped me cope with the sometimes overwhelming nature of literacy work. It seems evident to me that we need to teach administrators and teachers how to reflect on goals and how to work together to organize our next steps. I would highly recommend reflective process writing as one way to develop staff professionalization.
The Literacy Dept made significant program changes between July 1998 and May 1999, as a response to this on-going study. Cultural sensitivity was given a higher priority in volunteer and staff training; volunteers and students were consulted about decisions; regular staff meetings became the norm; a new ABE class was initiated based on the Department realization that this was an unmet goal; funding proposals changed focus; assistants were provided more training; we sponsored a workshop for staff on literacy and domestic violence; and not least of all, ìprofessional developmentî became part of the Deptís regular vocabulary.
Perhaps most importantly, this study has offered a new way of looking at staff development, suggesting it is not simply a matter of initial orientation and one-time workshops that develops professional staff. Imel (1996) [citing Fingeret] reminds us
Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women (1996). Making Connections: Literacy and EAL Curriculum from a Feminist Perspective. Author: Toronto.
Ellis, SJ (1994). The Volunteer Recruitment Handbook. Philadelphia: Energize, Inc.
Imel, S (1996). Adult Literacy Education: Emerging Directions in Program Development. ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career & Vocational Education. Digest #179.
Providence Public Library Literacy Department (1998), Annual Report. Author.
For further information, contact Beverly Chase or Literacy Resources/Rhode Island.
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