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Much More than ABE

by Don Block & Lori Keefer
As workplace literacy educators, we have learned that workplace classes rarely resemble standard adult basic education (ABE) or English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) classes. Workplace education programs have to align with the incentive and evaluation systems that govern employees. Companies often have an idea of what they want to achieve but are not able to express it in specific educational terms. Working with a team of management and employees, we develop the course curriculum in response to their needs and then describe the objectives in educational terms. We teach content not traditionally found in an ABE or ESOL course. No two courses are exactly the same.

We are staff members of Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, one of the nation's largest community-based organizations in adult literacy. Our agency has an annual budget of $2 million and 33 full-time employees. We have been involved in workplace programs since 1987. The program that we describe in this article — supported with a grant from the Pennsylvania Workforce Improvement Network, a statewide workforce literacy effort (see page 30) — may not reflect the norm in workplace programs; it does, however, highlight the flexibility that we all need as we design these programs. In this program, carried out in 2004 with the housekeeping department of a Pittsburgh hotel, we moved farther away from basic literacy skills than in many of our other workplace programs and found ourselves teaching teamwork and communication as well as ABE.

"The Basics"
We initiated contact with the hotel to interest them in workplace education. As we were negotiating the course objectives with the hotel's human resources managers and employees, we noticed that they never expressed their goals in traditional literacy terms. They never said they wanted a certain number of housekeeping workers to improve their reading and writing, or that a certain number of employees should obtain their certificates of General Educational Development (GEDs). The objectives for the course all had to do with employees' ability to demonstrate quality consciousness and to practice concepts that the hotel calls "The Basics," which are 20 customer service principles including, for example, "I Practice Teamwork," "I Practice Safe Work Habits," and "I Use Telephone Etiquette."

The hotel discusses The Basics with employees at a daily 15-minute meeting. Each department holds one of these morning meetings, and attendance is mandatory for all employees. The meeting is scripted by the company and is usually led by a member of management. The staff can follow along with the script, although scripts were not given out at the meetings we attended prior to the beginning of our course. The purpose of the meeting is to go over one of The Basics and to relay other information about things happening in the department and the hotel.

The Basics are listed on a company calendar: one principle is assigned to each weekday in a month. The premise is that if the employee knows and applies these Basics, then the customers will be satisfied and the department will receive higher Guest Satisfaction Scores. The scores are based on surveys that guests complete after their stay.
Although the ability to provide good customer service may not seem at first to be a literacy skill, it is one of the items listed in the Foundation Skills Framework for Pennsylvania's workplace literacy programs. We used the Framework as a planning tool to help management and employees to identify the categories and specific skills that needed to be addressed through the course. As a result of the planning meetings with hotel management and a representative group of employees, the following objectives for the course were selected:

  1. Employees will participate in morning meetings and offer suggestions for better service at least twice a week.
  2. Employees will contribute to an improvement in the Guest Satisfaction Score of the housekeeping department regarding room quality.
  3. Employees will be able to name and give examples of the 20 Basics with at least 80 percent accuracy.

Lori, the instructor for the course, attended all of the planning meetings held prior to the start of the class. She also observed one of the 15-minute morning meetings to get a sense of the content and level of participation. She noticed that staff members of the housekeeping department were not engaged in discussion of The Basic for that day. Some of them were having side conversations, others were looking around, and no one responded to the leader or asked a question. They did not appear to be invested in the morning meeting process.

The Students
The class had eight students, including two nonnative speakers of English: one was a beginning English speaker and the other was more advanced. This class was mandatory for selected employees, who were chosen for their leadership qualities and their ability to influence others in their department. We decided that our agency could not afford a separate ESOL class for only two students, so we provided a Spanish-speaking tutor to the nonnative speaker of English who needed instruction in basic reading and writing in English. The other students in the class had sufficient reading and writing skills for the purposes of the course. Instruction was conducted entirely on company time. The course ran for 16 weeks with one two-hour session per week.

Based on the results of a teacher-made pretest covering the customer service principles, we observed that students had some needs in the areas of reading, writing, and understanding The Basics, but our class focused on the underlying concepts of teamwork and effective communication that would bring about quality improvement. This content-focused approach differentiates the class from our other ABE programs, which usually feature a skills-oriented approach.

Before teaching The Basics, we felt it was necessary to get staff members' opinions about what actually happens at the meetings and what impact the meetings could have on their department and the hotel. It took us three or four sessions to create an environment in which employees could be completely open and honest about how these meetings did or did not work for them. The discussion eventually turned to vision and mission statements. The group worked on understanding the meaning of the hotel's vision and mission and then created vision and mission statements for their department to support the hotel's overall vision. This activity combined oral and written communication skills and literacy. The written statements were revised numerous times to reflect the consensus of the group. It was an important step for the employees to understand how their actions relate to the bigger picture of the hotel's overall performance.

All of the examples used or discussed in the course were taken from the employees themselves. They offered suggestions about things that were relevant to The Basic for the day and to their department. The topic for each class was a communication or team-building skill in addition to several of The Basics. When a topic did not seem immediately relevant to the participants, Lori found ways to relate it to their work or their personal situation so that they could see how learning the communication skill might help them. For example, one class was on active listening: restating what one has heard back to the speaker. Lori suggested that employees could use this with other employees and with hotel guests. Employees then gave examples from their everyday work where this skill would be useful.

One of the course objectives was to prompt employees to offer suggestions for improvement at the morning meetings. Prior to this class, due to the format and style of the morning meetings, the employees did not know that management cared about their participation. During the first session of class, employees stated that they did not see how their work would have an impact on the Guest Satisfaction Scores or how the department affected the overall success of the hotel. Management responded that employees would be given the opportunity to make changes to the morning meetings so that they and others would have the opportunity to participate.

About six weeks into the course, Lori taught the participants ways to analyze a problem and to plan for suggesting changes. She used activities for problem-solving from Pump Them Up! by Lorraine Ukens (1996). She also used activities that assisted employees in examining a problem from different perspectives and then identifying various parties who might be affected by the proposed change. The students, who represented the three levels of employees in the department — housekeepers, inspectors, and supervisors — voted on and agreed to analyze an issue of particular concern for the department: the availability and distribution of supplies for housekeeping workers. The workers needed the right supplies in the right places at the right time for the work to go smoothly. Inadequate provision of supplies was causing delays in work and dissatisfaction among the housekeepers and inspectors. The students suggested action steps that might solve the problem, keeping in mind barriers or resistance that might emerge.

Several members of the class then presented the proposed solution to the department head, and management responded: the solution was implemented in the week between scheduled class meetings. Two months later, the new plan was still in effect and working. This was not an intended outcome of the course but was an example of how the teaching of problem-solving skills empowered the employees to make a recommendation for change and see it through to implementation. This success — and its direct benefit to their work — motivated the employees to become even more involved in class, demonstrating how the class could help them to communicate more effectively and to achieve results.

At the beginning of the course, we considered it a daunting and unattainable goal to raise randomly selected guests' perceptions of an entire department by holding a class with only one-quarter of the department's employees. It seemed that too many factors were beyond our control. However, our students acted as leaders in the department, motivating their co-workers to participate more in morning meetings and modeling The Basics. By fully engaging the class participants in the process and empowering them to make changes, we achieved the goal. After 10 weeks of the 16-week course, the housekeeping department won an award for the most improved department in the hotel as measured by Guest Satisfaction Scores. This demonstrated that the employees were learning the problem-solving skills we were teaching and practicing them in their work.

The objectives for this course were very company-driven, but we do not always work in this fashion. Unlike some other classes we have run in workplaces, this class was mandatory for selected employees and conducted entirely on company time. The degree of control the company had over the curriculum was therefore higher in this case than in other programs in which attendance was voluntary and that placed greater emphasis on employees' personal growth.

We have worked in a variety of corporate settings, and we prefer a situation in which employees contribute some of their personal time and the company contributes some paid time. This ensures that both parties have made an investment in the learning process. In this hotel project, the employ ees became invested in the learning process once they understood that, far from being punitive, their participation in the class was requested by management in recognition of their leadership potential.

A traditional ABE class might have emphasized reading the 20 Basics and writing examples of how these could be used in work settings. Our course was more action-oriented. We emphasized the skills of communication, team-building, and problem-solving, to enable the employees to bring improve ment to their department. Employees realized that they could use these skills to benefit themselves and their families outside of the workplace as well. In this way we served both as adult basic educators and as consultants on teamwork and communication.

Ukens, L. (1996). Pump Them Up! 35 Workshops to Build Stronger Teams. King of Prussia, PA: HRDQ Publications.

About the Authors
Don Block, the executive director of Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, has directed adult literacy programs for 24 years. The Council was recently honored with the Wishart Award for Excellence in Nonprofit Management, which is awarded annually to one nonprofit organization in the Pittsburgh region. Don has been a consultant and trainer across the nation in management issues for literacy programs.

Lori Keefer, program manager at Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, joined the agency six years ago after working in the private sector. She has taught several workplace classes in addition to serving administrative and training roles within the agency. She is currently completing her doctorate in educational administration at the University of Pittsburgh.