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The Working Conditions of Adult Literacy Teachers

The Working Conditions of Adult Literacy Teachers: Preliminary Findings from the NCSALL Staff Development Study

by Cristine Smith, Judy Hofer, & Marilyn Gillespie
What factors in adult basic education (ABE) teachers' work environments impede or enhance their abilities to do the best job possible? Although not the primary focus of our research, this question leapt to the foreground of the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy's (NCSALL) Staff Development Study, which is examining outcomes for teachers of participating in staff development. We realized that we cannot hope to understand such outcomes if we do not first have a keen understanding of the realities of teachers' working lives.

This article describes the environmental factors that seem to influence teachers' abilities to do their jobs well. Factors include the physical facilities where teachers work, the amount of time and support they have to do their jobs, and the training or development opportunities they have. Although these conditions exist within teachers' programs, they are greatly influenced by the policies and practices of the local, state, and national ABE and staff development systems in which these programs operate. Our preliminary findings are based on data from questionnaires completed by more than 95 teachers who participated in our study, as well as in-depth interviews with 18 teachers and their program directors. The data so far indicate that at least five categories of factors influence teachers' ability to do their jobs well in adult basic education: 1. Access to resources that affect how teachers do their jobs, including classroom and program facilities and access to materials and technology; 2. Access to professional development and information, including access to written and electronic material that helps them better understand their classrooms, their programs and their field; 3. Access to colleagues and program directors, allowing teachers to meet with, talk to, and get feedback from those within their program, their state, and in the larger field of adult basic education; 4. Access to decision making that allows teachers to participate in helping to improve the quality of services that learners receive, particularly through program policies and practices; and 5. Access to a "real" job, including sufficient working hours to complete all of the teaching, program, and other tasks required of teachers; paid preparation and professional development time; stability; and benefits.

While we frame these factors as problems of "access," they are, in some instances, not just a function of access but a sign that such resources do not even exist. We discuss here each of these broad categories, their effects on teachers and programs, and their implications for adult learners and for the field as a whole.

Environmental Factors

Resources: "I'd love it if we had our own place"

"I don't teach in my own classroom . . . I'd love it if we had our own place, and I could set things up just so like a regular teacher, but I can't . . . I always carry such a big heavy bin that the other teachers make fun of me and call it my hazardous materials box . . . Anything that I use to teach I bring in and I have to leave that classroom exactly the way it was when I leave."

-ESOL teacher

"Lack of physical space is often a problem.  Classes are sometimes held in hallways and lunchrooms."

-GED teacher

Although some teachers were provided with good facilities in which to work, more often conditions were unsatisfactory. Teachers worked in borrowed space: in classes occupied during the day by K-12 teachers, in school cafeterias, or in the back rooms of offices. Often they could not use the blackboard, move chairs, display student work, or store materials. The most extreme case was a teacher who taught in a storage closet used by the local police that had walkers and folding chairs hanging from the ceiling, with ventilation so poor that students with allergies were having difficulty breathing. The inability to leave materials in place from one class to the next constrained teachers' abilities to plan and implement lessons. The lack of textbooks, particularly books students could take home; equipment such as computers and overhead projectors; teaching supplies; and access to photocopy machines were other missing resources frequently mentioned.

Out of 95 teachers in our studyÖ

· 39% did not have their own classrooms or space to teach or post materials.
· 29% did not have their own desk or place to leave materials.
· 13% said that adequate heating and cooling were not available in their programs.
· 17% said that the classrooms and/or furniture were not adequate enough in size.
· 33% rated concern about program facilities as one of their top three concerns about working in the field of ABE.
· 20% of the teachers did not have access to a computer in their programs.
· 31% did not have access to the Internet.
· 65% stated that there was no teachers' room in their program where they could meet informally with colleagues. 
· 38% of teachers do not have a resource center inside their programs.

· 52% had no place for students to meet outside of class.
· 23% received no paid professional development time.
· 32% received only one to 12 hours a year of paid professional development time.

Professional Development and Information: I Want to Do It Better

        "I've had trouble teaching them . . . using methods that are different from the way I learned in school and that's been a problem because I don't really want to teach them entirely the way I learned in school. I want to do it better."

-ABE/GED teacher

There is a wide range in amount of access to knowledge and information about the field and about teaching and learning in adult education. Although the majority of the teachers in our study had taught in the K-12 system, 57% had not taken a single undergraduate or graduate course related to teaching adults. In light of their lack of prior preparation, it would seem that professional development on the job would be of paramount importance. Yet support to attend workshops, other training activities, and participation in conferences was notably lacking. 

Even without support, however, most practitioners do participate in professional development. Workshops were the most common type of professional development (2.8 attended per year), and then conferences (1.4 per year). Most teachers went to single-session workshops and perhaps attended one state adult education conference in a given year.

Some teachers received little or no information about what was happening in adult education in their state. In fact, some of those who attended our staff development were surprised to learn that a "field" of adult education existed at all. They were unaware of journals in the field, of resources on adult education available through the Internet, or of the existence of national organizations for adult educators. One new teacher described her orientation this way:

        When I was interviewed, I was hired on the spot. I was brought upstairs to the room I would be teaching in and I was shown this big cabinet. They opened up the cabinet and they said, "Here are the materials."That's it. That was my orientation.

-ESOL teacher

In the previous year

· 23% of teachers in the study attended no workshops.
· 21% attended no conference.
· 65% did not participate in peer coaching.
· 79% had participated in no practitioner research.
· 47% had not engaged in curriculum development projects.
·65% had not participated in a study circle.
·52% read adult literacy-related materials less than 20 hours
a year.
· 59% did not participate on any adult literacy   electronic discussion lists.

For other teachers, however, the picture was quite different. They regularly received newsletters describing upcoming training opportunities and summarizing new materials available at their regional resource centers. They could choose from activities such as multisession workshops, teacher mentoring opportunities, curriculum development committee work through which they could provide input into state content standards, participatory research activities, and collaborative Internet-based projects.


Colleagues and Program Directors: Isolation Gets in the Way

        Isolation is difficult and gets in the way of me learning. I need to be stimulated and I need the ideas of other people. I would give anything . . . for us to be together and share.

      -ESOL teacher

Teachers wished they had access to more training outside their programs. They felt even more keenly the desire to be part of a learning community inside their program: to observe other teachers in action, to have regular staff meetings where they could share ideas with colleagues and, in some cases, to be mentored by a more experienced teacher or supervisor. The majority of programs (71%) have monthly staff meetings but teacher sharing meetings (where teachers meet to talk about teaching rather than administrative issues) were far less common. Half of all teachers in the sample reported that their programs have such meetings fewer than four times a year, and 10% of teachers reported that they never had such meetings. The only contact with colleagues for many teachers consisted of quick conversations in the school parking lot or hallway:

        Everybody is part-time. Since we don't regularly meet, where do you picture these informal conversations taking place? If we pass each other in the hallway, we might have a five-minute conversation . . . It's not like we have a lounge where we all gather because if we're not physically teaching, we're not usually physically present. It's not the same as in public education where you might have 40 minutes in the day when you're not busy . . . that doesn't happen when nobody is full-time.

-GED teacher

Moreover, most of the 18 teachers in our subsample reported that their directors rarely, if ever, visited their classrooms. While their directors often saw their "hands off" approach as an expression of confidence in their teaching, teachers - particularly new teachers - often wished for more teaching-related supervision and structured feedback.

Only a few teachers described themselves as working in collaborative teaching environments. In these sites, program directors were frequently former teachers. Teachers met regularly to reflect, plan, and solve problems. An ethic of collaboration encouraged more experienced teachers to support newer colleagues - in one case allowing newer teachers to "eavesdrop" on other classes. "If I hear a group really excited by something, I might wander over . . . I'm afforded that opportunity," observed one new ABE teacher. 

Decision-Making: I Haven't Been Heard

        I haven't been heard, no, I have not been heard. It makes me feel that I am sort of an outsider, I guess. I'm pretty powerless. 

-ESOL teacher

The extent to which teachers have formal opportunities to learn about, discuss, and influence aspects of their program varied greatly, but they are clearly interested in program structure and mission: 41% rated it as one of their top three concerns about working in the field. The primary way in which teachers gave input
to the program was to take the initiative to meet individually with the program director. Communication was sometimes so limited that, in one case, a teacher only learned that her program's funding had run out and that it was her last night of teaching because she happened to run into her director at one of the sites. The classroom, not the program, was the teachers' domain. Although teachers had to observe some external mandates such as testing requirements, many had relative freedom in deciding how to teach and the materials to use. However, support from program administration was cited as a top concern by 33% of the teachers in our sample.

        We are the teachers. We teach the students . . . We don't have a right to say, OK, what if the budget goes this way?' . . . What makes a program is everyone concerned, not the one or two persons to make decision for others . . . Programs are going to have to start realizing how to keep their teachers.  They want good teachers but yet they won't do anything to keep them.

-ESOL teacher

In many local education agencies (LEAs), directors themselves were constrained in their ability to implement change. Programmatic changes were often subject to the approval of the director of continuing education or the superintendent of schools. Program directors expressed frustration at the extent to which their ability to adjust the program to the needs of students was limited by school-wide policies, contributing to the feeling of teachers that their voices were not heard. 

In direct contrast were programs where teachers met regularly and were expected to make decisions not just about "housekeeping" issues but about substantive issues such as program design and hiring new staff. Of the 18 teachers we interviewed, the five who worked in such programs were either part of community-based or family literacy programs. In these cases teachers felt the sense of ownership and understanding of the program as a whole:

        I'm aware of all the parts of our program so I can communicate about other parts, if they [community members, prospective students] have a question for me.

-Family literacy teacher

"Real" Job: A Real Job for People 

        For us it was a major struggle to get full-time jobs and get health benefits . . . I think we had clear concerted efforts about the development of solid jobs - where this could be a real job for people.

-Program director

Adult basic education teachers, like other professionals, need jobs that offer a livable wage and benefits, as well as sufficient working hours to do their jobs well. This includes being paid not just an hourly wage for time in the classroom but also for the time required to prepare for classes, follow-up with students, contribute to program improvement, and learn about the job. For the teachers in our study, such jobs were the exception, not the rule. 

Using a fairly liberal definition of "full time" (25+ hours per week) . . .

· Only 45 of 103 teachers were full-time, with the mean number of hours worked equaling 22.6 per week.
· Only 24 teachers worked 35 or more hours a week.
· Of 78 teachers who provided such information, 45% received benefits, and 54% received paid time for classroom preparation and planning-related activities.

Concern about salary ranked high (second out of 11 concerns). Even among teachers who did work full time, wages were often low. One full-time teacher explained that after eight years in the field, she still earns less than a beginning K-12 teacher.

        If anything were to happen to my husband there is no way I could support a householdÖ there's no way I could support myself on that wage. I'd have to go on food stamps. 
-Family literacy / ESOL teacher

Often, it was taken for granted that dedicated teachers would give unpaid time outside of class to find ways to apply what they had learned in staff development to the classroom. The fact that women predominate in the profession, as this director points out, may contribute to this expectation:

        I just don't see how you can expect people to commit to any kind of staff development and find out more about best practices when you pay them for four hours a week . . . I don't go for paying someone 40 hours a week and expecting them to work 80 or paying them for 20 and expecting them to work 40. I just don't believe in it and I think it's been done so much to women.

-Program director

Out of 104 
original teachers 
in our sample . . .

13 (12.5%) had left the field one year later. Of this group,  one could not be located, four had left the field for reasons unrelated to working conditions (relocation, attending graduate school), and two wanted to work in the K-12 system, but the reasons the others left were all related to working conditions (two cited the need for benefits, two cited the need for more  pay, two cited the need for job stability).

In addition to low wages and poor working conditions, teachers perceived their status within the teaching profession as low:

        There's a perception out there that we are not real teachers. We're not as credentialed or as good or as certified and that hurts our image.

-ESOL teacher

Impact on Students

The negative impact of these environmental factors on students - in particular, the lack of access to resources - was conveyed by several of the teachers in our subsample:

        They [the students] came in the first day when they saw this [the classroom in the storage closet]. There's no mistaking about how the town feels about us when this is where we are and a minor department in town has got a newly painted office and this is where a school is.

-ESOL teacher

        Having old computers is one example. Not having enough books is another. I think it's kind of lousy that a student can't take a book home.

-ESOL teacher

Responses to Conditions

The ways in which teachers chose to respond to these conditions varied. Our study suggests that teachers make one of three decisions when they are cognizant of working conditions that are less than optimal: they decide to challenge, cope, or leave. In our subsample of 18 teachers, we did identify teachers who were
so isolated that they did not have a point of comparison for what good working conditions might look like and thus did not take any action. Others, however, were clear about the strategy they had chosen when faced with an environment that made it difficult for them to do their jobs as well as they wished to.


In cases where teachers had a strong voice in decision-making within their program, challenging the program or system to improve was regarded positively. These teachers often saw themselves as part of a team made up of their colleagues, their director, and sometimes students themselves. Although their working conditions were not always optimal, they felt a sense of ownership of their programs and an investment in a process of program improvement. 

For other teachers, the choice to try to challenge or change their working conditions would entail rocking the boat. When asked whether their programs choose at least one issue each year on which to work toward program-wide improvement, 39% of the teachers in our sample said "no," an indication that these teachers have no organized opportunity or mechanism to make change. When asked the extent to which their director encouraged them to have a voice in decisions within the program, teachers' mean rating was 5.09 (with "1" being no encouragement at all and "6" being complete encouragement). However, when asked the extent to which they felt their voice was actually used in decision-making, the rating was lower (a mean of 4.55).  

   As a teacher, we are always looking toward making sure that learners' needs are met.  I can't do that if my needs are not met . . . No wonder learners are giving up.  No wonder they're afraid to go talk to administrators when teachers are even afraid to follow up on their issues . . . If I'm going to teach students to voice their opinions and to make changes, I need to do it also.

      -ESOL teacher


Teachers who have chosen to cope with unsatisfactory conditions have learned how to do their work while dealing with the frustration caused by their circumstances:

        I've learned to roll with the punches. If you can't change it, accept it. Frustration would accomplish nothing.

     -GED teacher

      . . . teachers are already tired. They've had a rough year. Then to try to fight the administrators all the time. They give up...

      -Family literacy teacher

For some teachers coping meant simply "putting in your 20 hours"
and doing the same thing year after year; for others, it meant striving to improve their practice within the areas over which they had control, such as classroom activities. Since ABE has no existing national organizations within which ABE teachers can have their voices heard collectively, a teacher who feels she or he cannot challenge (or has unsuccessfully challenged) poor environmental conditions must either choose to cope or leave.

     If we talk too much, then they're going to make it hard for us.  It's this perception that you as an individual have no right to say or voice your opinion . . . There's nothing as far as ABE teachers or any type of support or like an organization or a union or anything.  There's nobody there to support this individual, to say it's OK to voice your opinions . . . their fear of losing their position is a reality.  It does happen.

     -ESOL/family literacy teacher 


        When I started eight years ago, there was a core teacher group that we all hung out with, especially at conferences and stuff . . . Now it's like we see all new faces. I thought, Where'd they go?  They were good, bright teachers, how come they left?'

     -ESOL/family literacy teacher

Teachers have a third option: leave the field. While some teachers leave for reasons that have nothing to do with environmental factors (retirement, relocation), others do see leaving the field as a decision they need to make, either because they tried to make a difference and were unsuccessful or because they chose not to cope.

        Right now ABE teachers throughout the state, and I'm sure it's true in other states, we're leaving because of the finances . . . This is why teachers are leaving; and that's why teachers that do come in, do not give their all to programs because of this. I see it and I hear it. 

     -Family literacy teacher

In teachers' perception, the high teacher turnover rate is an important reason why students leave:

        When you lose a teacher in the middle, or even after a year, it's a huge issue. I'm sure we've lost some students who will never come back because their teacher is gone.

     -ESOL teacher


Few would argue that the recruitment and retention of good teachers are key to improving adult basic education. System reform cannot succeed unless it focuses on creating the conditions in which teachers can teach well. Even though numerous teachers do wonderful jobs, our findings so far indicate that we need to pay more attention to what teachers have to say about their working conditions if we are to design and deliver effective staff development, improve student retention, and professionalize the field as a whole. It is hard to imagine how the field of adult learning and literacy will be able to provide the type of instructional services learners need when teachers - most of whom are part-time and do not receive benefits or salaries commensurate with their K-12 counterparts - are faced with working conditions and environmental factors that make it difficult for them to learn about and deliver quality instruction. A rigorous accountability system may only demonstrate the limited outcomes and impacts that result from such conditions.

About the Authors

Cristine Smith, a World Education staff member, is associate director of NCSALL and principal investigator for the Staff Development Study. She has more than 15 years experience in adult basic education as a teacher, teacher trainer, curriculum developer, and program designer.

Judy Hofer is World Education's coordinator of NCSALL's Staff Development Study and a trainer for the Women and Violence project. For the past 10 years she has worked in the adult literacy field as a community-based teacher, professional development facilitator, and researcher. She lives in New Mexico.

Marilyn Gillespie is an educational researcher in adult literacy education at SRI International in Washington, DC. Her research concentrates on bridging the gap between theory and practice in staff development, assessment of adult learning, curriculum development, and technology innovations in adult education.