In the last two and a half years I’ve taught over three thousand job seekers in a series of free workshops at the local Oregon WorkSource. This is what I’ve learned about working with adult students. I believe this approach creates a productive, hopeful and fulfilling learning environment – for both the students and instructor.
Begin and end on their needs. The majority of my students are baby boomers. Because they have worked in one company for numerous years as well as hired, fired and managed teams, they may know more than you. Use this knowledge in the room. A favorite way for me to begin a class about interviewing is to say this: “Before I spend ninety minutes telling you what I know about interviewing skills, tell me what you know.” I then fill the white board with all their ideas. After we’ve compiled a list, I validate that indeed, they know something about interviews. I also state: “There are some things I don’t see on the list. That’s good news. It means there is something to learn. I am glad you are here.” I end the class by using students’ names and asking them, “Have your needs been met? What do you see as your next steps after the discussion we’ve had today?”
They likely do not know what you know. Do not assume everyone reads the books you read about job search skills. Chances are they don’t. On a regular basis students reveal gaps in knowledge about basic job search techniques:
When I teach, I weave a fun and delicate tapestry of leveraging the knowledge in the room with my subject matter expertise. I love it when students disagree with me; those moments make for the most engaging discussions. In the last two years alone I’ve edited over a thousand resumes. I once was editing a student’s resume in class when she shared that the resume I was marking up was the one that got her the last job. What did I do with that? I turned it into a teaching moment for the entire class: “A perfect resume isn’t necessarily a flawless resume. A perfect resume is the one that gets you the result you want.”
Adapt and improvise. I am sincere and serious about meeting my workshop learning objectives. I am not so serious about how those learning objectives are met. One student attended my resume workshop three times in one month. At the end of the third one she declared, “I’ve learned something new every time!” How did that happen? She didn’t get a memorized speech from me. My least favorite method of teaching is lecture. Different classmates provide different real world experiences. I use their experience in the classroom. I once had a recent high school graduate in my class along with a handful of baby boomers. I shared the high school student’s resume, with her permission of course, and as a group we edited it. The experienced students weighed in with opinions and we disagreed often. It was one of the most exciting hours of teaching ever. The exercise demonstrated the subjectivity of resume writing. By the way, the student was hired.
They may be nervous. Of course they won’t say this when they walk in to your classroom but work from the assumption that they didn’t expect to find themselves here. Be approachable. Through your words and nonverbal communication, convey that this is a low stress classroom. I laugh a lot. I demonstrate fallibility. I make process comments from the very beginning, such as:
In my resume class, I invite students to volunteer for me to edit their resume in front of the class. I often get one student at the end of the class that almost surreptitiously asks me to look at the resume without an audience. On a monthly basis, a student reveals that they didn’t know what to expect before coming in and were grateful and relieved with their experience. This small experience of living through feelings of nervousness builds confidence.
Maintain a flexible classroom management style and program. I met a student who was over the age of sixty-five and he queried me after one of my classes: Did we need to register for my classes ahead of time? What happens if he wants to attend a class but might be late? I told him there is no need to register ahead of time. If he needs to arrive late or leave early, I trust him to make those decisions. He then revealed to me that he attended a similar series of workshops in a different county. He arrived late one time by a few minutes and wasn’t allowed access to the class. He also said that he was “scolded” (his word) for not registering ahead of time. This student was a computer software engineer. His last job was within the artificial intelligence industry. Lesson learned: Run a flexible classroom and program.
Assume there is an undercurrent of emotions related to job loss. Adult students cry in my classroom. After a job loss, they can feel betrayed, afraid, shocked, confused, hurt, and uncertain about their future. What do you do? Normalize. Respect boundaries. A student introduced herself by stating, “I lost my job after twenty years. I don’t want to say more because I’ll start crying.” I responded by saying, “I appreciate your check in. I won’t press for details. I am glad you are here.” I rarely ask students how they feel but I am mindful that my word choice addresses unexpressed emotions. I say, “You don’t have to do this job search alone.” That breaks their fear of isolation. I say, “I care about you. Add me to your job search support team.” This assures them they have support. Getting laid off unexpectedly can be a severe loss. Sensitive instruction can prevent it from being traumatic.
Live and teach in joy. When I teach I am in the psychological state of “flow”. I lose track of time and paper. I crave and seek to create the “aha!” moments. I practice here-and-now mindfulness. Students cannot control the past; how their last job ended. Students cannot control the future; it is rife with uncertainty. They don’t know where their next job lead is coming from. What my students and I can do, in the present moment, is create a productive and fulfilling learning environment. As long as learning is occurring, momentum for success is building. This shared classroom experience creates hope. The opportunity to instill hope is why I teach.
Rob Seemann works as an instructor for Northwest Family Services in Portland, Oregon. This nonprofit has a partnership with Clackamas Workforce Partnership and Clackamas WorkSource to provide job search skills workshops for the unemployed. He can be reached at email@example.com