Learner Engagement: The Missing Link

Monica Sczyrba-Davis, Pincher Creek Community Adult Learning Council

1 17 19 February 2019

This week we are pleased to feature a guest blogger. The blog has been submitted by Monica Sczyrba-Davis, Executive Director, Pincher Creek Community Adult Learning Program. 

The Way It Is:

We have some awareness now of the history of Residential Schools, Indigenous culture and traditions, generational trauma as well as some knowledge around cycles of poverty and mental health that affect the majority of the clients we see. We know there is relevant training already available that addresses some of these pieces. At Pincher Creek CALP we see a definite link between all barriered learners, regardless of background. We see an adult who has suffered loss, trauma, deals with fear and anxiety and is generally a more vulnerable person.

Common Thread

In discussion with peers and colleagues both in our own community and throughout the province, there is an un-talked about discomfort around working with foundational learners. Learners may have served jail time, be involved in sex work, be charged with a criminal offence and yet to be tried, have Schizophrenia, Asperger’s, OCD, ADD, Anxiety Disorders, Depressions, be living with addiction to alcohol or drugs, etc. It is understandable that some CALP staff are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with many of these lived experiences. We have learned over time that nearly every single foundational learner was doing great at some point in their life, then trauma hit. After the trauma, the supports were not there and life spiraled in negative ways creating or continuing the cycle of difficulty.

What is the link between a learner suffering through trauma and not having basic needs met and a CALP staff or volunteer? How can we connect in a linkway that a learner is able to feel comfortable and understood? We believe we are all linked by our empathy. As human beings, we have all suffered loss. It is part of the human condition that loved ones pass on, illness happens, jobs are lost, in general, life happens to all of us. We feel it is very important to remember what it is like to be at our most vulnerable, to think back to what that felt like. In conversations around what helped each of us through our own traumas, we were able to very naturally create a genuine connection with the learners we support. There is a basic understanding and empathy for each learner that walks through the door. We try not to make assumptions, but we believe no harm can be done by treating each person who walks in to our CALP in a way that supports someone feeling at their most vulnerable.

A brief list of what helps each of us, and the learners who come to our CALP, to thrive follows:

What does Engaging a Learner feel like/look like?

  • A genuine welcoming greeting, a warm acknowledgment, by name where possible
  • Facilitators are participants in programs rather than always in a teaching role, we are all learners here
  • Check in - ask, “where are you at today?” Acknowledgment for self and group as needed
  • Everything is welcoming. You know that feeling of being left out or not included that we all experienced in school at some point? None of that here!  
  • Create appropriate boundaries. We are a learning organization; that is what we do. We make referrals where we can, but we are NOT councilors, doctors etc. Merely guides on a client’s learning journey
  • Learner-centered and relevant programming always
  • Positive and encouraging environment always
  • Strengths-based – we all have skills, experience and wisdom that is valid
  • Staff is aware of body language, again always being mindful of welcoming postures and including learners in coffee breaks and conversations where possible and of value
  • When a learner leaves, say, “see you again” by name whenever possible, “thank you for coming, good to see you,” etc
  • Texting is encouraged during office hours
  • Tea/coffee/ breakfast foods available as needed, part of everyone’s welcome
  • Welcoming space of course, nature based decor, various languages as appropriate
  • No judgement here. Everyone is a learner
  • Acknowledge anxiety and nervousness when we begin a new class. We usually practice as a group a few tried and true stress busters and coping strategies for dealing with anxiety
  • Treat each person like they are joining our community of learners, relate to each person as we would a family member or good friend
  • Create opportunities for mentorship within and outside of class
  • Encourage a “help yourself as much as possible” attitude
  • Never enable, always empower
  • Understand the value of ongoing self-care
  • Provide opportunities that are culturally relevant such as smudging prior to class or guidance of an Elder
  • Create opportunities to connect with as many human, learning and practical resources inside and outside of our classroom
  • Create and support opportunities for trust and friendships to form. Many of the learners we meet feel isolated, friendless and do not always feel comfortable making new friends

 Essentially the full gamut of ways to engage on a continuous basis, a culture of care.

Together this builds trust and authentic relationships, which allow us to be a part of guiding learners towards building their Vision and realizing their Potential.

Learners are encouraged to visit and return as often as they like for days, weeks, months or years.

Follow up, repeat as necessary!

What does learner success look like? This is what we have seen from our learners:

  • New found ability to obtain employment to support upgrading, GED or post secondary pursuits
  • Ability to manage the bumps on the road of life and maintain positive progress on learning goals
  • Ability to independently research  and connect with other resources in our community
  • Ability to express what is important with confidence
  • Ability to ask for what is needed to achieve next steps on the learning journey
  • Ability to mentor fellow learners and loved ones based on acquisition of new skills
  • Ability to articulate goals and identify what strengths and challenges are ahead
  • Ability to apply learning and obtain real life certification, like a Learner’s License
  • Ability to see the needs of the people around you and discover inner resources and courage to learn more to pursue leadership opportunities
  • Ability to inspire family members to also find ways to realize potential
  • Ability to maintain positive relationships and seek out new helpful relationships with other organizations
  • Ability to see one’s own potential and conceive a plan to realize it, one step at a time
  • Ability to get back up after failure, to return to learning
  • Ability to create a more positive environment, to raise expectations
  • Ability to be accountable, recognize learnings and move forward
  • A reason to smile more often, to more people

VERY IMPORTANT! All this must take place in an environment that is safe for staff, learners and volunteers. This includes providing training around boundaries from others’ trauma, and a mutual code of respect that is created with learners prior to program start. We also continually revise, learn and discuss our programs and policies as we go. We have built a community of support for our staff and team so we can be strong and best serve the foundational learners in our community. This staff team’s strength empowers clients to do the same in their own lives.

                                       pincher creek3

                        Left to right: Shannon Jackson, Monica Sczyrba-Davis, Lucille Provost and Annie Steward

Thank you!

This document represents the learning of our team and inspiration from our learners over the past 9 years. Thank you to Annie Steward, Lucille Provost and Shannon Jackson for their continued awesomeness, passion and perseverance towards the learners we serve. Thank you to John Taylor, board chair, who was supportive of this blog and its value. Thank you to Emily, Odette and Shaba for your expertise, advice and support.

Monica Sczyrba-Davis
Executive Director, Pincher Creek Community Adult Learning Program


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