What Makes a Great Teacher?

As seen in more depth in Section Five, most learners enter our programs in a very vulnerable state. Most need some initial “nurturing” until they find their comfort level with the tutor or teacher, as well as the program. However, as identified above, adults also have the deep psychological need to be seen by others as being self-directing.

Most need to be nurtured and helped in the early stage, but importantly, most will soon expect “to be seen by others as being self-directing.” This will vary with each learner, but at some point an adult will be thinking: “Help me but don’t ‘coddle’ me. At least not forever.”

Although this “nurture vs self-image” paradox is usually ignored in the vast majority of postsecondary and university settings, researchers and writers in our mainstream adult higher education literature have strongly advocated for an initial “bridging period” in most areas of adult education (e.g., Pratt, 1998). They point out new adult learners typically move from the “waiting to be taught” to a much more engaged stance where they now want to be seen and treated as capable adults.

While it is a generalization, nevertheless we are talking about a very different understanding of adult learning with adult literacy than the all-too-common “sink-or-swim” approach so often seen in postsecondary and higher education systems. This can be ignored in our field of course–we all know adults can endure a lot…who hasn’t sat through multiple boring talks and lectures? But what makes an excellent teacher in literacy is much more than passing on information.

This issue is revisited in the discussion on motivation in Section Four, but let’s consider what this difference between mainstream adult education and adult literacy means for our learners and for our practitioners, including our institutional and program administrators who often make assumptions about who our learners are and how they “should be taught” based on the norms of mainstream adult education.