Welcome! Read the latest issue of PROGRESS, featuring inclusive programming in Virginia. Read PROGRESS

Motivation & Persistence in Adult Education

by Betsy C. Mathias

“What’s in it for me?”

That’s a question we ask ourselves when we are choosing to take an action or not. It’s not a selfish question—it’s a process of weighing pros and cons, determining if the benefits of action are greater than the potential challenges or sacrifices. Our motivation comes from our answer to this question.

So what motivates our adult students to enroll and participate in the instructional services we offer? During registration, our students list goals such as learning English, getting a GED® credential, getting a better job, helping their families. As they spend time in class and build relationships and trust with their teachers and peers, they cite more specific, personal goals. They talk about how they want to improve their lives and feel better about themselves. They provide us an opportunity to identify their needs and support the pursuit of their goals. They evaluate how our instructional services will make their situation better. “What’s in it for me?” they ask.

What motivates our staff – instructional and support – to do what they do? What’s in it for our teachers, our aides, our volunteers to stay involved in adult education? In most cases, the answer revolves around helping others. As educators, we like to solve riddles. We like to identify a need, try different approaches to address that need, and enjoy the moment when that need has been successfully met. It doesn’t have to be a big success, at least by our own measure, but it is a time when our student understands that learning leads to achieving personal goals. We say that the student has succeeded but we have also succeeded as part of the process. It motivates us to keep doing what we do, waiting for the joy that comes when another student need is identified and met. We receive personal satisfaction when we witness the results of our efforts, as instructors, as counselors, as friends. It’s why we do what we do. It’s what’s in it for us.

Motivation within our program has a different measure. What’s in it for me as a program manager to build, maintain, and share a successful program? Intrinsically, I want to help people, but the resources I use are different from those of my staff. I must take a big picture approach. If I want to help people reach their goals, I need to build a foundation of resources to assist them. Strategic plans, budgets, data, partnerships – all those business terms support the foundation of our adult education program. What’s in it for me? I can blend the details with the big picture and see that qualitatively and quantitatively, I am making a difference in people’s lives.

Motivation comes from within. Our students choose to participate when they feel that they can individually benefit. Our teachers choose to contribute when they feel they can make a difference, improve someone’s situation in life. As a program manager, I choose to support a program that I feel is making a positive impact in our community. But how do you keep the motivation alive? How do you make sure that benefits exceed challenges or sacrifices?

Persistence keeps motivation alive. Persistence involves teamwork, sharing joys and setbacks. Persistence is hard work because it requires us to constantly reevaluate whether the benefits of our actions outweigh the challenges and obstacles. As adult educators, we have the opportunity to guide, support, and challenge our students to persist in pursuing their goals. The real work is theirs to be done, but we can help them along their journeys. Their personal motivation led them to us and our professional motivation encourages us to help them persist towards their goals. Yes, there will be challenges – skill deficiency, transportation, childcare, negative relationships – but if we collectively remember what motivated us to start this partnership and process initially, then persistence can follow.

In the end, through all our collective efforts, we are changing lives. What a wonderful profession to be a part of.

Betsy Mathias recently retired as Regional Program Manager of Rappahannock Area Regional Adult Education. She has been a leader in adult education for 30 years and serves as treasurer for the Virginia Association of Adult and Continuing Education (VAACE).