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

The Teachable Moment

by Vici Garber

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act brought change to our adult education classrooms. The legislation broadened our focus from basic skills and test prep to incorporate workplace skills and job obtainment. For many instructors, this change has been a challenge, requiring a new way of thinking that dared us to step out of our comfort zones. For instructors with a workforce background, these changes made a lot of sense.

With the adoption of the College & Career Readiness Standards and incorporation of programs such as Burlington English, Stand Out, and the National External Diploma Program, workforce preparation activities have earned their place in basic skills instruction. However, adding some slight shifts in classroom culture borrowed from job readiness classes can continue to help adult learners compete in the job market and thrive in a career.

Shenandoah Initiative for Adult Education (SHINE) has a long-standing partnership with Shenandoah Valley Social Services. SHINE provides workforce skills instruction to Social Services’ Virginia Initiative for Employment not Welfare (VIEW) clients through a two-part program: job readiness, which focuses on job acquisition, and workplace essential skills (WES), which focuses on job retention.

The classroom dynamic in job readiness and WES differs from a typical adult education classroom in that the instructor is not only the “teacher,” but also functions in the role of “employer.” Every situation—attention to work, tardiness or absence, appropriate dress, interpersonal relationships among learners—is addressed through a workforce lens.

Job readiness and WES classrooms become de facto job sites, where learners access tools such as an employment application template, interviewing questionnaire, and a variety of resources and are plunged into the world of soft skills training. Embedding soft skills in a simulated workplace environment is essential to the success of this program. Employers repeatedly state that they can train new hires to perform job-specific skills, if only the employee would show up to work on time, put down the phone, and focus on the job. Addressing the elusive soft skill gap by turning the classroom into a simulated workplace is a way that adult education can meet this need.

In programs that are specifically designed to teach soft skills, it might feel very natural to take on the role of “employer,” but can an instructor do this in an ABE classroom? The answer is certainly yes. As instructors, we are tasked with finding “teachable moments” in our classrooms. Incorporating soft skills in the context of teaching math and writing becomes more natural when instructors begin to see the classroom through a workforce lens.

Some teachable moments are subtle and may not require direct instruction. A simple note written on the board when a learner is late for class or a scheduled appointment with an instructor is a non-confrontational way of addressing a lack of punctuality. “Tardiness leads to termination” is a powerful statement. If the late-comer reports a reason for being tardy, another teachable moment presents itself. The instructor can set up the protocol to receive a text message in the future, followed by a discussion on employer expectations regarding tardiness. This situation could also lead to another workplace conversation: having a “Plan B.” The importance of a “Plan B” is also a great discussion or writing topic after an unexpected absence from class.

Employers repeatedly state that they can train new hires to perform job-specific skills, if only the employee would show up to work on time, put down the phone, and focus on the job.

There may be times that a learner makes an inappropriate personal comment towards the instructor or another learner. Take the teachable moment to address appropriate communication and sexual harassment in the workplace. Some adults do not yet understand that a seemingly innocent comment could end in job termination. There are many possibilities in the everyday classroom to address workplace skills.

Our classrooms have transformed from lecture-based instruction to interactive communities. In PluggedInVA classrooms, the “4 Cs”—collaboration, creativity, communication, and critical thinking—are emphasized during any group activity. When learners can identify how these soft skills are a part of classroom activities, they can better visualize how it will benefit them in the workplace.

The Virginia Department of Education’s Workplace Readiness Skills for the Commonwealth lists twenty-one needs identified by Virginia employers. Every day, good instructors naturally address many of these needs, but with a little specific intention, the classroom could be more workforce-focused:

  • A positive work ethic is addressed daily when we praise a motivated learner.
  • Teamwork is a part of our everyday classroom with peer instruction and paired or group activities.
  • Diversity awareness is impossible to overlook in our melting-pot classrooms.
  • The need for conflict resolution instruction could pop up unexpectedly, but a savvy instructor can transform a tense situation into a workplace lesson.

The “teachable moment” is discussing how those traits translate to the workplace and how our learners can showcase these moments in a standout job performance.

The struggles we as instructors face now, that insecure feeling of getting out of our comfort zones to turn our programs into workforce-focused classrooms, will give our learners opportunities for self-sufficiency and increased self-worth, while we instructors earn the satisfaction of changing people’s lives.

pic of Vici GarberVici Garber has served as the Regional Specialist & PluggedInVA Coordinator for Region 6 since 2015. She started her career in adult education in 200, with a focus on employment services. She has served as an instructor for GED®, ESOL, job readiness, and PluggedInVA and as co-teacher for the Career Pathways for Individuals with Disabilities grant cohort at Blue Ridge Community College. She can be reached at vgarber@waynesboro.k12.va.us.