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Empowering Teachers and Learners by Teaching Skills that Matter

by Hillary Major

9-5-3. Those numbers speak to the heart of Teaching the Skills that Matter in Adult Education (TSTM), a federally funded project that focuses on improving adult education and literacy instruction as a means of helping adult learners acquire the skills they need for meeting the demands of their lives. Most of the nine (9) “skills that matter” will be familiar to teachers, who might have seen them in lists of 21st century skills or, more recently, in descriptions of workplace readiness skills or WIOA-approved workplace preparation activities. They are:

  1. Adaptability and Willingness to Learn

  2. Critical Thinking

  3. Communication

  4. Interpersonal Skills

  5. Navigating Systems

  6. Problem-solving

  7. Processing and Analyzing Information

  8. Respecting Difference and Diversity

  9. Self-awareness

Importantly, these skills are not taught or learned in isolation. TSTM focuses on developing the nine (9) skills, along with basic and academic skills, in five (5) main subject areas that are relevant to adults’ daily lives: civics education, digital literacy, financial literacy, health literacy, and workforce preparation. To do that meaningfully, with lessons that engage adults and give ample practice opportunities with the “skills that matter,” TSTM also focuses on three (3) instructional approaches: integrated and contextualized instruction, problem-based learning, and project-based learning. This may seem like a lot, but with TSTM, integration is the name of the game. Becky Payton, pilot instructor and regional specialist with Thomas Jefferson Adult and Continuing Education at Piedmont Virginia Community College says: “TSTM ties CCR standards and workplace readiness skills together so neatly. It is a package worth opening.”

Developed by American Institutes for Research (AIR) in partnership with Jobs for the Future, TSTM includes an extensive toolkit for teachers, as well as training and coaching for instructors. As one of five pilot states, Virginia has assembled a dynamic team of instructors who have been attending training, teaching lessons from the TSTM toolkit, and applying TSTM to their instructional approaches since September 2019. Together, the pilot instructors represent a wide range of Virginia adult education, from English language instruction to GED® preparation to PluggedInVA and job skills training. After several months of teaching with the TSTM toolkit and training in mind, all participating teachers found their students better able to identify and apply skills such as communication, critical thinking, and interpersonal skills.

Integrating the TSTM skills and approaches can mean turning over some of the classroom responsibility from teacher to students, which can be challenging but rewarding as students become empowered as learners and leaders. The Virginia pilot team benefited from working with adult education leader and instructional coach Susan Finn Miller, who participated in planning and problem-solving discussions by phone, visited from her home state of Pennsylvania to observe classes, and supported Virginia’s teachers in their instructional journeys.

At the AE&L Conference, pilot teacher Mary Cherry of Southside Virginia Community College spoke about making project-based learning work in her rural program to support and challenge learners in very multilevel classrooms. Lyle Ring of the Arlington Education and Employment Program (REEP) found the TSTM materials worked well with his program’s curriculum and the topic areas selected by his students. He said, “TSTM gave me an arsenal of resources as a teacher and provides our program with a roadmap to integrate employability skills with ELPS.”

ESL teacher and pilot team member Sarah Lupton of Roanoke Valley-Allegheny Region 5 Adult Education shared the power of her TSTM experience:

You know that high you have after attending a professional teaching conference? You head home enthusiastic and motivated and confident, ready to try out a bunch of new things in your classroom . . . then life happens and a lot of those ideals go by the wayside. Well, TSTM is like conference motivation that never ends. Its trifecta of access to professional resources, teaching coaches, and research-based methods keeps you going all school year long. You won’t be able to help yourself—you’ll want your colleagues to know how they, too, can craft lessons in such a way that both they and their students leave each class able to articulate how each day’s lesson grew their academic, social, and civic abilities. Whereas many students may typically say “I’m enrolled in this class so I can get my GED® [credential],” after TSTM, students will say, “I enrolled so I could get my diploma, but along the way I gained skills that will serve me so much longer and much more broadly. Even my family has benefited.”

In my class, I experienced a true career high point while teaching a TSTM lesson—students proudly and confidently presented to their peers the results of research and surveys they had completed in order to compare and contrast two possible career options. For the presenting students, the level of personalization—and therefore investment—was high, but it was also evident that the audience was motivated to benefit from their peers’ presentations. Students asked question after question of the presenters, and what could have been just another dry Venn Diagram project was instead a dynamic time of higher level thinking skills and meaningful communication on display!

The TSTM pilot team continues to advise and work with the VALRC on ways to roll out TSTM to a wider audience, and we all look forward to sharing more with fellow Virginia educators. Expect to see further information, including professional development opportunities and the public launch of the TSTM Toolkit (with lessons), announced over VAELN this year. You can also learn more about Teaching the Skills that Matter at the TSTM Virtual Conference, June 16-17.

Hillary Major

Hillary Major is the Instructional Standards and Communications Specialist at the Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center. She works to assist Virginia adult educators as they incorporate the College and Career Readiness Standards for Adult Education into their programs and instruction. She is a coordinator for Virginia’s Teaching Skills that Matter pilot team.

What is VAELN? VAELN (Virginia Adult Education & Literacy Network Listserv) is an electronic mailing list maintained by the Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center. Subscribers may send messages to everyone on the list and will receive all messages sent to the list. Adult educators are encouraged to subscribe to VAELN to keep abreast of policy changes, Resource Center acquisitions, and staff development information.