Women, literacy and learning: Is there an issue? (Report from an adult education interest section discussion group, TESOL '98)

Janet Isserlis

Twelve women came together for a Thursday morning discussion group focused on women's issues in adult education. For many of us, this session presented an opportunity to talk about issues our learners face as well as our own responses to the difficulties encountered by women in adult ESOL and literacy programs.

women working in ESOL/literacy

Among the many topics we touched on, we spent time identifying issues raised by women in our programs, and thinking about and discussing our own mental health, how we support each other as workers, and the needs we have for support both in and out of our workplaces. For some of us, explaining what we do at work to our friends or needing to talk about things that happen to us through our work (problems to which we are exposed/which are disclosed to us) is an important part of the ongoing nurturing and self-support we need in order to be as effective as possible in our work. One woman mentioned the fact that she had needed time at work to cry, when crying is the professional thing to do. There was an acknowledgment of the fact that for women as professionals, we have opportunities to look at our own spaces and to find safe ways to express ourselves - something not always available to all of us or to our learners. We need to defy the 'authority' of professional demeanor - to not lose a sense of the human element in all of our work.

While education workers need support in numerous ways, we focussed specifically on the ways in which we respond to the harsh realities encountered by many of the women in our programs. There was thus, too, an acknowledgement that those in supervisory positions need to acknowledge the professionalism of caring, emotional response and to create space and structures for expression of and around secondary trauma many educators experience as a result of learning and hearing about difficult experiences.

In many of our programs, confidentiality issues are important - sometimes preventing us, though, from sharing information about learners when we could benefit from learning more about their particular situations. Some of us are able to work in teams and to talk about programs and problems amongst learners/clients, sharing pools of insight and information. This is delicate work, though. We might think about addressing program and larger policy issues in order to help us maintain respect for the privacy of learners while also increasing our awareness of the multiple factors assisting and impeding their participation in our programs.

For many of us, program leadership sets the tone - many of us find working with a mostly women staff helpful, although we acknowledge that many of our male colleagues are aware of and sensitive to the issues affecting women learners.

barriers to learning

Childcare, money, transportation, abuse, and cultural conflicts were all mentioned as hindrances to women's attendance and participation in learning situations. As well the inevitable shifts in power dynamics as women become more independent -- partners' and communities' responses to women becoming more independent -- have an important impact on women's ability and even willingness to continue to participate in classes. We spoke about the possibilities of creating supportive contexts for people entering literacy programs. Adult development models (such as that posited by Robert Kegan) acknowledge the demands of social life on adults - interactions with partners, schools, other adults. Does learning language and literacy make it easier or more difficult to cope? We need to be aware of what goes on beyond the classroom.

We wondered about curricula that have been developed to address these concerns, and, beyond curriculum -- what approaches are being used in programs? How are materials and approaches utilized? What skills are needed for women to cope with these shifts in self-image and power dynamics?

Women's writing groups and the use of writing to heal ourselves/for victims/survivors to heal themselves were mentioned. "Writing to health" -- inviting program participants to start with writing -- was viewed as a useful approach in some contexts. Voices magazine (and other learner-generated and published writing) were also mentioned as providing important information for women (and men) wanting to read about the experiences of others in similar situations/contexts.

Also of concern to the group and to educators everywhere are children's roles - translating for parents, putting parents/mothers in more of a one-down position -- these family/community dynamics have real impact on individuals' abilities to focus on learning. Part of these cultural shifts also include the fact that mothers' work is not valued in this society. We also talked about the notion of food itself as cultural connection, weapon, and offering. One woman in the group shared a story about a Cambodian mother who travelled some distance daily to bring her son (off at boarding school) her own home-cooked food when she learned how unhappy he was there. Pat Rigg reminded us to remember older women - the grandmothers who often look after small children and households, enabling mothers and others to come to classes. As well, we need to be mindful of reducing isolation for learners in ways that best assist them in coping with life in the new country (the resettlement country). Pat also spoke of job discrimination against older women, and about the impact of job cutbacks on older women. Tamarah Cohen, another participant in the discussion, reminded us of the importance of considering and being actively attentive to multiple points of view. What does a voice of love or condemnation sound like? Honoring our mothers and grandmothers, being aware of the mental health issues affecting older (and all) women as they encounter the stresses induced by resettlement, ongoing strains of daily survival are of great importance, too, in continuing the work we do with and among learners.

Finally, as Lee Haller points out, we talked about the notion of literacy as "power-laden 'gift'." We can not forget to question our own powerful positions are teachers, especially as the importance of literacy itself varies among different cultures, and is privileged in many artificial ways in this country. Literacy by itself is not likely to much change anyone's life. There are important contexts in which learning and discovery occur, can be nurtured or can be thwarted.

It seemed that having this opportunity to come together to share concerns and questions was helpful to many of us; trying to develop similar opportunities in our own contexts/places of work/ communities is something we want to work on, too.

Thanks to Irene Shirley, Tamarah Cohen, Lee Haller, Maricel Santos and Pat Rigg for their input, insight and recollection of the discussion.


Jenny Horsman, "But I'm not a Therapist" (available on line) through http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Swearer_Center/Literacy_Resources/women.html (scroll down to "But I'm not a Therapist")

Making Connections: A Literacy and EAL [English as an additional language] Curriculum from a Feminist Perspective, available through Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women, 47 Main St., Toronto, Ontario M4E 2V6 phone (416) 699-1909 email: cclow@web.net In the US, New Readers' Press will distribute the curriculum through August, 1998. 1-800-448-8878.

722 ED391919. Imel, Susan. Women and Literacy. Trends and Issues Alert.

716 ED400381. Imel, Susan; Kerka, Sandra. Women and Literacy: Guide to the Literature and Issues for Woman-Positive Programs. Information Series No. 367 .

576 ED382822. Race and Gender in Adult Education Susan Imel, 1998, ERIC Trends and Issues Alert

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