Research and Practice in Adult Literacy – a friendly group

Susannah Chambers

Susannah Chambers

A Learner’s Story of Resilience – A Tutor’s Perspective

Learners’ stories of resilience do not always have to be high-profile and dramatic. Indeed, during my time working as an adult learning tutor and having worked with hundreds of learners over the years one story of resilience stands out above the rest. It was exceptional in its ordinariness. Awe-striking in its simplicity. Moving in the ever-presence for that learner of the underlying cause for difficulty.

The learner – who, for the purposes of me re-telling this story we will call Sylvia (not her real name) – had enrolled on an adult learning programme in gardening with embedded basic skills, which I was tutoring. Sylvia committed to engaging in this course as a progression from a taster session I had delivered in her local village. She had fed back that she had really enjoyed the taster session and seemed highly motivated to progress into further learning. She had two young children and was keen to model lifelong learning to them and to develop her skills as part of preparation to return to work, she explained during her induction.

As enrolment on this course was immediately following Sylvia completing the taster session there were no issues that presented themselves to me as a tutor through screening and initial assessment, both of which were carried out in a non-threatening and context-appropriate way. All seemed to be progressing well.

We had checked in the initial discussion at the point of enrolment that she knew where the local learning centre was and that she felt confident navigating to the college of Further Education’s outreach learning centre.

The origins of Sylvia’s story of resilience began in a compelling way the day that we had agreed for her to attend her first one-to-one session at the local learning centre. I arrived, as usual, in good time to ensure the classroom was comfortable and that all resources were available. The session was due to start at 2.30pm.

The clock showed 2pm. No Sylvia.

The clock showed 2.30pm. No Sylvia.

The clock showed 2.45pm. No Sylvia. And so it went on…

Concerned about her, I telephoned her.

“Hello?” Sylvia answered her mobile phone. “Oh, is it that time already?… Yes, I’ll definitely see you at 2pm next week. See you then!”

The following week the same occurred. And the week after. I asked Sylvia on the phone whether another day or time would be helpful. Sylvia said the day and time were fine, that she just lost track of time. And then it dawned on me that perhaps Sylvia couldn’t tell the time. But that surely couldn’t be the case? After all she got her kids sorted out for school so she must have a routine? And then it dawned on me that each time I’d spoken to Sylvia she had been so keen to tell me about her favourite TV soap opera ‘Neighbours’.

“I wonder…”, I thought.

So before we finished our phone call I decided to be bold and said “Sylvia, next week, it would be great if you could come to the learning centre as soon as you finish watching ‘Neighbours’”.

“Oh, OK, yeah – see you next week.”

That next week I sat waiting at the learning centre fully expecting to need to make another follow-up call to discuss alternative progression routes and support needs. Suddenly, Sylvia appeared. Every week after that Sylvia was on time for class and was relaxed and ready to learn.

It transpired – as I built up a positive rapport with her during her course – that actually she had never learnt to tell the time and her whole daily routines were reliant on her children telling her the time or cues from what other family members were doing. During the course one of the skills she acquired was telling the time and by the end of the course she didn’t rely on the ‘Neighbours’ theme tune any more to get to class on time!

This was an important life lesson for me as a tutor that every learner, by the time they show up for that first learning experience with you, has often already built a very personal and unique life story of resilience – surviving in spite of lacking some key life skills that most around them don’t give a second thought to. To empower a learner to tell that story of resilience through supporting them with extending their learning is indeed a privilege.

The last I heard Sandra had progressed onto several other Community Learning courses and – moreover – was reported as one of the most punctual learners in class! Completely worth the perseverance for all involved.


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