Reflection on Roles: Teachers don’t all have chalkboards – New insights about the roles that adult educators play

In my experience as an adult learner, instructors have mostly filled the traditional roles of being a planner, a lecturer, and an evaluator. This has worked well in all the university courses, technology courses, business-related courses, cooking courses and language courses I’ve taken since I became an adult. However, these are not the roles I fill in the Adult Basic Education satellite classroom in which I tutor. There, members of our teaching team function more as coaches and motivators. We encourage students to work at their own pace. We only give them homework if they ask for it. We accommodate late comers, early leavers and those who work slowly as they try to manage upheavals in their lives and upgrade their education at the same time.

In the article “What Becoming Pilot-in-Command Taught Me about Teaching Adults,” Diane Erickson, an adult educator who goes back to school to learn to fly, reflects on the importance of using a teaching approach that is appropriate for the situation. Because students are facing steep learning curve when learning to fly, because they are usually intimidated by the material and by the classroom environment (in their case, sitting in an airplane) and because of the “hands on” method necessary when learning to fly, she found that the traditional approach taken by some of her instructors was not effective for her as an adult learner. She realized the importance of being able to tailor her teaching approach to the learning environment and to the material to be learned. In this case, she realized how crucial it was to keep students motivated, especially when the amount of work required seems daunting and when the student is intimidated by even entering the classroom, which, in her case, was a cockpit. Also, because learning to fly requires “hands on” experience, she realized the value of being a facilitator, of creating a scaffold to support the learner and then gradually withdrawing the scaffolding as the learner is able to do the task independently.

I was struck by how the insights she had in to the importance of the instructor being a motivator and a facilitator applied to my experience as an adult educator. Because our students are often intimidated by both the subject matter, especially the math, and by even being in a classroom again, we spend a lot of time trying to keep our students from becoming discouraged. As well, I often use a scaffolding technique when teaching a concept – I demonstrate by doing the first question, I get the student to tell me how to do the second question, I have them do the next question with me sitting there – before they do the rest of the questions on their own. This technique was also used by Erickson’s flight instructor as she prepared to fly solo.

I’m reassured to learn that the unorthodox approach we take in our satellite classroom is not revolutionary. It’s just an example of using a teaching approach that’s appropriate for the learning environment.


  • Erickson, D. (2009). What Becoming Pilot-in-Command Taught Me about Teaching Adults. New Horizons In Adult Education & Human Resource Development, 23(4), 74-84.
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