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Bridging the Skills Gap: Becoming an Adult Education Teacher

August 27, 2019

Adult education teachers can play a transformative role in the lives of millions of Americans who want to expand their opportunities. Adult education aims to develop people’s technical or professional qualifications so they can enter a new field or progress in their current one. By cultivating new skills or refreshing old ones, these individuals can increase their earning potential. Adult education coursework ranges from basic literacy to career readiness.

Many Americans stand to benefit from the work of adult education teachers. Today, 58 million American adults struggle with low levels of literacy. Sixty-four percent of these adults work but earn low wages and lack the skills needed to advance in their careers. Adult education teachers can prepare these individuals to succeed.

In addition, adult education teachers provide instruction to millions of people hoping to improve their English proficiency, as well as to individuals who dropped out of high school but later seek a second chance to complete their education and obtain the knowledge required to build careers that will sustain them and their families.

The US Census Bureau reports that people without high school diplomas earn about half as much as those with diplomas and about a third as much as those with associate degrees. Adult education can help bridge these salary gaps and mitigate some of the issues related to low literacy skills, such as poverty.

Those inspired by the opportunity to help millions of Americans improve their career opportunities would do well to consider becoming an adult education teacher. American University offers an online Master of Arts in Teaching and an online Master of Education in Education Policy, both of which can launch meaningful careers in adult education.

What Does an Adult Education Teacher Do?

Adult education teachers work in a variety of settings, from community colleges and school districts to nonprofits and correctional facilities. They teach English as a second language, GED preparation, and literacy. They help students catch up on the basics by offering remedial coursework, or they offer technical training valuable in today’s job market. To accommodate the work schedules of their adult students, adult education teachers often teach in the evenings.

As with any teacher, an adult education teacher focuses on student learning and performance, which involves planning and designing curriculums, delivering instruction, evaluating student work, and providing feedback. However, adult education teachers address these components of teaching with the unique needs of the adult learner in mind. For instance, students in adult education programs may need to balance their studies with obligations they have outside of the classroom, such as work and family. As a result, adult education teachers often need to offer greater flexibility with deadlines or how much homework they assign.

In addition, adult learners arrive to a classroom with unique educational histories. Many of those histories involve negative experiences in which the students felt unable to excel academically for any number of reasons, including undiagnosed learning disabilities and personal problems. Adult education teachers must meet their students where they are, addressing any previous negative experiences by identifying their students’ learning styles and differentiating their instruction to correct past missteps. They also need to help build the confidence of their students, because many might associate the classroom with failure.

Alongside these challenges to teaching adult learners are rewards. Many of the people who arrive in the classrooms of adult education teachers show up very motivated. Students have likely had to overcome many obstacles both practical and emotional just to enroll. For example, a typical adult learner could be a single mother managing the responsibilities of a job and child-rearing, who graduated from high school but never felt academically successful. The fortitude it takes for such a person to return to school indicates a serious desire and sense of urgency to learn. Working with motivated students lends itself to more ease and gratification in the classroom for any teacher.

The motivations of adult learners can vary, but for the most part, these students seek skills that boost their chances of securing better employment. To support this aim, adult education teachers design learning activities centered around both the technical and soft skills needed in the workplace. Writing activities might center around preparing a business letter or resume, or lessons might teach appropriate workplace behavior and social skills for success. Because the students in adult education programs may struggle with undiagnosed learning disabilities or English language proficiency issues, teachers must carefully design instruction that offers many entry points for learning.

Steps to Becoming an Adult Education Teacher

Step One: Earn a bachelor’s degree. Many adult education teachers are credentialed educators. Those working in public schools are required to have a teaching license from the state where they teach, and licenses in all 50 states require, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree.

Step Two: Obtain certification. After earning a bachelor’s degree in education—or a content specific area such as English or math—the state requirements for teacher certification must be completed. State requirements can vary but generally require a bachelor’s degree, background check, completion of supervised student teaching, and successful performance on any number of teacher proficiency exams, such as the Praxis, which assess subject-specific content knowledge as well as pedagogy.

Step Three: Earn a master’s degree. Some states require a master’s degree to obtain certification. Regardless of this potential requirement, teachers with master’s degrees have substantially higher earning potentials and many employers seek educators with advanced degrees, especially community colleges.

Step Four: Gain on-the-job experience. As with many professions, becoming an effective teacher requires engaging in the work itself. Teachers spend years honing their craft and learning by doing. Only in practice do teachers develop a deeper understanding of what makes a successful lesson, how to scaffold the teaching of skills, what exercises best teach what skills, and so on. To grow professionally in the world of education, adult education teachers must spend years teaching different students, working with different curriculums, and learning from their peers and veteran teachers.

Adult Education Teacher Salaries

Educator salaries correlate with a teacher’s years of experience and level of education. The geographic location of a teaching position also impacts the salary offered. California and New York offer the highest salaries, but the higher cost of living in these states can offset the higher pay. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that adult education teachers earned a median annual salary of $53,630 in 2018, though teachers earning in the top 10 percent brought home more than $89,710 a year. Teachers’ salaries increase annually on an incremental basis according to the number of years they have taught and their current level of education.

Future Growth of Adult Education Teacher Jobs

The BLS projects an 8 percent growth rate for all teachers between 2016 and 2026. Government funding for adult education programs can directly impact the demand for adult education teachers. However, with over two million students dropping out of high school each year and the US ranking 16th in literacy out of 24 countries, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, there is a need to invest in expanding adult education programs across the country.

Make a Difference in Adult Lives

Adult education teachers bridge the gap between millions of Americans marginalized by their limited education and a job market that increasingly demands more advanced skills. Discover how American University’s online Master of Arts in Teaching and online Master of Education in Education Policy programs empower educators to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives.