Edjumacation Blues

In the hot prairie summer of 1963, I got my first teaching job: teach swimming to twenty adults terrified of water.

If I didn’t have a mother who had never dared to step into the ocean despite having been born right beside it, it would have been hard to understand how a grown human could shudder in dread at the mere thought of immersion in water. Swimming seemed so natural to me. Second nature. Why the Powers That Be entrusted those pathetic, shivering, wet wusses to a cocky, fifteen-year-old Bronze Medallion holder with zero knowledge of how people learn, I’ll never know. But they did, and I taught, and somehow they swam. After all, swimming is a lot simpler than, say, English.

A few years later, I found myself in charge of a roomful of students terrified of immersing themselves in English. Again, part of me puzzled over this: hadn’t most of them been born into English? As for those who were strangers to the language, weren’t there dictionaries and guidebooks a-plenty? Why on earth would they need me?

The answers to those questions dawned on me regularly over the span of my early teaching career. First, English is a danged difficult language, with its vestigial grammar, constant elisions, phantom subjunctives and idiotic idioms. Second, most grammar texts are about as helpful as an old brick–doorstop describes their highest and best use. Third, basic English is usually badly taught. Fourth, the world is teeming with billions of humans desperate to learn English, the planet’s current lingua franca.

Bear in mind that sixty-some years ago, the planet held only one third as many humans as it now does. Staggering thought! And today’s seven-and-a-half billion people are still spawning…which means, if nothing else, that the demand for skilled English teachers is potentially infinite.

So we English fanatics should be happy, right? Endless good work to do! Theoretically, we could eliminate unemployment in Canada by simply ensuring that all Canadians achieve a certain level of facility with English. Bingo! Go forth and teach!

But, but…most people today aren’t good enough at English to teach someone else, right? And what about all these people who have been diagnosed with a learning disability? There seem to be hordes of them!

Anyone who’s been teaching since the Sixties has become a fount of anecdotal knowledge. No exception to this rule, I aver from experience–and from comparing kids’ English from the Fifties to that of the Teens–that the level of English competence among those who claim it as the mother tongue has plummeted during my lifetime. Meanwhile, the numbers of second-language learners and so called special-needs learners have soared. The world has become a post-modern global village, with all that entails, much of it painful to the individual who somehow misses receiving the essentials of English training early in life.

If Canada is serious about immigrants’ becoming citizens, obviously teaching English and/or French is mandated. If the provinces are serious about getting special-needs learners to a level of comfort with the language, then obviously teaching English is mandated. (We don’t have to worry so much about French, as it’s a far more consistent language.) If basic education is a human right, obviously (to me) the elected government should see to it that such education is always accessible to all people.

So, hallelujah! The new BC government has declared Adult Basic Education (ABE) classes free of tuition! Hurray!

Wait a minute–in small towns like mine (20k people on a sunny day), free ABE is not there. There may be some free tutoring–but the tutors are volunteers and the programming necessarily ad hoc. Why should tutors not be paid? Isn’t this work important enough to generate at least minimum wage?

My town had lost the ABE program in June, 2017, just before the great announcement by the government. So we have nothing now. Lifting the tuition made no difference to us at all, beyond making it more difficult to offer any course that might resemble ABE. The only remaining viable way to teach English professionally to the community at large is through private clinics or schools–and who can pay for that?

I read the statute which governs colleges and universities and note that teaching ABE is mandated where resources permit, and I wonder about all the towns in our province that have people in need of English training, but no college or university–where do those communities go for funding?

Education pays off. In the long run, the pay-off is huge, but the long run makes it hard to measure. In these days of colleges and universities being forced to present a bottom line as if schools were companies, it’s hard to show the true worth of adult basic education within each year, or even two or three years. Good English is not quickly acquired, although its eventual effects are, well, incalculable.

As an educator, I take the view that adult basic education by paid professionals should be available in all communities as need arises. A big step in that direction would be the ensuring of ABE availability in every community that hosts a college or university campus. Nice job, new provincial government, but not nice enough.

If you have an opinion on this vital subject, please comment. If you know someone who needs ABE, please steer them my way. It’s time to show the government that our communities want more than freedom from tuition for courses we can’t have.

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