A rebranded certificate course oriented to the needs of adult learners is giving hope in rural Victoria.
Back in 2017 Felicity Williams, CEO of The Centre for Continuing Education in Wangaratta was listening to a young man in a community meeting sharing the story of his struggle with addiction and how important adult education had been in getting his life back on track.
It was a lightbulb moment for Felicity. ‘He said that doing an education program gave him hope. And it brought home to me how important it is to think about learners as whole people and how we need take a human centred approach rather than an educational one if we are going to help people make changes in their lives.’
Traditional foundation education programs aimed at disadvantaged learners like the Certificate in General Education for Adults (CGEA) with its focus on literacy, numeracy and digital skills seemed inadequate to the task Felicity had in mind.
‘Our approach was to offer something much more, something that would help people build self awareness and skills for living a better life as well as work skills such as creative thinking and teamwork.’
In 2017 she developed the concept of the program she called ‘Getting There’. ‘I handed it to our VET team and said “Put this over the CGEA and make it happen”.’
The 6 month course is now offered at Wangaratta, Broadford, Mansfield, Yea, Seymour and Benalla.
Felicity is very proud of the result. ‘Getting There is a flagship program that underpins my vision for The Centre. We don’t just provide education, we support the whole person. We look at each person’s circumstances, we look at the risk factors they are facing, and we provide learning opportunities and wrap around support to protect them. And we have trainers who are really gifted at engaging our learners who bring the material to life.’
‘We take things for granted that are huge achievements for other people. If you never volunteered for the school canteen because you were really worried about your numeracy skills but then you develop the confidence to do it, that’s a big deal.’ Felicity Williams, CEO, The Centre
Connecting with reluctant learners
Lead Trainer Lyndal Perry started her teaching career when she was promoted from flipping burgers to running training for co-workers at McDonald’s. But it was her subsequent experience as a trainer at a JobActive working with people who were obliged to attend courses that was invaluable.
‘I had to be really creative and find ways to connect with people, so that they could get something out of the training. I’d say “What’s one thing I can help you with?”’
The relationship between trainer and adult learner is central to Getting There, Lyndal says.
‘A big part of the success of Getting There is letting the students know that I am a person. I’m not a teacher standing at the front of the classroom telling them what to do. I don’t pigeonhole people or stereotype them. I work with each student to ask them what their goals are, to find out who they are, what their background is, what their circumstances are and how they ended up in my classroom. I see teaching as a two-way interaction.’
It’s an approach that pays off. Setting individual goals and engaging people in group discussions and activities helps to break down any resistance people might feel about returning to a classroom. Lyndal says that even initially reluctant participants are soon keen to get involved.
Recognising students’ individuality
‘Building a relationship based on trust and respect is essential. In my experience, that is the main difference between The Centre’s approach to education and training and larger training providers. Our courses are learner focussed, with smaller groups and trainers who understand the barriers our learners face in stepping into a training environment.
‘We’re not about ticking boxes, we’re all about being involved in the communities where we provide training. Students who have tried the larger RTOs and feel disheartened at being a number in a classroom, thrive in our learning environment.
‘Getting to know students as people is so important to good teaching. It’s such a contrast to my McDonald’s days where it didn’t matter who you were, everybody was expected to do the same course and achieve the same outcome.’
Students make big gains
Lyndal is proud of so many of her students. One was a woman with intellectual and physical disabilities, low literacy and numeracy whose goal was to find a job. By the end of the course she was working at a local factory. ‘She still messages me from time to time telling me how happy she is.’
Another was a 19 year old single mum with undiagnosed ADHD and with two kids. ‘She had a terrible time at school. I found she was really helpful in explaining things to other students. Her confidence really grew and she realised that she really enjoyed helping people, and wanted to pursue this as a career. After she finished Getting There she went on and completed a Certificate 4 in Disability.
‘I get a lot of satisfaction out of helping people to progress. I really love my job. For me, there’s no student who’s too hard to work with.’
‘We have been very creative with the CGEA (Certificate in General Education for Adults), which on the face of it is a very bland program. We brought the CGEA to life and that’s what I’m thrilled about.’ Felicity Williams, CEO, The Centre
Allirra overcame anxiety and is looking to the future
When Allirra Witherow got a job as a casual at Spotlight she rang her mum, crying tears of joy. ‘It was my dream job. I have always loved sewing. I was just so excited when they offered it to me.’ But when COVID hit, Allirra was let go. Even though she saw it coming, she was devastated.
It was her JobActive provider who recommended Getting There. But going back into a classroom was a challenge for Allirra, 26, who dropped out of high school in year 12 after a bout of debilitating anxiety.
‘I was a bit reserved and unsure when I arrived. I didn’t know what I’d get out of it.
‘I expected that it would be the same type of atmosphere at school where someone at the front of the room says, “This is what we’re doing” and who expected you to put your head down and get on with your work. But I was very pleasantly surprised. As I approached the door I could hear all these happy voices. The teacher greeted me and she was really warm and bubbly so it was a really good atmosphere and really refreshing. It made me feel straight away that “I’m gonna get something good out of this.”’
Apart from refreshing her knowledge of WHS and first aid, Allirra enjoyed projects like researching and writing about Cathy Freeman. ‘It was really interesting to learn about someone whose life was so different to my own. It really opened my eyes to someone who overcame hurdles to become very successful. I found that inspiring.’
Allirra says the course also taught her things about herself. ‘I realised that I have preconceived notions about things that are often negative and wrong. This course was great. I had only one instance of anxiety and that was when we made the transition from face to face to online because I am so easily distracted at home.
‘I would definitely recommend that other people do it. Even if you don’t think you’ll get much out of it, there will be something to help with your employability or enlighten your world view. You’ll find something to help you in one way or another.’
Allirra would love to return to Spotlight, but for now further study looks more practical. ‘I think I might start my own business, doing sewing, mending and alterations. So I think my next step will be doing a business management course.’
‘People go from “I can’t do anything, I’m not worth anything” to “I can conquer the world.”’ Lyndal Perry, trainer
Jessica found work and confidence
Jessica Blanchard, 37, has struggled to find work that fits in around her husband’s shift work and caring for her 10 year old son who has special learning needs. She’s picked up casual work here and there but has been looking for something more permanent for the past two years.
But she’s not someone to push herself forward. ‘I just didn’t have that confidence. I’ve always been shy. I always struggled at school, particularly in maths, and left at the end of year 11. And I hadn’t done any study since school except RSA and food handing courses. So I was nervous to start with.’
But Jessica says the course helped to bring her out of her shell although doing things like oral presentations to a group was daunting. ‘I kept putting it off and let everyone else go first. It took me a few weeks to get up the confidence and to feel that I knew what I was talking about. But to be able to get up and speak in front of a class was terrific.’
And the work wasn’t as hard as she expected. ‘What surprised me was being able to successfully complete it. They really helped me improve. The extra skills I got to learn were just fantastic.’
And she learned how to handle job interviews with more confidence. ‘Before the course if someone asked me in an interview if I had experience in something I would answer “Yes, I have.” But now I’m able to go on and talk more and expand on what I’ve done.’
She credits the course with helping her get a job as a cleaner at a car dealership. ‘I asked a lot of questions and I used more initiative and put more of myself into the interview. By the end of the interview I was able to negotiate my hours and they were happy to make changes to fit with my husband’s shifts.’
Her new confidence with maths has paid off with home schooling her son. ‘Before I found it hard to explain maths things to him. But now it is a lot easier to help him. I learned from the course that making things fun and working at your own pace is the best way to keep learning.’
Jessica has plans to continue studying. ‘I started a childcare course but I needed to work so I had to put it aside. I would love to complete that. When my son goes to Special Ed school, it will relieve the pressure and I will be able to concentrate on studying.’
By the time the Getting There course came to an end Jessica was reluctant to finish. ‘It was very hard to leave it. I really enjoyed it because every day I was going out somewhere and achieving something for myself.’
See the full issue of Quest 1, 2021