Putting the up in skill sets

What would you think if garbage trucks honked at you as you made your way along the street?

Sally George, a language, literacy, numeracy and digital skills teacher with TAFE is fine with it; she helped Sydney City Council cleansing and waste workers with their digital skills for online work tasks and lists it among her proudest achievements. “It was a great class, and the students got a lot out of the learning which then moved on from digital to student-led literacy and learning content. I often get toots and shouts of ‘Hey Sal’ … and it is always impressive to my friends and family.”

Students take TAFE career pathways, Aboriginal languages and employability skills courses for a wide variety of language, literacy, digital and numeracy needs. “They may need to learn to write their address on a form or need to learn how to read official workplace letters, or need to learn how to use everyday fractions,” Sally, pictured below right, said.

“They may have missed school or had a learning difficulty or migrated many, many years ago and never learnt to write and read in English. They are workers who need to learn how to fill in online time sheets or want more meaningful work and lack confidence speaking.

“They are young people who are school refusers or recent refugees. They are women who have spent years caring for relatives and realise they want to be aged care workers but lack the writing and or digital skills to start a Cert II or III course. They are people who want to write about their life or be with other learners and try studying.

“I also teach and support students doing apprenticeships and Cert III and diploma courses who need help with understanding assessments or need to relearn medical calculations or using formulas or need help in organising sentences or managing time etc.”

Growth and gratitude

Language, literacy, numeracy and digital skills teachers can make a crucial difference to students’ futures and take delight in sharing stories about their students’ skills development.

“She was a refugee who had had little schooling before arriving in Australia,” Sally said. “She told me … she wanted to become a nurse. After our course she continued doing TAFE courses and did an aged care course, worked in aged and disabilities and kept studying. She rang me [last year] after her graduation to thank me. [This] makes it all worthwhile. I cried for days.”

After being a part-time casual at TAFE and a temporary high school teacher, Sally took on her first permanent role, at St George TAFE this term. For the past eight years, Sally worked with Kristine Highet, pictured above right, at Ultimo TAFE. During Kristine’s career, one of her students, Anthony, wrote some poems expressing their learning journey.

“They give a sense of the wonder and pride that both students and teachers can experience in this work,” Kristine said. I had a dream, outlined Anthony’s progress with maths, from “fear deeper than dyslexia” to “calm inside the life of maths”. In I’m glad I bumped into you teacher, Anthony wrote of his experience with learning: “It’s natural now, not pain.”

Initially a primary teacher, Kristine was first employed by TAFE in 1991 as a senior education officer with the TAFE Women’s Unit and worked in a variety of positions before working as a TAFE teacher.

As a workplace literacy and numeracy teacher she worked within a variety of organisations, including Amcor Packaging, ATSIC, Security Mailing Service, the Yooroang Garang school of Indigenous Health Studies, and State Transit. In 2006, she got a full-time temporary position at Ultimo TAFE and became permanent in 2009. She works as a casual now, after retiring from her permanent position in 2020.

Unfazed and understanding

Sally said language, literacy, numeracy and digital (LLND) skills teachers need to be “compassionate, good at listening and unfazed by anything”. “Sometimes you will be surprised by things people don’t yet know and no one should ever let a student feel shame and exclusion. Literacy teachers can read a room like no one else,” she added. “After watching classrooms and groups of learners we are adept at spotting who needs LLND support or needs to get something off chest about their learning or needs reassuring.”

Kristine has spent most of her career teaching maths. “It takes a person who not only knows maths but knows what it’s like to not understand. In fact, I think knowing how to learn is more important than remembering formulae or facts. If you don’t get what it’s like to not understand then it’s easy to become impatient with students. I often think of the old saying, ‘I taught them but they didn’t learn’. For me, that means I didn’t teach them well enough and I’ll often go home from a class thinking how I could have done that differently and better.”

Approach for teaching maths to adults

“Teachers need to give up the idea that they should always know the correct answer and only present problems that they know how to do,” Kristine said. “Modelling how to approach a problem is a very valuable teaching strategy. And I don’t mean the ‘John had three apples and Ted had five apples’ type of problem. Of more use to students is often a question like, ‘Which mobile phone plan is the best for me?’.”

“Talking about and reading maths in a variety of texts is more useful than context-free algorithms. Understanding the usefulness of a mathematical process should precede formal activities. If students know that they need to build a skill to use in higher level classes, that’s better than never knowing the reason for doing something.”

Satisfying work

“I love teaching and I especially love working with adults who have not been successful in previous educational settings,” Kristine said. “Watching people gain confidence, knowledge and skills is extremely rewarding. There are very few people who cannot make some progress with learning. And those who really struggle with learning, gain in other ways. They make social contact and find new friends. They get practice speaking and learning about the world.”

Sally finds teaching adults rewarding. “When adults get to TAFE to learn to read and write or improve numeracy or digital skills, they come to the initial interview with a clear goal. Almost every student has known what they want to get out of language, literacy and numeracy study: get into a welfare course, read to their grandchildren, be able to write emails at work, write their history etc. Accessible adult learning is good for everybody. Everyone knows someone who’s chance or start began at TAFE, mine included. Often it is literacy teachers who are there right at the beginning.”

TAFE system needs revamp

The Fed Rep for Branch 3 at Ultimo TAFE, Kristine said she continues to work in the TAFE system because she has a deep and lifelong commitment to the public education system. She wants to see it regain its rightful place as the best second-chance education provider as well as offering the very best vocational training for the future.

“I am also deeply committed to promoting and fighting for the rights of teachers and students,” Kristine said. “ Teachers are not valued as professionals and not trusted to know their job. Assessments, mostly inappropriate, abound and take up valuable teaching/learning time.

“Trade head teachers are complaining that the assessments they are told to give are not appropriate for their trade or level of student. Adult basic education curriculum, especially in the area of maths, has become more and more like a school program, rather than one based on the needs of an adult cohort who will most likely not be doing an HSC.

“Meaningless and often repetitive paperwork and checklists are heaped more and more on head teachers and teachers. We can rarely see the need for or any useful action resulting from this ‘work’