“What! I Did Not Know They Were Coming!” vs. “That was a Great Class!”
Preparing for Program Guests
In this Tips From the Field, we consider ways we can, together, ensure that site visits work well for you, your program, the learners and the ‘guest’.
By now you are well into your fall programs, getting to know the learners and the ways they learn. Likewise, they are getting to know you. In the field of adult learning, building this practitioner-learner relationship makes all the difference for adult learners who have been brave in their choice to return to the classroom.
As practitioners, you go to great lengths to ensure your program is a safe place for learning. When learners feel a positive connection with the staff and volunteers, they are likely to develop a sense of ownership about their learning experience. It is a good day when this happens: learners who initially came to class quiet and anxious become freer to participate and ask questions. They show up glad to be in class – even on days that have been tough. Creating this kind of learning space takes time. It happens when staff are able to convey their deep respect for learners. It is a respect grounded in awareness of what learners need in order to have a meaningful experience.
In the fall, programs often include speakers or guests learners have not met before. For example, it is the time when Calgary Learns reaches out to our grant-funded programs to set up site visits. We look forward to these visits because they help us support your programs. They provide us with meaningful examples that help us describe the work you do and the needs of adults learning in your setting when we meet with our Review Teams and when we engage with our funder, Advanced Education.
As you plan for hosting a visitor it can be helpful to remember the perspective of the adults in your program. You are all the ‘host’ for that visit.
As a practitioner you might feel a bit anxious about having ‘the funder’ spend time in your program. The same might be true for the learner. Depending on the background and previous experiences of the learner, issues around power or insecurity can factor into the way they experience a class. The presence of a guest can trigger old emotions — being observed by someone who has perceived, or real, power, can affect engagement or confidence. The learner might not want to share their ideas in that class. They might be concerned that if they “make mistakes” or say the “wrong thing”, it will look bad on you!
So, here are some ideas to make it less stressful for all of you:
1. Let the class know in advance that a guest is coming and share the reason for the visit
A heads-up that “a guest is coming next week”, as simple as a sentence, is often critical for your learners.
There are good reasons for guests to visit, and this is information to share with the class. Is the visitor sharing local resources, or information relevant to the program and the learners served? Is the guest coming because they want to learn and understand more deeply the value of the program? In the case of Calgary Learns site visits, explaining that we provide funding for programs that support adults to achieve their learning goals might bring down the stress level. Explaining that we want to learn more about the program, so that we can support the work that you and the learners are doing together, keeps the visit within the safe space you’ve developed and which is so essential for learning.
Learners will often follow the lead of the practitioner. If you are looking forward to the visit and are comfortable, the adults in your program will most often take your lead.
2. Talk through what part of the class the guest will be attending, and what the guest will be doing
It is valuable to have a conversation about what that class will look like. Let learners know if the way class usually runs will be different in any way. Will the guest be speaking to share information relevant to the course, joining the class in an activity, asking learners questions, observing quietly to learn, serving a meal, making an invitation to participate in an opportunity outside of class?
It might then be helpful to invite the learners to contribute ideas about how to make the anticipated activities go well.
3. Begin the class the same way you always do
Knowing what to expect, not fearing surprises, reduces anxiety. Starting each class with practices that are done together as a group does much to develop an encouraging learning dynamic. This especially applies to days when guests arrive. The guest can be invited into the rhythms of the class, versus the class changing to accommodate the guest. Doing the latter makes things more formal, and likely uncomfortable. When that happens, learners can be on edge, simply because they do not know what to expect. The room and space no longer feels like it is “theirs.” We can turn this around by ensuring the rhythms of learning are consistent.
4. Plan a safe learning topic, one that the class can easily engage with a guest present
It is important that the learning topic and activities for that class are more general in nature, ones that do not invite deeply personal sharing. If appropriate, invite guests to participate in the learning activity. This ensures there is not an ‘observing and taking notes’ type of feeling for learners.
If appropriate and of interest, learners can help introduce the activity and distribute the learning materials. Similarly, in terms of involvement that promotes mutuality and affirms their belonging and personal ownership of their program, learners can be asked in advance if they are interested in thanking the guest on behalf of the class when the visit is over.
5. Let learners know that you have prepared (or will prepare) the guests about the plan
This may seem a small thing to do, but it is a significant way of sharing power. It conveys to the learners that you and they are a team, and are jointly planning for a good class with this guest. Learners are, with the practitioner, creating this particular learning experience and planning to co-host. For example, when someone from Calgary Learns does a site visit, we are interested in conversation. If the adults in your program know that, you may decide to take some time to brainstorm some questions that they might like to ask us.
If any learner would prefer not to be in class when there is a guest, offer an alternative activity during that time.
6. Invite feedback
When the class next meets, take some time to check in about how they feel the class went. This helps to ensure that you can support them to build on the experience, whether it was challenging or positive. This can also be a good emergent-learning activity, presenting opportunity for discussion, writing, or sharing ideas and opinions.
It is our hope that the learners in your program will look back on classes with visitors as positive experiences, and that you, as practitioners, feel well supported. We look forward to visiting your program!
Do you have tips from the field that you would be willing to share? We would love to hear them! Please get in touch with Heidi. (firstname.lastname@example.org).