Guide for Managers of Adult Education Programs




The key to any effective adult education program is the quality of the staff, and, in particular, the skills and commitment of the instructional staff. This guide will focus on teachers, although many of the same issues apply to all program staff.

Teachers' roles vary greatly from program to program and are changing even more due to WIA, the new standards, and other external factors. In addition to providing instruction, teachers may function as counselors, helping students deal with needs they have outside the classroom and/or guiding them in their job search. Teachers might provide referrals to other services and act as caseworkers coordinating and following up on these referrals. Teachers in programs located in a one-stop environment focus primarily on classroom issues, with other specialists available to address the other needs of students. But, even in this context, teachers spend the most time with learners and, therefore, are most aware of the learners' diverse needs. Teachers usually develop the strongest relationship with learners and are often in the best position to successfully offer guidance and support.

Many teachers are part-time and paid on an hourly basis. Programs need to build in time for teachers to work with learners outside of the core schedule and to make and follow-up on referrals. Given the critical role teachers play, programs need to plan for teachers to have time for staff meetings and professional development activities. With the increased emphasis on accountability, teachers also need time to document student progress.

Characteristics of Effective Staff

Characteristics of effective adult education teachers include being:

  • enthusiastic about learning and teaching
  • well-grounded in effective teaching and assessment methods
  • thoroughly familiar with the principles of adult education and the characteristics of adult learners
  • flexible enough to teach to multiple learning styles and intelligences
  • creative enough to contextualize learning, tapping into students' life experiences
  • learner-centered, connecting learning to students' individual goals and expectations
  • good listeners and sensitive to cultural diversity issues.

In addition, teachers employed by school districts or BOCES must have an adult education teaching certificate issued by the New York State Education Department. To obtain an adult education teaching certificate, individuals must submit an application that documents specific requirements.

In addition to having expertise in their specific area, counselors, job developers, volunteers, office staff and administrators should have many of the characteristics listed above for teachers. They should be:

  • enthusiastic about adults developing academic skills
  • familiar with the principles of adult education and the characteristics of adult learners
  • flexible enough to work with the varied needs and styles of adult learners
  • learner-centered, focusing their work on students' individual goals and expectations
  • good listeners and sensitive to cultural diversity issues.

Effective managers and administrators are also key to the program's success. In addition to the qualities listed above, program managers need to be:

  • familiar with the rules and regulations related to the operation and funding of adult education programs
  • effective leaders: able to inspire, support, and promote the development of the staff
  • well organized and good managers of resources
  • technologically literate
  • skilled in financial management.

Hiring staff

Procedures for recruiting and hiring staff vary from program to program. It is important to follow up-to-date and effective personnel policies and practices. When recruiting for staff, programs must be clear and realistic about the work environment, demands of the job, pay and benefits, advancement opportunities, and expectations. When possible, it is preferable to hire staff who have experience with the cultural background of the majority of the learners.

The employment interview is the first step in hiring effective staff. Program managers should conduct the interview, although they may want to include other staff in the process as well. It can also be helpful to have some experienced adult learners in the interview. Interviewers from a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives can help ensure the selection of the most qualified and appropriate candidates.

In conducting an interview with an array of interviewers, it is important to prepare them in advance. Legal issues related to appropriate interview questions should be reviewed with all interviewers. The criteria for selecting the best candidate should also be discussed and agreed upon in advance. Then, questions should be developed to help assess each candidate against the criteria. Strive for open-ended questions as opposed to questions that can be answered by a simple "yes" or "no".

Instead of asking hypothetical questions, it may be useful to ask candidates to describe actual experiences they have had that demonstrate the qualities the program is looking for in an employee.

Instead of : Ask this:
How would you handle a situation in which three students all need your attention at once? Please describe a situation in which several people were demanding your attention at the same time. How did you handle it?

Be sure to leave time in the interview for the candidate to ask questions. Offer to take candidates on a tour of the facility and/or an opportunity to sit in on a learning activity or class. Each candidate should be informed of the hiring timetable. Ask each candidate for a list of professional references and call these references prior to making a final selection. Listen carefully to the input from each of the interviewers and try to reach consensus among the interviewers as to the best candidate. When the group cannot reach consensus, the program manager will need to make the final selection.

Staff Retention

Once a competent staff team has been hired, the program manager needs to focus on retention. To want to stay, people need to be satisfied with the work they do each day, their relationship with the people with whom they regularly interact, and the way they are treated by the program's management. The program manager plays a key role in all three elements of job satisfaction.

If, at the time of the job interview, candidates are given an accurate picture of their job and the work environment, they are more likely to make a good decision about how well they will like the job. Workers must also feel they can meet expectations. Proper qualifications; regular, on-going professional development activities; adequate supervision and support; and realistic expectations are essential ingredients to success on the job.

The program manager can set the tone for positive work relationships among co-workers, learners, administrators, and others involved in the program. This can be accomplished by:

  • building in time for staff to meet and collaborate
  • providing adequate time for staff to interact with learners
  • providing opportunities to meet with others who are involved with the learners outside of the educational activities.

The program manager, as leader of the staff, can work to promote cooperation and collaboration by building a sense of commitment to the mission, developing trust among the staff, promoting open communication, and including staff in important program decisions.

Finally, staff want to feel recognized and appreciated for the work they do, supported in areas in which they are having difficulty, and treated fairly in terms of workload, scheduling, compensation, and advancement. Staff perceptions are as important as the actual facts. Program managers need to maintain frequent and open communication with staff to remain aware of staff members' concerns, perceptions, and needs.


Staff retention also involves motivation. A major challenge for a program manager is to delegate enough responsibility and authority to the staff to allow them to do their best work, but not overload them. This can occur by understanding individual needs, values, and interests.

Each person has a different view of what is most important to him or her at work. Those who are primarily motivated by money will be disappointed by most programs' inability to pay staff more for outstanding performance. Fortunately, there are many other powerful motivators available to the program manager who understands his/her staff.

Most people value sincere, positive feedback about specific performance areas. It should be given as often as prudent. Feedback dispensed too frequently or about trivial matters can result in employees feeling patronized. Customize feedback to the individual. If Employee A is a private person, provide feedback in a one-to-one session. Employee B likes a crowd, so acknowledge his/her work in public, such as during a staff meeting.

An opportunity to do meaningful, valuable work and to accomplish positive outcomes motivates many people, particularly those in the education field. The nature of the work itself serves as a motivator. However, the motivation becomes even stronger when staff members receive positive feedback on the value of their work and the quality of their outcomes from their supervisor.

Many managers are taught to catch staff mistakes quickly. Too often, this means managers are not acknowledging the positive, high quality work the staff is producing. Managers need to catch their employees doing things well and let them know regularly that they are appreciated.

The ability to learn and grow in a job is also important to many people. Professional development, discussed below, can be a good motivator as well as a strategy for improving the quality of the program.

Motivating others rests with the ability to understand each person's individual needs, values, and interests. Careful observation of the work performed and regular communication with the worker will reveal his/her workstyle. Workstyles are a delicate mix of the worker's environment, education, upbringing, personality, experiences, temperament, and learning style. At the risk of gross oversimplification, some contrasting workstyles are presented below.

Some people . . . While others . . .
. . . savor the challenge in a job and are eager to take on expanded responsibilities. They work harder under pressure. . . . prefer the regular, steady nature of a job. They do their best work when they are not overly stressed.
. . . like a lot of contact with their supervisor and colleagues. Interpersonal interaction is a positive motivator for them. . . . like to be left alone to do their job as much as possible. Delegation and independence are key motivators for them.
. . . like to be given a lot of detail about what needs to be done. . . . want to be given the big picture so they can fill in the details on how to achieve the goals.

It is important for program managers to be flexible and to focus on ends, not means. They need to set goals for what people should be able to produce. How to produce these outcomes is left to the staff. To be effective motivators, program managers must adapt their styles to fit the varied and individual styles of their staff, just as effective teachers must adapt their styles to fit the varied learning styles of students.

Performance Correction

While positive motivation and feedback are essential, they are not always enough to get the best performance from staff. When staff members do not know what is expected of them or do not understand the standards, they are unlikely to perform well. Thus, an important element for promoting effective performance is articulating clear performance expectations and ensuring that staff have the same understanding of these standards as does the program manager.

Performance standards need to be stated in clear, behavioral language. They should describe the desired behavior in a way that can be accurately measured. Performance standards should focus on actions, not on internal states (such as attitude or effort).

Even when expectations are clearly stated and understood, some staff will not be capable of meeting these standards. They may need additional training or individual coaching. Some staff may understand the standards, but may be unaware that they are not meeting the standards; they need corrective feedback. Some staff may not be motivated to do a good job; they need corrective feedback and renewed efforts at motivation. Again, communication is the key skill for the program manager.

Providing corrective feedback can be challenging. People are often defensive when they hear negative comments about their performance. They may react angrily, deny the feedback, or become sullen and give up trying to do a good job. Many managers avoid giving corrective feedback until the situation becomes intolerable; at which point, there is too much to say at once.

Corrective feedback must be given in a timely manner, soon after the inappropriate behavior is observed. The feedback should focus on the behavior, not the person who performed the behavior (this takes some of the "sting" out of the feedback). It should focus on positive change, not on blaming the person for making a mistake (this moves the person towards corrective actions). The feedback should include a statement describing the behavior that was observed, how it differs from the performance standard, and what the negative impact is of the behavior.

Once the feedback is delivered, the recipient needs an opportunity to react. S/he may try to come up with excuses or argue about the feedback. The manager's job here is to listen and be supportive of the person, while continuing to focus on the need for a change in behavior. Once the person has finished venting, apologizing, or explaining, the manager needs to shift the conversation to what kind of performance is desired and what has to happen to enable the person to meet this standard.

If the corrective feedback process is handled well, it can turn around a poorly performing employee. If it is avoided, delayed, or handled punitively, the situation often spirals into worse performance.

Professional Development

As noted above, professional development is one of the important strategies in maintaining effective performance and in building job satisfaction. Professional development can help set high standards for the program by focusing staff on the essential qualities of an effective adult education program and giving them the skills and tools they need to meet these standards. Many professional development activities are carried out through the seven regional adult education networks.

The program manager needs to actively promote and support professional development activities of staff. Staff need paid time to participate in staff development activities and encouragement to do further professional development on their own. They need time to apply the new skills and strategies they learn, develop new lesson plans, and design new learning experiences.

Staff who are constantly sharpening their skills and staying up-to-date on the latest strategies and technology will be more effective in, and satisfied with, their work as well as more valuable to the program.

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Hudson River Center for Program Development, Inc.