With baby boomers now planning retirement, education in the “third age” will continue to expand. Teachers will need better preparation to meet the learning needs of older adults, but university departments that specialize in adult education have been under threat since the 1990s.

September 8, 2009 found me in the lobby of a Canadian high school, eagerly anticipating my first day as a student in an adult art program. After doing a variety of painting and drawing classes when I was in my twenties, I had moved to mostly left-brain activities when I started undergraduate studies in 1972. Flash forward to 2006, when I started planning to retire from my position as professor at a Canadian university. My first step towards retirement was to start taking art classes, and I  had taken almost four  years of excellent instruction in water-colour painting, as well as classes in drawing and acrylics, through my local school board’s continuing education program. When I heard about a daytime program in visual arts for adults, consisting five mornings of classes a  week, I decided to apply, got accepted, and completed the first year with very good results. I then started the second year and became a high-school dropout after one month.

I had expected to have mixed feelings about being an adult student in a program housed in a high school … and I wasn’t disappointed. After 22 years as professor in a graduate school of education, the same institution from which many teachers in this school board had received their B.Ed. and M.Ed. degrees, the role reversal was striking. But I fully accepted from the start that I was a beginner art student and entered the program with an open mind. Most teachers managed, most of the time, to make the switch between teaching adolescents in grades 9-12 and teaching adults aged 19-65+, but a minority made little effort to do so. On the first day of one class, the teacher prowled  the room, sniffing the air, and then announced that teachers had the right to a classroom free of smells, so some people were in need of deodorant. This was not an auspicious start to that teacher’s future relationship with adult students.

From another perspective, when students acted like grade 12 students, or even 12-year-old children, as sometimes happened, teachers may have felt justified in treating them accordingly, although that resulted in a tense atmosphere not conducive to learning. All the textbook models of small group behaviour applied to our class. There were the leaders, the trend-setters, the peacemakers, the clowns, the insiders and outsiders, the over-achievers and under-achievers, overt and covert competitiveness, false modesty, arrogance, and learned helplessness, to name just a few of the dynamics that surfaced among this diverse group of adults. The last time I was a student in a mixed-ability classroom, I was about 11 years old, so all this came as a bit of a shock.

Students in the class ranged in age from early-20s to mid-60s, and ranged in experience from recent school leavers to retired professionals. As well, a small group of students had special needs resulting from various disabilities, but there appeared to be no systemic approach in place to accommodate their needs. Another group of students was artistically and/or intellectually gifted, but  the majority was somewhere in the middle. Educators have long known that students at the gifted end of the spectrum need attention, too, but many of our classes were lacking in that regard. Admittedly it was a challenge for teachers to satisfy all students’ learning needs. Instructors  spent a lot of time responding to some students’ vocal demands for help and attention (and those who wanted attention didn’t necessarily need help). Some teachers pitched the pace and content of the class to fit the slowest students, leaving many others bored or frustrated. The day  a teacher left the room after setting up a video (where the narrator spoke slowly and simply enough for a grade 6 student) was one of the days that I walked out of class.

Some of the problems lay with institutional arrangements that were beyond teachers’ or students’ control. For example, before the school computer was instructed otherwise (apparently a task requiring the skill of a Bill Gates), adult students were included in the “safe arrival” program. If we were absent (yes, absences and lateness were recorded every day), our “parents or guardians” (or in most cases, our home answering machine) received an automated message saying that a student in our household had failed to show up for school that day. Our parents and guardians were also invited to parent-teacher interviews. We stood for the national anthem, listened to irrelevant school announcements, participated in lockdown drills, and lined up with jostling teenagers to get photographed for a student ID card, which identified us as a Grade 12 student (for provincial funding purposes). Experiences like these reinforced our identities as high school students on a daily basis.

You may ask why I didn’t enrol in a postsecondary visual arts program in a university or college. The program I selected concentrated on the technical side of visual arts – the doing rather than the theory – and after about 35 years in the academy as student and professor, this was the focus that I wanted. And except for materials and studio fees, instruction was free – an added attraction for a retiree. At the same time, I wanted intellectual and artistic challenges, and I wanted to be treated as an adult, so perhaps I was a difficult client.

Some teachers provided useful critical feedback, while other simply praised everyone’s artwork, thereby devaluing the positive comments. Group critiques were routine in some classes, with students as well as teachers participating. Here’s a comparable situation in a university context. Imagine you are a new undergraduate and you have to read your first fumbling attempt at a book review to the whole class and to the professor, after which everyone tears it to shreds. However, it was usually a valuable learning experience.

I soon realized that I’d taken for granted many of the physical conditions associated with being a student, and later a professor, at a well-financed university. The art building was apparently off limits to the school’s cleaning and maintenance staff. Overflowing garbage bins, little or no recycling, dirty washrooms, no toilet paper, soap or paper towels, gross sexual graffiti on the walls, burnt-out lights … the list goes on. Teachers were probably amused when I earnestly reported the missing lights in one area last September. Fourteen months later and those lights were still out. If I hadn’t snagged a passing electrician last month, the girls’ toilets would also be in total darkness.

In the lead-up to the annual open house and exhibition, students were given the task of cleaning all the studios, a job that included scraping a year’s worth of paint from tables, sinks, counters, and floors. “I’m too old for this” and “I didn’t sign up for cleaning” were my thoughts as I half-heartedly pitched in. We had been warned that a “shame list” would be publicly displayed naming those students who shirked their duties by staying home during the cleanup week. The end result was impressive, but I began the second year watching with dismay as the litter and paint spills accumulated in every studio.

Looking back, I’m puzzled – why did I find the first year of the program so exciting and satisfying and the second year so awful? I’m reminded of the boiling frog metaphor. As I gradually became  socialized into the role of a grade 12 art student, and as I became absorbed in the process of making art, I learned to live with the daily indignities: I adjusted to the rising water temperature. Returning to art school after nearly three months’ summer holiday in another, more familiar world – travelling overseas, meeting colleagues and graduate students, attending a Ph.D. oral defence – I was suddenly dropped into the boiling water again and jumped out fairly promptly.

Based on my year’s experiences, I have some recommendations for faculties of education and school boards. High school teachers often lack the necessary training to teach adults, in part because university departments that specialize in adult education have been under threat since the 1990s. With baby boomers now planning retirement, education in the “third age” will continue to expand, and teachers will need adequate preparation in order to meet the learning needs of older adults. School boards could introduce better screening to ensure that teachers of adults have both the qualifications and the desire to work with this age group. Boards could also offer incentives to encourage high school teachers who work with adults, either in day or evening programs, to take the necessary in-service courses and/or graduate training in adult education. And my colleagues in faculties of education, preparing future high school teachers for their very challenging jobs, would do well to spend more time in a high school, beyond the hours they are there to assess student teachers.

To sum up, I learned a lot in my year as a grade 12 student – a lot about art, and a few things about myself and others.

Aqua Marine is a pseudonym for a professor emerita who taught at a major Canadian university from 1986 to 2007