“We need to feel valued and respected for the work that we
do”: Workplace educators speak out
by Margan Dawson
The Nova Scotia Department of Education, Skills and Learning Branch
values education and skills development for workers. Their goals
• meet the skill needs of Nova Scotia’s labour market;
• provide better labour market access and support to Nova Scotians;
• strengthen Nova Scotia’s system of lifelong learning
To help workers develop and upgrade their Essential Skills, the
Department of Education initiated the Workplace Education Initiative
16 years ago. The program uses a partnership model that involves
business, industry, labour, government and workplace educators in
a team to support and deliver the Workplace Education program.
The process of developing a program is complex. Each project team
takes the lead in a workplace program by creating a learning environment
and encouraging workers to participate in learning and education
opportunities at the work site. The skills-development coordinator
with the Department of Education ensures that the model maintains
Workplace educators design and deliver programs customized to the
needs of workplaces across Nova Scotia and, in keeping with the model,
build relationships and partnerships at all levels.
The Association of Workplace Educators of Nova Scotia (AWENS) supports
our members. We partner with the Department of Education to certify
instructors under the Workplace Education Instructor Certification
program. AWENS also creates unity and support for workplace educators
• providing a forum for promoting and advancing excellence
in instructional practices;
• creating professional development opportunities;
• responding to trends in the field; and
• representing the interests of workplace educators.
In addition to the certification program and other professional
development workshops, we hold a biennial Workplace Education Institute,
which brings together the various partners—business, labour,
educators and government—to learn, network, share resources
and advance workplace education.
The role of the instructor
Workplace educators perform a wide range of roles, and they use
adult education principles in their programs. They are flexible in
the delivery of programs, ensuring they meet the needs of the worker
and workplace. They customize programs to suit the needs of a range
of sectors, from health care to manufacturing. They work with a wide
range of partners.
Workplace educators come from diverse backgrounds, including business,
training, trades and nursing, as well as having experience as community
college instructors and administrators.
In preparing to deliver a program, an instructor must first read
the organizational needs assessment, meet with the skills-development
coordinator and project team, tour the work site, conduct individual
meetings to determine learner goals, then design and deliver the
programs. They must also participate in project team meetings and
In this article, we will outline some of the challenges, and also
the benefits, faced by workplace educators in Nova Scotia. We gathered
information through interviews with educators who have various levels
of experience in delivering programs within the Workplace Education
Initiative. Participants were asked to respond to two questions: “What
are the challenges of the work of workplace education?” and “Why
do you continue to do the work despite the challenges?”
The challenges instructors face
Practitioners have different reasons for becoming workplace educators.
Some chose the work because they want to eventually work full-time
in the field of adult education. Others rely on workplace education
as an important supplement to other income. Others are retired and
the flexibility of workplace education is appealing. No matter their
reason for doing the work, all face challenges.
Instructors are provided with the Making It Work instructor
manual and instructor administration package, which are designed
to support and assist instructors in developing and teaching workplace
education programs. But they depend on the workplace to provide the
materials to customize the program. In unionized work sites, the
union may supply books and materials; however, for the most part,
instructors enter the workplace program with only what they have.
Instructors often use their personal time and resources to develop
customized materials, or purchase materials with their own money.
Instructors and participants alike would benefit from a central resource
library where they could research pertinent information.
Support on other levels would be beneficial as well, such as access
to referrals for testing or guidance for participants who are having
difficulties. In one circumstance, a worker who was unable to read
wanted help and needed to be assessed, but there was no money for
testing. Access to testing that isn’t cost- or time-prohibitive
would allow instructors to work more effectively with each individual.
Similarly, another instructor working in multi-level classrooms
stated: “The biggest challenge is accommodating the needs of all the
workers. Sometimes that is a tall order. I hate to see anyone left
Instructors commented that finding suitable classroom space can
be a challenge. When the space is inadequate for breakout groups
or individual learning, or is poorly ventilated, the effectiveness
of a program for both the instructor and participants is affected.
Instructors also expressed concern over the amount of unpaid time
I’ve had to ask myself how much personal time I am willing
to give in order to keep doing the job well. I have to maintain a
competence level to handle whatever type of program might be needed.
Right now there is a demand for computer programs, but next it may
be leadership, or then basic math. It’s a challenge to have
the required resources at our fingertips to deliver such a variety
of programming, and to be able to maintain a level of competency
in those subject areas.
They also felt that the time they spend on travel should be factored
into contracts, as well as the time spent preparing for class: “It
can take up a lot of time getting from one site to another.”
Some instructors would like to have more feedback. One mentioned
that “having no feedback on what I’m doing is hard. I’d
also like to see some reward and recognition for what I do.” Instructors
felt their three greatest challenges were the irregular contracts,
the lack of financial compensation for time actually spent working
and the lack of any type of benefits package.
What keeps instructors in the field?
AWENS members agree that there are many rewards for this work. The
material reward is that they are paid for doing a job well. However,
there are many non-material rewards. Some examples of why educators
keep doing the work:
• I continue because I feel that workplaces are the perfect
place to provide much-needed programs to those who were missed in
school, those who want to learn and don’t have the time or
money, or to those who just come in for the experience. Both the
workers and the companies benefit. I feel that the Nova Scotia Workplace
Education Initiative is one that works and does make a difference.
• Because I love the philosophy—the partnership model—that
people who need this have access to programs. I get to see measurable
improvement in every group in Essential Skills. Some workplaces have
no education budget, so they are able to access learning for staff
that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. This feels morally
• Because I love the work. It’s hugely satisfying—more
than any other I’ve done. I enjoy meeting people and learning
about different workscapes. I get satisfaction from helping learners
raise their level of education, advance in the workplace, improve
their family life… I feel I can make a positive difference
through workplace education. That feels good. I can also use my experience
in facilitating a range of programs to get other work. And I prefer…to
• It is the connection one makes with participants during the
program that makes it all worthwhile. When I step outside long after
class and see several participants hunched together in a truck working
on a math problem, it gives me the drive to continue.
Workplace practitioners’ perceptions and expectations may
lead to frustration. At this point, their main concerns are that
workplace education is part-time work; that the time and work that
goes into a program needs to be appreciated; and that there are no
benefits. As one instructor pointed out:
I need to feel valued and respected for what I do. I need fair pay.
Since we are contract workers, I understand ‘no benefits,’ but
we could receive other kinds of compensation.
AWENS is responsible for representing the interests of workplace
educators. We are committed to continue doing so by building partnerships
and focusing our attention on the future and on ways to address these
Margan Dawsonas been a practitioner in the Nova
Scotia Workplace Education program since 1999. Margan’s background
is business administration. She has owned and operated two small
businesses and taught business programs in the New Brunswick community
college system before entering the field of community-based literacy
where she instructed academic upgrading programs for a number of
years. Upon returning home to Nova Scotia eight years ago, she began
teaching in the field of workplace education. Her current role is
that of Executive Director for the Association of Workplace Educators
of Nova Scotia (AWENS).
Thanks to the following people who contributed their insights about
the Workplace Education Initiative:
Allan Banks, Leslie Childs, Connie Duchene, Deirdre Kazi, Martin
Kennedy, Fred and Joan Ross, Ginny Schultz and Pat Thompson.
Why I do this work
The work of community-based literacy and workplace education is
one of the most fulfilling and exciting experiences of my working
career. I have found that at the core of each educator in this field
is a deep sense of caring and dedication to the learner. As a community
of educators, we build a strong sense of partnership by providing
a foundation of support for one another and therefore our learners.
We listen to each other, we talk about our experiences, we share
resources and we are innovative because resources and funding can
be scarce. We believe in and are drawn together by our vision of
a well-educated community.