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Navigating Adult Education through the Pandemic

October 18, 2021

Hi! I'm Natalie Flammia, Professional Development Associate for Adult Literacy at NPL. I work with adult literacy educators and program leaders to help them achieve their professional learning goals.

If you’re over 18 and you’re learning a subject or a skill outside of traditional “higher education” (think college or university), you’re what Adult Literacy at NPL considers an “adult learner.” You may not realize it, but there is an entire branch of education (andragogy) dedicated to better understanding your unique needs, motivations, and approaches to learning. Think about why you last watched a tutorial on YouTube, took a class on LinkedIn Learning, or borrowed a “For Dummies” book from the library. Based on what the principles of andragogy tell me, I’d bet that it’s likely you made these choices for yourself because you were interested in learning something that was relevant to your job or personal life, and that you tested out what you learned by applying it as you went (If I’m wrong, shoot me an email to let me know! No two learners are exactly the same). 

In classrooms throughout the world — including here in Nashville — educators apply andragogy practices to their teaching by engaging with adult learners as the full, complex, and unique individuals that they are. Here in Nashville, a number of agencies serve a particular community of adult learners interested in increasing their knowledge or skill in English language, citizenship, high school equivalency, workforce development, digital literacy, and more. Each year Adult Literacy at NPL confers the Adult Educator of the Year Award to one Davidson County educator who has significantly contributed to the field of adult education in our community and positively impacted the lives of their learners. 

Meet Lisa LeMaster, 2021 Adult Educator of the Year

Lisa LeMaster, our 2021 awardee, was nominated in October 2020, after six long months of pandemic crisis response. “Every day is different. I am in awe of my students, not only because they are tackling what I believe to be an extremely complicated language, but also because they are confronting new experiences every day,” notes Lisa, “yet they come to lessons with such wonderful, positive attitudes. They are full of hope for the future, and they are a daily inspiration to me.”

Below, Lisa writes about her experience becoming an adult learner again herself, as she learned and applied new skills in remote instruction and digital literacy so that she could better serve Nashville’s adult learners.

The Stages of Pandemic Teaching Adaptation, a.k.a. Learning

By guest blogger Lisa LeMaster, 2021 Adult Educator of the Year

Like many adult education providers before the pandemic, my organization, the Nashville Adult Literacy Council (NALC) had a system. Our model featured in-person, one-on-one tutoring. We had it down. It worked. And it was good. Then we all know what happened next. Suddenly overnight, our model was out the window. Looking back on the past 18 months, I think of the time in stages--six stages of torment…well, maybe that’s a little harsh…how about six stages of growth?

Stage 1: Denial

Like many of you, I’m sure, I started out thinking small: “Whoa, we are going to cancel lessons for the rest of this week!” This timeline gradually blossomed in phases--first a couple of weeks, then maybe two or three months, but surely by summer…by fall…by winter…OK, well, definitely by spring, we’ll be back to our “normal” way of work.

Stage 2: Panic

When it became clear that we were not going back to our routine, anxiety set in. “We’re toast!” we thought. “There is no way we can continue our mission when we can’t even go into the office. Our students can’t navigate remote learning! What even is remote learning? That will never work. We need to be sitting side-by-side with our students, talking with them, reading together, looking at written work shoulder to shoulder…this can’t work in a virtual setting. And what even is a virtual setting? ‘Zoom’ is a verb; it’s not a noun!” Never had our team felt so ancient as when we realized we were going to have to learn (gasp!) how to, not only use, but teach others to use, new teleconferencing software technology. Is it too dramatic to say there were tears? Well, I’m not embarrassed to tell you that crying can be cathartic; it ushered us into Stage 3.

Stage 3: The Big Rally

The good thing about hitting that proverbial rock bottom is that you get to look upwards (it’s the only way out). One of our biggest lifelines came from the Nashville Public Library and their Adult Literacy team in the form of teacher lounges, Zoom-based workshops, water cooler discussions, and even much welcomed “happier hours.” In this stage we started accepting reality and looking around for our options. What’s out there in this virtual world that will fit our organization? What methods can we use to reach out to learners and engage with them? When we finally came to grips with our situation, we realized that if NALC were to survive this pandemic, NALC would have to drastically change the model. We made a huge shift from one-on-one to group instruction. My task was to find a program that best fit our learners’ needs (and wouldn’t make our teachers and staff apoplectic trying to implement it). We settled on Burlington English--an online digital solution for language learning. These are not my words--they come from their website. How wonderful to find a “solution” to the problem of coping with a pandemic! Just reading the description made my blood pressure normalize.

Stage 4: Learning & Innovation

Now the tables were turned for our staff. We became the learners as we dove into this new world of remote classes. We polished our Zoom skills--yes, by now we gerundialized the heck out of that former verb (no, that’s not a real word…but shouldn’t it be?). “Hey, instead of typing a long email, should we try Zooming for a few minutes to discuss this?” We jumped onto Zooms to plan lessons. We hopped on Zoom to discuss strategies. We shot each other Zoom links at the drop of a hat. We were pros at creating meetings. We broke out into breakout rooms without breaking into a sweat. And maybe best of all, we cut our laundry loads in half as shirts, sweaters, and tops became the only important articles of clothing for work…and who was the wiser? Life was good again (at least in our own little home office worlds). We sailed into Stage 5.

Stage 5: Sustaining a New Model

As our classes got underway and our students started making gains in their English acquisition, we saw that, to our surprise, numbers looked good, satisfaction was high, attendance was strong, and goals were being met. Instead of barely getting by, surviving by the skin of our teeth, we were thriving. So much so that we decided, as did many nonprofits and businesses, that for NALC, the virtual realm was here to stay. It was successful, it helped us to reach learners who otherwise would not have been able to attend class. We had happy mothers with young children, relieved workers who could attend English class from home after (or before) a long day (or night) at work, and we had teachers and learners who felt safe and didn’t have to worry about contracting COVID-19. As we ended our spring semester of classes, we made a commitment: we will continue remote learning into the fall. And what a good decision that has turned out to be. Just when we were getting complacent (well, not exactly, but at least fairly comfortable), thinking we had made it through the pandemic, well…you know what happened. As Delta loomed, we gave up plans to teach in-person classes (again!), and we settled into Stage 6.

Stage 6: A New Normal?

Now we are grappling with big questions again. Once the Delta scare subsides and in-person instruction is possible again, how do we know what balance to strike between virtual and face-to-face? Both models have pros and cons. Do we offer both virtual and in-person instruction? (We know we’d like to!) The hardest part may be figuring out how to blend the two and be ready in case something like this happens again. While we hope it never does, at least we know we can survive upheaval and grow in the process. Looking back on our navigation through the pandemic, we have learned a lot. We’re stronger than we were before. But we know we must be prepared for more learning and innovation. And for folks in our adult education world, that’s actually an exciting prospect!

About Our Guest Author

Lisa LeMaster is the Online Classroom Manager at The Nashville Adult Literacy Council (NALC). Before assuming her current role in spring 2020, Lisa worked as the Start Now Coordinator and Office Manager of NALC’s Antioch branch for six years and as a volunteer tutor for two years. She has been with the organization since 2012. In her current role, Lisa coordinates a team of teachers who are committed to supporting the educational gains of adults across Nashville and to building a community of adults empowered through literacy.  She also teaches several NALC online classes herself. In April 2021, Lisa was awarded the Adult Educator of the Year Award for her outstanding work in adult education. You can reach Lisa at

Natalie Flammia


Nat is the Professional Development Associate for Adult Literacy at NPL. She works with adult literacy educators and program leaders to help them achieve their professional learning goals. Ask Nat about conferences, communities of practice, and resource coaching. To contact Nat, email or call (615) 862-5849.


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