basic considerations for organizing your work as an informal educator

When planning our work we need to ensure that we attend to some basic points.

photo: kenny sykesWe work where our target groups can be found

We cannot expect people magically to come to us. This involves developing new ways of getting access to target groups. Often those who manage such sites are resistant to the presence of informal educators. Our style of working can be seen as strange and threatening, not least because of the subjects we are handling. Health promoters may find it difficult to work in schools and colleges, for example. These institutions often fear their presence will be interpreted as an admission that they have a problem with drugs or promiscuity. We may also want to organize new settings where we can make contact such as drop-ins, clubs and cafes.

We make ourselves and our work known

Informal educators have to work mostly in settings that are not overtly educational. As a result, we need to establish our role and what we can offer. This entails 'cold' contact work, that is to say, approaching people we have not previously met: on the street, door-to-door, or in social areas in schools and churches. Consequently, care has to be taken regarding appearance, style and manner. We have to be sensitive to the right of others to privacy; and to our own safety. We also need various 'props' to allow us to make contact: leaflets, programmes, calling cards. However, such props should reflect our priorities. Consider, for example if we have made a decision to work with older people in an area, then leaflets must be designed and prepared in a way that is sensitive to their concerns and interests.

We have a range of more organized activities into which people can feed

Informal educators need a number of projects on the go at any given time. This can help us to communicate our identity as well as offering a range of new or wanted opportunities to those we are working with. Projects can also deepen the work and give it an overt focus. For many workers it is vital they have something more to offer than conversation, and themselves. In making contact with people who are homeless it is important that they are able to offer various services, e.g. help in accessing temporary accommodation and obtaining benefits.

We have space to respond to situations

One of our key strengths is the ability to respond quickly to what people are bringing. We need to 'catch the moment'. It is important, therefore, that we do not over-programme our time. We must leave plenty of time to 'be around'. This is time that is flexible. Where crises emerge or, say, we need to spend time talking something through with a group then we can convert 'being around' to 'being there' for someone, or to 'working with'. For example, we may be working with a group of women who use a family centre drop-in. It is likely that we will have to spend time with particular individuals as issues arise - say around relationships with partners and ex-partners, income support and the educational needs of their children.

We attend to administration

Informal education is demanding and sophisticated. We can find ourselves dealing with very difficult problems, we have to work in settings that are not at all straightforward, and we have continually to think on our feet. To be clear about what we are doing we need to talk to others. We also must not underestimate the benefits of recordings, sound paper work and organization. Colleagues need to be able to cover for us if we are ill or dealing with an emergency. Activities generally involve a lot of preparation, for work to be financed applications have to be made and reports written. These areas have tended to be under-recognized. Records and recordings are vital.

We look to our own development

If we are not learning and developing, then we are unlikely to be any good as educators. In conversation we have to be ready to change our thinking as we listen to what is said. We have to be open to the other, otherwise we are unlikely to be engaging with people in a good spirit. We must value what they have to say. Furthermore, if we are to continue to have something worthwhile to say, then we have to keep reflecting on situations and deepening our knowledge. Being wise is not a static state.

infedcov.jpg (18462 bytes)Taken from Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith (2005) Informal Education. Conversation, democracy and learning, Nottingham: Educational Heretics Press.

© Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith
First published November 1999. Last update: July 08, 2014