Entry-level training and rehabilitation: Cutting mercury in a vacuum?

Mike Power has worked with young adults with learning problems for the past five years. Here he offers a trainer’s view on what entry-level vocational training is like.


‘Boring’, ‘brilliant’, ‘babyish’, ‘bats’—these were all words my trainees applied to my teaching activities. Popular culture is the norm for most youngsters, and it is hard to compete for attention with the latest video release or ‘sensational’ film offering. My trainees were bright enough (sometimes very bright on some matters) and they had no ‘obvious’ disabilities. Most of them had no clear idea of where they wanted to go in life, however, and it was my job to draw them a roadmap. The aim of the programme was to provide vocational training with a heavy emphasis on personal development. Ultimately, ‘outcomes’ were to be gauged in terms of employment or further training.

Of course, trainees never came with just one problem; while ‘learning problems’ may have been their entry-ticket, this label in fact conceals a tangled knot—of frustration, limited social skills, immaturity, manipulation, dependency attitudes and, above all, a deep lack of self esteem and confidence. ‘What would you expect, Mike? After all, these youngsters are disabled,’ a colleague once observed to me. Perhaps my own working definition came from another dictionary?!

Teaching tip: Learning problems always leave an emotional legacy of felt inadequacy.

What were my trainees actually like? Over the years I saw definite similarities and distinct differences: Paul, a young man who had been severely bullied in school; Olivia, victim of an overly-possessive mother; Helen, the expectant teenage mother with little social support; Victor, the quiet one who spent his lunchtimes alone. In all their variety, these students came to represent for me the vast numbers of youngsters whom society cannot classify (and whom schools find hard to teach)—the ‘slightly different’, the ‘borderline cases’, the ‘youngsters in the grey zone’. Work placement supervisors would cautiously ask: ‘but what is wrong with him/her?—nothing being immediately obvious. In my mind, what was ‘wrong’ with them was that they were just ‘different’. Summing it up, they shared limited social skills, an inadequate sense of direction in life, and a very vulnerable ‘inner child’.

Teaching tip: Assessment of ‘learning problems’ needs to be ongoing and continuous.

Right from Day One, I knew this was not an easy assignment. Previously I had taught adults, college students and even primary pupils, but this was something else. Bringing these students into a group set up a whole new dynamic, much of which was ‘off-curriculum’! So I might blithely set out to explore ‘good work attitudes’ and end up physically separating two sparring Lotharios, or plan a trip to FÁS and ‘lose’ a number of them en route. To some of these students, ‘formal learning systems’ are only an incitement to subvert. As time went on, I managed to identify some ‘hooks’ for my group—anything related to TV, film or video was a good start. Emotionally-charged incidents (such as a fight or argument) caught immediate concentration. And introducing new faces to the classroom was a ‘must see’; a knock at the door was a sure way to their attention. At times, much of teenage psychology did seem to revolve around moaning, challenging and undermining—and that’s only the nice part!

Seriously though, my group provided me with a lot of satisfaction too. I fondly recall Ian, who left the group to go to college, Claire who left to work and get married, and Carl, who set up his own business. Each trainee I met enriched my own life and I came to have great admiration for the youngsters, who struggled daily with their own vulnerabilities and with other people’s often uncaring attitudes. Presenting the bus pass in public was a major source of embarrassment to some, while to others the mere notion of attending a ‘training centre’ was cause for mortification.

Teaching tip: Trainees need to have a wide variety of learning experiences and modes of delivery.

I found that the personal price of this kind of work is often very high. As the title above suggests, trainers often have a wide responsibility remit. It is this broadness, more than any other factor, that places pressure on frontline staff. Trainees have social, political, emotional, community and spiritual needs—as well as needs in cognitive and vocational areas. In fact, as David Goleman (Working with Emotional Intelligence) makes clear, competence in the ‘feeling’ domain may be the best predictor of successful work adjustment. As I have seen with colleagues, it may be that staff who are too motivated and work with trainees on too many ‘fronts’ are the very ones who end up burnt out and exhausted. Real support for deliverers of these services is crucial if best practice is to be followed. In my five years, my feelings ran the gamut daily and my health often followed suit. ‘Wear and tear’ takes on a new meaning when it’s the emotional system that is involved.

Teaching tip: Support for service-deliverers is crucial for successful training.

It is my fond hope that the time my trainees spent with me has helped them on their rocky road through life. While ‘outcome indicators’ have their place, caring human influence is a more intangible measure. Was I a good role model for these young minds? I hope so. Did I enrich their lives? The future will tell. One thing is certain: eventually these young people will enter our society and rightly demand their ‘place in the sun’, independent of family or other supportive adults. I hope they find a congenial niche—they do deserve it


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