Guest Speakers in Adult Ed

Guest speakers can make a powerful, lasting impression on students. They share their wisdom and experience, lead by example, and give students a clear, realistic picture of success. I mean, who could forget that time Mr. T came to motivationally speak to our 5th grade class, and for years to come we aspired to be vigilante soldiers of fortune cruising the streets of L.A. in a GMC Vandura trying to clear our names of a crime we didn’t commit?

Okay, so maybe we don’t all remember that. And maybe some dreams are best abandoned.  And maybe some speakers are more effective than others. In this post—the first of two on the topic of guest speakers in adult ed—I’m going to cover some types of guest speakers you may want to consider inviting to your class. Next time, I’ll provide a step-by-step process for prepping inexperienced guest speakers, to make sure that the visit is positive for everyone involved.

Guest speakers in your ESL class can be more than just a fun break from the day-to-day. Particularly in adult ed programs, they can provide students with some engaging authentic (or semi-authentic) listening input, not to mention valuable information about community resources and next steps toward their goals.

At first, I was hesitant to ask professionals to come into our classes; it seemed too much of an imposition, too big an ask. But it turned out nothing could be further from the truth. You’ll find that there are a whole lot of people out there who are more than happy to come and speak to your students. In fact, once the word gets out that you welcome speakers, don’t be surprised when some start seeking you out in hopes of scoring an invite. Seriously. I’ve received two emails this week from past presenters hoping to return and talk to our new classes this fall. Play your cards right, and they’ll be beating down the door to your classroom. You may need to budget for stanchions, a velvet rope, and a bouncer. (Now I’m regretting not having kept in touch with Mr. T…)


Alright, so Mr. T turns out to be a better bouncer than a speaker, Bill Clinton’s $200,000 speaking fee won’t quite fit into this year’s budget, and The Donald, weirdly enough, is booked solid these days. You don’t need money or connections, and you don’t even have to do a whole lot of work to find the right speaker for your class. In fact, some of the best speakers are right under your nose. The best people to speak to your students are often, well, your students.

Who better to speak to your Level 1 adult students about persisting in their studies than a level 4 student who has persisted in her studies? If you want someone to talk about the path to citizenship, odds are someone in your class has already traveled that path. Another option is to invite graduates of your programs who have gone on to thrive in their professional lives, civic lives, or in further education.

Not only will these peers share a lot of common ground with your students, but giving them the opportunity to share and celebrate their successes, and even their setbacks, will also build the sense of community within your program.

Reps From Other Programs

One of the best resources out there for guest speakers is other community programs that might be of use or of interest to your students. Often, bridges/transitions to college programs or vocational training schools have a designated outreach person who will be happy to come out and talk to your students about their offerings, giving your students a clear, concrete objective, rather than just “I want to go to college someday.” These folks not only have experience talking to nonnative speakers of various levels and relevant content in prepared presentations; they’re also often willing to come out at your convenience.

If you’re lucky enough to be in an area with several such programs competing, think about establishing a relationship with the program that is most comparable to yours in terms of schedule, location, and price, so that your students are more likely to be able to persist with their education.

You may also consider reaching out to reps from other social services, community establishments, and resources that are relevant to the population you serve, such as childcare services, public libraries, career centers, mental health facilities, and the school system in your city. Not only are such visits as this valuable for your students and your class, but the relationships that these visits establish can often blossom into new partnerships and collaborations.

Local Business Reps

For-profit businesses in your community can also be a great resource, though they may require a bit more work and caution on your part. Larger corporations like banks and telecom companies often have community outreach departments. For instance, Comcast has its Internet Essentials program, which promotes digital literacy. Similarly, banks big and small often organize free financial literacy events or even offer complete curricula on the topic, and it’s never hard to get an area rep to come in and talk to your classes about pretty much any finance topic of your choosing. Smaller companies might not have formal outreach reps, but they are still often happy to come and speak. I’ve also had great success with local doctors and insurance providers.

The big caveat that comes with speakers from the for-profit world is expectations. They want to speak to your students because they want to connect with an often hard-to-reach demographic. This is a promotional opportunity for them. As long as you understand this and set some reasonable limits, this doesn’t need to pose a problem. For instance, when I recently had a doctor come and speak to my students about the relationship between patients and primary care physicians in the United States, we agreed that she would stick to the topic without any overt self-promotion until the last few minutes, when she was allowed to distribute business cards.

This can be a little trickier than it sounds, though, so in my next post I’m going to present a process and some tips for preparing guest speakers to speak to your class.

Until then, here are some motivational words from Shia LeBeouf:

About Robert Sheppard

Robert Sheppard
Over the past 10 years, Rob has explored a variety of roles and contexts in the field. These include the cram-school culture of Taiwan and Korea; IEPs in Boston focused on academic English; advanced conversation and TOEFL prep taught via Skype to students in Japan; and nonprofit, community English programs for immigrants to Greater Boston. He currently serves as sr. director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources, a member of the community advisory council at First Literacy, and a curriculum consultant at Boston Global Institute. He has a master’s degree in TESOL from The New School, and his areas of interest include adult ed, pronunciation and grammar instruction, curriculum development, and assessment.
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