Class Update: Alarming Staff Change, Fuzzy Teacher, Student Comment

By Christopher Zoukis

I am pleased to report that after a two week hiatus, we finally had class. What a relief to arrive at the FCI-Petersburg Education Department and find the doors unlocked. I know that both my students and I found this to be a much needed reprieve After all, collectively we were becoming discouraged because of all the cancelled classes.

While this is still speculation at this point, I hear that there was a shake-up in terms of which education staff work on which days. If this last past Monday was an indicator, then my life and my class just became that much less stressful. This is because the Supervisor of Education was on duty Monday night and had everything moving along as it should.

Outside of this potential change, a more alarming staffing change has also occurred. As of last Thursday the Adult Continuing Education staff leader has received a promotion and is now working in the Federal Bureau of Prison's Central Office. While this is also speculation, it is my belief that this is indeed what happened. While I'm sad to see her go – as she was a terrific educator and facilitator of the ACE program – I’m also pleased that she received a promotion and hope that she can effect meaningful change on a much larger scale now that she is in the big leagues.

Though, while I am happy for her and this newfound upward mobility, I am concerned about the Adult Continuing Education program here at FCI-Petersburg. I worry that whoever steps into her position will not be as pro-education or pro-innovation as she was. This could certainly hamper my reform efforts here at the prison. After all, we made enormous strides in the right direction under the past ACE Coordinator.

Outside of this staffing change, class was good. To tell you the truth, I was just glad to see the doors unlocked and my students in their seats. So, the bar was very low.

As class started I could tell a difference from the start. The problem was that I was a bit fuzzy.  You wouldn't think that two weeks of not teaching would be enough to throw someone off of their game, but it did for me. I suppose that I go into ‘Class Mode’ and ‘Break Mode.’ While in the ‘Class Mode,’ I am thinking about class and what I'm going to cover the following week. But in ‘Break Mode’ I am more focused on my work outside of class, studies and such. So, all of this preparation and delay has caused me to go out of whack a bit.

Regardless of my fogginess, class progressed fairly well. We discussed the basics of book writing (with a special emphasis on nonfiction). We also covered book proposals and a few other structuring and outlining strategies. Everything went well until one of my students made one heck of a comment.

To preface this, I try to maintain an open and friendly classroom. To me, if students feel secure in their surroundings then they are more open to learning and sharing/participating. Hence, there really isn't any racial or other kind of tension in the classroom. As such, scrawny white guys, buff black guys, and even tattooed Mexicans can interact in a friendly and open manner, not having to worry about appearance or associations as they do everywhere else in the prison. (Disclaimer: Not all of the white guys are the stereotypical scrawny image as portrayed in popular culture. I, for one, am a fairly fit white guy with tattoos.)

While having a discussion regarding targeting a piece of writing for a particular demographic one of my students raised his hand and asked a very stupid question. A question which would immediately inject politics back into the classroom experience, something I try to stem off.

He asked me about controversial topics, specifically if it was a good idea to write books which were more of a shock as opposed to mainstream content. He wanted to know if this was a good business model for the author. If he had left the comment at that nothing would have been lost. But he didn't. He presented a poor example.  He should have known better.

The example he used was of a book entitled something like The Pedophile's Guide to Loving Children. As soon as he made this statement half of the room became silent and stared at him with absolute contempt – or worse – in their eyes. The other half of the room laughed at what a horrible idea to say something like that in a prison classroom. I was a little panicked to tell you the truth. I didn't want to see some kind of a scene in my classroom and I certainly didn't want to see harm come to any of my students, something which does happen to outspoken persons believed to be in for "funny" charges.

After about half a heart-beat I made my move. I ignored his comment and quickly brought the discussion back to that of targeting our specific audience. I drew the focus to this blog and tried to move along as quickly as possible. I discussed how at times I would like to say harsh things about certain staff and my experiences with them on my blog, but I don't, because a large part of my audience is in fact prison educators. So, being controversial would actually alienate me from my audience, not make my site and blog more popular.

While I successfully changed the topic in quick order, I fear the real damage was already done. Those who have served time in prison know that you just can’t say and do certain things here as you could on the street. I'm reminded of this every time I try to have an informed discussion with my cell mate regarding sentencing laws or the treatment of prisoners. Sadly, many incarcerated do not possess the analytical skills required to carry on such a discussion. That or they buy in to the prison experience so much that they become more like a crowd of looters who abide by their own confused form of logic – which promotes violence – rather than rational discussion or contemplation.

Looking back upon this class I see a few positives and a few glaring negatives. I was pleased to have class, and to see my student. However, I was not pleased with my fogginess or the comment the student made. I feel as if I could have done a better job teaching if I was better prepared, but was frustrated by preparing so much and being turned away so often. I suppose that a large part of the issue with me being foggy was a mental one. Lately, since I’ve often been turned away from my classroom when I'm supposed to be teaching, I've kind of conditioned myself to expect to be turned away. This needs more contemplation.

As for the student, I think that he realizes his comment was a mistake, but the damage is done. I'm sure that most of the students in my classroom went back to their housing units and mentioned the comment to their friends. This has the potential to cause problems for the student. As for the classroom, I fear that this could damage some of the openness which I've worked hard to facilitate. I guess only time will tell.

If I can leave you with a final thought today, it is that when something bad occurs in your classroom, move along as quickly as possible. By not responding to the comment and trying to draw attention away from it, I was able to keep my student safe and to keep others from heckling him in my classroom. I just hope that my action can save him from being ostracized by those around him in the prison.