Securing a Safe Setting

Contrary to common belief, I am at least 90%-95% of the security in my classroom. My biggest approach can be summed up as showing an authoritative, but also a caring, demeanor. It takes a little bit of work and a bit of balance. But it works well for me and I think probably for most people, if it’s done consistently. If I can overcome their poor attitudes, then discipline is obviously easier.

Often, people think since I teach adults, classroom discipline must be easier than when working with teens.  In reality, many of these men are physically grown, but are still mentally equivalent to young teens.  I have found by observing their behaviors, I can come pretty close to figuring out at what age they began using alcohol and/or drugs.  Their achievement test scores give me the second clue.  If a man comes to school at a sixth grade level, it’s usually safe to say he began dabbling in alcohol or drugs around the age of 12.  It helps in knowing how to approach a man, and how to develop his educational plan when I understand where he’s at academically and emotionally. 

The Department of Corrections places each inmate based on several factors.  They are sent to any particular prison after considering the severity of their crime, the length of their sentence, and their risk of violence. The higher level security prisons house the death row inmates, for example.  The lowest level prisons might not even have a fence.  They house those who are determined to be the least risky or dangerous. How dangerous are my students?  It varies; the prison is a medium security correctional facility.  So none of my students are on death row, but I have taught drug dealers, addicts, car thieves, rapists, child molesters, murderers, and armed robbers.  You name the crime, and I’ve probably taught someone who committed it. Am I afraid? Rarely. Do I need to be vigilant and careful?  Yep.

I do my best to explain the reasons for the rules, and they are always supposed to sign them when they first enter school. We put the rules in writing and they sign, so they know what the rules are.  I allow their input, but there are some rules we simply must follow because we are in a prison. I also post the rules to avoid grievances; they can’t say they didn’t know any particular rule. We make them as general as possible; respect for each other, follow orders, things like that.

As for obscene language, I don’t allow it. And they must have their pants pulled up, their shirts tucked in and buttoned, and their ID’s on their shirt pocket, but I still always explain that. I stress it’s not because I am in a power struggle, or because I am trying to be the boss. I tell them, “We do this because if you go home and dress like that at your job, you’re going to get fired in less than a day.”

They don’t always accept that, but as a general rule they do. If not, I approach it as a disciplined setting for learning; for example, in a military setting, there are rules for dress and self-discipline.

“It’s a practice in self-discipline, which helps you get in the right mode for learning.” They don’t always buy that, but very often it does work. If you explain your reasons, it’s a little harder for them to argue about it.

There are some exceptions to the general rules. Sometimes it’s necessary to be more specific. I walked into a colleague’s classroom a couple years ago and had to laugh, because he had a sign hanging on the wall with just two words on it. In bold print, it said, “No spitting.”

I chuckled, “What is that doing there?”

He, too, chuckled and responded, “Well, I had a student who was hocking and spitting right on this floor.”

When he tried to correct the student, the guy said, “Hey, there’s no rule about that. Nobody said we couldn’t spit.”

In cases like that, you throw up a little sign. The next time the student spits, he can’t say he didn’t know it; at that point, he becomes subject to loss of privileges or more time to be served in the prison for not following a direct order. I think that sign is still hanging there, even though “Joe the Spitter” is probably long gone.

Janice M. Chamberlin, a licensed prison educator in Indiana, is the author of Locked Up With Success. In her book, Ms. Chamberlin shares stories not only of the challenges she has faced, but also the triumphs she has seen in the prison classroom setting. She has successfully developed a system that can unlock potential even in the highest risk students. The full paperback or digital version can be purchased at http://www.lockedupwithsuccess.com/