The sad truth of teaching in prison is that certain elements transcend the prison walls. Elements such as the psyche of our students and the experiences our students bring with them into the classroom are good examples. These are the same as in schools outside of prison. The difference is that our students generally have lived harder, more stressful and more unstable lives than the traditional student outside of prison. As such, they carry a lot of baggage with them. This is baggage we must overcome if we want to connect with these troubled students.
Our Profession as Prison Educators
Let's face it: our profession is one of last hopes. Our students generally come to us beaten down, angry, confused, and even scared. They've been sentenced to a number of years away from their families and friends. They are in fight or flight mode. And once they realize that fight mode is not an option, they tend to fortify their mental walls. They tend to mentally move away from the forefront of their existence and hide in their mental recesses.
As correctional educators it is our job to encourage our students to let their walls down. To try reality on for size again. We aim to show them a new path which can result in a new way of living. This way we can help them to grow and become the men and women we know they can be.
Sadly, this is not always an easy or friction-free process. Often I have students who feel as though they must be defiant. Others find that they simply must withdraw. These responses could be because they feel these choices are the only ones they have left; defense mechanisms for certain. Regardless of the cause, the effect is clear: their educational and social growth becomes substantially stunted by these defense mechanisms (and the causes which led up to their usage).
It's clear to me that our students adamantly harm themselves by acting in a way that they believe will help protect them, utilizing the aforementioned defense mechanisms. This is a component which we must aid in removing. As correctional educators, we must show them that our classrooms are safe enclaves of learning, places where growth is the order of the day.
An Informed Plan of Action
As we all know, no one method of learning is right for every student. The same is true with connecting with individual students. This is because individual students will have different concerns, fears, and hang-ups. Our treatment of each situation must be informed and constantly evolving so as to catch the wind of change.
A great place to start is to speak with the new student in private. This way he/she's not influenced by peer pressure and will be more honest and open with you. As you speak with the student, attempt to ascertain where they are, both educationally and socially. By understanding their relative maturity and experiences with education, you can better tailor a program of study which has a greater chance of success. By asking for a voluntary assessment of their scholastic abilities, and perhaps an understanding of the highest grade they have completed thus far, you will have a better idea of where to start them out in their coursework. You can better target a plan of action for the individual student.
After the student is in the classroom, pay attention to how they are interacting with both other students and with their work. These are vital indicators of their personal and educational growth. If problems present themselves, speak with the student in private. See what is hindering or aggravating them. Try to find an easily adaptable solution which will allow them to succeed.
If Problems Present Themselves
If problems continue to persist, then it's time to go into action. This means prompting interaction. This could be as simple as calling on the student more to enhance classroom participation, moving the student away from negative influences or simply closer to your desk, or even altering their course of study to increase engagement. The idea is to try to find ways to help them help themselves. You are seeking a meaningful connection in these actions; a connection to you and to their coursework. In a way, you are trying to sell them the idea of education and classroom participation.
If these more mild methods of correction aren't effective, it might be time to take more substantial steps. These could include increasing or decreasing the grade level at which they are working, switching the class period the student has in your classroom, meeting with the student to plan a more effective scholastic strategy, writing up a written conduct agreement between you and the student (which could encompass rewards for meeting expectations), or even transferring the student to another classroom for a fresh start.
In this situation, you are your student's greatest advocate. You are trying to do what is best for them even if they don't realize or even appreciate it.
When Hope is on Hiatus
There may come a time when you find that there is nothing that can be done with a particular student even though you've worked hard to connect with them. If this ever becomes the case, your new objective is to mitigate any negative effects they might have on other students. Unfortunately, this means placing other students ahead of them in terms of your attention.
As any correctional educator will tell you, sometimes time is what is needed. Sometimes the incarcerated student needs time to decide on their own that they want to learn and grow. In this case, there is nothing that you can do for them until they are willing to do something for themselves.
If this sad event is to transpire, you should not necessarily budge on your classroom expectations, but you probably should focus your attention on those who are trying to grow and succeed. While doing so, still issue the troubled student their work and present encouragement when appropriate, but always maintain classroom order and management. Even though a student is having a hard time -- or is refusing to participate in their own success -- it is never ok for one student to derail all of the other students in the classroom who are there to work.
A Passion and a Calling
As correctional educators we have both a passion and a calling. We are passionate about the transformational power of education to enlighten even the most downtrodden soul. And we have a calling -- much as Jesus instructed -- to go into the prisons and help those in need. We very much are our students' last and greatest hope for a life free of crime and prisons.
As people who are passionate about our work, we must push ourselves to be as effective as possible. Our effectiveness is a direct indicator of our students' likelihood of transformation. As such, see each student as an individual with unique needs, skills, and levels of commitment. And in reflectng on this fact, do what you can to connect with each student on their level. With a little luck, we very well might just be the difference in our students' lives, a difference which turns their lives’ trajectories around. We might very well be the cause for the chain of criminal mentality to broken once and for all.