Prison Teachers: An Untapped Resource

Prison Teachers: An Untapped Resource

By Janice M. Chamberlin

Whenever I am asked what I do for a living, there is first surprise and maybe a little bit of shock when I say I teach at an all-male prison year round.

I can almost predict what people are going to say. They’ll want to know if I’m afraid. “Is there a guard in there with you? What do you teach them? How do you get them to learn?”

“I wouldn’t do what you do for twice your salary,” is what I’m often told.

Generally, my first response is to tell them it is the most challenging and rewarding teaching I have ever experienced. I then proceed to explain the setting and offer many stories. My dad has always said, “You should write a book.”

Even my colleagues have said to me more than once, “What do you do that produces increasing numbers of GEDs every year? What’s your secret? Do you just get the ‘cream of the crop’?”

Well, that has to be a joke because teaching in prison, I think the “cream of the crop” would be difficult to find.

In 2006, I went back to school to earn an administrative license. I learned that many of the things I had been doing all these years had been proven, by brain research, to work in teaching. Then, I got energized because I could explain what success was all about and why things worked for me and my students.

In recent years, I have been working in public schools, working on an internship, tutoring, and assisting with after-school programs. The light bulb went on when I observed the little kids again. I saw many of the same behaviors and lack of skills that I have seen in my adult students.

These would include poor decision-making skills, a lack of listening skills, a need for immediate gratification, anger issues, and those kinds of things.

That’s when I realized I had valuable information for any teacher. Those I especially want to reach include:

  • Teachers who are currently teaching in a correctional setting, as well as those who may find themselves in that career in the future
  • Those who teach in any other adult education programs
  • Those who teach in urban schools or alternative schools, no matter the age of the students
  • Teachers who work with students who have special needs

These blogs, serializations of my book Locked Up With Success, offer suggestions on maintaining a well-managed, organized, disciplined, and safe learning environment. I hope that you will learn how to teach creatively and successfully while still being able to exhibit the word that we hear all the time: accountability.

I believe my story can help you close the achievement gap wherever it occurs, regardless of the age of the students you instruct. I think I may even have a secret or two to share.

This most challenging teaching position may be essential to successfully improving education overall. I intend to give you what has worked for me.

Let me be clear! I am not in any way suggesting your students are heading for prison or that you should treat them as “inmates.” Based on what I have observed and experienced in my classroom, I suggest that some of my teaching methods could work for others.

Since 1973, I have been involved in education. I clearly understand the issues, the frustrations, and the passion of educators. Once you read about my classroom experiences and philosophies in prison, I think you can apply my methods to your classroom.

My experiences are an untapped resource that I believe can make a difference for you, no matter where you teach.

Janice M. Chamberlin, a licensed prison educator in Indiana, is the author of Locked Up With Success. In her book, Ms. Chamberlin shares stories of the challenges she has faced and 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.