Teaching in Prison

Teaching in Prison

By Secret Teacher / TheGuardian.com

No bell marks the start of our day. Instead, a slow drip-feed of men in grey tracksuits amble their way into classes. Sometimes 10 sit in front of me, aged 21 up to 60 or 70. They are disaffected and despicable. They are the proud, the defensive, and the downright disagreeable, funneled into education during their first days inside, where they complete assessments in literacy and numeracy. Their scores determine their placement into a classroom, and their subsequent opportunities for work.

I didn’t know you could teach in prison until I volunteered at a rehab center, and someone there had learned to read in jail. It was a revelation to me after I’d always sworn that I would never teach, prompted in part by my primary teacher mother: never me, never a teacher. But something clicked, and I knew that this was where I would end up. This was my niche, my place to make a difference.

The most challenging part of working with offenders is the disparity between students in the classroom – the range of ages, their level of literacy, and their attitude to learning. Often their only common ground is their criminality. Some learners arrive spoiling for a fight, desperate to avoid the torture of school all over again, determined to prove themselves. Behavior is an issue, with many refusing to work. Challenging inappropriate language is a constant battle when, for some, the f-word is used in every sentence.

These men require sensitive handling. Custody issues, homelessness, bullying, debt, addiction, poverty, loneliness, alcoholism, abuse, and self-harm – a smorgasbord of issues make up these complex, challenging, and often frustrated learners. This is Jeremy Kyle meets Grange Hill. Once a learner settles into the class, he often begins to talk and open up about his life and the challenges he has faced. Many people will say that all prisoners are bad people, but the reality is that they are just like everyone else. They are the grown-up manifestations of frightened, abused, lonely, and unloved boys. It’s no wonder they’re disaffected: many have the behavior of teenagers and the reading levels to match.

The biggest rewards working in offender learning come when someone makes you rethink your first impressions of them when someone proves you wrong. A learner once came to my class, asked what subject it was, reeled off a load of expletives, and refused to stay. He was a London lad, a football hooligan. Three weeks later, he returned, calmer, and took his seat. Three months later, I nominated him for an adult learner award because of his success in literacy. I saw him change from this thuggish brute with a bad attitude to one of the most dedicated learners I have had – he even went on to support a young man who was struggling. It’s so satisfying as a tutor when, despite initial reluctance, your pupils relax, and begin to trust you and your teaching. They begin to realize that if they attend, and they listen, and they try, they can actually do this.

Another memorable student was a man in his 50s with very low literacy and numeracy levels. We worked together one-to-one, and his resilience and effort were outstanding. His fear of exams was his big downfall: he would clam up and be unable even to write. He never used a calculator, and instead would perform long multiplications on scraps of paper. It was painstaking, sensitive teaching, and, as is often the case with offenders, his previous life of drug abuse had virtually obliterated his short-term memory. After several weeks, I told him we were doing a practice exam. When he passed, I revealed that he had taken his entry-level 2 maths, and he cried with relief.

The hardest part of the role is the conflict between education and prison, and the way the prison regime dictates every part of the day. The men work in the morning for more than three and a half hours, which makes even the most enthusiastic learner difficult to engage. I cannot count the number of times I’ve been told, “At least you’ve got a captive audience.” But it’s not like that. Men come and go with alarming regularity, and it’s hard to deliver an outstanding lesson when all 10 of my students have an impending court case, a visit, a video link, or a baby on the way whom they won’t meet for several years. Their priority is not usually education. But, despite this, we have excellent results, and I’m proud to be involved in rehabilitation.

Do you know that difficult, unruly lad in bottom-set maths? Do you know that boy who’s been suspended countless times? You know that one they talk about in the staffroom, who throws chairs and spits and swears and tests everyone paid to care for him to the point of tears? Recent figures show he stands a high chance of entering the criminal justice system, and even more so if he gets expelled (with pupils thrown out aged 12 four times more likely to go to jail). If he does, if he’s lucky and brave, and determined, we’ll pick him up, dust him down and carry on where he left off. And maybe the second, third, or 20th time around, he’ll succeed.

(First published by TheGuardian.com)