The “Mama Bear”

The “Mama Bear”

For fourteen years, I have been the “mama bear” in a correctional facility, mostly teaching adult males between the ages of 18 to 75. I also have nearly a year’s experience in an all-male juvenile facility, with ages ranging from 12 to 18.  So, I have experience with a full spectrum of ages.

The prison setting obviously has many cultural and ethnic backgrounds. We have Caucasians, African Americans, Native Americans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and probably any combination of the above.
The ability levels range from non-readers at kindergarten level, all the way to twelfth grade. Until recently, our school was departmentalized by subject area, and the students were also placed by academic level. Specifically, I taught the high-level math. These students were at the high school level; I instructed them in numbers and operations, measurement, algebra and geometry.

A couple of years back, we changed to a system of self-contained classrooms. Some of the teachers still specialize, preferring the lower or the higher academic levels, but I teach in a totally self-contained environment with all subjects: reading, writing, social studies, science, and math. And I teach all levels from kindergarten to grade twelve.

I have had students who knew their letters, but didn’t know the sounds that the letters make, all the way to students who were just about ready to graduate from high school, but for one reason or another never finished.

The makeup of the academic levels is much lower than most people realize.  I taught one man who never completed first grade.  He said his family moved around a lot, living in the woods, so no one realized he wasn’t in school.  At last count, twenty three of my forty five students were under the fifth grade level!  I usually have at least four or five in each session who would definitely be in special education classes if they were in the public schools today.  Those four or five would have their own special education teacher.  And that instructor would probably even have a teacher’s aide.  

Picture this setting.  Three men, all in their forties and fifties, are working on their subtraction.  One is very timid and toothless.  One is stocky, kind, and doesn’t appear slow.  The third one is easily angered and has a large scar down the side of his face.  All three men are under third grade ability, and they’re arguing about the best way to subtract single digit numbers.  The stocky man is showing the timid one how to use his fingers to figure out the answer to 7 minus 2.  The guy with the scar starts an argument as to “what number comes first, the top or the bottom.” If it wasn’t so sad, it may have been funny watching them argue. 

Finally, I intervened and explained they could say “7 minus 2” or “2 from seven.”   The guy with the scar was happy because somehow he determined that what I told them proved he was “right.” I let him think he was correct and moved on to another problem.

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: