After the pat down, I have to wait for seven locked doors to be opened before I can reach my classroom in the morning.
I can turn on my computer, but won’t have Internet access. With a key to open every door and drawer, I will pull out a set of golf pencils and wait for the first of my two 3-hour classes of the day to arrive.
A year ago, I was well into my public school teaching career but completely miserable. I was driving over an hour each way to a school that was imploding, cracking under the pressure of being labeled a failing school. At the same time, I had a grad school class with a woman who was teaching in a state correctional facility. While some of her stories were shocking, I was instantly attracted to the possibility of having smaller class sizes that would give me more of an opportunity to work one-on-one with students.
In a bit of a whirlwind, I accepted a high school teaching position at a juvenile correctional center a few months later. Thankfully, I have an amazingly supportive family and friends who understood my need for change. But you can always count on a few people for snarky comments, directed mostly at my husband and at my parents asking how they could “let me” take such a “dangerous” job. I didn’t set out with intentions of proving how hard I could be, but I wasn’t about to allow them be right, either.
Whenever I meet someone for the first time and I tell them what I do, I generally get a very surprised look followed by a series of similar questions. I usually have a really difficult time discussing the job, mostly because it’s something that is nearly impossible to understand unless you experience it.
At the same time, I wish that some of the negativity surrounding the position could disappear, especially when I am talking to other educators. There are so many wonderful teachers and students in teacher training programs who would be amazing in a correctional setting but would never give the option a second thought. This is what it has been like.
The majority of my students are incarcerated for 12-18 months, though there are some with sentences long enough that they will go on to the adult system once they are 18. Do I know what crimes they have committed? I can find out if I want to. Do I want to? I discovered the hard way that I definitely don’t after seeing that one of my favorite students was charged with multiple counts of rape and incest. From that point on, I couldn’t see or teach him the same.
As curious as I am sometimes, I think I owe it to these boys to give them the most objective version of myself, not the version that is going to judge them -- even if I would be doing it unintentionally. However, there is a way for me to get a general look into their past. All of the boys are required to have some kind of mental health treatment and are placed in housing units based on that treatment. So, with that, I am able to tell who is struggling with anger management, who is receiving substance abuse treatment and who is part of the nearly two-year-long sex offender program.
Over the past year, I’ve had a number of terrifying and heartbreaking days. Of course, I’ve seen bloody brawls and received my fair share of insults. I sat in disbelief as some of my students discussed their plan for robbing the people of New York as the Twin Towers were falling in a 9/11 documentary. Students have told me stories of childhoods I never thought were possible. I was told by my supervisor that a student was being isolated because of the disturbingly obsessive statements he made about me in his sex offender treatment. I’ve had students released and re-committed, one released and murdered.
So, why do it? Why should I put myself in a dangerous, heartbreaking situation? From a teaching perspective, there are upsides. The maximum number of students I can have in my class at a time is 13, though the classes tend to be closer to an average of seven (and even then, those numbers fluctuate on a daily basis).
I went from teaching almost 130 students in public school to less than 50 –- I haven’t taken a single piece of paper home to grade in a year. If any of those seven students are not cooperating, I can have them removed from my classroom, no questions asked. While I still spend a fair amount of time redirecting behavior, I actually get to focus some one-on-one attention on the students who need it when they need it. And while my students take the same core classes and are expected to pass the same standardized tests as other high school students in the state, I don’t feel anywhere near the pressure I did in public school to constantly improve my students’ scores.
There are also small, but incredibly meaningful, victories that are always popping up. I helped one of my students who just turned 18 and will be released by the election fill out his voter registration form. Our guidance counselor lets the students come to us to see their standardized test scores, and there is nothing better than seeing the face of a kid who has never once passed find out that he did.
These boys simply devour books and are developing a love of reading that they would have likely never had otherwise; it’s been great sharing book recommendations with them. In general, I’m in awe of how much most of them have grown and matured and, though I know they face huge obstacles once they are released, it’s nice to know I played at least a tiny role in making them a better person than when they first arrived.
Does this mean I’ll be teaching in the correctional system until I retire? Probably not. But I never pictured myself teaching in a public school that long, either. I’ve always had a different path in education envisioned for myself. For now, though, I’m collecting the victories and doing the best I can.