The conditions are poor. Temperatures get too hot or too cold. Mold and high humidity ruin the books and the sinuses. Pipes break, creating steam leaks and additional mold. Once, I was helping a man at a computer and several men called my name. I didn’t turn around; instead, I told them, “Hang on a minute.” They sounded agitated so I looked in their direction and realized my ceiling fan had broken loose. It was dangling about three feet from the floor, hanging by one wire, as it continued to oscillate. Thankfully, no one was hurt. One of my colleagues from down the hall assisted me by disconnecting the fan until it could be repaired. Things break down all the time, and we often wait months or years for repair. Several years after the fan incident I came upon that poor fan crammed in a storage closet. For all I know, it’s still in there.
Another issue is huge student turnover. Out of up to 50 men I will typically see in a day (25 in the morning and 25 in the afternoon), I expect to gain or lose at least two or three each week. According to my records, I average 10 to 15 men leaving, and 10 to 15 men entering every month.
Some leave because they pass the GED test. Some simply quit. Others are moved to a different part of the facility, or to another prison, due to discipline issues. Some are sent to work release or to drug programs; some are actually released to their homes. And then, of course, new students are always starting class. So, I deal with a great deal of transition.
Essentially, we work on a year-round, circular basis. Whenever I make a presentation, some men are just coming in while others may be on their way out. This is another thing I have to consider when planning my lessons. For some, my presentations are an introduction; for others, they are a review.
Under all of these conditions, I figure if what I do works, I imagine at least something can be applied to your school environment. Accountability and doing more with less are a part of all schools; increased class sizes, little or no prep time, less supplies, less teachers, little or no professional development. Does this sound familiar?
I know it sounds a bit cheesy, but even though this is a discouraging and challenging time in U.S. education, I also believe it can be the most exciting. I have had my teacher’s license since 1973, so I am not a young “Mary Poppins”. I have had my share of ups and downs, and I still believe we can succeed in improving the educational system for all. It’s our opportunity to make changes that will improve teaching and learning, as well as to stick to the tried and true methods that still work.
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 www.lockedupwithsuccess.com.