By Christopher Zoukis
Effectively evaluating inmates who are interested in becoming classroom tutors or instructors is a challenging — but — essential task. This is because the health of your very classroom depends on finding the right fit, an inmate who is experienced enough to teach the subject at hand, motivated enough to continue putting in the time and effort day after day, and passionate enough to be patient with incarcerated students who might not be very accessible, friendly, or open to learning. You’re looking for a needle in a haystack. But with several concepts in mind and a roadmap in hand, this process can turn from a tumultuous experience to one of certainty and clarity.
What follows is that roadmap. These are some of the components you should consider when evaluating applicants for inmate instructor positions.
Prior Experience: In my mind, prior experience is the top selection criteria. Teaching in the prison context is not an easy task, and inmate learners are not always the most willing of students. As such, an experienced hand is usually best. If an inmate has had a positive prior teaching experience in the correctional setting, this person brings those prior skills with them to the table. Likewise, those who have taught outside of prison are a tremendous resource since most people don’t go into the teaching profession for the money. As such, they likely had, and might still possess, a passion for teaching. This can only be a plus for your classroom.
Academic Achievement: For those with no prior experience teaching, but with prior academic experience or professional training, teaching might be a good fit. This is because those who have gone through substantial time in the classroom often bring real understanding about learning. They will certainly have the intelligence to be an inmate tutor. Don’t discount such candidates as “overqualified” and don’t allow a graduate degree to threaten you. Qualified inmate tutors can only improve the classroom experience of your students. And since they will have the air of one who is accomplished, your incarcerated students will take stock in their experience. They effectively become emissaries of learning.
Actual Teaching Abilities: Some might say that this doesn’t need to be said, but testing applicants is a must. There will always be inmates who apply to be tutors, but can’t do the work, much less teach the subject. Just because someone passed the GED does not mean that they understand mathematics, writing, or reading comprehension enough to teach GED or pre-GED classes. Test your applicants. This can be done with TABE tests, pre-GED tests, or even SAT practice tests. Find a way to evaluate their subject matter mastery prior to asking your students to put their trust and faith in them. The job of teaching in prison is too important not to do so.
Motivation: I tend to put a lot of stock into people’s motivations. If someone comes to me and is sincere, I’ll give them a fair shot regardless of whether they have the necessary academic credentials or work experience or not. But I certainly won’t allow someone to harm my projects or negatively affect my classroom ambience. It can never hurt to ask applicants why they are applying; if they have a good enough reason, and you feel that it is sincere, they very well might produce the drive necessary to become terrific inmate instructors. Whenever I hear someone say that they want to make a difference or think that they can help their fellow inmates, my interest is piqued.
Length of Time: This is often the last factor which I take into account, but it is an important one. In my mind, it’s critical to only hire someone who will be around long enough to become a staple in the classroom, and be worth the effort of training. An inmate who has 90 days until their release is not a good candidate since most of their students will not attain GED completion by then and you’ll simply be left needing to find a new inmate tutor to take their place. On the other hand, an inmate with 5, 10, or 15 years to go can help countless incarcerated students during his time in prison. An inmate with a significant amount of time remaining in their sentence can be an asset for many years and can tutor hundreds, if not thousands, of incarcerated students.
You can never be certain when retaining an inmate for an instructor position. In the world outside of prison, you have tools to help with hiring decisions. But in prison, there are no resumes or references. There is just the inmate in front of you who is asking for a specific work detail. Even though you are at a loss because of a lack of traditional hiring tools, by taking into account the above components, a good fit can be found and your classroom can be the better because of it.