A frequent expression in my classroom is, “It’s all about choices.” If they bring in a mug with naked ladies taped all over the sides, they have decided to break a rule. If they made the choice, then it is on them if they have to suffer the consequence. It is not on me, and I don’t allow them to put it on me. We don’t have to fuss and scream about it. We don’t have to argue about it. It is simple. It is very quiet. It is very peaceful. All I do is write it down, they sign, and then we move on.
If I said nothing ever goes wrong, I’d be lying. If I said these guys never get on my nerves, I’d be lying, too. Sometimes I just want to scream! They can remind me of “mosquitoes.” There are times when I can’t walk down the hall to go to the bathroom without several guys stopping me for one reason or another. As one of my favorite officers once said to me, “Sometimes I hate these guys! Nothing’s worse than a bunch of grown men acting like little bitches”! Of course, the men didn’t hear his comment, and I wouldn’t have worded it exactly that way. But he sure hit the nail on the head. The trick is not letting them know they’re getting to me, and to stick with the plan. It’s on those days it’s imperative to stay calm, smile, and remember to stay consistent.
Sometimes, though rarely, I have had to discern what is best for a student and haven chosen not to follow up with progressive discipline. This is an example of the room for flexibility that I referred to earlier. One afternoon a student, Mr. Thomas*, was acting really agitated and angry. I have taught enough special needs students to wonder if perhaps he was supposed to be on some type of medication. He was exhibiting what appeared to me as manic behavior.
The first problem was how to approach Mr. Thomas without asking too many personal questions. I took him into the hall so we could speak privately. By the way, that is always a classroom joke. I’ll say to a student, “Step into my office,” and he’ll walk out into the hall. That way, not everybody hears the discussion, because things can easily escalate if they all hear what is transpiring. Also, they usually cooperate better with me when they don’t have an audience.
After a few minutes he stated he was bipolar and only takes his medications when he needs them. The ethical problem for me came when he told me he stores his pills up, and he had enough to overdose if he wanted to.
I knew the prison’s rules against an inmate having any prescription medications in his cell. It is always dangerous, and I was worried he was storing them up, maybe for suicidal purposes. The more likely possibility was he was selling them to another inmate which is a serious offense. Another concern was if I reported him, the other students or Mr. Thomas might later accuse me of “ratting” him out. That put me in a precarious situation.
After thinking about all of this for a few minutes, I decided the most pressing issue was the possibility of a suicide plan by Mr. Thomas. He had mentioned his brother had committed suicide which heightened my concern. I didn’t relay my thoughts to the student, but I was concerned he might have been contemplating suicide, which is a much larger concern than if he was selling the pills. I asked his permission to call the psychiatrist on his behalf. He was skeptical the doctor could help him, but he agreed to let me make the call.
Rather than get him in legal trouble and, therefore, also getting him expelled from school, I decided the ethical thing to do was to call the psychiatrist. I immediately did so, and his office sent Mr. Thomas a pass for an emergency appointment.
I was never told the results of the appointment, but Mr. Thomas came back to school the next week, and he seemed much better. His behaviors were more leveled out.
Unfortunately, about two months later, Mr. Thomas again became very disruptive in my class, exhibiting behaviors indicating he either wasn’t taking his meds, or he needed them adjusted. This time, he was uncooperative with me so I sent him back to his cell for the rest of the day.
I immediately went to the Director of Education and showed him my notes from the past month. We decided to have Mr. Thomas searched. He had six pills on him. Since then, he was moved to a different teacher. It wasn’t safe to keep him in my classroom, as he suspected my role in his “shakedown,” and he was upset with me. I never heard if he received any disciplinary consequences, but I may have stopped him from hurting himself.
Sometimes one has to look at a situation and quickly discern what is best for the individual student, what is best for the classroom, and thirdly, what is best for one’s self. In that case, I thought the best option was first to try and help Mr. Thomas. When that didn’t work, we had to go ahead and confiscate his pills and move him out of my classroom.
*All names have been changed in order to protect the privacy of each individual.
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.