Discipline is for everyone’s safety. It is not simply a power struggle. On the surface some things seem picky but, realistically, could be very dangerous. Tell the students why, for example, they need to be on time. I tell them, “I’m responsible for your safety. To you, I may appear overly strict, but you could be getting beat up in a stairwell somewhere, and no one would even know to look for you.”  That usually disarms them and softens them a little bit.

Another tactic students often try is raising their voice and saying, “You can’t talk to me that way!” Or they will say, “I’m an adult. You can’t talk to me like I’m a kid!”

I have heard that many times, and I have learned to calmly respond to those comments. I don’t have to scream back at them. I just say, “Sir, I know how you’re talked to on the dorms. I know how other inmates talk to you. I haven’t used profanity. I’m not saying anything disrespectful. I’m just asking you to sit down.”

Or I’ll tell them, “Ironically, you want me to talk to you like a child, rather than like an adult. Because when I tell you what you need to hear, or I’m upfront with you, or “real” with you, you don’t want to hear it. So you accuse me of talking to you like you’re a little kid. If you were a little kid, I would say, ‘Okay honey, that’s all right. That’s okay. You can do whatever.’ And I’d be really sweet and very grandmother-like to you. That’s treating you like a child, which is what you want me to do.” Again, that kind of disarms them, and then they are usually okay.

One thing we as teachers can never forget is humor. You have to joke around sometimes. You can tease gently, but you cannot make fun of them. I never make fun of my students for not knowing anything academically, or for when they do something that is socially unacceptable, but there are ways you can kindly tease them.

Every spring the seagulls come home.  We’re fairly close to one of the Great Lakes, but the gulls come to hang out at the prison’s landfill.  We subtly comment the chow hall will soon be serving more “chicken”.  “And those chickens sure seem small to me.”  The looks on the guys’ faces are priceless.

We also know it is spring when we can have the men look out the window, and introduce them to Mr. Possum and Woodrow E. Chuck, our resident pets.

Sometimes they will use incorrect grammar, saying ‘He bee’s funny,’ and I’ll joke with them about it. And then, maybe five or ten minutes later, I will comment that, “I bee’s ready to collect the calculators”. They will reply, “Oh, Ms. C’s got jokes,” and everybody laughs. It makes it a little more pleasant environment if we have fun.

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.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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