By Hilderbrand Pelzer III
Author of Unlocking Potential
BEING A TEACHER is a great responsibility, and being a teacher in a correctional environment is an even greater one. A well-defined personality, confidence in one’s knowledge of what to do, and not having fear of the inmates are essential to working as an educator in a prison system.
Incarcerated people, including young people, come from many backgrounds. Some have not been taught how to speak to others; some will make crude remarks. The teacher must have control of the classroom, and that control comes from engaging lessons and much encouragement. Many incarcerated school-age youths have not had good instruction in the past. When they find a teacher really wants to teach them, their attitudes change and they become serious about learning and look forward to it.
Certain qualities and strengths are necessary to work comfortably in a correctional environment and focus on what a good teacher is expected to do: produce an educated individual. The following list identifies some “must-have” characteristics of an excellent correctional educator. It is not a short list!
- Be self-sufficient.
- Be comfortable with people of all ethnic groups and social backgrounds.
- Build trusting relationships with students.
- Be an advocate for students.
- Be committed to educating all students.
- Trust that the prison staff will do their jobs.
- Articulate classroom expectations.
- Have educational expertise and knowledge of the core content.
- Be flexible and ready to interact with students constantly.
- Communicate with colleagues to solve student classroom problems.
- Realize when a student is anxious, frustrated, or needs to address personal concerns.
- Be respectful at all times, even in the face of difficulty or disorder.
- Insist that students be respectful.
- Treat students as you want them to treat you. When necessary, treat them as you would your own children.
- Be willing to correct inappropriate language or behavior and remind students of expectations.
- Do not be afraid of students.
- Never get in a student’s face to get your point across.
- Place academics above everything else.
- Encourage personal growth of students, even in the most tragic of circumstances.
- Use differentiated instruction to meet the various educational needs of students.
- Be aware of each student’s educational plan and be capable of helping him or her to meet its instructional goals.
- Be willing to seek the advice and assistance of colleagues to help individual students.
- Provide and direct individual projects that reinforce ideas taught in the classroom.
- Recognize that students are at various educational levels and require small-group and individual instruction.
- Understand that events that occur in the housing area may provoke changes in students’ attitudes.
- Recognize that students may feel particularly stressed around the time they are called to go to court.
- Recognize that students are often upset in anticipation of turning 18 and making a move to adult status and being transferred to the adult inmate population.
- Believe in your ability to teach and do so as though your very life depended on it.
- Be open at all times to suggestions from students that could help the classroom run more fluidly.
- Communicate the importance of education and its purpose and benefits in multiple ways.
- Use your knowledge of the world to engage students in the process of learning.
- Be ready, willing, and able to teach,regardless of student attitudes.
- Be patient and compassionate.
- Assert yourself as the teacher and command your classroom.
- When giving instructions, be direct and explicit.
- Remain professional at all times.
- Apologize when you are wrong.
Correctional education requires courage, tolerance, and knowledge of the world. One must know oneself to be comfortable in an environment that may seem repressive and at times dangerous. You are a living example—someone who performs your duty and believes firmly in education in a correctional setting. When inmate learners are shown respect, given ex- plicit directions, encouraged to learn and improve themselves, they come to believe that they can—and they do!
Do you think these skills can apply to your school setting? I want to hear from you.
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