A Different World of Teaching- Part 1 {Guest Post}

Hi everyone!  I am excited to share the following 2-part guest post with you.  Here's a bit of background:  I met Amy about a month ago when she requested my Apples craftivity freebie!   I noticed by her email that she taught in the Iowa educational system - my home state.  As we traded a few emails back and forth getting to know one another, she mentioned that this was her first year teaching in a traditional classroom environment, after having taught a few years in a prison.  I was floored - and intrigued!  What would that be like?!  I invited her to guest-blog here, and was delighted when she accepted my invitation!  If you're like me, after reading about Amy's experience, you'll find yourself thankful to be teaching right where you are...

WHAT? Where did you say you used to teach???

Hi everybody, my name is Amy Decker, and Deb asked me to write a guest blog to tell you about where I used to teach and what it was like. I used to teach at the Anamosa State Penitentiary here in Iowa. Yes, this is a prison.

How did I end up teaching in a prison?  Well...I went to the University of Northern Iowa (go PANTHERS!), and UNI does two eight-week student teaching placements.   I started the school year student teaching in a kindergarten classroom, and I absolutely LOVED it.  I thought I would later become a kindergarten teacher - at least that’s what I hoped for.  I was sad when my eight weeks in kindergarten were done because I knew the next eight weeks would be spent in fifth grade, and I remember thinking that I just didn’t want to teach those older kids.  For a number of reasons, my experience student-teaching in fifth grade wasn't the greatest, and I swore I would never teach fifth grade.

I graduated from UNI in December of 2004 with my BA in elementary education, and spent the rest of that school year as a substitute teacher.  As the 2004–2005 school year was starting, I still hadn’t gotten a teaching job, so I took a position as paraprofessional.

I desperately wanted to be a teacher so in the fall of 2007 when I saw a listing about how Kirkwood Community College was looking for a GED teacher to teach on-site at the Anamosa State Penitentiary (a men’s prison in eastern Iowa), I applied.  I remember thinking there was no way they would ever hire a teacher with a K-6 license to teach GED.  I thought at best, I would maybe get an interview, which I thought would be good interview experience.  I was floored when I got not only an interview, but a few weeks later, the job offer!  (My husband wasn’t too crazy about me going to work in a prison, but I accepted the position anyway.)

That's how I ended up teaching in a prison environment.  On to the experience itself...

Once I completed training, I got my classroom.  Looking back, I am so thankful that all of my first students were pretty smart because I’ll be honest - I didn’t completely know what I was doing.  I taught six classes, each fifty minutes long.

In addition to teaching students who were working toward their GED, I also taught literacy classes for inmates who read below a sixth grade reading level. There were times that this was especially difficult because, unlike a traditional classroom, each student was working on something different.   I often found myself with one or two literacy students as well as several GED students who were all working on different subjects.  It was a challenge to help the literacy students because I would always try to make sure that no one else in the room realized that the literacy inmate I was working with couldn’t read.  This was especially hard when I would have a student who had didn’t even know all the letters of the alphabet, let alone how to read.   As you can see, my prison classroom was more like a special ed classroom where everyone is working on their own things, and I would just work my way around the room helping students one on one.

I definitely had some memorable moments!  For example, I once was trying to help an older student who had spent the majority of his life in prison. The book I had him using had a passage from Romeo and Juliet. In order to get him to understand what was going on, I had to relate it to the well-known enemy gangs The Bloods and The Crips!

Inconsistency was another challenge altogether.  We literally had students coming and going all year long.  I taught year round (no summer break in prison – ironically, this was very surprising and upsetting to all inmates who thought they would at least get a summer break). When students got in trouble in the prison, they got sent to “the hole”.  (The hole is a disciplinary detention area where inmates are only released from their cell to shower, and to exercise for a short time each day in a fenced-in area that looked like a dog run).   When students were sent to "the hole", they would often be gone for at least a month...sometimes even longer.  One day, they would magically reappear in my class, and then the challenge would be to get them back to where they were since they usually forgot everything while they were gone.

On the other end of the spectrum, students would sometimes get work release, discharge from prison, or transfer to another prison, and we generally weren’t given very much notice, which made it hard for us to get all of their GED tests completed before they left.

As you might imagine, classroom discipline was...unique. If a student did something very wrong I would have to write a report, which often resulted in a punishment of being sent to "the hole".   As a young female working in a men’s prison, I certainly had my share of problems, and not all of them came from the students in my classroom. To get to the school I had to walk through the prison yard (an outside area all inmates had access to).  I had inmates stalk me, making a habit of following me.  I also had an inmate, who happened to be a sex offender, brush up against the front half of my body. (He was a school worker at the time, and thankfully he got banned from the school building forever). There were more situations I had to write up...

If nothing else from reading this today makes you appreciate teaching in a traditional classroom, this should!  One of the major downsides to teaching in a prison environment was dealing with lock downs.  When a lock down occurred, no inmates were allowed out of their cells. That meant that we teachers had to come in to do the work that the inmates regularly did - cooking and delivering meals, doing all the laundry, cleaning dishes, distributing mail, you name it.  Basically we had to report to the prison (even if the lock down occurred on a weekend) to do a job that an inmate would have been doing if they weren’t locked in their cell. I always hated these days as they messed up my time home with my family and they generally occurred in the summer when it was hot, and none of these areas of the prison are air conditioned.

Stop by Deb's blog again tomorrow for Part 2, where I share some of the key things I learned through the experience of teaching in a prison. 
Because photos were not allowed to be taken in the prison, I have no photos of that experience to share.  I now teach fifth grade in a Catholic school.  This is a photo of my students forming a cross with their hands. (I had it printed on a 16x20 canvas as my auction item for our school auction).


  1. Wow, what an amazing experience! Your cross picture is beautiful!

    1. Thank you for appreciating the cross picture. I found the idea on Pinterest, and I thought it would be easy. It took three times with me laying in the grass with my students all grouped around me. The first time my principal was leaving the building, and saw us and asked if we were performing an exorcism (I quickly emailed him a picture so he could see what we were up to).