Today is Part 2 of 2 of a guest post by Amy Decker, a fifth grade teacher in Eastern Iowa who previously taught at Anamosa Penitentiary. (If you missed yesterday's post, you can read it here.) In Amy's post today, she shares some of the rewards and some of the key things she learned from the experience of teaching in a prison.
My students generally told me I was mean - to my face. I’m sure they said even more behind my back. My perceived "meanness" came from the fact that I had very high expectations for my students and I held accountable.
The rewards of teaching in this environment, though few, were very great. Several students came back after they got their GED and told me they were very grateful that I wouldn’t ever let them give up, and that I believed in them when no else did.
Guys would tell me every day that a GED was worthless and that they didn’t need one to sell drugs or do whatever it was that led them to prison. I always responded by saying that is fine...you can continue to sell drugs when you are released from prison, but I just want to give you options so if you decide you don’t want to sell drugs anymore, then you can get a better job. I think they said this to me because they lacked confidence and never thought they would have the ability to get a GED. After completing their GED, these guys generally realized they were capable of a lot more, and it seemed to me like they instantly matured.
Teaching in a prison taught me to never judge a book by its cover (or an inmate by his appearance). I remember one student in particular...it was very clear to me that this young man was a gang member. He came to my classroom, and I could see a tattoo across his knuckles (f*** you) as well as a tattoo across his forearms (f*** all my enemies). I instantly thought he was going to be the worst student ever. Boy was I wrong on that one. This student turned out to be extremely respectful and very helpful. When he completed his GED, I asked him to become my inmate tutor and then he started working with me all day. He was a big help when I would have students who spoke Spanish and weren’t as good with English. He was eventually granted work release. Before he left, though, he showed me a letter his mother had written. She had mentioned me. His mom told him that she was thankful that I worked with him and helped him complete his GED. She also wrote that she was praying for my family and me. Then right before he left, he told me that he was thankful that he ended up in my class. He explained that he never wanted a GED, but when he saw how excited I would get and what a big deal I would make in class out of a student passing just one of their GED tests, he knew he wanted to pass a test just to make me happy. He then said after he passed his first test, he knew he could do it all. Unfortunately, not very many students would come back and tell me these things, but the handful that did certainly made it worth all the crap I had to put up with along the way.
Another lesson I learned: The students who give you the most headaches are usually the ones who need you the most. I had a student who made every day a challenge for me...but I still fought for him and his education. When I announced to my students that I would be leaving the prison to teach fifth grade, he was the first one to speak. He said, "Mrs. Decker, you need to tell those fifth graders that they have to wait because we still need you here." My former boss even emailed me after I had been gone for a month or so and told me that that very student said he missed me, and he wished he could be back in my classroom. I try to remember this every day as I now work with a student who really seems to like negative attention.
Thanks for reading about my experience teaching in a prison. I hope it makes you appreciate your classroom environment just a little bit more than you did before.