I’m going to go out on a limb and tell you about a day when I did tease a student inappropriately. Mr. Cunningham* was barely twenty years old, and had only been in my class for about three weeks, so I didn’t know him very well. Class had only been in session for a few minutes one morning, when he referred to me as “Ms. Loaner.” I didn’t respond until about the third time he said this because I didn’t even realize he was talking to me. In big black letters, “LOANER” is written in several places on each book. It eventually dawned on me and the others that Mr. Cunningham thought my name was “Ms. Loaner”! I have to say we all laughed, and I TRULY thought the man was playing a joke on me. However, I’m embarrassed to say I shot back with, “You’re either as dumb as a box of rocks, or you missed your calling as a great comedian!” Ouch! You should have seen the poor guy’s face. He gave me a blank stare, then a mortified look. I about crawled under my desk with shame. I truly thought he was kidding when I made the comment. But as soon as it came out of my mouth, I saw he was NOT trying to be funny. I apologized profusely, but I’m not sure he understood. So here’s the lesson. Watch what you say, especially when a student is new and you don’t know him well. I did know he was at a low level academically. But I didn’t know how low, and I hadn’t yet figured out he was also emotionally handicapped. As I observed the poor guy over the following days, I became concerned and decided to write to my supervisor and the security supervisors about him. I was worried that another inmate might hurt him or take advantage of him, and I was hoping they would keep an eye on him. I still don’t know quite what his diagnosis was, and he’s since been released from prison. But I sure learned my lesson about opening my big mouth before thinking. I probably hurt his feelings, and if I’d have made the comment to the wrong guy, I could have put myself in danger. That wasn’t one of my finer moments.
Another frequent comment I make to my students is, “We play, but we don’t play,” and they know what I mean by that. We goof around, we enjoy ourselves, we have a nice time, but we work hard learning. There is a limit to playing, a line they cannot cross.
As mentioned previously, I strive to create an environment that caters to their various needs for learning, as well as to create a safe and supportive learning environment. We have all heard this before, but it is worth reminding ourselves; if they feel safer emotionally, they will enjoy school. And if they are happy and feel supported, more learning will take place.
This type of environment also helps in lowering discipline problems. Discipline problems make for unsafe and unsupportive environments. Everything must be done to offer safety for the students, as well as for the staff.
Obviously, once in a while we have to call on law enforcement or on security officers for assistance. But good instructional practices, motivational techniques, and consistently enforced discipline policies are some of the pieces that help with safety for all.
Finally, develop relationships with security staff, case managers, medical and psychiatric staff, all the support staff, and with any other stake holders in your building and your community. Collaboration improves cooperation among everybody. When all parties have good relationships, information flows more freely. That helps everybody to assist the students. And in the long run, it also improves security.
*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.