Teachers as partners in prison education

I believe that teachers are partners in learning alongside their students, rather than dispensers of knowledge to their students. I’m very concerned with the uneven power relations that can occur between student and teacher. You’re most likely aware that this is part of my educational theory based upon my admiration of Paulo Freire who despised “banking” education. The next section of my paper discusses research and theory demonstrating that mutual respect between student inmates and teachers is an important factor in student trust and learning potential. This seems common sense to many, but consider the prison environment where inmates’ rights are stunted and their humanity often stripped from them: an educator who interacts with them as though they are an equal can lead to educational and emotional breakthroughs for student inmates.

(Again, you can refer to my last post for a link to the google doc that contains all references made in this post. Thanks!)

Teachers as Partners

Allday (2006) sought to discover inmates’ perceptions on teacher effectiveness through a survey of 371 inmates in South Carolina. Through a series of statistical analysis, survey results showed that students felt that teachers who showed a “desire for student success” and “care” for the student, were ones they felt they “learned the most” from (p.741). While the survey questions students about K-12 teachers [though only 20% of the respondents had completed high school (Allday, 2006, p.731)], the results can be helpful in showing what factors are seen as important not only to those at-risk of entering prison, but those in prison education programs.

Freire is relevant here as well, for his insistence on student agency in literacy learning is important in that it shifts power from the teacher to the student, calling for educators to be “partners of the students” (Freire, 2010, p.75).  Terry (2003) describes the educator experience that led to his reevaluation of education and identity. “[H]er hands-on teaching style was extremely beneficial…” (p. 109) Teachers “treated us like human begins, as equals…in class, at least temporarily, we got a reprieve from the prison oppression” (p.102-3) This sentiment was also communicated in the inmate’s letter to the college (quoted extensively above) when she thanked him for being “warm and human and kind…who likes learning from me” (Maker, 2004, p.111).

Students in Rose and Voss’s (2003) college program not only asked teachers to “treat inmates as if they are real people instead of crash dummies” (p.147), but to be rigorous. One student asks for “no sympathy…no compromise in standards! Accommodate only those with a desire to learn” (p.146). Another student said the best teaching style within a correctional facility is one that is “very firm…To be constructive without criticism….maintain consistency” (p.147), while another student states that “teaching at a correctional facility requires a teacher to be fexable [sic] taking into account the restrictions that are demanded” (p.147). This diversity of traits described by student inmates reflects the diversity of expectations correctional educators find in their classroom.

Tewksbury & Stengel (2006) state near the end of their article on inmate student perceptions of prison education: “most importantly, inmates understood the connection between success in the academic programs and success after release” (p.23). But is success in academics enough? What will success mean for each student involved in educational programs? Will success in the Insight Project program translate to successful employment upon release from the criminal justice system? Is gainful employment what constitutes success for a participant in the Insight Project? I think that these are important questions when considering all the programs described above. Therefore, as mentioned above, we must consider not only the type of educational programs being administered, but also additional factors that can affect a prisoner’s reentry into society. Visher & Travis (2003) provide a helpful framework when considering these factors, some of which have been touched on throughout this paper. First, they suggest examining four dimensions of the transition from prison to community: individual characteristics; family relationships; community contexts; and state policies. In addition, they advise that those interested in studying reentry consider four phases of the inmate’s life: pre-prison circumstances; in-prison circumstances; immediate post-prison experiences; and post-release integration experiences.


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