Nowadays we hear a lot about teachers—from “education reformers,” politicians, business executives, clergy, union leaders, academics—but we rarely hear from teachers themselves. Most teachers I know and come in contact with are eager to talk about teaching and the jobs they do. It is decidedly a very different conversation from the ones pundits, policymakers and critics have. Of course, some teachers will lament the present state of testing, outside interference, and the unreasonable demands of curricula shaped by test results. But most are happiest talking about what teaching has always been about: their students and the amazing things they do (or don’t do). That’s why I’ve decided to start a series of guest blogs, Teachers in Their Own Words, inviting a variety of teachers from different educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom. If you’re a teacher and have a story that you’d like to share please feel free to get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Continuing this series Gayle Saks-Rodriguez writes about her experiences teaching incarcerated women and men of all ages. I first came across Gayle’s writings on OpenSalon.com, an interactive platform established by Salon.com, as well as on her own blog, “My Life in the Middle Ages.” Her pieces are honest, insightful, warm and gently humorous, and she’s not afraid to take on difficult topics as you’ll see from “Hide and Seek.” Too often teachers are portrayed as “money-grubbers,” interested only in maintaining their “cushy jobs” under the protection of tenure. Gayle belies that myth: In order to become a teacher—and a teacher in a very difficult and demanding environment—she gave up a comfortable, well paid career because, as she writes, “I know now that this is the work I was meant to do.” Gayle has embraced her work as a teacher of society’s throwaways with such enthusiasm and caring that I asked her to share some of her experiences helping students regain their footing in a world that seems to have little room for them.
Hide and Seek: When Locked up Students Misplace Their Inner Child
Two years ago I fell into what I call my “happy place”—a volunteer teacher position working with newly incarcerated women in a Northeast prison. The experience has made me abandon an 18-year succession of nicely compensated jobs in non-profit fundraising. I know now that this is the work I was meant to do.
When I first started working with the women in a weekly workshop, I devised a curriculum that I called “sensory memoir writing.” As part of the course I asked my students about their dreams. After all, we all have a dream, the ultimate end-point, our “eyes on the prize” of something. It should go without saying that at no point in a person’s life is prison the “pot at the end of the rainbow.” Yet that wasn’t the case with these women. In trying to get them to uncover the dreams they once had, I led them through an exercise that I hoped would “uncrush” their spirit in the process.
One student remembered her love of figure skating and how becoming an instructor of kids was something she always wanted to do. She was able to re-live the freedom of spinning around on the ice and how freeing that was for her. A beautiful 20-year old Latina talked about becoming a professional guitar player, a skill she picked up as a teenager as a way to bring her closer to a checked-out father. While another woman, white, in her 40s, hardened by years of heavy drug abuse, said she lost her dreams at 10 when her mother shot her up with heroin for the first time.
Then three months ago I scored a part-time job with a community based non-profit teaching life and transitional skills to males at various stages of reentry after serving prison stints from 2 years to 26 years. Their ages range from 15-65+. I customize my curriculum to the skills my student’s need, everything from basic hygiene for a very low-functioning small group of youth offenders to parenting and anger management for a pretty hard core group of felons who feel they have learned everything they need to know. I teach interviewing skills and resume writing to a group of older students who find themselves in the worst Catch-22 of their lives, desperately WANTING to turn their lives around but finding that no one will hire them with the types of offenses that are easily uncovered.
The youngest group is made up of those in the juvenile justice system. They are too young to be committed as adults, but have a history of crimes under their belts that often doesn’t bode well for a better future. I rarely know the details of what they’ve done, but they often volunteer little snippets of their learned behaviors. These young men speak, sometimes sadly, sometimes with indifference, of their incarcerated parents and siblings, the very adults who were supposed to be their “teachers” but who left them behind, because they were driven by their own addictions and demons.
As I do with the women, I use a similar ice-breaking exercise with each of these groups, asking questions that encourage self-reflection. My students have to think about and answer prompts such as “I am happiest when___________” or “When I am alone I_______________”. The last prompt on a list of 25 is “My child within is________”
I have compared the answers of all the groups I teach—female and male—to this last prompt. They have said things like, “My child within is playing video games,” “is at Six Flags,” “is happy,” “curious.” Every once in a while there will be women who have grown up together and one will help the other to remember their common upbringing, hanging out at the other’s home after school, backing up the other’s assertion of how cool her mother was.
The older men have said things like, “still there,” “strong,” “determined.” While the youngest group, the under 21-year olds, often describe their “child within” as happy. They seem to have some support on the outside, still grin ear-to-ear when they talk about “my moms,” their “baby mamas,” or their grandparents. They have often discussed their happiest childhood memories, most involving family trips that include a stay in a hotel, room service and swimming pools. Oftentimes, the implication is that those memories will remain firmly planted in the past, one-offs, not to be repeated any time soon.
After a recent class I read the answers to the questionnaire of a seemingly detached Latino young man whose head had been on the desk the entire time, not participating or sharing his answers with the small group. When I read the answer to the last question my heart seized a bit: “My child within is gone.”
So many of these men and women—young and old—have had their dreams stomped on. Last week I asked a 17-yr old what his dream is. He answered without hesitation, “My dream is to have a dream.” Time and time again I’ve heard from students that they firmly believe that dreams never come true, even when what they had visualized themselves becoming in the past is as simple as being a dog walker or hair stylist. Their paths have been road-blocked by bad choices and absentee role models. If we—teachers, families, neighbors—can’t show them the way, show them the steps that CAN be taken to help them get to a realistic end-point, then we all have failed.