Windham teacher Lee Russell's dream: helping students find a path to success
"My biggest challenge in correctional education is getting my students to see that the same tools for success on a job are the same tools required to be successful in obtaining an education. These tools such as being committed, being responsible, being disciplined and being willing to put out the necessary effort to achieve," said Lee Russell, Literacy II/III instructor on the Connally campus.
Russell was named as one of Windham School District's 2020 Lane Murray Excellence in Teaching (LMET) honorees as WSD's Academic Teacher of the Year. The LMET initiative acknowledges teachers' contributions to both the success of their students and the success of the instructional program itself. These accolades come as a result of Russell's powerful impact as an educator. After eagerly embracing the opportunity to teach at WSD two years ago, Russell has assisted students in making big strides in a short time.
His journey with WSD began with an occurrence to which the late Dr. Martin Luther King could certainly have related. "One night I saw myself working in a correctional facility in a dream," Russell said. "But I didn't know anything about school in prison before I started working for Windham."
Before the dream, the idea to work in correctional education was also suggested by a much more conventional means.
"I was a facilitator and tutor for an adult literacy program that provided education for previously incarcerated individuals. One day, a student in that program asked me if I'd ever thought about teaching in a correctional facility, after which he expressed to me ‘Mr. Russell, you'd be a good fit.' From there I began to search for job opportunities in correctional education, and I ran across Windham School District. I applied – and here I am."
Russell brings a vast background in education to WSD. Besides teaching in the above mentioned adult literacy program, he is also a former instructor of anatomy and physiology on the collegiate level. Moreover, he had an extensive career in public school academics. Russell has been teaching practically all of his life.
"I've taught for over 20 years at the middle school and high school levels, and I was also a teacher evaluator at a charter school. I also taught my peers and my brothers and sisters growing up, so I was always teaching."
Russell strives to prepare his students to navigate a threefold challenge: the daunting challenge that re-entering society presents to all ex-offenders; the everyday challenges facing students who are in the correctional setting; and the rather significant challenge of eradicating self-defeating internal mindsets.
"When I taught at the middle and high school levels, it was always at at-risk schools. I find that the attitudes and the behaviors of the students at those at-risk schools and the correctional facility are very similar. When I got here, I could see that for most students, it [correctional education] was a reality check. I can see that they are thinking, ‘I missed out; now I understand that education is something really valuable that I need.'"
Russell has his own set of challenges as an instructor in this unique environment, and said he must continually devise new strategies to overcome them.
"One of my major tools for teaching that can be used at any time is a game I call ‘Speed.' I created a board with squares that are numbered 1 through 100. Each student is given a small piece of paper colored with a marker and rolled into a ball that a student advances across the board with each correct answer they provide. The students enjoy racing against each other, so the game keeps them totally engaged."
As someone gifted with creativity, Russell frequently makes use of these kinds of fun, original activities to ensure his students are motivated and enthused about learning.
"I'm very excited about all of my students and what motivates me is seeing them learning and sharing in the joy of them achieving their goals."
Through resourcefulness and dedication, Russell is able to persuade students to become invested in their own development. When they reach the milestone of achieving their High School Equivalency (HSE) as a result, it is just as gratifying for Russell.
"The last HSE ceremony I attended was such a touching moment for the staff. Seeing tears of joy in men's eyes over the fact that they graduated was one of the most sentimental moments I've ever had. But actually, every day for me is a rewarding experience just being able to do this kind of work in a correctional institution."
A piercing degree of insight allows Russell to recognize the need to fulfill additional roles besides teacher, such as life coach and mentor.
"The most important aspects of correctional education are learning to communicate effectively, learning to be a part of a team, learning to use technology, and carrying oneself as a professional. This is all in keeping with the things that were taught to me: to always carry yourself with integrity, responsibility, respect. Hopefully the knowledge gained in the classroom will prevent my students from returning to a correctional facility," he said.
Like any good educator, Russell is always learning from his pupils even as he imparts knowledge to them.
"Watching the students here deal with living in prison and still show up to get an education is a significant success story in itself. It teaches me the importance of not giving up – and the importance of hope."
The scholastic equation requires only two elements: someone to learn and someone to teach. Russell is among those who, on behalf of WSD and its students, have answered the call to pour into others and introduce them to a larger sphere of personal growth. Russell realizes the significance of Windham serving a means for incarcerated men and women to get an education.
"Windham provides a pathway to success for the students to follow," Russell said. "The moment a student steps into my classroom, learning is their job."
(Originally published in the ECHO)