Thoughts of a Windham literacy teacher: Why NOT teach in prison?
Reprinted By Courtesy The ECHO
By J. Addy, a longtime literacy instructor for Windham School District
When people find out I teach in prison, their immediate question is, "Why?!" My typical response is, "Why not?"
Students come to my class assuming I teach for Windham because I can't teach anywhere else. In fact, the opposite is true. I have taught in public schools and on college campuses, stateside and overseas. I now teach in the Texas correctional environment and have the privilege of working alongside some of the finest, most dedicated teachers I've ever met. I am inspired by teachers and students who press on daily despite the difficulties encountered inside these walls.
Since 1995, I've enjoyed teaching in adult education and helping people make the needed connections to move forward in their lives. In prison, many people say every day is the same, but no two days are alike when I'm learning and growing right along with my students. When a classroom environment becomes one where each class member can push the others toward continued success, it's a win for everyone.
As is the case with many things in prison, sometimes these wins are long sought after and hard fought. My nickname could be "Are you done yet?!" because I'm constantly asking that of students whose behavior continues to sideline their lives. I am often heard reminding my students that it is my pleasure to assist them, but I can't do that if their behavior prevents them from joining in learning. Often, my job involves helping students see those talents that they may be too timid — or too distracted — to embrace and develop. How rewarding it is to see men accepting their responsibilities — and begin to enjoy them as mature adults.
I often describe graduation ceremonies to my classes and share with them the impact offender families' words and actions have on me. For me, graduation is the relief on a mother's face that her son is finally pursuing the right direction. Graduation is the hope in a spouse's face that there is really a future and not just talk. Graduation is the excitement in children's eyes that dad has kept his promise. And, even when family is not present, graduation is the proud handshake with a student whose eyes reflect more confidence, more pride, and more peace than previously found.
Education for many people is just a concept, but for me education is a welcoming place where we become aware of our responsibilities, our families and our legacies. Learning challenges us to reconsider our futures and how we can use education to better our lives and the lives of those with whom we come in contact. Education is that place that gives us access to all the other places we desire to go. Along the way, we learn how we can give back and become greater than ourselves.
In 2006, I began teaching in a computer lab in Windham, and I started decorating the wall with paper silhouettes of graduates in caps and gowns. Silhouettes are added each time a student attains his GED or High School Equivalency certificate. Last fall, those paper profiles finally formed a complete circle around the class.
"Now you can retire," one of my students said. "You've got graduates all the way around the room!"
I already knew my response: "No, sir, I'm not done yet!"