Despite inmate threats, jailhouse teacher continues to changes lives

This teacher, with more than 20 years experience teaching in an academic setting, uses her experience as a special education teacher and a school administrator to help inmates earn their GEDs.

What is your job title? How many years of experience do you have in that field?
My job title is GED (General Educational Development) Teacher and Transition Coordinator. I work at a jail that houses both federal and local inmates, as well as illegal immigrants. I’ve been working in the jail setting for five years. Prior to the jail setting, I taught secondary special education for 12 years and was a school administrator for 7 years.

Would you describe the things you do on a typical day?
Hmm…what is a typical day in a jail setting? First of all, my schedule varies. I typically teach GED Prep and Arts & Crafts to the female inmates twice a week, for a total of 6 hours. Four days a week I teach the male juveniles for a total of 12 hours. If a juvenile comes to jail from a school setting, then I contact the school district and request materials. I try to teach the same content he would be receiving if he were at his school. If a juvenile is a drop-out, which most of them unfortunately are, then I provide GED Prep.

The Transition Coordinator position is funded through a federal grant. For 12 hours a week, I am responsible for: intakes, placement testing, assisting inmates with exit plans and making referrals to outside agencies. In addition, I do the scheduling of our other two teachers and maintain all attendance records for the program.

On a typical day, I trade in my license for my ID and head to the classroom. I check the rosters to see who’s in double-lock or which inmates have to be kept separated for the day and then I devise my class lists. Some classes might only have 2 students in them, while other classes can have up to 8 students. Most days I do actual instruction for four hours, seeing between 2 to 4 groups of students, and work on the Transition Coordinator responsibilities for 2 hours. Much of the GED Prep focuses on math, Language Arts and reading.

On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What would it take to increase that rating?
I would rate my job satisfaction at a 7. One of the drawbacks with my job is that BOCES will not hire full-time people. They do not want to have to provide benefits. Thus, we have 3 part-time teachers at the jail. I believe that we would be able to accomplish a lot more if there were 2 full-time teachers instead.

The other thing that is a bit frustrating is that I am an outside provider. Although the jail staff respects me and is cordial, I’m not “one of them”. The other teachers and I don’t feel as though we can hang out in the break room and we’re never included in social functions.

What did you learn the hard way in this job and how did that happen?
Although I had to go through a six hour jail orientation and a three hour orientation this past year, there are some things that I had to discover on my own. No one prepared me for the emotional ups and downs of the inmates. A lot of these inmates are being forced to quit drugs, drinking, smoking, or a combination of these, cold turkey. I wasn’t prepared that one day an inmate might be very withdrawn and the next day is down right ugly in his tone and words.

I now view working in a jail setting similar to working in a psych center. I don’t take things personally. If an inmate refuses to attend class, I now know that there are a lot of factors that play into that decision. If an inmate is silently crying in class, I give the person space, and at some point ask him if he wants to talk.

What don’t they teach in school that would’ve been helpful to you?
Thankfully, I have a solid background in teaching and I believe that has helped me tremendously in teaching in a jail setting. I didn’t have a clue at how flexible I needed to be. No one ever said to expect lockdowns, refusals, etc.

Nowhere in my education was I taught to be assertive. It would’ve been helpful to have a class where you could role play various situations and discuss how to handle them. I find that I need to be assertive quite a bit on the job.

How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?
I sort of stumbled into the world of GED teaching. As stated earlier, I was a high school teacher and administrator. My mother was in the final stages of cancer and I wanted to be there for her in the last few months, so I left my administrative position. Shortly after my mother passed away, I took a part-time job at my church. The following year I was contacted by BOCES to teach GED. They needed a certified teacher to teach the juvenile inmates. Since it was a part-time position, I agreed to it. Today, I still work at the church as well as the jail.

If I could do things differently, I would’ve been more assertive about the position. BOCES was in desperate need for a certified teacher. I wish I had said that I would only take the position if it were half-time so that I could receive partial benefits. Having to pay 100% for health insurance is no fun. Don’t get me wrong–I enjoy working at the church, but receiving benefits is huge!!!

What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?
This question makes me laugh. During my very first week at the jail, I had to go to one of the male pods. Usually the inmates come to a large classroom in a different section of the jail, but this particular day I was told to teach in the pod. A pod is a section that has 40 individual cells, two showers, a small classroom, a counseling room and a large open area with tables. I was in the classroom with 5 federal inmates.

We were in this small classroom with no windows. (There are very few windows in the entire jail.) All of a sudden, the lights go out!!! My heart is pounding and I’m thinking, “Dear God, this is it! They’re going to kill me if I don’t take control.” I then hollered out in a firm strong voice, “No one move your chair and put your hands behind your head!” Now, whatever possessed me to say that, I don’t know, but within seconds the lights came back on. I looked around the room and 2 of my biggest guys were actually shaking! I told the group that they could put their hands down and I continued teaching. I gained a lot of respect that day from the inmates. I also gained respect from the 2 officers manning the pod. They were impressed at how well I handled the situation, especially being my first week!

On a good day when things are going well, can you give an example of something that really makes you feel good?
I live for the really good days. One of my favorite things to do when I meet someone new is to ask, “What’s your story?” Asking that question in a jail setting usually results in a non-trusting glare from the inmate. However, when I further define the question by letting the inmate know he can tell me about his family, his hobbies, etc., he realizes that I’m not particularly interested in knowing why he’s sitting in jail. It’s amazing the stories that I hear.

Over time, inmates will share the pain that they have endured, their shattered dreams, and maybe once in awhile something that gives them joy. As I listen to each story, I try to offer encouragement and motivation to keep going. Some stories bring tears to my eyes. I believe that most of these guys want to be happy and do the right thing. When I see an inmate experience his “ah ha” moment and knows he’s ready to turn his life around and give back to his community, it doesn’t get much better than that!

When nothing seems to go right, what kind of snafus do you handle and what do you dislike the most?
Teaching in a jail setting requires flexibility. No two days are ever the same! Some days when I arrive, I’m told that certain pods are under “lockdown”. This means that there are searches going on or that there has been a fight and everyone needs to cool down. I then need to revamp my schedule and see inmates from other pods or do paperwork.

A few times I have been in the middle of teaching something, the inmates are into the lesson, and then BAM! The classroom is pushed open, officers charge in and immediately escort an inmate out of the class. I rarely get to know why the inmate needed to be removed. It obviously had nothing to do with his behavior in class.

We have two large classrooms connected with an office. Sometimes a classroom is used by the officer in charge of the trustees (working inmates) or a lawyer meeting with an inmate. When that occurs, one of us has to go to the pods to teach.

How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance?
Believe or not, teaching in a jail setting isn’t very stressful. Initially, I will admit that I was apprehensive and flinched every time a door would slam behind me. I’m equipped with a radio and a special alarm. Recently they installed cameras in the classroom which is wonderful! When I was a school administrator, the job was extremely stressful and it carried over into my personal life.

I am able to maintain a healthy balance now. I’ve thought about returning to full-time education, but honestly, I like the flexibility that I have with two part-time jobs. I get done at 3:30 and I’m not spending countless hours writing lesson plans.

What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough considering your responsibilities?
In our county, GED instructors only get paid $20 per hour. We’re hired for 18 hours a week. Thus, for a year, I make $18,720. My transition coordinator position is grant funded and that’s $10,000. Even my boss will tell you that we’re underpaid! He thinks it’s insulting that we have our teaching credentials, but don’t get paid what other teachers make. We don’t get paid to prepare lessons or to attend conferences.

I’m not happy with the pay, and like a lot of teachers, I purchase a fair amount of supplies out of my own pocket. The jail administrator is aware of the situation and quite often he’ll find funding for me to attend conferences if BOCES won’t pay for one.

As a school administrator, I was making close to $80,000. With jail and church combined, I’m making roughly $35,000 annually. I’ve had to cut back on some things and at times finances are tough, BUT I’m a lot happier now than a few years ago. Not living such a stressful life makes a huge difference!!!

What’s the most rewarding moment you’ve experienced in this position? Of all the things you’ve done at work, what are you most proud of?
The most rewarding moment that I’ve experienced while teaching at the jail has been seeing the transformation in some of the inmates. Sure, we have a lot of inmates that are in and out of jail, but every once in awhile one is ready to make serious changes. They leave the jail a very different person than the one who entered the jail.

New York State has a 51% passing rate for the GED. Not a great rate! However, in the past two years, we’ve had a 100% passing rate for the GED at the jail! I’m very proud of how hard the inmates and our teaching staff have worked.

What’s the most challenging moment you’ve experienced? What would you prefer to forget?
The most challenging moment that I’ve experienced thus far was having a female inmate get upset with me. I was teaching an art class and had 8 inmates sitting at one large table. I needed to step into the office to make a copy of something and I overheard 2 inmates talking about an officer. I politely reminded them of the rules. They continued to talk. I sternly pointed out the rules and said that they had the choice to drop the talk or they would need to be removed.

One of the inmates informed me that she wasn’t through talking and that I needed to butt out. I looked at her and said, “If you choose to continue talking, then I will need to have you removed.” She grabbed the edge of the table and began to slide her chair back. I calmly went over to the door and stood in front of the button next to it. With my hand behind me, I pushed the button. (I didn’t have a radio that day and was banking on the person manning the cameras to realize that I didn’t have one.) An officer called over the speaker and I said, “I need a rover to escort a student NOW.”

The inmate then pushed her chair back and stood up. I remained calm, as well as the other inmates. Within 8 seconds, six officers came charging into the classroom. The inmate didn’t care and she darted towards me. She was instantly surrounded by the officers and escorted out of the room. As she went by me, she was prepared to spit in my face. An officer got in her face and demanded that she swallow it.

I took a deep breath and class continued. An officer returned and stayed in the class with me and two others stayed in the hallway. It was challenging to keep my composure, but I did. I have to laugh though! Later that day I bought a new car! I really was shaken up by the experience and then had car trouble, and thought I might as well shop for a car!

What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?
To teach the juveniles, teacher certification is required. For the jail setting, a special education degree is preferred since many of the inmates have disabilities. To teach GED to adults, you have to attend a special training. However, you don’t need regular teaching credentials.

What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?
If you’re looking to teach in a jail setting because you think it sounds cool or you want to brag to your buddies about where you work, then this isn’t for you! Each day when you enter the facility, you need to put your personal life behind you. If you’re having a bad day, the inmates will pick up on it, and they’ll play you. You need to be consistent each and every day!

If you like teaching in a small group, and at times 1-on-1, then the jail setting is an awesome opportunity to do so.

How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?
As a part-time employee I don’t get paid vacation time. The boss pretty much lets us take whatever we ask for. I usually take a week in early spring and then a day here and there. Most holidays, with the exception of Easter and Christmas, I teach. We have the option not to teach on holidays, but we’re encouraged to teach.

Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?
For whatever reason, some people view teaching in a jail as not “real teaching” and maybe it’s because I’m hired part-time. Yet, this has been a very challenging setting to work in. There tends to a huge turnover of teachers because it “gets” to people and they can’t handle it.

Does this job move your heart? If not, what does?
Hopefully from some of my responses, you can see that this job definitely moves my heart. I have learned so much from teaching in a jail setting. Of course there are lots of other things that move my heart…spending time with family and friends, going for a five mile walk and watching a shooting star.

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?
If I had the means, I would like to run a home for troubled youth. One of the big frustrations for several of the juveniles is the lack of resources. When they’re released from jail, many of them have no place to go. Their families don’t want them, they can’t hang out with their old friends, and they don’t have money to be on their own. They need structure, rules and consequences, and an opportunity to find their niche in life!

Eric Shannon


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  • Working in such a setting would only improve a human being as a person. I see, that working in such an environment can be challenging, but the benefit gained from teaching, especially inmates has to be fulfilling. In my early twenties, my best friend and I took an interest in a couple of young ladies in our community who were misguided. Our weekend trips and gatherings tuned into a group for troubled girls. Every girl who entered the group had to create a life path. Our job was to add details to the plan and help her achieve her goals. In addition to that, we introduced a different quality of life to the girls, by taking them to museums, art shows and landmarks. This was a very rewarding venture but one of the setbacks was dealing with the attitudes of young ladies who were  damaged in one way or another. Experience thought me and the other leaders to listen to them. Usually when you listen, you hear and you can formulate a plan to suite.

  • I am a correctional officer in a prison and with the degree i am trying to receive i want to change the case management and push for more educational programs.

  • I am not a hired employee of the penal system but I volunteer as a mentor at a juvenile detention center. While reading your post I can relate with the need for education while in the penal system for both, adults and youth. What I have discovered during my visitations with the youth is when they are outside of the system they are not at all focused on obtaining his or her education. When a youth is detained he or she then understand the importance of having an education. I believe this is because the youth are so distracted by negative peers adding to his or her lack of concern in obtaining their education. Most detained youth think and believe he or she cannot achieve a good education because they were not encouraged or they did not receive support from their parents in reference to their education or home life. Some youth go to school because it is mandatory and they goof off until they are kicked out. I strongly feel that everyone should have a second chance at receiving his or her education. By receiving education the individual can perhaps become a productive citizen and a less burden on the community and a tax paying citizen. If a person improves his mental capabilities and achieve an education it will also lessen the possibility of recidivism.  Thank you  for your concern and you desire to teach those who deserve a second chance.

  • I read the article in regards to the inmate not following rules and needing to be physically removed from the class before she physically assualted the moderator. The only thing that bothers me with inmates and safety is their unpredictable behavior. At the moment i knew she would become intolerable, I requested assistance. Yet, she had enough time to assualt me in the process. she could have assualted me well before they arrived in this area in which I was alone and unprotected. I had to move toward a wall to press a button. If she or others cornered me , I could be deceased at this very moment. Even after the guards arrived she attempted to spat in my face and was prohibited to do so.