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Teaching in Prisons?

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Teacher candidates are wise to consider all the teaching options available to them, particularly in non-traditional classroom environments. One option that is often ignored is teaching in corrections systems. Prisons and jails typically have teaching and training programs for adults and youth. Working in corrections is not on a lot of people's radars, so there's not a lot of competition. Even if it isn't the job of your dreams, the experience alone would be valuable... and impressive on your resume.

What's it like working with the incarcerated? In both one-on-one and group sessions, they tend to be like everyone else. Their attitudes can range from highly motivated to extremely negative. And safety of staff is the primary concern of administrators. Inmates who are allowed to take advantage of educational services are the lowest risk in the institution -- they've earned the privilege through good behavior. Of course, they didn't go to prison for skipping school -- they have made some poor decisions -- but they recognize with gratitude the dedication of people who come in to help them. Their appreciation can make the experience very rewarding.

Recidivism rates are high, but we know that education helps the formerly incarcerated stay out. For many, prison classrooms are the first place they've had academic success and they become interested in enrolling in community colleges or other training programs once they get out; some plan on combining work and school. In other words, they gain a sense of self- efficacy.

Some special skills that will serve prison teachers well include organization and adaptability. Teachers need to be able to track each student's progress, so an organized record-keeping system is critical. Also being able to write original and relevant curriculum will allow a teacher to meet the individual needs of a diverse student population.

Don't be discouraged if staff in corrections don't get back to you right away. Budget cuts have led to understaffing in many areas, and they're pretty overwhelmed. Sometimes, it takes multiple contacts to get a response.

Having never taught in prisons myself, I don't profess to be an expert on this career. I invite anyone with direct experience or additional information to add their comments.

--Diana Sanchez, Career Counselor,
California State University San Marcos and
AAEE Director of Professional Development

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