HUGS or PUNCHES; LOVE or BLACKMAIL
Award-winning author Pauline Geraci, a correctional educator for seven years, twice nominated as teacher of the year, frequent conference presenter, authored what many in the field regard as the primer on teaching inmates.
Early in her book she advises, “Trust no one. Remember where you work. Do not let your guard down just because an inmate seems nice. Always look at why someone says something or does something, because they usually want something in return.”
She continues, “Your job hangs by a thin thread if you do not know the rules. If an inmate does not like you and is vindictive, he or she can mean the difference between your keeping your job and losing it. “
Geraci sees the relationship between teacher and inmate students in stark Us versus Them terms, with every interaction an attempt at a power play, “Under no circumstances should a teacher project weakness or uncertainty about his or her position…Inmates notice every single weakness you have. They do not expect you to give them a break. When you do give them a break, inmates exploit it as a weakness.”
And here is where I break substantially from the research. My very reason for going into teaching, for choosing to teach in a troubled district, in a jail, is to give kids a break because I believe most have spent a lifetime besieged by a lack of breaks.
I trusted students. I refused to see them, to even acknowledge them as potential blackmailers who could sabotage my job during an observation (though of course this was mentioned/threatened to me by inmates) and this refusal stymied the possibility of such behavior. I gave them personal information when I was told they’d abuse it (the story of my wife passing away; how I was a ward of the state like they are now when I was a teenager). They were universally empathetic, especially about the former.
And how did my students evaluate the quality and caring of their teachers? “When a teacher is willing to go out of their way for you as a student, then you know they care,” Student #4 wrote. Student #5 wrote, “If a teacher tells you to do your work constantly then he/she cares about you. They are trying to help you, because either way they still get paid. If a teacher sees the whole class talking and not participating except a few and he/she goes on with the lesson, helping those who ask for it, they care about you and are not going to let a few rotten apples spoil the bunch. That’s how you can tell if a teacher cares.”
Student #4 also wrote, “What I noticed is very important in education is your relationship with the teacher. If you have a strong serious relationship with the teacher it feels like it opens many opportunities and destroys many obstacles.”
Student #9 wrote about how he can tell if a teacher cares: “If no matter what you do they will never give up on you.” This was a recurrent theme and I responded to the data by acting accordingly; never giving up on them (though ultimately I failed; I’m not a leader of men. I can aid them well. And I can know them well and make them known.)
Student #9 continued: “And they will always try to help you until you finally see how much he or she cares. That’s when you start to care more, and do what you have to do.”
What most students want and what they will respond to is unconditional concern and that’s what I offered them. I was a teacher but because of the unique situation a correctional facility places an educator in (the ward of the state situation is part of it) he has to be something more; something closer to a surrogate parent. And they become something more to you – – they look out for you when they can; they warn you if another inmate is stealing your material; they protect you from disruptions and maybe more; they play bonding games of ping-pong with you after school; they say and mean “Get home safe” when you leave school late; they hug you over and over again on as many occasions as are legitimately possible; and say you’ve inspired them and they will pay you back someday in the future if they ever run into you on the outside; and they sometimes simply thank you. I had a hardrock say sincerely he loves me in front of a whole damn manned up class of posturing hardrocks. And all I did was give them something fun to read a whole bunch of times. That easy and that beautiful. Yeah and fuck you NY Post; you all don’t and won’t teach, so shut up and let people work in peace.
“You can tell a teacher cares about you by the acts they take to motivate you,” Student #12 wrote. He continued, “When a teacher cares they never give up on you and they keep pushing [you] to strive and achieve your goals. Kevin Heldman has pushed me to achieve my talent and my potential.” I cherish that. I’ve been punched and foot stomped there but I cherish that.
And of course he, that achiever, is much more to me than part of a “Them” in an “Us versus Them” scheme.
He’s more than an inmate; he’s more than Student #12. He is locked up and young and doesn’t know. I am free and old and do know. I just have to suck it up and take the punches and the hugs.