‘What I’ve learned from teaching in prisons’

One teacher shares the wisdom he's picked up from teaching prisoners – tips that he’s carried into the primary classroom

Andy West

Prison education: Digital learning must be rolled out to every prison, says the Prisoners' Education Trust

I asked some students in my class in prison to point to England on a map. One circled his finger around the Indian Ocean. He knew England was somewhere near the sea. Hardly any of them could immediately find the country in which they were born. My students now spend the best part of their day in a six-by-eight cell. But I wonder how big their world was before incarceration.

I also teach in my local primary school. On the wall of the Year 5 classroom is a map of the world. I have developed the compulsion to make sure that the children can show me where England is on it. I’ve always known that some children were more at risk of becoming involved with the criminal justice system. Working in prisons made this reality more urgent.

Some working in prison education might suggest an avalanche of policy changes for primary schools: make the curriculum more culturally relevant to young urban people; smaller class sizes; a less exacting focus on maths and literacy exams in disadvantaged schools, and so on. But these changes aren’t coming soon. Holding out for far-off solutions only makes the situation at hand feel even more desperate and intractable. So instead of talking about the radical changes here, I’ll mention the areas of my own practice that have taken greater priority: things all teachers could address within the current system.

1. Masculinity

Only 15 per cent of primary school teachers are male. This in itself may not be an issue, but now consider that 95 per cent of the prison population is male. To survive prison, many men act hypermasculine. Add to this that many of them regard education as feminine. So the reluctance to show engagement in the classroom is almost immovable.

Charities such as Teach First have called for more male teachers. It might be nice to have a broader range of role models in schools, but there are also more immediate responses to the issue. A female colleague of mine runs weekly discussions with Year 5 boys. She addresses questions such as “Are boys naughtier than girls?”, “What do we mean when we say the word ‘man’?” and “Is it OK to hit someone if they hit you first?”

Sometimes contributions are shocking. For example: “It's girls’ fault that boys get detention!” But this is useful. It begins a process of exposing and rethinking toxic masculinity rather than just punishing it with another detention. School detentions can seem like eerie rehearsals for adult ones sometimes.  

2. Money

It’s hardly controversial any more to say that the poor are overrepresented in prison. One student said to me, “I can make £1,500 a month going to work or the same amount a day 'on road'. It’s a no brainer.” I listened while biting my tongue, trying not to mention that the average working prisoner earns about £10 a week. 

This might sound vulgar, but I don’t know why in school we don’t appeal to the desire to make and manage money more. Imagine a child likes the idea of having money when they are older. Why not explain how learning maths and English could help with that? Before working in prison, I would have seen such instrumentalisation of education as defeatist or selling out. But now I see it as a positive opportunity.

There are more reasons for teaching financial literacy. Some prisoners tell me that life was easier when they were living hand to mouth. When they began earning more money, it got on top of them and that was the start of their journey to prison. Financial education is like sex education. Some teachers are reluctant to talk about it, but if young people don’t learn about it, it can affect their entire life. 

3. De-escalation

There is a boy in my primary school class. Let’s call him Chibuike. When Chibuike was disrupting learning, I gave him warnings. I'd hold eye contact with him until he’d acknowledged my giving him that warning. By that time, the air had thickened.

My students in prison are likeable people. It’s often incongruent for me to think they have murdered someone. Then I sometimes see how aggressive they can get from a small slight or minor injustice. They often meet stress and confrontation with escalation.  

With Chibuike, I was modelling escalation. I was reinforcing the idea that to come out of a confrontation positively, you have to be the one with the power. This idea is often behind a lot of violent crime. Now, after teaching in prison, when Chibuike is being disruptive, I have taken to smiling at him. He often gives me an embarrassed smile back and stops whatever it was he was doing. I'm trying to find softer solutions to unhelpful behaviour. They preserve a child’s trust for educators – a trust many prisoners no longer have.

Andy West is a senior specialist and training officer for the Philosophy Foundation. He tweets @AndyWPhilosophy

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