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What It's Like to Teach Inside A Prison

Teaching can be scary. You stand in front of a room, everyone looking at you, waiting for you to speak. They expect you to be knowledgeable, to not say “umm” too many times, to make their time worthwhile. Further adding to the difficulty, teachers often spend more time actually preparing for the lesson than they do teaching the lesson, thus consuming a massive amount of time. You spend hours and hours prepping for a lesson, hoping and praying that your students won’t fall asleep and will actually comprehend what it is you’re trying to say. Sometimes the lecture makes sense in your head but doesn’t translate to the classroom. Since I’ve become a teacher myself, I often wish I could go back and thank (and apologize to!) all my teachers.


I drift into a sort of dream state when I prepare my horticulture lectures - I experience these creative flashes and have invisible conversations with my students, imagining what questions it is they will ask and what material I need to have prepared to answer them appropriately. I get super excited about what it is I am going to share and often have trouble sleeping before a lecture, my mind is rehearsing what it is I have learned and what it is I have to share. Then I show up for the class and click through my PowerPoint slides and sometimes I arrive at a slide and gulp. I realize that I sure had a lot of courage adding a quote or story to the lecture when I was making it, but now that I’m in front of all these people, people who I know quite intimately because I’ve been teaching them for three years, I’m not so sure that I have the guts to share what it is I intended to share. It’s a whole lot easier to make a PowerPoint slide about forgiveness or reconciliation from the comfort of your office than it is to stand in front of a room and tell people about what it means to forgive someone who has done you wrong.


Take for example my last horticulture lecture at Burruss Correctional Training Center. I spoke for about thirty minutes on the latest horticultural studies and then arrived at a slide that simply said “Hope.” That dreaded gulp arrived. I had prepared this lecture several weeks before, now the time had come to speak. I wanted to click skip, I was afraid to share the story I had prepared. God told me to go ahead and share what was on my heart, so I did. As I looked out at the students, I saw eager faces, they wanted to know why “Hope” was written in bold letters. These are men aged 17-69 serving time in prison, hope has a whole different meaning for them than it does for us in the “free world.” I began speaking, letting God guide my words.  


I told the students that I have historically hated New Years Eve. It’s my least favorite holiday: it’s cold, expensive, too crowded, and requires that I stay up late. This year, I had a wedding on New Years Eve. I was grumpy all day before the wedding, I didn’t want to go and I was dreading the evening. I worked myself into a state of misery, telling myself over and over just how horrible the night would be. And then I put on my tuxedo and went to the wedding and guess what – I had a great time! Everything went well! I had fun! I caught up with old friends, I danced, I ate some delicious prime rib! It was everything I didn’t expect it to be.


As I told them this story, the students looked at me quizzically, I could tell they were wondering where this was going. I finished by saying, “Look, what I’m trying to say is that nobody knows how your story will end. That chapter has not been written yet. No matter what has happened to you in the past, no matter how things have gone for you before, no one can tell you how it will end. No one has written the story you will write, so, write it. I hope that in this new year, we all move forward with hope, that we write our own endings.”


I looked out into their faces. I saw hope. I saw them nod along; I saw them smile. I saw that the message had resonated with them.


These students have endured, and continue to endure, horrible traumas. They are victims of a broken system. They are largely forgotten, confined behind walls topped with razor wire that will slice a grown man to pieces. When they aren’t taken outside for recreation or are served six pieces of white bread and an apple for lunch, they can’t complain – there’s no one to listen. Many of them have been dealt a deck of cards that most of us simply couldn’t endure. They are the have-not’s, and because they have not, they act in accordance, they take, they steal, they rob others of joy and peace.


There’s really only one way to really help – we must serve. We must show up in our prisons and jails and minister to those in need. We must pray for correctional staff. We must pray for inmates. We must pray for our nation.


I know serving in prison isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. But you don’t know until you try, and friends, I hope that you at least give it a try. Every week when I teach, I learn more from my students than I could ever teach them. What more can you possibly ask for as a teacher? The students value our time together because I am one of the few people that they interact with that is there to help and heal, not to ensure they remain confined behind bars. They love that I incorporate scripture into our lessons, like how when I teach about honey I mention all these Biblical references to wild honey. They show up for each class with smiles on their faces because they know they’re going to be let out of their cramped cells and will be learning about plant cells instead. They nearly leap for joy on days when we visit the garden and sit in the sunshine and pull weeds. They aren’t checking their phones or surfing the internet on their laptops when I talk, they’re diligently taking notes and asking questions. Life’s not perfect but on days when I’m prepared and I have something interesting to teach, our class time is nearly as perfect as I’ve ever seen life be. A peacefulness descends on the classroom, words like “inmate” and “free person” disappear, bars and chains melt away, we become one. It sounds hokey/hippie-dippy, but it’s true. Ask any of our volunteers, when I go to thank them for serving those in need, they tell me to hush and thank me instead. “You don’t know how much of a joy and honor it is to serve. No, it’s me that should be thanking you.”



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