When I embarked on a teacher training course at the University of East London seven months ago, I spent my days somewhere between feeling overwhelmed and excited by the prospect of being in a classroom with 30 students between 11 and 18 years old. I soon realised that I was looking forward to this challenge, despite its unpredictability. So, when my university presented me with the opportunity to teach prison-based learners in a London prison, I jumped at the chance.
Teach Together is a learning collaboration between UEL and the prison, partnering 12 trainee teachers and 10 prison learners to develop the key skills to support learners to take on peer mentor roles to support other prisoners and prepare them for a formal course in learning and development. From the outset, teaching in a prison is nothing like teaching in a school. You are, justifiably, uneasy about the environment, the learners and potentially your own safety. There are no “class data” to tell you who these people are and their current levels of education, and you are no longer in a well-equipped classroom with learning resources at your fingertips.
Instead, you have to bring in a USB stick with pre-agreed, and checked, lesson material. Yet in many ways it’s also similar to teaching in a school because the fundamental purpose is the same and the potential outcomes are life-changing.
The prison-based learners were selected for the course based on their motivation and suitability as peer learning mentors, rather than prior levels of education. This meant that we had a group of learners with varying skills ranging from carpentry to personal training to multilingualism, but this was not necessarily reflective of formal or academic learning.
This is the first challenge for teachers working in prisons: how do you teach learners who may have had limited or negative experiences of education, and how do you determine this without crossing personal boundaries with potentially vulnerable adults? In the same way that you would in any learning establishment, with any group of learners.
You build rapport, you plan activities and tasks that are accessible and don’t depend on high levels of literacy, you experiment and reflect on what worked and what didn’t. I was surprised at how quickly we were able to break down the barriers of apprehension and “otherness”.
With only two hours teaching a week, I was always astonished by the openness and willingness of learners to share their experiences and ideas and to ask questions without fear of judgement. This atmosphere helped to support critical and reflective learning.
Participating in Teach Together broadened my understanding of prison education. Beyond developing skills to work with adult learners in more challenging contexts, it taught me about the importance of education across society, and in those areas that are effectively separated from society.
Coming back to the school classroom, I now know more about the consequences of failing to capture young minds, and the potential significance for those who become excluded from mainstream education. Teach Together hopes to become part of a formalised placement for trainee teachers at UEL. At its heart is the rehabilitation of prisoners through education, but also serves to provide future teachers with an opportunity to experience all aspects of the teaching environment, extending education, and its role in society, beyond its already wide-ranging boundaries.