Beth Rondeau is a former Maximum State Prison teacher, and is now teaching in a secondary school, in her state in the USA. She is also the author of Seven Doors In, a new best-selling book on her experiences teaching in the state maximum prison. In 2017, Beth Rondeau was selected The Correctional Teacher of the Year in the state she worked in a Maximum Security Prison, USA. It was the prison National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) group that made the award. Beth was interviewed for this article about her success as a prison teacher and about the importance of her recognition at the conclusion of the school year.
Describe your role as an educator at the prison and the student levels you were teaching and the ‘successes’ you found you had accomplished while there:
The following are the various roles and tasks I implemented and/or performed. I was the only full-time teacher at the State Maximum Security Penitentiary I worked.
- Taught the High School Equivalent Diploma (HSED) curriculum to
- Maximum Security Offenders at the State Penitentiary
- Classes taught: mathematics 1, advanced mathematics, writing, and social studies
Other responsibilities included: Following DOC policies and procedures; and encouraging students to be positive, hardworking, and respectful team members
At what educational levels did you find your students?
Many of these students came to my school program at a low reading level with only elementary to middle school knowledge. A number of the students sent to me had been locked up for years.
To what do you attribute your success in this program?
There are a few reasons I felt I was successful working with these students. First, I started to receive respect from the students who attended my classes. I realized how much the students were starting to respect me when I overheard some speaking of my caring attitude. They didn’t understand how someone could care so much about their education. Nobody had done this before.
When I started teaching the majority of the students swore on a regular basis. As the men became comfortable in the school setting, they swore less and would even catch themselves swearing and apologize to me.
When I first started teaching at the prison, I had about 15 students. When I left the prison, the school enrollment was up to 48 students. Unless a student was under 21, he did not have to attend school. These men were choosing to now attend school.
The majority of the men started school with little confidence. As they passed tests, I could see they started to care more.
I soon realized that I was watching grown men, some of them members of gangs, cry as they learned they were passing their first tests. They were learning something about themselves. Most told me that they had never accomplished anything, passing a test was a new start for them.
I felt most successful, not as each student graduated, but what each one said to me upon earning his diploma. Every graduate wanted to know what he could do to help next. They wanted, in some way, to continue to be engaged in the work of the classes. They were graduates and proud of it.
Most interesting, I sat and watched as members of opposing gangs worked together in the classes. I watched how they supported each other and helped to ‘bring each other up.’ Nobody looked down on anyone for failing or for succeeding.
Upon graduating, I had one white man tell me he was racist and didn’t want to work with any black students. He didn’t tell me this until he graduated and he did work with the students of different races in class. Upon graduation, he shook my hand and said I taught him more about life than I will ever understand. He smiled and said, “thank you.”
As some of these newly successful students arrived at their graduation ceremony I noted that they all walked proudly with big smiles to their seats.
Those students who did not have family members present found support from me and the other graduates. I was proud how these men invited those without family to sit with their families. It made me smile.
On my last day of work, a few of the men cried. Some told me that I had a special gift and I had the ability to change kids’ lives and help to make sure they didn’t end up in prison. They sincerely wanted me to go help kids.
What kind of responses did you receive from others at the prison when you were announced as The Correctional Teacher of the Year?
Honestly, the biggest response came from the students and the officers that worked in my area. I remember at graduation, one of the students asked everyone to stand up and clap as he was so appreciative of the help I gave him that he wanted to make sure I was recognized for my accomplishments in teaching these students up to the time they were graduating!
How important do you feel such recognition is for teachers?
It doesn’t matter who you are, either a teacher, or other worker. Everyone wants to feel that their work is meaningful and appreciated. The best way to show someone that they are doing a great job, is by recognizing their true strengths and commitments
What responses did you receive from your students in the prison program? Your prison administrators?
The response I received from the students was amazing. They were truly happy for me and that made it even more meaningful to me. Many congratulated me, as they heard from the officers, that I was awarded The Teacher of the Year.
What else would you like to add for prison teachers and public and private school teachers in the U.S.A. and in Australia and the U.K., and other countries relative to the importance of special recognition for excellence in their teaching?
If administrators truly want to make a difference in education, they need to care about the entire school community. Recognition should be valuable and meaningful and doesn’t need to stop with the teachers. How about the administrators, school board members, secretaries, custodians, librarians, cooking staff, students, counselors, nurses, coaches, community members and parents that go above and beyond? It takes everyone to make positive changes and we all need to remember students learn from us all, “their surroundings”.
Additionally, it is important that teachers be given a voice when it comes to justice reform and to changes in public education. We are there living the experience and need to be listened to for our expertise.
I learned quickly that many of the men expected me to be racist. I heard that as these students attended school and worked with me, they realized I was just a genuine person that wanted to make a difference, was not racist, and had no hidden agenda. That was a huge step for them to find a respect for me.
Before I left the prison, I asked my tutors why no one ever tried to get me to do things for them. Their answers were simple: “I cared and they didn’t want to lose me for a teacher.” They respected me. If they are going to try to get someone to bring stuff in for them it is going to be the people that treat them poorly because they don’t care if they get caught. An interesting concept.
For these students to learn, they need to have respect for the person teaching them. They need to feel comfortable and confident in the classroom. They do want teachers to hold them accountable but they also want teachers they can ask questions. I feel in both these situations I have accomplished my goals. I truly am proud to be a teacher. I lead by example in my definition of what a teacher needs to be.