Strangers in a foreign land: Teachers in prisons

Having recently made a shift from teaching students who are continuing their education to assisting students who are returning to education after an extended absence, I have begun to examine my own assumptions about the sorts of teaching practices that would be serve students. One difference that I have noted between the students I had been teaching and those I am now dealing with is that as a group, continuous* students seem to be primarily focussed on absorbing information – i.e. memorizing facts – while students returning to education after an extended time away seem more motivated to interact with the material to further their own understanding. But of course, within either group there are many exceptional individuals who don’t follow that particular pattern. Despite extensive research into educational theory, and discussion of the different ways teachers, instructors, or facilitators can “best” deal with a class of students as a group, there seems to be little in the way of practical advice for how to address the needs of individual students as individuals within a group. I have been trying to understand how to treat individual students as individuals rather than simply as members of a group.

The first step as I see it is to first recognize that students are both individuals and group members. This sounds trivial, but at times can be difficult to enact in practice. Should we separate students into groups based on their preferred style of interaction? Or should we place different students together to encourage them to expand their repertoire of accessible learning styles? I don’t claim to have an easy answer here (sorry!). But one way to start addressing this issue may be to look at extreme situations in which students have a particularly wide variety of motivations for returning to education, and in which the educational system itself may be particularly resistant to treating students either as individuals or as a group. One such situation that I have become particularly interested in is the education of prisoners within the legal correctional system.

As I looked for information related to the current theories around correctional education, I discovered a particularly interesting article that discusses the special classification within the correctional system not of the students, but of the instructors. Randall Wright (2005) discusses the experience of an instructor new to correctional education as a type of ‘culture shock’, discussing the instructor as anywhere from a ‘tourist’ to ‘settler’, and finally to a bicultural ‘translator’. As someone who has lived abroad for several years and been slotted into several of these categories myself, I was drawn to this article’s discussion of the special challenges faced by correctional educators as, in effect, immigrants into another culture. An overt identification of the different states in which a correctional educator will likely find themselves can give such instructors the vocabulary to voice their concerns in a constructive way. This same vocabulary can also be useful in many less extreme situations, where teachers and students are almost inevitably culturally separated along some axis, by such things as expertise, access to or familiarity with current technology, or routine exposure to different peer groups holding different prevailing opinions.

Wright draws on Jandt (2004) to define the different stages of “culture shock”, and goes on to describe how teachers may expect to experience when starting to work in a correctional institution. The first stage, “tourist”, is recognized in an instructor who does not intend to continue working in a prison for long. Such an attitude allows the instructor to remain socially distant from their students.

The second stage is “disintegration and difference”, where a teacher is considered (or feels like) a “marginal” or “exile”, occurs when a teacher feels a nearly overwhelming nostalgia for the “home” practice that they left to work in a correctional institution. Teachers in this stage can feel as though they are profoundly different from the people they’re working with. The examples Wright includes here suggest that this is not necessarily the result of interacting with their students – i.e. prisoners – but may also be a result of prison staff attitudes towards the teacher. In Canada, for example, the existence of both unionized civil servants and teachers working for private educational companies within correctional institutions may lead to conflicts during job competitions or making decisions about operational policy. These conflicts can subject the teacher to feeling ‘othered’ by unionized or full-time staff, even during their day-to-day routine outside of policy-making procedures.

During the third stage, “reintegration”, teachers can still feel ‘othered’ by the staff or students with whom they work, but less profoundly so than in the second stage. Here the focus does not remain strictly on recognizing that there are differences between the teacher’s culture and that of their students or fellow staff, but shifts towards negotiating those differences. Teachers in this stage recognize an intention to continue working within the correctional system, but may not be entirely accepted by either their students or fellow staff who collectively represent the ‘culture’ of a prison.

Eventually, teachers may approach the fourth stage of “settler”, where they become more comfortable with the culture of a correctional institution. Teachers here commit to staying long-term, and begin to abandon previously-held beliefs or methods that don’t fit well in their new culture.

Finally, teachers in correctional institutions may reach the fifth and final stage of “reciprocal interdependence”, where they are able to act as intermediaries between the correctional institution’s culture and that of the “outside” world. They become capable of biculturalism, understanding the culture of the correctional facility and that of the outside world well enough to introduce either to the other, and advocate for desirable change in either.

In short, Wright (2004) draws on the language of culture shock theories to provides a valuable vocabulary for discussing teaching outside of one’s own native culture, whether the difference be as dramatic as a ‘free’ teacher teaching inmates in a correctional facility or as minor as teaching students a few years’ younger than oneself. The point is also made that completion of the process described is not in fact a given, in that some teachers may not be personally disposed to acculturation, and that the process may not in fact be accurate as a linear model for any one teacher. Nevertheless, teachers are presented here with another way of thinking about and reflecting on their teaching style that includes their interactions with their students and fellow staff as well as their own goals, propensities and personalities, and life outside the classroom, .

*Here I mean ‘continuous’ in the sense of ‘continuing their education without breaks’, rather than as used in ‘Continuing Education’, which most often refers to adult students returning to education after an extended break away.


Jandt, F.E. (2004) An introduction to intercultural education: identities in a global community (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Wright, R. (2005) Going to teach in prisons: culture shock. Journal of Correctional Education, 56(1), 19-38.


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