Reflection on new insights: Just why am I teaching, anyway?

I’ll admit it: reflecting on the different roles that educators play initially seemed to me to be an odd exercise to go through. I mean, isn’t the point of teaching to, well, teach?

Not so fast. What exactly do I mean by “teaching”? To educate my students, naturally! Actually, to be frank, that’s not much better: what do I mean by ‘educate’? “Impart knowledge”, for sure – I teach evidence-based science classes, after all, where there is certainly an expectation that facts will at least be presented! But that’s not quite right either; I mean, I don’t exactly aspire to just having my students repeat back phrases and facts that I’ve had them memorize. I want to help them develop their cognitive abilities. Ideally, I want to know that I’ve helped my students further develop cognitive skills like problem-solving and critical analysis; that students leave my class able to not just remember the raw information I’ve presented, but use it in new and exciting ways; and finally that my students leave with that new information tied to old, and with the ability to further incorporate new information well into the future.

Perhaps nowhere is the potential for cognitive change more evident than in the correctional educational system. What educator wouldn’t dream of having such an impact on their students as to convert them from prisoners to model citizens? (hence this discussion). A major hurdle in the way of that approach is related to the trend in post-secondary schools to focus on procedural skill development, rather than cognitive skills; what a student can do, rather than how they think and learn (e.g. Regehr, 2013). Here again, in correctional education systems the procedural/cognitive conflict is likely to be felt most keenly (Wright, 2004; 2005). In many cases, individual educators struggling within such a system suffer burnout and abandon their work in the face of apparent failure to make substantial systematic changes (Warner, 1998; Wright, 2004). Despite these issues, however, correctional education has been repeatedly shown to have a dramatic effect in terms of reducing recidivism (e.g. Davis, et al., 2013; Steurer & Smith, 2003; see also summary in Vacca, 2004). And it is in such conflict-laden settings that the roles of the educator beyond that of “information provider” become most apparent. The most successful correctional education programs seem to be those that not only provide students with marketable skills, which increasingly include cognitive skills as technology advances, but that also allow students to see clear opportunities to improve their own lives after their release (Vacca, 2004). In addition, the success of a prison education program is largely determined by the attitudes and values of people in authority positions. Such programs are more likely to be successful when the focus of the institution as a whole is on rehabilitation rather than control or punishment (Kerka, 1995; Vacca, 2004). This suggests educators in these settings are not only sources of factual information, but are also in a position to provide inspiration and even emotional support to their students; in essence, acting as mentors and even partners rather than authoritative instructors. Indeed, depending on the institution’s policies and staff attitudes, educators may be the only authority figures within an institution that can help fulfill these roles.

Of course, in many places most adult students aren’t studying from within a penal system! But we are currently in a time when postsecondary institutions (even outside the penal system) are generally focussing on “marketable skills” – which typically is assessed by assessing procedural learning, rather than tests of complex cognitive skills – and when the role of educator as ‘information source’ is rapidly becoming less and less relevant with the widespread availability of factual knowledge via communication technology, including the Internet. Educators who deal directly with students therefore remain in the rather unique position of acting not only (or even necessarily) as sources of raw information, but as mentors and partners who guide, encourage, and help students develop whatever skill set they deem important enough to pursue. The end goal isn’t information transfer, but personal development and achieving success on whatever access the student deems most important to them and their lives. And I would say that that, in a rather large nutshell, is why I teach.


Davis, L. M., Bozick, R., Steele, J. L., Saunders, J., & Miles, J. N. V. (2013). Evaluatins the effectiveness of correctional education: A meta-analysis of programs that provide education to incarcerated adults. Santa Monica, CA: RAND. Retrieved from

Kerka, S. (1995). Prison Literacy Programs. ERIC Digest, 159, ED383859. Retrieved from

Regehr, C. (2013). Trends in higher education in Canada and implications for social work education. Social Work Education: The International Journal. 32(6), 700-714. doi: 10.1080/02615479.2013.785798.

Steurer, S. J., & Smith, L. G. (2003). Education reduces crime: Three-state recidivism study – Executive summary. Elkridge, MD: Correctional Education Association. Retrieved from

Vacca, J. S. (2004). Educated prisoners are less likely to return to prison. The Journal of Correctional Education, 55(4), 297-305. Retrieved from

Warner, K. (1998). The “prisoners are people” perspective – and the problems of promoting learning where this outlook is rejected. The Journal of Correctional Eduction, 49(3), 118-132. Retrieved from

Wright, R. L. (2004). You were hired to teach! Ideological struggle, education, and teacher burnout at the new prison for women. The Qualitative Report, 9(4), 630-651. Retrieved from

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


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