234. Education in Prisons

Education provides a pathway to a more secure and comfortable future for individuals living in poverty. This is especially true for those who are incarcerated. In this episode, Em Daniels and William Keizer join us to discuss the challenges and opportunities associated with providing education in prisons.

Em is a researcher who focuses on education, corrections, criminal legal reform, and abolition. She is the author of Building a Trauma-Responsive Educational Practice: Lessons from a Corrections Classroom. William is a Founder of Frontline Professional Development and Co-Founder of Revive Reentry Services and the Revive Center for Returning Citizens. He is a former state prison Adult Education Instructor, and in addition, he himself was formerly incarcerated.


John: Education provides a pathway to a more secure and comfortable future for individuals living in poverty. This is especially true for those who are incarcerated. In this episode, we explore the challenges and opportunities associated with providing educational in prisons.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Our guests today are Em Daniels and William Keizer. Em is a researcher who focuses on education, corrections, criminal legal reform, and abolition. She is the author of Building a Trauma-Responsive Educational Practice: Lessons from a Corrections Classroom. William is a Founder of Frontline Professional Development and Co-Founder of Revive Reentry Services and the Revive Center for Returning Citizens. He is a former state prison Adult Education Instructor, and in addition, he himself was formerly incarcerated. Welcome back, Em, and welcome, William.

Em: Hello.

William: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are… Em, are you drinking tea?

Em: I’ve just got water. I’ve got boring room temperature water with no flavor in it.

Rebecca: That’s a disappointment.

Em: I know, I’m sorry. I set the bar very high, and then I didn’t even get over it. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: How about you, William?

William: I am water and lemon in a spill proof cup.

Em: He’s got a sippy cup. [LAUGHTER]

William: I’m a little clumsy sometimes, [LAUGHTER] Em knows. I take every precaution.

John: And I’m drinking a peppermint spearmint blend today.

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds nice, John.

Rebecca: I have Scottish afternoon tea this afternoon.

Em: Mhmm.

John: Very good, appropriate. Because it’s afternoon and I’ve already had a lot of caffeine I’m doing a non-caffeinated route.

Em: I did have coffee earlier, just so people know that I haven’t abandoned the caffeine train. I just tried to finish it before, and I can’t have a tea right after a coffee. It’s too much liquid. [LAUGHTER]

William: I second that.

John: In an earlier podcast, we talked to Em about the general topic of trauma-responsive educational practice. Today we’d like to focus more on the topic of education in prisons. How did each of you become involved in teaching in prisons?

William: You know, it’s funny, as I was preparing for the podcast, it dawned on me that I actually started my career in education in a carceral setting, teaching life skills at a juvenile detention center, clear back in 1989. From there, I worked as an intervention specialist and a special education teacher in public schools. But around 2004, I’d been teaching life skills classes at a state work release program when I was hired to teach adult education in the state prison in our area. And I’ve always worked with marginalized populations. And so for me, it was just kind of a natural progression. I guess I’ve always just landed right where I’m supposed to be.

Em: Yeah, I started after Bill, but I also started out outside of academia, I started working in a community organization, helping people during the Welfare-to-Work years, as they were trying to transition people off of welfare. I worked for a small agency that did workforce development, and didn’t know anything, but learned quite a lot, and then continued working in just such a variety of different teaching and learning spaces, eventually coming to working in the prison for several years when I was living in Oregon, and had also worked in alternative high schools and left the prison in Oregon and then moved to Spokane, Washington, where I live now to work as a Re-entry Education Navigator, and my job was to try to help people who were coming out of prison who wanted to go back to school, and did that for several years… met Bill during that time, and feel like that whole experience of seeing what happens to people before they go to prison and what that education looks like, and then during prison, and then what happens when people come out of prison and want to continue education or enter education has really given me a fairly unique perspective on higher ed in prisons.

Rebecca: For those that aren’t familiar, can you describe some of the challenges facing both students and instructors within the prison system?

William: I think one of the significant challenges is to create an environment where students feel safe and respected, where they can settle and become ready to learn, especially a place where they can feel insulated from all the distractions that come with being locked up. It’s tough because students in a carceral setting are trying to learn while they’re dealing with stuff like maintaining a relationship with their significant other outside of the walls, or maybe family issues, family stuff, sick kids, whatever, because you’re powerless over what happens on the outside and it eats at you. Then you have internal distractions like prison politics, you may have issues with staff or with other individuals that you’re locked up with. And it makes it hard for students to try to settle and learn.

Em: Mmhmm. First, I’m going to say I think educational trauma plays an incredibly significant role for students in prisons, because so many of them have been denied public education or actively ejected from public education before they come to prisons. So they’ve already had a lot of really significant harm around education. So they come in with a lot of those barriers. And then when you look at the demographics of who was in prison, you see also many people who have disabilities, especially undiagnosed learning disabilities, the incidence of traumatic brain injury is anywhere from three to five times higher in the population in prison than it is in general populations. And that also presents significant barriers… addiction and the impacts it has on the brain, especially alcohol, provides really a lot of issues. So there’s just a number of barriers that show up in population, and are connected to reasons why people come to prison. So there’s that piece, and then some of the more logistical issues. It’s hard to describe how few resources there are, when you work in a prison setting. When I go into a prison, I’m like, “Well, I might be able to have a pencil and a piece of paper.” And that’s really the resource that I might be able to have. If I’m going in as a volunteer or something like that, if there’s programming inside, I probably have a little bit more, but there is no access to internet, not active internet. Some states and some facilities are working on a secure internet, where people can get on to certain sites, information and what not. And there are certainly, like, librarians and information management people at colleges, two- and four-year schools, do an outstanding job of trying to update resources that sit on a server. So they’ll put together sort of a secure server full of information and then they’re always trying to update those resources. But again, it’s still static, it’s not dynamic information. So the lack of access to resources is profound. There are certainly technical issues around funding, always around funding, Pell is being reinstated for people in prisons next year. So the scramble over the last couple of years, and will continue into next year for colleges and programming to try to adjust to people being able to have access to Pell again, and the benefits that that brings, but also the resistance of institutions to change and adapt so that people can get the most out of their Pell funding. To say it is very strong is an understatement, and that’s a whole other topic. Funding for programming is always challenging. And Pell is just a whole other big thing. There are all kinds of different issues around programming. So access, what materials you can bring in and bring out, who gets to come in and come out, what you get to talk about, all of these things. So there’s programming issues, and then probably, in addition to having to make an effort for students like a really, really big significant effort for students, the extreme cultural differences between, what you need for education, because education is inherently supposed to be a liberatory exercise, like it’s a movement toward liberation. And you are trying to do this in an institution that is designed to control and constrain and to hold people captive. So the cultural clash there is deep, it’s very deep. And because the corrections institution is really the one ultimately in charge, educational entities really have to walk a lot of lines that feel like compromise all the time.

John: One of the things you mentioned in the book, Em, was Eurocentric ways of knowing are built into our educational system. How might we adapt our approaches to education to better accommodate those from cultures who rely on alternative ways of knowing?

Em: Well, I would reframe that it’s not an accommodation, that it’s a rebalance… like, this country, it did not start out as a European country. And to say that European and Eurocentric ways need to accommodate other ways, I think is maybe a mis-frame. And I think that looking at all of the people and all of the representation of all the different people around the world who are living in the U.S. and go to school here, and pay taxes here, and are citizens, and all of this… this is really about how do we open our own minds and our own hearts to the way that we see the world? And understand that that is not the only way to see the world. And people talk about that a lot, but I’m, like, “This is more than just entertainment. It’s more than just a holiday.” It’s fundamentally, people see, they experience information. They take in information differently. They respond to it in their bodies differently. They respond to it in art and creativity. The way that they think about information is very different and those differences, while they certainly do present opportunities for us to push ourselves and stretch ourselves, that’s what we should be looking for. Because every time we push ourselves and stretch ourselves, it makes us better. It makes us more fully ourselves that we get to try to experience the world in all of these different ways. And I think that, when you look at the hallmarks of Eurocentrism, the production, quantifying things, wanting efficiency, wanting to make sure everything can be measured in a particular way, all of those kinds of things, none of those things are inherently wrong or bad. But when they are the only thing, the only way that you know the world, the only way that you even consider that could be possible to know the world, I think that that makes us all smaller. It makes us all less than what we really are. And I think that that piece of it, like really pushing ourselves and challenging ourselves to think about knowledge differently, is one way for us to step into a more fuller version of ourselves.

William: Yeah I agree, I agree. I guess in the literal sense, the Eurocentricity that’s embedded in our education system, really misinterprets and misrepresents the historical journeys of many marginalized populations. I think it forces those populations to use more informal ways of learning about their journey, like song and dance, and storytelling and art, just to get a more accurate understanding of who they are. And that shouldn’t have to happen. I think, really, the three things that are important for me are what’s being taught, how it’s being taught, and then how it’s being assessed. And we have to have a broader brush to be inclusive, otherwise, we’re just perpetuating that marginalization.

John: And that’s a critique of our educational system in general, but I think it may have even more weight in the prison system, given the large proportion of marginalized individuals who are in our prison system, it would seem to create even a greater amount of harm in terms of providing effective education.

Em: I agree. I think that one of the ways… like Bill talked about this earlier, building these relationships and building trust. And I think that when we think about what people need in a classroom to learn, and what they need in themselves, and in order for people to learn in a way where they are able to grasp that knowledge, connect it to something that means something to them, the things we really want students to do that there has to be sort of this calmness in the body. And that comes when people have some feeling of both physical safety, and I would say more settling than demanding that they label themselves emotionally. And one of the reasons I say that is because when you get students who have been really harmed by public education, and specifically when you’re talking about people of color who have been harmed by white supremacist entities or Eurocentric entities, and that can be white teachers, sometimes it’s not, sometimes it can be teachers of color, but it’s often white teachers, like asking them to be in a prison classroom, and they’re a person of color. And now there’s a white person, another white person in an authority role, and they’re supposed to just automatically trust them. That can be a big barrier. And it’s not something that you can talk about very often because race in prison, even though race is present in every single thing in every single interaction, always, it’s not talked about. When I was working there, race was one of those issues, like, you didn’t want to talk about it, you did not ever want to really have any conversation. I don’t know, I feel like that’s a mistake and not acknowledging it when we go in like the positionality, especially for white people, the positionality and the sort of inherent power that comes into that, like not acknowledging that and talking about it, at least amongst ourselves, is a mistake.

Rebecca: It seems particularly challenging when we’re thinking about these power dynamics that you’re talking about when it’s layered in a prison system where there’s already kind of a teacher-student relationship that has a power dynamic, but now there’s also a prison authority, telling teachers what they can and cannot do in this space as well. So how do you help students reach a feeling of being settled or overcome some of those barriers around power to actually have learning happen?

William: I think it’s super tricky, because with correction staff outside the classroom, it’s all about that absolute authoritarian coercive kind of power. And here’s the thing, often, new hire teachers, including me, receive their orientation training in the same sessions as corrections officers and other corrections staff. So there’s an expectation that we go in and behave like corrections officers in the classroom, see where in reality in the classroom success is found through compassion and collaboration and not coercion. So earning a student’s trust and respect by developing that teacher-student relationship goes a long way. If you ever have to exert your authority in the classroom, for example, enforcing classroom rules. I know from my own experience as a teacher that if you develop that relationship, you can gain compliance through respect and you don’t have to resort to threat of punishment.

Em: Mmhmm. I had that happen… When I was working I spent a lot of time building relationships with my students. And I had a very unique situation, I can’t imagine in today’s climate that I could ever have such a situation again, but, really focused a lot on building relationships with students, and also trying to walk the line of teachers are expected to be corrections enforcers when they’re in the classroom, like that is the expectation from the institution. And because teachers rarely get training that is not corrections offered training… Until this book, any training that was given was the program would put together some training. But the conversations around power and… What does it mean to be a teacher and be expected to be complicit in these dominator power dynamics? And what do you do with students who don’t have the ability to withdraw consent? And how do you navigate that? How do you not abuse that power? And that has been a question that we have not talked about. Education doesn’t have that question very often about, what do we do to maintain our own ethical core when we are in these positions where we are expected to wield power? And I think that, what Bill was talking about, where you’re building relationships with people so that they understand how you make decisions. They understand that a yes is always going to be a yes, and a no is going to be a no, and that doesn’t change based on the person. It doesn’t change based on, you’re having a bad day, you’re still going to make your decisions in the same way. People are going to know when they come to you, if you tell them yes, it would be a yes, and if you tell them no, it would be a no. And I think that we underestimate the importance of that, that consistency. I know that when I was at the prison, I had corrections staff who would come to me sometimes if they were having issues with a student, and they were someone who was in my class, they would come to me and they would say, “We know you have a good relationship with the student, can you talk to them about this or that?” And it didn’t happen all the time, but it definitely happened where they saw that I had a relationship that was not based on dominating the student and forcing them to do things. But it was based on trust and openness, as much as we can be open, and that I can at least have the conversation with the student where they might not even be able to do that.

William: Right, and I’ve had the same thing occur, and I think the big difference is that when you develop that relationship, that students begin to understand your motives for saying yes or saying no…

Em: Mmhmm.

William: …and that you do have their best interests at heart when you’re doing that, and you’re not just about asserting your dominance. It’s about trying to be that individual that is, again, working in their best interest.

John: And earlier, William, you mentioned how you received the same training that was provided to the guards. So it sounds like that could provide some insight for the correctional staff, who may perhaps be able to learn more effective ways of dealing with those who are incarcerated.

William: In a perfect world, that’s really all I can say. That institution has been doing things the same way for a long, long time, and is super resistant to any kind of change, especially in a more compassionate direction.

Em: Mmhmm.

John: Well it perhaps could lead to some gradual evolution in a better direction, at least.

Rebecca: Real slow, real slow. [LAUGHTER]

John: Really slow, but if perhaps instructors are better prepared in providing that sort of role model, it certainly couldn’t hurt, and it certainly couldn’t hurt the educational purpose. What are some effective strategies in providing trauma responsive educational practices in a prison environment?

Em: I think that the three things Bill and I always come back to over and again, and he’s always been the one to bring us back to that whenever things have gotten really difficult or challenging, is you prioritize the relationship, you maintain the dignity of everybody who is involved in whatever is going on, that’s yourself. I’m going to leave the word respect out of it, because respect in prisons is code for obedience, and I’m not interested in perpetuating that. So I think maintaining dignity, and then also strengthening connection. I mean I know, teachers, we have all had those moments with those students who are just… they feel intolerable. You’re sick of them. They have been irritating, they have been annoying, they will not leave you alone. They pester, pester, pester, whatever it is. And I think that on a free campus, you have a lot more latitude in how you work with students like that. And you get to leave, like you get to go. But in prisons you don’t really have the same amount of latitude. And losing your temper once can just destroy a relationship, and you don’t usually get second chances. People do not usually give you a second opportunity to regain their trust. So when I talk about strengthening connection, I think in that moment when you are disliking them the most intensely, you have to find something to appreciate about them, and you have to tell them that. So whatever it is, they have nice handwriting, or they’ve been speaking up in class, even if they’re irritating you to death, you have to find something to remember that these are people who are trying to learn, and that our job is to help them learn, and they are in a position that is so much more intolerable than ours. That’s something that we bring in when we accept the responsibility to teach inside, I believe that’s part of our responsibility, is to do that.

William: Absolutely, well said. Really, the only thing I think I can add to that is just to really be mindful to ensure that nothing that you say or do has a potential to re-traumatize individuals.

Em: Mmhmm.

William: Because, again, absolutely do no harm. But also, like Em said, you only get one shot with a lot of these students. And it’s part of the culture, you only get one shot. And if you do something to offend, or to re-traumatize, which is going to be perceived as offending, you may not get another chance to build that all-important relationship that you need to help them be successful.

Em: Mmhmm. To just add something to what Bill was saying, is that we talked about this a lot when we were prepping is… What would be helpful for people when we talk about strategies? And we aren’t going into more detail, because, well, we don’t have enough time and you can also read the book, but partly because some of the strategies are things that teachers have to develop for themselves. Like we can give people guidance on, How do you handle yourself when you go in? I assume that people who are teaching are professionals, and they may or may not have taught in prison before, but they’re professionals and that they have some experience and they have knowledge. And you know that they have their own strategies. So some of this is like, “How do you adapt your strategies?” Instead of telling you, “You have to do these things.” Just give you enough guidance, give teachers enough guidance, so they can see how their own strategies can fit into this very different environment. So I just wanted to say we’re not trying to avoid talking about more detail, it just feels like it’s not always helpful, you can get really into the weeds on it, and it’s not always helpful.

Rebecca: One of the things that I’m sure has impacted education in the prison system significantly is COVID-19. Can you talk a little bit about what that impact has been?

Em: That has been a disaster, like a disaster, as much a disaster as it has been for free campuses and for K-12, you just magnify that, because you have millions of people who are basically trapped in a building where they have to share ventilation. They are totally reliant on people who come in from the outside for protective gear, they may or may not be able to maintain social distancing. They have no way to ensure that people that they are around are vaccinated, or will get vaccinated, or can get vaccinated, and that includes prison staff, any staff who come in. And I’m going to refrain from more commentary about what happens in prisons to people, because those aren’t my stories to tell, but everything that’s happened outside of the prison, you can just magnify that by whatever amount you want to, and it probably still isn’t as bad as what happened inside.

William: We just lose that ability to provide the consistency that that population of students needs.

Em: Yeah. About education specifically, prison programs, because of the lack of technology and the lack of access, have almost entirely been face-to-face programs. There’s been like a little bit of, they can have a tablet, and you know, you update the tablet, but none of it is online, like the tablets aren’t connected to each other, you have to bring them in and plug them into a server and do the updates and things like that. So I think there’s a tiny, tiny, tiny bit of movement on that front, not very much. But most of the people that I know who teach, they can maybe get inside occasionally, but the minute there’s an outbreak they can’t come in anymore. So students, for the most part, have lost the last few years of access to education, in addition to being in a terrifying environment where they don’t have the ability to really care for themselves in the way that we do.

William: I don’t think we can overstate the importance of that face-to-face contact. I mean them seeing you on a daily or weekly basis and being in that physical presence. Because it’s everything you do, it’s your body language when you’re with them, it’s your facial expressions, it’s micro expressions. Everything you do is your message to them about why you’re there and what your motives are, and that you’re there to work in their best interest, to be an advocate for them to learn and to grow. Because that’s really, when we boil it down, that’s what we’re talking about, is we’re talking about individuals who are trying to better themselves through education. And it’s just, it’s a population that’s rife with trauma and negative educational experiences. And I think that that face-to-face time is just so important to support their success.

Em: I have a lot of colleagues who have been doing fantastic work through correspondence, or doing packets and things like that, because correspondence is a little bit different than doing packet work. And there certainly are people who benefit from having more time and people who are introverted, or have maybe some different needs in learning who like the asynchronous learning piece more, or they have more time to maybe reflect and things like that. So I don’t want to say that nobody has gotten any benefit at all. But I agree with Bill, like, my bias is certainly that face-to-face learning is… there’s so many benefits to it. And I think when you look at the literature around trauma, one of the big benefits when we talk about trauma responsivity, is that somebody has a settled body, like if you’re settled in your body, you can be in that space, and other people respond to that. Like mobs, you get one or two people who are just completely hyped up and doing all this stuff, and that’s contagious. Well, the same way that that kind of chaotic, high-level, excited energy is contagious. So also is the settled, calm, deeply grounded energy, is also contagious, and that can be really important when you’re working with folks.

John: There’s a lot of research that shows one of the best ways of escaping from poverty is through education and higher education. I would think that would be especially true for people who are incarcerated. As a society, are we devoting enough resources to provide educational services for those who are incarcerated? And what changes should be made to provide more resources? What are some of the most pressing needs for addressing some of these inequities?

William: For me, I just would like to see more resources devoted toward putting more teachers in the classroom. In my last teaching job in the county jail, my class size would be, sometimes, over 25 students. And it’s so much harder to… and I keep going back to developing these relationships because, to me, that’s a foundation for everything else that comes. But I would like to see more education staff and smaller class sizes, to help create those relationships that foster success and students.

Em: I agree, I think, definitely more teachers. I think that, like roughly half of the states in the country don’t offer education inside, or education is not mandated, and that may have changed a little bit. But last time I checked, it was, like, 28 states did. So it’s roughly half that do not mandate education. The demographics aren’t different, the people who go in, 60 to 70% of them don’t have a high school credential. And two thirds of people who are going into prisons are existing on, just subsistence, 12,000 a year or less, like very, very high rates of poverty. So absolutely. But I think we also have to think about re-entry, and 95 to 97% of people come back to the community. So if we’re thinking about education while people are in prison, but we’re not doing anything to make sure that people can have access to education, can have access to housing, and access to jobs when they come out, then, I don’t think education is ever a waste, but I think that it’s very short sighted, it’s not a good way to talk about lifting people out of poverty. I would say one thing people should be thinking about are background checks. Background checks are probably one of the biggest roadblocks to people getting housing, to people getting credit, to people getting jobs, sometimes getting into college, being able to spend time with their kids when they’re at school. Background checks impact people in so many ways and forever, because we don’t have any expiration date on them. So I’ve heard stories of people who got hired by a university to be a tenured professor, and then somehow it comes up that 25 years ago they had a conviction on their record and the university’s like, “Oh, sorry, our policy is that we can’t have you.” And I’m like, “Well, that person’s been working there for years, what are you talking about?” But it happens. So I think that that is one area where, because it’s so deeply entrenched, and it’s connected to employment law in a lot of ways and to public records, it’s such a tangled problem that people really don’t even want to think about it. But it is a huge roadblock for folks. So if we are going to invest in people, and we’re going to give them education that they should’ve gotten earlier in their lives and should’ve had access to. If we’re going to give them access to more education, then we’re just doing them a grave disservice if we are not making it easier for them when they come out.

Rebecca: Are there things in the education system we should be working on that happen, perhaps, before people end up incarcerated? So avoiding some of the traumas and things that are happening in the education system early on.

Em: Well… I feel like that is a very difficult question to answer because I have the same critique of our K-12 education that I did of higher ed, that it is very Eurocentric and that people of color, and people with disabilities, children with disabilities, who need to relate to information differently, who may need to consume information differently, all of that stuff, like, they’re not just treated as if they are trying to learn things, they’re treated as if they are wrong, as if they are deliberately challenging the authority of a teacher. And then they’re punished, they’re punished, because they can’t or won’t assimilate into these Eurocentric ways of understanding the world, which again, are not wrong, but are not the only way. And nobody should be punished because they understand information in a different way from somebody else. And that is a very broad statement, and I know that there are individual people who make an effort to try to not punish, or who try to have students learn in different ways. But systemically, the system itself does that. I mean, think about it, so if you are a black student, black parents, and demographically, perhaps you have a single parent household, we’ll say, and this could happen with any student, I’m picking a black student for a reason. So they have a single parent household, and the parent has to work a couple of jobs. So not only like if that parent is going to come to school and interact with teachers, which they definitely want to do, they have to deal with their own trauma from having been discriminated against and potentially punished because they were a black student in a white system. So they have that from their own childhood, from their own adulthood, from their own lives. And they have to try to come into a school which may have harmed them when they were young, and try to bring themselves in and do the things they need to do for their children. And so that’s a barrier that white parents, perhaps, don’t face. And this is a very general example, and I am not saying that all white parents or all black parents would have these kinds of experiences. But it is an example that I’ve heard from many students and many parents that this happens. And again, it’s just something that we aren’t addressing. And I’m very hesitant to say a whole lot on the topic of K-12, because I don’t teach in K-12, which is part of the reason I don’t feel like I have a lot other than a general observation, I don’t have a lot of direct experience that I can speak to. Bill, I think you taught more in K-12 than I have.

William: Yeah, having worked in about, I think five middle schools, and seven different high schools in different parapro and professional instruction capacity. What I can say is looking back, if I had access to Em’s book, to having a better understanding of trauma and the impact of trauma on how students learned. I felt that I was fairly effective as an educator, back in my time in the public schools, but had I had access to that I could have been more, I could have done more, I could have been more effective. Because for me, introducing a trauma-informed perspective into my instruction, I think it’s a game changer, I really do. I think that students who couldn’t be reached before, could be better reached, better understood. And even within the constraints of the framework of public education and the way it is right now, I think that teachers who adopt a trauma-informed approach into their teaching can’t be more effective. I can’t say enough about it, honestly.

John: There’s certainly a lot that we as a society can work on to provide a more inclusive environment all the way through for everyone, but let’s turn back to one of the things that is addressed in Em’s book, which is the importance of bringing joy into the educational experience, so we can end on a, perhaps, a little bit more upbeat note. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Em: One of the things I love about being in any kind of learning space is getting to learn with people. And I think that that’s learning from them, but also getting to learn with them. So I’m teaching how to make a widget, or write about widgets, or something like that. And I have a way that I do that, so I kind of teach from that perspective and maybe I have different strategies. But what I get to learn is, when that person, when that thing, whatever it is clicks in and they have that lightbulb moment. What I get to learn is how they understand it, and I get to learn how they see it and I get to feel that excitement that they feel because they, maybe opened up a new little neural connection for themselves, or maybe something they knew in one way they now know it in another way, and I get to share that with them. And that’s something, like people love working with kids because that’s what’s happening all the time. There’s so much they don’t know that everything’s like,“Oh my god, I can’t eat dirt.” That is exciting for a child because they didn’t know they couldn’t eat dirt, and, I mean, maybe they’re just going to eat dirt anyway, because it’s fun, because it makes your parents mad, but it’s really exciting, everything is exciting. And I think that we lose that as we get older and we get into adulthood and we take on adult responsibilities, and there is no structure in our society that encourages us to keep learning and to keep our learning muscles strong. And so we kind of forget just the joy and the pleasure that we experience when we’re being expansive together, when we’re expanding our minds together. And we’re opening ourselves up to learning with other people and learning from them. I think we forget that, because we’re not allowed to do it, or we don’t have places that we think we can do it, or we just get sort of swept away by circumstances of our lives.

William: And I take what Em said, and I want to frame that in a carceral setting too, because seeing the face of a student who’s learned something that they never thought they could learn, or seeing them begin to understand a concept and watch that light bulb go on. And just to know that something is happening that’s combating some of those past educational negative experiences that they’ve had, that they’re finding out that they have the ability to learn, that they can learn, and that they’re excited about it. And to be able to share that excitement with them, to me, that’s the joy of education, because like Em said, the instructor and the learner share that. So yeah, just knowing that the ability to learn is there. It’s amazing.

Em: I had a student once, this is not when I was in the prison, but I had things like this happen when I was in prison. And we were talking about getting jobs and doing interviews and things like that. And I had a group and we would do a group interview, and then I would interview them one on one in front of their classmates, which was a small class, and it was a cohort so it wasn’t like it was a bunch of strangers. And this one student was just terrified. Like, didn’t want to even get in the chair at the front of the class to do the group interview just where the class was sort of asking questions. And all they could do was just sit in the chair. And the class went around and they all asked the question, and I don’t even remember if the student really answered anything, but they did stay in the chair the whole time. And when they got done, that moment of recognition… And of course, the rest of the class was very supportive. If they could answer that would be great, but if not just overcoming their fear of sitting there. And that moment when the student realized that they had stayed in the chair, that was such a moment of success and triumph and joy for them. And all the class got to share in that we all got to support and cheer for this person, even though it was really, really hard. And that’s something that you would not necessarily consider a learning that you could measure. That what? Somebody would just, like, sit in a chair? That’s not a piece of learning that you can quantify, you can’t put a grade on that. But when I ran into that student years later, and they were working as an educational assistant at the local community college, and they had gone through however many interviews they had to do to get that job. And if they had not done that, they would not have ended up on that career path. And I thought, “Oh, this is one of those things that you need for people to be able to do.” But you shouldn’t have to put a grade on that, a number or a letter. This is part of what it means for us to be human together, and to be in this space together, and to support each other, and care about each other. And I always remember that whenever we talk about what is learning, and joy in learning, and that piece of it. And I saw things like that happen, I would have students who would fail two or three tests in a row, but they would get one or two points more on each test. And so the whole class would just celebrate, because the person was obviously starting to get a little bit better either at taking tests or remembering information or learning how to study or whatever that was. And I think that those are things that our current education system doesn’t give us time for. And I think especially when you’re talking about prisons, and just the level of educational trauma and denial and rejection that those students have gone through, of anyone who needs that kind of attention and care, I think that our students who are inside really do. And joy as an antidote to trauma, Bill mentioned ability to learn, but I think that when you look at what trauma does to the brain, the stress chemicals and keeping us locked into fear and survival, but when you talk about joy everything just opens up. When you are having those joyful moments everything just opens up, and I can’t help but think that those moments of joy and what happens in your body really is an antidote to some of the impacts of trauma.

Rebecca: That was a great story, Em. So we always wrap up, though, by asking, What’s next?

Em: Hmm. So for me what’s next, I’m working on a book chapter for a handbook on prison education, a friend asked me to do a chapter on that. So working on the chapter on that. But beyond that, I am starting to put together, like a companion or guide for the text, Building a Trauma Responsive Educational Practice. And I just started thinking about what that would mean, and what are the things that would be most important to unpack? And what would I want people to take away from that. And then, of course, my consulting business, I’m going to be talking to Princeton in May, which is very exciting. And I’m going to be doing a training session with John Jay College, which has two or three programs around corrections ed and teaching and working in prisons. So I’m pretty excited to be doing that later in the year. But yeah, I think the companion book is starting to take some shape in my head, so I’m excited about that.

Rebecca: That’ll definitely keep you busy.

Em: Yes.

Rebecca: How about you, William?

William: For me, a couple of things, I am working on a re-entry survival guide, which is kind of a workbook manual for people coming out to help them through just some of the beginning pitfalls of re-entry. You know, how do you get your ID? How do you get connected with your state services if you need them? Job hunt, finding housing, things like that. And then I’m also looking at putting together an in-service training, a lot of it based on Em’s work to take into the public schools. Because I think that if students have an opportunity, say at a secondary level, to be exposed to educators who have a trauma-informed perspective, a trauma-informed approach, then hopefully we can mitigate some of the high prison populations that we have now, and maybe go a long way to having some of those students skip going to prison. [LAUGHTER]

Em: Mmhmm. It would be at least nice to be able to reduce the overall level of connection between education and prison. Like people are always going to make mistakes and screw up, and part of abolition is imagining… What would it be like to be able to make a mistake and screw up and not have to go get locked in a cage? So part of the work of abolition is imagining that and I think for me, too, part of that work of abolition is… What would it be like if education wasn’t a pipeline to prison for so many people? What does that mean? How would education have to change? How does society have to change? And I think that’s work that is very interesting to me, and necessary.

John: Well, thank you both. You’re doing some really important work, and we thank you for sharing it with us.

William: Thanks for having us.

Em: Well, thank you, too. Yeah, and I welcome if people have questions or want to learn more, I’m happy for them to reach out to me. I think you can put my email in the show notes.

Rebecca: Thank you both.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.