Alex is in prison in the USA and teaches mandatory 8th grade education to his fellow prisoners for 45 cents an hour. He writes about the impact this has had on him and the different people he has met as part of his role.

I teach 8th grade mandatory education in Arizona. 8th grade students in a typical American classroom are about 14 years old. My students here range from 18 to their 60s and the only requirement is to have failed the TABE (Test of Adult Basic Education) 11 and 12 level tests.

We teach three subjects: reading, language and mathematics. I can teach any subject, but I am strongest in conveying understanding in mathematics and language. The maths curriculum is not terribly challenging. It covers number operations with whole, decimal and fractions, as well as basic geometry, place value, factoring, and reading and writing algebraic equations of two steps. The language curriculum includes capitalisation, comma use, relative pronouns, reading for vocabulary, and dissecting and writing an opinion or information piece. Reading covers deductive and inductive reasoning, ascertaining an author’s purpose, as well as how to read graphics, labels, and instructions. 

Some of the students I teach have never been to school. I have to teach them how to count without their fingers. Some people are educated to postdoctoral level, but they were woken up at 1am in a processing prison, handed a test and put into a dark room with the simple statement: “We’ll take it back when you’re done.” They never stood a chance of passing. Many people have behavioural issues, such as ticks. Some people have stolen from me, although this only happened once in three years. Most people have emotional issues, especially anger and depression. 

Most people have lives that are melting down. I have to play therapist, coach, friend, teacher, and conspirator to my students.

They have ongoing battles with the law, their romantic partners, their children, and their parents. I have heard very few mentions of active, current outside friendships. Mental health issues are not uncommon. They are wonderful people. They are all struggling to make it through a single day, much less through some state-mandated education programme.

My older students often have high school diplomas, but they didn't pass the intake test because they graduated 30 years ago. My younger students, fresh from high school, had their own prior problems that caused their incarceration. They are terrified, they are brave. They are vulnerable and strong.

The curriculum isn't the hard part. It's knowing your students; when to push them, when to let up, when to hold their hand through a problem, when to let go. Ultimately, they do the learning. You have to make it fun. My students go nuts when I show them how to factor a number with the calculator (not understanding the multiplication or division involved), or tell them the ‘secret rule for commas’ (that if you pause during speech, a comma probably goes there). 

In Arizona, this job normally requires a bachelor's degree from university and pays about $50,000. Most places require a masters in that subject. I have a college education, but I did not complete it for personal reasons. I am paid 45 cents an hour (about $936 a year, or less than 2%). 

That said, this job is so rewarding. I get to spend all day helping people.

I get to see them onto the GED (General Educational Development tests, which are high school level), or just see them get out. I share their struggles and I support them. I feel with them. The most remarkable student I had was in his 60s and had never learned how to  add or subtract. He had some injuries that damaged some of his capacity and some  extensive drug use. He had worked with six teaching assistants over the course of a couple of years, on and off during the Covid lockdown. When I finally got him, I told him, “You know, I know you have to be here. I'm not going to make you work. If you'd like me to help you try to get out of here faster, I have some things you should try.”

He didn't show up for a few sessions. He left early for a bunch more. But he finally came around. I was eventually able to get him a medical exemption. He also knew how to add and subtract on his own, with no calculator.

I am so proud of him, and he has since earned his early release date.

I also teach mindfulness in the form of Satipatthana, as well as concentration using the breath, at Buddhist services. Individually, I am taking one-on-one sessions for complex PTSD. This session is run by another inmate who is on the last leg of his approval as a peer facilitator. 

I recommend that you make good use of your time. It's never the wrong time to practice healthy life skills. May you be excellent. May you be happy.

Being offered a lifeline can change everything. 

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