When I taught at an inner city high school, people used to say this to me all the time: “I don’t know how you put up with all those difficult kids. God Bless you.”
In return I would knit my face into this real serious look and say something smug like, “Well, I like to think that they’re teaching me.”
That would usually impress the person enough to get them off of my back. They would walk away wondering how I, a mere mortal, could be so high-minded and saintly. And I would pat myself on the back for curing that person of their bigotry towards kids from the inner city.
Truth is, I wasn’t helping anybody with those statements. They were just platitudes used in polite conversation that did disservice to my students and myself by refusing to tell the entire truth of how we related to each other. Missed opportunities for actual dialogue. My response simply shifted the focus of the conversation from what the students got to what I got. Either way, the assumption was that the student-teacher relationship was only valuable based on what either side took from the other, the end result, and had no inherent value by itself.
Don’t get me wrong. I learned a lot from my high school students, and I learn a lot from my students at the jail. I leave every week with a sense of perspective and honest connection that I have a hard time finding anywhere else in my life. And the students at the jail learn a lot from the class, that much is evident in the improvements in their writing. I don’t object to people learning in a classroom, and I wouldn’t be much of a teacher if I did. No, what I object to is the idea that the sum of our relationship, the time we share sitting in a room reading, writing, and being with each other for three hours every week, has to be reduced to a list of results.
When people hear that I teach creative writing at the Allegheny County Jail, they say all sorts of questions and comments that are similar to the ones I would get about my high school students. In the spirit of atoning for past mistakes, I would like to fully address a few of the more common ones.
“Do you feel safe?”
Every day. The guys respect me and I respect them. They want to be in class, and I want to be in class. Every class starts and ends with a handshake. In an environment like that, there’s not really anything to be afraid of.
“What’s it like working with inmates as opposed to ‘real students’?”
“Real students” don’t do their homework. “Real students” don’t write twenty pages a week when you ask them for fifteen. “Real students” don’t volunteer to read out loud in class. “Real students” see class as a chore, not an opportunity.
“It’s so nice of you to give your time each week to help those guys.”
Yeah, sure. But it’s not as simple as that. I don’t think helping anybody is what this is all about. When I leave the jail each week, I’m not generally thinking about how much I helped Jim understand proper comma use, or how much Joe’s wise comments in class helped me to put my life in perspective. When I walk out the door, my mind is usually racing with the poem Jim wrote about his girlfriend’s smelly feet or the soulful R and B ballad that Joe wrote and sang for us. I can’t speak for my guys, but I come back each week for the opportunity to hang out with interesting men who have intelligent and thoughtful things to say.
In an educational climate where test scores rule and learning outcomes are the bottom line, the value of relationships formed in a classroom is at best overlooked and often lost completely. But in a Words Without Walls class, the focus of the class is not final products or deliverables. The class is driven by the ideas and experiences and relationships that students and teachers share. And because of that focus, because the relationships work and students and teachers alike feel accountable to each other and respect each other and genuinely want to bring their best each week, results follow. Long story short, the rest of America has it backwards.
Sure, the goal is to help our students to become better writers and communicators, and for us teachers to gain experience in leading a class. But those are just the end results. What we do is more about being with each other in a room than helping anyone. It’s about the relationships we build. Real human interaction is something my students don’t get enough of in there and something I don’t get enough of out here. I don’t go into class with the intention of changing hearts and minds or gaining deep insights about myself or the world. I go in with the intention to hang out. And I’ve never been disappointed by the results.
--Johnny Caputo, Teacher