Before I came to Chatham I watched a documentary about teaching Shakespeare in prisons. Everyone looked happy. Students smiled while they acted and the experience transformed them into beings that had a purpose. Shakespeare erased any crimes they might have committed and made them human again. As an aspiring teacher, I found this to be attractive. It looked easy and benefited everyone involved. Learning is not meant to be contained to a university. When I started attending Chatham, I heard grad students talking about their experiences teaching in the Words Without Walls program. It seemed to be life changing for them and their students were all eager to soak in new knowledge and produce meaningful writing. Somehow, I had come to place teaching in an alternating space on a pedestal.

Since I’ve been teaching at Allegheny County Jail for five weeks, I’ve realized that the pedestal, everyone’s praise of the program, and my anticipations are not what matters here. It’s like praising charity because it makes us feel good or because it’s something we know we are supposed to do. That’s not the point of giving something meaningful to another person. I had idealized what teaching at the jail would be like and this reduced the reality in front of me.

Teaching at ACJ doesn’t work the way that the documentaries show. You can’t just walk in, hand everyone Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech, and expect everyone to connect with Hamlet’s distress and need for destruction. My students have such a wide range of unique interests. One likes to cook and read recipes, one enjoys studying spirituality, one wants to create his own business, others have written songs and play instruments. I am not living on a pedestal. Except for the fact that my students vary every week due to their circumstances, this is just like any classroom you may encounter. Anyone could show up in that room with me, every Friday morning. My students could be my cousin or my roommate. Anyone can make mistake. We are all human. This is what Shakespeare had taught me and what idealization had made me forget.

The broad range of interests in the classroom is not something that frustrates me, but something that enriches the environment for everyone. Give them a poem, and each of my students will see something different in that poem. If I tell them to write a letter about how they want to be remembered, it turns out that there are 12 different ways to write a letter. In all my years living in academia, I have never seen so much creativity in one place before. In order to write outside the box, you have to leave it behind.

Now that I have been teaching for a while, I’ve come to find that what really matters in Words Without Walls is much simpler than all the talk of mutual growth for students and teacher; though that is still a huge part of teaching. If I can teach them to write great metaphors, that’s fantastic. If I can broaden and fuel someone’s life-long interests in reading, even better. If I can learn 12 new ways to write a letter, I’m blown away. But my students don’t live their lives in the same way that I do, going about to classes and writing a five-page short story every week about how society has negatively affected our development of sexuality. I find that the greatest thing that I can give to my students is my time. Time for them to see a different room inside the jail. Time for them to think about a poem instead of who their enemies are. My purpose as a teacher has grown from learning this. Teaching isn’t just about handing out knowledge and hoping someone will take it. It’s not just about having a “greater purpose” either. Perhaps it is more about meeting the reality of our experiences. There’s more to teaching that you don’t always get to see. You won’t see it as long as the act of teaching is an ideal raised above our heads. 

Kellyn Yoder, teacher