My First Day of Teaching
Inside A State Prison
© Copyright 2020 by Tom Davison
This was it - today was the big day! The much anticipated (at least by me) day was finally here. My first day of teaching college to felons inside of an all-male State Prison. I was standing in the parking lot of that prison - gazing toward the entrance – deep in trancelike reflection. I couldn’t help but contemplate the long winding journey I had traveled - to lead me to this moment. Those twisted hoops I had been required to jump through - the special training – the intensive background checks – enough paperwork to choke the entire prison population. I had to wonder to myself – would it turn out to be worth it - or would this process turn out to be a waste of my time?
It all had begun two months ago - with a ‘normal’ teaching interview at Marion Technical College (MTC). Things had gone very well - and I had graduated to the second round of interviews. Which required a teach test. For those of you who don’t teach - a teach test is where you (the wanna-be teacher) - demonstrates your teaching abilities – for an actual audience. Arguably ten to fifteen minutes can’t tell you everything about a teacher’s abilities. It is also too brief of a period to really strut your stuff. However, it is an arena where I usually perform well. I had just provided the interviewing panel with a solid teach test. I was hoping to close the deal.
This particular teach test was open to the general MTC public. In addition to the members of the second-round interviewing panel - the room was populated by a dozen or so – walk-ons. Among these walk-ons included other teachers, students, bored employees, as well as other candidates who were applying for the same job (no pressure). One striking lady sitting in the back row appeared to be keenly interested in my test – she intently observed every move and gesture that I made. After my teach-test was concluded (I was the last for the day) I packed up my personals. Fifteen minutes later - the surviving finalists were summoned into a room one-by-one with the interview panel - to receive the news of the final selection. The panel spokesperson started her canned speech with “Dr. Davison – we want to thank you for interviewing with us here at MTC but…. At that point I entirely shut out anything she was saying – as she droned on-and-on. My wandering eyes shifted to the back of the room. There she was - the identical lady who had been at my teach-test earlier in the day. Come to think of it – she had similarly been ‘sitting-in’ as an observer during my first round of interviews. What gives? You would only need one hard peek in the mirror at my grizzled old face – to establish that I wasn’t being stalked. So – if she wasn’t after me – what was she looking for? Certainly not an old college school teacher – an ex-Army veteran – an ex-criminal investigator – a long full lifetime - of exes.
But here I was – too old – too proud – too mean – to call it quits permanently. Me - a former hot-shot teacher who had chaired my own business programs – for more than one college. The guy who had directed his own successful consulting business. The guy who had successfully captained 50 million-dollar programs - with hundreds of employees at my beck-and-call. I was over qualified to teach here – I was accustomed to overseeing interviews - not giving them. I was desperate to keep my hand (and my mind) in the teaching game. Even – if only as a part-time adjunct – driving 60 miles – each way – for two or three days of teaching work per week. It would barely pay my gas money – but it was still better than letting my mind rot away in retirement land. Let’s be honest here. I loved teaching and would almost certainly do it free. I didn’t need the money – I needed the work.
As I was walking (head held high) out the door - the back-row lady projected a tentative smile and wave my way. I stopped and she hastened in my direction. I observed a business card in her left hand – as she gave me her right hand for a quick no-nonsense hand-shake. “Hello sir, my name is Mrs. Smith (name changed for this story) I have a teaching offer I would like to discuss with you.” She paused dramatically – with some flair – “ Are you interested in a little talk?” I instinctively liked this woman – but my long history of negotiating – kept my poker face intact - as I responded to her. “What have you got in mind….” I (also) intentionally paused for effect “Boss!”
That had been two months ago – almost to the day. My first impression of Mrs. Smith had been right on the money. She was fair, tough, and definitely - a no-nonsense boss. I liked her – a lot. She reminded me of a female version of me. When I told her that I would be glad to work for her – her response had been – “Good!” she smiled warmly at me “oh – and by the way the job is teaching inside of a prison.” According to her business card - she was the person in charge of providing college coursework to incarcerated students at two prisons – and hiring the staff to accomplish this.
Subsequently, I was referred to the prison training facility for special training. I viewed videos about do’s and don’ts. Videos about how to interact (and not interact) with the prisoners. Videos about what penalties one would receive - if one broke any of - the many rules. Oh yea - and a tiny amount of paperwork needed to be wrapped up as well. It was necessary to fill out forms for background checks. It was required to fill out forms about my entire work history. Forms about my life from cradle – to – well you get the picture.
So here I stood motionless beside my old beat-up Jeep. This felt like my first date with my lovely wife. That had been 42 years ago. We have been married for 41 of those years. If I had my way - we would have been married for the full 42 years. Yep – exactly like back then – nervous stomach. I was in the parking lot of the Marion Correctional Institute (MCI) two hundred yards from the prison entrance. All I could think about was (the identical thing that I had worried about on that first date) I hope I hadn’t overdressed? Couldn’t be helped now – after almost 50 years in the work force – my idea of dressing down was - dress pants – dress shirt - with a sports jacket – and tie. This was one old dog that wasn’t good at learning new tricks.
This was it – it felt like a powerful life moment. Like that first date – completing basic training – the birth of my children – the first time I held one of my grandchildren – my first day starting my own business. I thought about the multitude of fearful and shocking stories that had been thrown my way by well-intentioned friends. The pressure from my family and loved ones not to do this thing - I was about to do. The worry in my wife’s eyes whenever the topic came up. The many nights of lost sleep and restless turnings of my body and mind. As I took that first step toward the prison entrance – hauling two of the see-through plastic containers that I had been issued – all that debris was washed from my mind.
I settled into the comfortable teaching groove – let’s go teach some of these incarcerated man-folks – I thought. I was thinking of basic training in the US Army. During basic it had been 40 guys – eating – playing – sleeping in the same room. A room constantly full of testosterone. Everyone vying to be the alpha dog. After it was all over – I had been the platoon guide. I knew the alpha dog dance intimately. I was not afraid – but I was anxious – and very edgy.
Somehow my feet (of their own accord) had been moving me forward - I was now at the main entrance to the ‘facility’. The remainder of the entry process became a blur. Sign in at the visitor/contractor sheet. Showing my contractor’s picture ID badge. Being asked what seemed like a million questions about who – what – where. Emptying my pockets. Removing my sports coat, shoes, and belt. Walking through a metal detector. Being wanded by a metal detector held by a grim-faced corrections officer (C.O.). He looked like an NFL lineman (an angry one). Watching my teaching tools being fed through an X Ray machine on a moving tread-mill. Waiting on a heavy metal door to be buzzed open. Waiting in a cold dank concrete hallway - as another grim-faced C.O. (could be a twin of the first one) checked my badge again – he opened a heavy iron barred door slamming it shut with a loud bang! Yet another sign-in sheet. Yet another heavy metal door being buzzed open. Finally - I was on the ‘inside.’
I was pointed in the direction of the education facility. I walked through a hallway bustling with felons in faded blue denim outfits. Most of the prisoners were looking my way with probing looks. I smiled and wished everyone I saw a “Good morning” in a loud boisterous voice. I stopped myself - maybe I was overreacting - a little. From that point on - I just nodded my head at each prisoner that I passed. I spied an old wooden sign that said EDUCATION over an open door. The doorway led into a dark concrete stairway leading upwards until I lost sight of the end. Shouldering my heavy see-through containers crammed full of books and teaching tools – with an audible sigh - I began the long Mordor-Trek. Just when I was on the verge of taking a break - and catching my wind – I spotted a dull yellowish flash of light just above me. When I arrived at the top - I was greeted by yet another C.O. - with yet another sign-in sheet. This C.O. was older and potbellied - and probably never played for the NFL (the power of seniority). He gave my badge a cursory glance – no questions – had me sign my name into a dirty worn ledger – he mumbled “Room eight.”
When I entered the door to my class – and paused in the doorway - the incarcerated students were already lounging in their seats waiting for me. The C.O. with the potbelly was straddling a wobbly three-legged beat-up desk some 100 yards down the hallway. Once I shut the door behind me - it would be solely me - and 40 felons. I had been provided with a ‘man-down’ button. A smallish grey square with a button on it. It reminded me of a garage door opener. I had been assured that if I pushed the button – help would come running - fast. I hoped that the help they had referred to - wasn’t the pot-bellied C.O. I was certain that he couldn’t manage to run the entire hundred yards without a break (or two). I saw every pair of eyes in the place on me as I dumped my teaching tools on the desk (worse shape than the one the guard had). I looked around the room at the broken tables and chairs that the students were hunkered around. Many had their books and papers in their laps due to lack of table space. Behind my ‘desk’ (I’m being very kind to refer to it as a desk) it had no drawers – all of the legs were different heights. This made putting anything on the desk a dangerous balancing act. Behind this desk was a blackboard. “You have got to be kidding me” I thought to myself. I had brought dry erasers and whiteboard markers with my gear - just-in-case. What I had been hoping for was a computer projector – what I had to work with was something from Little House on the Prairie. The chalkboard lip held one piece of broken white chalk and one piece of broken yellow chalk. I peered around for an erasure - nope. Wait - there was a questionable looking dry-rag hanging on a hook beside the broken and chipped blackboard. I straightened my back and muttered to myself “Man-up Tom – work with what you got - quit whining – it won’t change a thing.”
I turned my back to the room – perceived voices murmuring – as I strode briskly to the blackboard. I snatched up the piece of broken yellow chalk and wrote my name in big bold yellow letters. I slapped the chalk-piece back unto the lip. I spun sharply around to face – my classroom. I strolled across a white line painted on the scarred wooden floor with the words – NO INMATES ALLOWED PAST THIS POINT! I strode halfway into the depths of the blue-clad men who would be my students for the next 16 weeks. “Good morning gentlemen” I barked - and gave them my best teacher smile. I heard a few soft mumbles. I repeated even louder this time “Gentlemen - I didn't travel 68 miles – leaving my home at 4 a.m. - to get here to teach you folks this morning - for a lame response like that. You can do better.” I took a deep breath – and a pause for affect “ So let’s try it again – GOOD MORNING GENTLEMEN!” I received a loud boisterous good morning in return. I heard a few chuckles around the room. My facial expression didn’t change – but inside I was smiling. Just what I had assumed - this is just like every other class. I began striding back-and-forth across the entire length of the tiny crowded classroom. As I marched - I made direct eye contact with every student – and held it for a brief moment. “Gentlemen, when you become a teacher – the first thing they teach you is to ‘establish credibility’ with your students.” I looked slowly around the room “All those fancy words mean is I need to prove to you folks that I am qualified – or have the necessary expertise - to teach the subject matter at hand.” I walked over to the ‘no inmate’ line and planted my feet directly on the line. “So – gentlemen I am going to stand right here on this line and introduce myself to the classroom.” I had their attention now. “When I am finished – our first order of business - all of you will stand up here – right here” I said pointing to the obviously despised line “and take your turn - introducing yourselves to me – and the entire classroom.” I saw row-after-row of smiles. “After introductions – the second item on our agenda is to establish the class rules.” I stopped and pointed behind my desk. “I will write these rules of behavior on the whiteboard - er - excuse me gentlemen – I mean the blackboard.” I had their interest now.
We will all discuss and agree to these rules” I stated firmly. From the back row - a voice shouted out “My rule will be no homework!” The class erupted into chuckles. “Who said that?” I asked in a calm voice. “Inmate 308187, sir!” came the response. The entire class became eerily silent – waiting on the outcome of our exchange. “I didn’t ask you for a number – I asked you for your name son?” A hesitant voice “My name?” I saw puzzled looks throughout the room. “Yes son - I want your name.” a brief silence – and then “My name is Jeremy Jones, sir.” I answered him with a smile “Well, Mr. Jones when we start to write our class rules – I want you to be the class scribe” most of the class was looking directly at Jones. “The class can determine however many rules they need. But I insist on including two rules Mr. Jones – one – we will treat everyone in this class with respect - and two – this is the most important rule – never forget learning is supposed to be fun. Can you live with those rules Mr. Jones?” I heard the lighter tone in his response. “Yes sir - I sure can!”
An hour later – introductions completed - my jacket removed – the sleeves of my dress shirt rolled up – my tie loosened. The class atmosphere was relaxed and energetic. Mr. Jones was standing at the blackboard well beyond the white-line – with a happy smile on his face. He was reciting the list of class-rules that he had just written on the blackboard. After 16 weeks together the students of that first class began calling me Dr. D. That nickname stuck and is employed today by nearly everyone in the prison system and beyond.
That first day of teaching – that first class – was almost four years ago. This teaching gig doesn’t pay very well. In fact - worse wages I’ve ever made as a teacher. It is also the single best - without any doubt - most rewarding job I have ever held in my entire life. During these past four years I've come to several realizations. Truths if you prefer – at least they are my personal truths.
1) Anyone can make a mistake. These men made mistakes and they're incarcerated for it. I agree with that. But - just because they're in prison - they don't quit being a part of the human race.
2) I'm a strong believer in second chances. I believe in redemption - But For the Grace of God Go I - this says it all for me.
3) I realize that although I have witnessed horrors in this place – and despite the odds stacked against them - I have also witnessed much potential for greatness.
4) Finally, I have learned more teaching one day with my incarcerated students then I have in 20 years of teaching so called ‘traditional’ students.
I hope you enjoy my little story. Since I have been working in the prisons - I have felt compelled to keep a Journal. I constantly write short stories and poetry about the things I have witnessed and about my experiences with my incarcerated students. Sometimes it feels like I experience ’life moments’ almost daily. There is still much that is good in this world. I will leave you with my favorite quote by:
“A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals." - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Dr. Tom Davison has been teaching entrepreneur focused business coursework as an adjunct instructor for MTC (Marion Technical College). He is currently teaching at two all-male prison facilities in Marion Ohio. Dr. Davison has been deeply moved by his personal observations and interactions with his incarcerated students. While teaching in the Ohio prison system he has been motivated to create poems and short stories about the day-to-day lives and experiences of his felon-students. Thomas has recently created a not-for-profit (NFP) business Entrepreneur Services for Felons (ESF). Thomas has dedicated 100% of his writing profits to this new NFP - which provides free one-on-one support services for felons and ex-felons.