29 September 2022
September 29th 2022 is the third Hidden Heroes Day. This is a chance to recognise and thank all the people working in custodial and community justice settings in the UK. While they are often hidden from public view, they are not forgotten.
Prison teachers are also Hidden Heroes, but often feel invisible; not just in the community, but in prisons too. Last year, we carried out research with the University and College Union to find out about prison teachers’ experiences. We called our report ‘Hidden Voices’ because we know that the views of teachers are often unheard in discussions about prison. Teachers told us that they felt isolated – they didn’t always feel part of the prison they worked in, and they didn’t always feel included in the wider further education community, either.
Prison teachers are resilient but deficient infrastructure, lack of resources and poor facilities are having an impact and disincentivising teachers. The turnover of prison teachers is too high, and an astonishing 70% of our survey respondents expressed an intention to leave prison work in the next five years.
For some people in prison, their main contact with the outside world will be through their prison tutor. The classroom can be a safe space where prisoners take on a new identity, as learners, mentors, and citizens. Teachers encourage and support this process. Prison teachers have a pastoral role that is largely unrecognised and unsupported by prison authorities.
Prison educators are motivated by spending time with learners, and the transformational impact that education can have on people’s lives. Teachers understand the rehabilitative impact of education, and they value the process of supporting people in prison to make changes that will lead to better outcomes on release.
Watching my students achieve something academic, often for the first time in their lives. I mainly teach entry level students who have avoided classrooms their whole lives. They don’t think they can do it, but they can.
And teachers don’t want to be ‘hidden’ in their prisons – education staff would welcome more input and communication from prison management and officers. Prison teachers want regular updates from the prisons they work in, and to feel more integrated into the prison. Many teachers responding to the survey talked about wanting more professional development. They asked for opportunities for mentoring, shadowing, networking, sharing good practice and well-being support, including providing therapeutic support. Interestingly, many of these suggestions relate to personal and social development, the building of relationships and networks, and emotional support.
This highlights the relational and pastoral aspects of teaching, and that communication and connection are fundamentally important for educators. It is standard practice in many statutory and voluntary organisations to offer support to professionals working with people with high levels of violence and trauma in their backgrounds. The PLA believe that prison teachers should be offered opportunities for clinical supervision and therapeutic support.
Our research found that prison educators constitute a motivated workforce that had chosen to work in prison education rather than in mainstream adult education. For those teachers that wanted to remain in prison education, many reasons for doing so were very positive. They told us that they ‘love the job’, and ‘no two days are the same’. Educators feel that they ‘can make a difference to the way the learners think’. They told us the best things about prison teaching were:
Feeling I can enable a means to express oneself without judgement [for] those who are judged by society.
Seeing people develop skills they thought were beyond them and changing their attitude to life and what is possible.
Satisfaction when a learner gains self-belief that he/she can actually learn. Making a positive contribution to the well-being and employability of the students.
Knowing I have made a difference to someone’s rehabilitation, not just their education.
At the PLA, we know that prison teachers do invaluable work and deserve to be acknowledged. This is why we started the PLA awards to recognise people who were making an outstanding contribution to prison education. Due to lockdown, these have not run since 2019, but we look forward to their return next year. In the meantime, we continue to highlight and appreciate the incredible work that prison teachers do, changing lives in increasingly difficult circumstances.
© Prisoner Learning Alliance 2023