14 July 2023
PLA member Viktoria Tsaroucha always wanted to be a teacher. In this blog, she tells us how – after 25 years’ teaching English in Greece – she found her niche as an ESOL tutor in UK prisons. It is the fifth in a series – routes into prison teaching – highlighting the variety of careers in prison education, and the variety of career paths leading towards them.
I became a teacher because that was all I ever wanted to be. I studied English Language and Literature and later I got a master’s degree in teaching English as a Second / Foreign Language. I started teaching in 1990 in a small town in Greece. I worked in the private sector for five years preparing young teenagers for international English exams. Then I moved to the public sector, and I taught at various secondary schools, vocational schools, and second chance schools until 2015, when I decided to turn over a new leaf in my life and came to England.
I became a teacher because that was all I ever wanted to be.
A new career
In December 2015 I came across an advertisement for prison educators. When I read the job description, I felt it was the right job for me or I was the right person for this job. I applied for the ESOL tutor’s position, and I was successful. I started working at HMP Lowdham Grange in May 2016. I worked there for almost three years, and I left only because I found exactly the same job at HMP Lincoln, which was closer to my house. I am happy and proud to be working in a Cat B male prison.
I came across an advertisement for prison educators. When I read the job description, I felt it was the right job for me or I was the right person for this job.
Teaching in a prison can be challenging. Security is of vital importance. The learners get searched before they enter the classroom and before they leave the classroom. As a prison tutor, you will find yourself counting pens, checking folders and books, and hiding pencil sharpeners. Classroom management is very important and so is behavioural management. Some of the learners will be rude, they may use strong language or even be aggressive.
The second big challenge is the fact that these learners have bad memories, even traumatic experiences from their school years. Some of them dropped out of school or, even worse, they never went to school. They don’t want to learn, or they believe they cannot learn. The tutor will go the extra mile to motivate them, encourage them, engage them, and inspire them. The tutor will support them and help them to build up their self-confidence.
The tutor will go the extra mile to motivate them, encourage them, engage them, and inspire them.
As an ESOL tutor, I work with people who speak English as a second or additional language. These are diverse classrooms, in terms of backgrounds and in terms of abilities. Our challenge, as ESOL tutors, is to support this group of learners – who are each at a different stage of their learning journey – to progress. Many of them cannot speak, read or write in English when they first join the class. Some of them can hardly read or write in their first language. They come from completely different geographical, cultural and religious backgrounds. And they are adults who bring their previous experience and knowledge in class. They are not happy to be in custody and they are often not happy to be in the classroom.
Our challenge, as ESOL tutors, is to support this group of learners – who are each at a different stage of their learning journey – to progress.
Despite the challenges, we can always try to help the learners see the difficulties as an opportunity to change things for the better. For example, we can highlight the benefits. They earn some money by coming to education. They change environment, they get out of the cell. They meet new people, they make friends, they feel useful and productive. Learning gives them a sense of achievement, it gives them a purpose, something to look forward to.
Learning gives them a sense of achievement, it gives them a purpose, something to look forward to.
Teaching in a prison can be very rewarding. English brings people together. Learning English opens a window on the world and can change people’s lives. I never judge my learners for their past. I ask them to leave the past behind and look ahead. I teach them English and how English can bridge the gaps between us and help us to communicate with each other. Together we learn how to tolerate, accept and respect each other. By improving their English, they also improve their everyday prison life, communicate better with officers, nurses, doctors and mates, fill in application forms, find a prison job, attend other courses, make the most of their time in prison, increase and enrich their knowledge and skills.
Learning English opens a window on the world and can change people’s lives.
On completion of the course, they gain a recognised qualification which they can use to seek a better job upon their release. The long-term goal is to prepare them to go out there and start a new life, wiser and more mature.
To cut a long story short
People are sometimes prejudiced against prisoners. They keep asking me: ‘How can you cope with them?’ Well, here is my answer. I am proud of my learners. They are hard-working, polite and respectful. They appreciate what I do for them, and they are grateful. I received my PLA award (Outstanding Teacher) in 2019, thanks to them.
If you want to make a difference in somebody’s life, join prison education!
© Prisoner Learning Alliance 2023