Heather Gay, shares how her experience as a corrections educator and administrator will shape her new leadership role.
Could you tell me more about your organization and your role?
I am President of the Association of State and Federal Directors of Correctional Education, an affiliate of the Correctional Education Association (CEA). I oversee educators in their respective states. In 2017 I was elected Vice President and I started my new role as President January 1st (2019). I am also the State Assistant Administrator for Prisoner Education within the Reentry Administration for the Michigan Department of Corrections.
In my role as President I want to see this organization grow. I am focused on recruiting more state education directors, and encouraging them to bring their administrators to valuable CEA trainings and conferences.
How do you work with corrections education programs and educators?
My primary focus has been on my work in Michigan, but now I’ll be looking at the environment nationally. In many states corrections is the largest provider of adult education programs. Because of this I want to find ways to bring visibility to our work, so that state leadership and others can better understand the need and importance of corrections education programs.
We also need to work on breaking down silos, and increasing the resources coming into corrections education programs.
We hold CEA meetings two to three times a year. These are very important. It gives us an opportunity to talk in-depth about important topics of interest, such as Pell grants, vocational training, GED preparation, and how to better communicate the value of our work to others.
Could you tell me more about your background in corrections education and education in general?
I went to school to become a certified teacher and after graduating I didn’t find any positions immediately available. My parents worked for the State, so I looked into working as a corrections teacher. I began teaching in a corrections education program in 1999 and stayed for six years until I became a principal. I was then promoted to my current position (State Assistant Administrator for Prisoner Education within the Reentry Administration for Michigan) in 2012.
I started as an academic teacher, and I didn’t know much more beyond the subjects I was teaching. But, I was lucky to have wardens that helped me grow and learn a lot about reentry and evidence-based programming.
I also have had the benefit of working with men, women and youth before taking on this position. Working with different populations provided me with a good understanding of their education needs. And of course, I’ve been a long-time member and advocate of CEA—attending trainings two times a year.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing corrections educators and corrections education programs?
I am really blessed to have a great administrator and director. We had a really good relationship with the former Michigan governor Rick Snyder, and I’m assuming the new governor will be the same. Governor Snyder was very supportive of everything we were doing in correctional education. In Michigan I don’t know if we have any significant barriers, but we can continue to push the needle on showing policymakers and people in our state that our students have the credentials and ability to productively contribute to society. We should continue to educate employers and the community about what’s going on in corrections, and how it benefits them.
Why is corrections education so important? What are the benefits?
In Michigan we made policy and structural changes. We were previously siloed, but we then moved education under reentry. With this approach, we started putting offenders on the path to success as soon as they’re in intake. It’s not just about getting them released anymore, it’s about setting them up for success after release.
We have vocational villages where offenders have a several opportunities for training. We parole about 15 to 20 guys a month, and almost 97 percent of them have a job before they leave. We help students earn certification, we set up job interviews over Skype or telephone, and we’re holding job fairs where students take resumes and workforce development packets.
For many offenders it’s the first time they experience success. Once they have one success, they accelerate from there. As someone who started as an educator in 1999, the way we approach education has come so far.
What do you enjoy most about working in corrections education?
I love that I can be creative and my leadership supports education 100 percent. It used to be that education took a backseat in prison, but now it’s a priority throughout the entire corrections department.
Are there any changes you would like to see happen in corrections education?
I would like to see more open mindedness. Instead of saying no we can’t do that, we should be saying how can we do that. Let’s think about things that weren’t thought about before and how to make it happen in corrections.
What is your advice to corrections educators?
Keep the students in mind, with every decision and every program you want to start.
Understand and think about what their first priorities are, what are their first concerns are, what we can do to drive their success. We should keep them involved in these conversations.
One thing I’ve challenged my principals to do is to teach like they would in a high school, if you can, but I know that some schools may have only one or two teachers. You can look at your teachers’ certifications and strengths, then figure out each student as an individual. Not all of our students need to start at the very beginning—meet them where they are. Thinking outside the box and being creative has certainly increased our GED student numbers, and student success.