Rebecca Deierling, a corrections educator with the North Dakota Department of Corrections, shares her experience working with incarcerated GED students.
Can you tell me what your title is and the work you do with the North Dakota Department of Corrections?
I am a GED instructor at the North Dakota State Penitentiary and I teach Science, RLA, Social Studies, Civics, Read Right and Creative Writing. Each of the classes are designed to prepare the students for the GED test.
Can you tell me more about your background in adult education?
I have a degree in Criminal Justice and Social Science Secondary Education (two Bachelor’s degrees). I previously taught at a traditional high school before coming to adult education and corrections three years ago.
Congratulations on your recent award (North Dakota Adult Education Teacher of the Year), how do you feel about receiving this recognition as an educator?
I was really honored and really excited, it wasn’t expected. It’s really humbling, I share this award with everyone I work with. Corrections can be a really hard place to work at times.
One of the things I got the award for was project-based learning and other innovative ideas—and that’s because I have staff that allow me to do great things in the classroom. Sometimes you have to be more creative because of the restrictions that you’re faced with on a daily basis.
How does your work in corrections differ from your other teaching experiences?
There are a lot more security things you go through just to get to work and you work year-round because we’re not on the traditional academic calendar.
The biggest difference between my corrections students and traditional high school students is motivation. In (traditional) high school you go to school and get good grades because your parents tell you to and that’s what is expected.
In adult education you are doing it because you want to and you know the importance of it. The students are working for themselves—their accomplishments and victories mean so much more to them.
A lot of them say when it comes to education they feel great, like they’re a real person and not in prison. Many of them didn’t have people who believed in them and they didn’t believe in themselves. I do find this more rewarding than working in a traditional high school environment.
What are some of the challenges you face working in corrections? How are you working through some of the instructional challenges?
The biggest obstacle is the internet, they have iPads with downloaded information but they can’t look up things and do online research. I print off things for them but some of them will not know how to find false news and stuff like that because they aren’t having that experience with using the Internet.
When we’re dissecting (for science class) we can’t have scalpels. As an alternative, when we studied pollination we dissected worms, plants, bumblebees and grasshoppers. We did this without using sharp objects and we have microscopes for them to look closer.
I think hands-on learning is the best way to learn. My class was learning about pollination and wanted to learn more so we started a garden here, they are super proud of their garden. They take so much pride in what they have created and we eat the food that we grow and donate to others.
They are excited about the projects we’re doing. Something as simple as making homemade ice cream they loved it and asked for the recipe and directions and wanted to share with their children. Last year when it was cold outside we blew bubbles to see them freeze.
Do you have any current GED students or former students that were memorable? Why?
I had a guy in his late 40’s that had a rough life, didn’t care about education, didn’t want to be here, wanted me to exit him from the classes and he didn’t want to test. I finally got him to test and he passed. He screamed and jumped up and down and ran out immediately to call his wife and tell her.
How important do you think the GED program is for the corrections population? Have you noticed changes in your students once they have started studying for the test?
There are many statistics and facts that say getting your GED lowers the recidivism rate. We have some guys that have never filled out an application or a resume so we take them to a job fair and we actually hold one here in the facility.
We also have a welding program and any opportunity to better themselves is welcome. It boosts their confidence so much, a lot of them had a bad upbringing and they never had anyone believe in them.
What do you enjoy most about the work that you do?
I know test day is my favorite day, I think I get more excited than the guys do when they take their test.
They want to know their results so I make sure I bring the results to them. Many times I’m waiting outside their door and I’m jumping up and down for them.
There are some people that might not pass but you don’t give up on them, you get their writing skills up, you can learn to fill out an application better, look for ways to improve them. They like coming, they like learning, they like trying. Some need smaller goals and you work with them to achieve that.
What is your advice to other educators working with students in corrections?
Just keep doing what you’re doing, it takes a certain type of person to work in this environment.
Know that you’re making a huge difference. Any teacher that works in corrections and other adult education teachers are giving so much back.
Most people in GED classes probably didn’t do well in the traditional classroom, look for the fun stuff you need to do to help each student.