I work part-time as a GED instructor for the probation department in Tompkins County, NY. I teach criminals. I get them ready for the GED test, so that hopefully they can pass and get their high school equivalency.
They are people like you and me. Yeah, I imagine that's hard to swallow, but they are. In ways, we are all products of our environments. Our living situations, our family circumstances and experiences all influence our decisions and the paths we take. Many of the people I work with have the odds stacked against them from the point of birth.
No, I'm not a bleeding heart bureaucrat who thinks that just implementing compassionate programs and affording equal opportunities will result in right decisions and changed lives. It doesn't happen that way. There are too many idealists in their ivory towers writing policy and too few who are actually in the trenches working with the people they claim to serve.
Where I work, people come and go. They come and go to jail, rehab, the Department of Social Services, mental health and court. Once you're in the system, it's hard to get out - very hard.
I've always had an innate curiosity about who people are, what they think, why they do the things they do. I've learned to listen and ask the right questions. It never ceases to amaze me that when a person is really listened to, that person will often open up and share their hopes, fears and hurts. I hear stories and, when I've heard one, I think, "Holy cow, nothing can top this!" And then another one comes along and it does. It's unbelievable the violence, chaos, neglect, instability, and betrayal that some people come from.
Programs don't change people. Don't get me wrong. They are useful in meeting immediate needs and most people will gladly receive any help or freebies they can get. But as far as inward change? No. That comes by way of relationship.
The biggest obstacle I face is getting my students to believe in themselves, that they can actually succeed. When they finally get a math concept or score well on a practice test, I want to dance! I say, "See? I knew you could do it!" More than a teacher, I am a coach. I prod, encourage, counsel, challenge, and confront my students. But more than anything else, I see them. And that is what they respond to. I don't just see thugs, drug dealers, thieves, and prostitutes. I also see them as people with the myriad of attributes, abilities, weaknesses and failings that every human being possesses. I respect them and they, in turn, respect me.
When people ask me what I do and I tell them, they often get blank stares on their faces and say, "You must have a lot of patience." Lol! I only wish. Patience has never been my strong suit - just ask my husband and my kids. But I am patient with my students. It is somehow inside of me, and I think it only comes by way of a grace that is outside of me.
What I do is is challenging and difficult at times, but oh so rewarding. I am in my element, exactly where I am meant to be. For that, I am deeply grateful.