Local Inmate Educator Wins Regional Award

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Selected as the Ohio Teacher of the Year by the Correctional Education Association (CEA) last year, Deborah Spencer Withem of Hocking Correctional Facility has now been recognized as the Regional Teacher of the Year.

The regional award is given to the top CEA educator in six states – Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois. Each of the regional award recipients will be recognized at the National Correctional Education Association conference held in June in Virginia.

To receive the award Withem and the others in consideration took part in an interview process and made a presentation about their programs. A committee then scored the interview and the presentation, with the individual with the highest score receiving the award.

With a personal education philosophy that no one is too old to learn (Hocking Correctional Facility houses older offenders), Withem won over a panel of educators and correctional facility employees.

If inmates enter the system without a GED or high school diploma, state law requires that they take six months of educational classes, Withem said.

To receive the award, teachers must spend 51 percent of their work time in the classroom, which Withem does with two literacy classes and one group preparing for their release. In addition, the individual must be a member of the CEA for at least one year and have taught in correctional facilities for at least two years.

In the literacy class, inmates are tested every three months to access their reading level. Following that they can take the pre-GED or GED classes offered at the facility.

One of the biggest challenges faced by teaching in the correctional facility is the security, according to Withem.

"In the public schools you can bring in things such as ice cream, bananas and chocolate syrup to have the students write a how-to essay on making a banana split, but here you can't bring those things in so the student just has to verbally go through the steps," she said.

Students also cannot be rewarded as students in the public schools can be.

Despite the challenge of the additional security, Withem says there are some big benefits as well.

"With an average age of 65, you are not dealing with parents," said Withem. "I have received a letter from a sister thanking me for working with her brother who could not read before he was here.

"Some come in unable to read or with low reading levels," she added.

She gave other examples of students who have stood out over the 10 years she has taught.

"One student said he could not learn because he had fried his brain on drugs," Withem said, "but when he was transferred from here he asked to be put in classes at the new facility and thanked me for believing in him when he didn't."

One success story that stood out was the 55-year old man who was able to read his first book after taking the literacy class.

When beginning her career at Hocking Correctional Facility Withem expected the job to be temporary until she found a job in the public school system. More than 10 years later, Withem says the job is not what she imagined. She also stopped looking for other positions many years ago.

"It's nothing like you see in the movies," said Withem of teaching in the correctional facility.

Not only does Withem teach the inmates, but the staff as well during inservice trainings. She has also taught the GED program in the past, following the retirement of a teacher.

Withem is also looking into options for "going green" and educating her students on environmentally friendly topics.