Beth Deacon

Prison Educator, Beth Deacon, shares her unique story and insights on her book and upcoming film, “7 Doors Out”.

“Be brave enough to make a change. My students were brave enough to step through Door 7 and into the classroom which many had not stepped in for many years.  They took a risk and raised their hands to answer questions in class or read out loud. And they were brave enough to step into the testing room with the confidence needed to pass tests and earn their diplomas.”

Can you tell us a little about yourself and your family (your childhood, where did you grow up etc.)? 

I grew up in a small town named Ironwood in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. My parents, Royal and Ann Rondeau raised five children, three boys and two girls. I am the youngest of five. My father worked in the copper mine in White Pine, Michigan and my mother stayed home to take care of the children. I still own this tiny three-bedroom home and my family visits every year.

Growing up, my parents were very strict. When I was in high school I spent my weekends working and studying. My father was extremely vocal about the importance of education. I still remember in kindergarten my father already telling me that I would need to study hard to get into a good college.

Tell us about why you became a teacher?

Once in high school, I started to open up more. I enjoyed my teachers and attending school.  I was very focused and respected my teachers.  I admired them for their patience and knowledge. I became involved in more school activities as a member of the student council.

My father made it clear to me that I needed to choose a field of study in mathematics or science.  My brother was attending Michigan Technological University to earn a degree in mechanical engineering and so although teaching was always in the back of my head, I began my college experience majoring in both environmental engineering and mathematics. My brother became a successful engineer quite quickly, which inspired me to continue to take engineering courses. A year before graduating from college, I chose to no longer pursue engineering.

I didn’t have a spark for it like I did for teaching. Once I began working in classrooms with students, I knew that is where I wanted to be. I love helping others. When a student begins to understand a concept, I can see a change in their attitudes and body language. They become happier and more at ease. I even see a smile on their faces once in a while. Their confidence increases and anxieties decrease.  In addition to teaching mathematics, with all the courses taken in engineering, I also earned a minor in sciences which allowed me to teach physics, chemistry, general science, biology, and earth science. Throughout my earlier career, I taught all of these science courses however, teaching mathematics is my passion.

Talk us through your experience of being a teacher. What have been the biggest highlights? And the greatest challenges?

Wow, so many memories I would love to share. I began my teaching career, immediately upon graduating from college.  And my first experience was incredible as I went back to my hometown to teach under an article 3 grant program. Seeing my former teachers as my colleagues were uncomfortable at first. That was a challenge in itself. I felt even more pressure to do well as all my teachers were there to watch me at work. Would I be successful? It was actually nice because I found this to be motivational. This grant was intended for only the last three months of the school year.  However, for two summers following, I came back and taught a summer science program.

The experiences I will share with you brought more meaning to me as a teacher.  It is so important to make connections with students. “Knocking Down the Walls” for learning to take place. Taking a risk and trying new things can teach valuable lessons to our students and our colleagues. Don’t ever be afraid to try something new and know your students are always watching!

Iowa State Penitentiary – The Traditional Classroom:

Teaching at the prison gifted me a new appreciation for life. I remember my first day at the prison. My new students spent class time working on packets the teacher gave to them.  This was something they did every day. However, as a teacher, that is not something I wanted to do every day.  The school was made into a real classroom where the students came to class and were given assignments to complete. They took notes in class and worked as a team. I taught not only math but English and history also. I learned right along with my students. As the men passed more tests, more wanted to attend school. Teaching the students to be accountable, treating them with the respect they earned, working with them to understand the importance of teamwork and pushing them to work hard, resulting in much success.

People truly can change if someone just believes in them.  My motto: “Be Brave Enough to Make a Change” represents my students. They were brave enough to enter the classroom through Door 7, to raise their hands in class, to read out loud when perhaps they weren’t the best readers and to walk in the testing room feeling confident they would pass their tests.

Was there anyone in particular that inspired you to become a teacher and what was it about them that inspired you?

Yes, Mr Adolph Passint! Mr Passint was my algebra teacher. I received a call yesterday evening that Mr Passint has passed away. I can’t explain how empty of a feeling that brought to me. I read his obituary which included a statement that Mr Passint enjoyed visiting with his former students.

The film director, Terence Gordon, visited my hometown.  I had not seen Mr Passint since he retired in 1986. I wanted to tell him how much he meant to me and that my teaching practices are much like his. When I knocked on the door, I was a bit nervous because I wasn’t sure he would remember me. He not only remembered me but he remembered exactly where I sat in class. We spoke for a while as Terence filmed. I wanted him to know how he has affected my life and all my students – the ripple effect.  We spoke about our families. He wanted to know about my husband and kids. He wanted to know that I was doing ok. He cared. I thanked him for believing in me. I told him how much I appreciated his excitement and passion for teaching. He was patient with his students and he never made students feel uncomfortable. He saw my potential and pushed me to work even harder.  I thanked him for making me a tutor for math students when I was in high school. Helping my peers succeed was important to me. I could see their confidence grow as they become more familiar with the concepts taught. As my parents instilled in me, he also reminded me of the importance of sincere compliments, working hard, and helping others. I live by the fact that your success in life comes from hard work and how you treat others. If we treat others with respect, no matter the return, we will always come out on top.  Be kind in this world.

Tell us why you decided to become a Prison teacher in Iowa? What made you take this step to become a teacher in this sort of environment? Where did you draw your inspiration for this role?

In 2012, my supervisor approached me to discuss the local adult education program. At the time I was teaching secondary mathematics at a public school in Michigan. He wanted to know if I would be interested in teaching adults for a couple of hours in the evenings. He explained to me that the adult program was in need of a math teacher and felt I would do a great job.  I never thought about teaching adults only because all my life I worked with kids. I was intrigued as it was something new to me.

I remember my first day of teaching. It was very similar to teaching high school students.  My new students were just as nervous and excited to be in the classroom.  I learned quickly that adults go to school because they experienced life without an education whereas kids go to school because they must.  I appreciated the respect and gratitude I received from my adult students.  They worked hard and felt that this next step in their lives could impact their futures.  They were determined to be successful.  I enjoyed my time working with them.

In 2014, my family moved to Iowa.  As I began my search for a new teaching position, my adult education students were in the back of my mind. I thought, perhaps I could take a few years away from teaching high school and work more with adult learners.  I searched for positions in adult education. I came across the opening for a teacher at the maximum-security prison and applied. I looked at this position as a chance to help my students see their potential.  I wanted them to be successful. As I had not known anyone in prison, this was a new experience for me. However, as with all my teaching positions, I went in with the same mindset that these are my students and I would help them succeed. I never looked at the reason why my students were in prison. It didn’t matter to me. They were serving time for their actions.  Now they decided to go to school and that is what mattered to me.  I was excited to teach them not only math, English, science and history but also about life. We had many discussions about accountability, respect, kindness, and being part of a team. We talked about what a simple compliment could mean to someone and the fact that we all have strengths and weaknesses. We succeeded, failed, cried, and laughed together.

My parents taught me to treat others with respect and to never judge. I don’t know the lives of these men or the struggles they may or may not have endured. All I know are the people I saw in my classroom. The students that came to class, worked hard, showed respect and gratitude, and succeeded.

What have you learnt from this experience? 

I learned about the power of a ripple effect. As men worked hard to pass tests they became more confident. As they grew in confidence they now felt they could help other students. They worked together offering their strengths to others in the classroom and outside the classroom.

As many told me, the more educated they became, the better conversations they had with their family and friends that live in the free world. Their conversations went from “how was your day” to asking their own children if they need help with math. They now talked to their families about education and what was going on in the world rather than basic questions about the weather.

The men gifted me a new appreciation for life; a new set of eyes.  We take so much for granted, especially life in the free world. It has taught me to slow down, look around and appreciate more of what is in front of me.

When you believe in someone, anything is possible!

What are your tips for teachers in general?

  • Pay attention to your students. You don’t know how good or bad of an evening or more they’ve had.
  • Build a rapport with your students. Go the extra mile to get to know them.
  • Take time to reach out to their parents. Find positive things to say about them even if you are calling the parent about a discipline problem.
  • Teach your students about life – teamwork, accountability, success, failure, kindness
  • Make sure your students understand that it is better than ok to be unique. They define themselves.
  • Don’t judge them or compare them to their siblings.
  • Sing and dance with your students.
  • Remind them to have fun in this world.
  • Take a risk.
  • Remind your students that a sincere compliment can mean so much to someone. Teach them about kindness.

What is one thing you wish you knew about pre-teaching?

Teaching is a stressful profession. However, watching students grow into respectable adults is priceless. When I began teaching 28 years ago, teaching was a respected profession. As the years moved, I noticed the respect for teachers decreased.

What motivates you now?

My students motivate me. The extra incentives are motivational to me. The kids get so excited when they know I am working on something for them. It’s fun and inspirational.