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Correctional education and the impact on educators’ lack of training

Introduction

This paper focuses on the experiences of educators who work with incarcerated youthFootnote 1 across four juvenile detention centersFootnote 2 in southern California. We highlight the ways that teachers describe teaching in corrections as performing emotional labor. The scholarship which focuses on the relationship between teaching and emotional labor indicates that teachers not only empathize with their students, but also gauge their success based on the feedback—verbal, behavioral, social—they receive from their students regarding the emotional labor they have performed (Lee et al., 2016; Truta, 2014; Wróbel, 2013). Most of these studies have been conducted in classrooms outside of centers of confinement. In this study, we focus on the effects this emotional labor has on teachers working with youth within a center of confinement. While the aforementioned studies focus on examining the relationship between emotional labor and burnout or job satisfaction, this study examines the teachers’ own descriptions of the way that the stress of working in corrections results in the teachers expending emotional labor. We connect this to the scholarship on emotional labor, with that of correctional staff’s double bind (Cheek et al., 1983; Tracy, 2004). Instead of examining the way that teachers’ emotional energy results in deep acting or surface acting (Lee et al., 2016), we discuss what we call an emotional double bind that teachers find themselves in when teaching in a correctional setting. The emotional labor doesn’t merely affect teacher’s job satisfaction, teaching pedagogy, or ability to empathize with their students, rather within centers of confinement teachers emotional labor shapes their double bind: the teachers must expend additional labor to ensure students’ academic success and justify this by citing the emotional labor that is required to support students in centers of confinement. Just as the studies of the double bind in correctional settings state, the double bind is the result of the stress of working in a setting with poor organization and high levels of emotional labor (Cheek et al., 1983; Tracy, 2004). In this case, we demonstrate that teachers know that the systems—including curriculum, pedagogy, and disciplinary systems—are inadequate for teaching students in confinement, and their solution is to work harder, develop alternate curriculum, and expand their pedagogy all of which they justify by noting that they should be expending additional emotional energy on theirs. It is important to note that our paper doesn’t quantify the emotional labor that teachers spend, rather we are interested in the description of the emotional energy as teachers’ descriptions of this energy elucidate their motivations for teaching in correctional settings. While there is nothing wrong with teachers feeling zeal for their profession and their students, teachers in corrections feel the double stress of the institutional constrictions and the stress of “saving/reforming” their students to justify their working conditions.

Teachers who work in corrections are repeatedly faced with the adverse effects of inadequate funding, poor management, and a lack of communication with corrections administration (Nurse et al., 2003). For these reasons, it becomes difficult for correctional educators to integrate the overwhelming amount of information they are provided about the students, the setting, the policies, and procedures that maintain correctional settings in place into their teaching pedagogy, which affects their lesson plans and interactions with students. These challenges get in the way of educators California issued mandate to provide a quality education to all youth (Flores, 2012). As a result, teachers note that these dynamics create a teaching environment that is discouraging and stressful. While research has been dedicated to detailing the benefits of correctional education for students, there is a gap in the literature related to how to attain and maintain a comprehensive learning environment that positively impacts both the teachers and students in the prison.

Nurse et al. (2003) note that educators teaching in correctional facilities with noted poor management style and lack of communication by correctional leadership—wardens, correctional staff and administrators, and administrative teaching personnel—is associated with both a decrease in job satisfaction for the educators as well as an increase in their stress levels. While organizational culture and leadership could be a reason for these findings (Schein, 2010), organizational culture doesn’t examine the ways that teachers understand their role within correctional education as a double bind where they are simultaneously providing instruction that allows incarcerated youth to think critically about their situation and their society while also maintaining order and surveillance. Additionally, research demonstrates that low-quality educational programming and inadequate staffing resources can lead to staff reporting higher stress levels, feelings of lack of support, and, consequently, the use of a more punitive approach towards the inmates (Shannon & Page, 2014). On the other hand, lower stress levels and greater support from the administration are associated with a more restorative approach towards the incarcerated peoples (Shannon & Page, 2014).

Research by Hall and Killacky (2008) emphasizes that correctional educators would benefit largely from receiving training in specialized courses created specifically for the purpose of being able to recognize the variety of needs of the students in prison. Training for educators should incorporate topics of psychology and sociology that emphasize a comprehensive understanding of criminal behavior, substance abuse, tolerance and multiculturalism, mythology, and how to adapt the differing learning styles of the inmates in the programs (Jurich et al., 2001). Additionally, training should integrate team building activities that encourage improved communication between staff and administration and the pairing of new teachers with more experienced ones to gain practical and relevant experience (Jurich et al., 2001). This training should also include culturally responsive teaching approaches which acknowledge the challenges specific to students of color, which include educational institutions being a historical sight of forced assimilation and abuse (Bal et al., 2018). Additionally, the little work done on this topic in correctional education points out the importance of using this teaching approach (and providing training for adopting culturally responsive teaching) and adopting a race-conscious pedagogy (Flores, 2015). How the educators in detention are trained is significant because while research has shown time and time again that an investment in correctional education is a necessity, this investment could render itself useless without the existence of well-trained teachers (Jurich et al., 2001).

For years, academics have been discussing the need to provide incarcerated students with high-quality education (Foley & Gao, 2004). Scholars have found that vocational and critical thinking skills alike help improve the educational outcomes of this population and ultimately help reduce recidivism (Flores & Barahona-Lopez, 2020). Despite the well-established positive outcomes of providing education to incarcerated individuals, the educators who occupy these spaces often find themselves in classrooms with little to no training (Flores, 2012). While educators who work with any population are subject to lack of training and stressful educational settings, educators who teach incarcerated youth experience further lack of training specific to childhood development, the effects of living in total institutions, and the role that mentoring and relationship building—both positive and negative—have on youth (Flores, 2015; Flores & Barahona-Lopez, 2020). This lack of training negatively impacts correctional educators and their ability to provide instruction (Flores, 2015; Flores & Barahona-Lopez, 2020).

In this paper, we use work on critical pedagogy as a theoretical lens to analyze the experiences of correctional educators. Freire (1970) would argue that these kinds of institutions encourage teachers to embrace the “banking” method of education where they treat students like passive empty receptacles to be filled by the all-knowing instructors. This approach to teaching “leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated content…which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking” concept of education…” (Freire, 1970, p. 72). Freire and other critical pedagogy scholars call for a dialogical approach to learning that counters the banking method and asks teachers and students to share their experiences and knowledge with one another. Dialogical learning emphasizes critical thought and encourages students to critique their reality in order to find ways of changing the world individually and collectively (Darder, 2002). Adopting dialogical learning also includes teachers building solidarity with their students, especially those students that have been marginalized by society (Freire, 1970). By relinquishing their oppressive role in “banking” education, instructors can begin to create solidarity with their students by helping them understand how they have been taken advantage of and cheated (Freire, 1970). Most importantly, dialogical teaching requires instructors to teach with compassion and love. The banking method of education is important to consider when analyzing the education students receive in juvenile detention centers. It is also important to understand the unique set of challenges teachers encounter in these settings.

Methods

The data presented here is based on 15 in-depth semi-structured interviews weFootnote 3 conducted with teachers that work in four separate juvenile detention facilities in southern California (see Table 1 for teacher information). We supplemented these interviews with participant observations in three classrooms inside of these facilities. In total, we interviewed five men and ten women. Table 1 describes the gender and racial background of the teachers in this study. Of note is that more than half of the teachers were people of color and that many of the educators were in their late thirties or early forties. We also want to note that two of the instructors in this study worked as long-term substitutes, but they had the responsibilities of a teacher with a tenure track position. Long-term substitutes have the same responsibilities as full-time educators. However, they are often still attempting to finish their teaching licensing and receive less pay and all-around compensation. Their status as contingent workers also means they could be dismissed at will. All of the teachers have been working in juvenile prisons for at least a year but most of them have worked in corrections for five or more years. Lastly, we want to note the educational background of participants; all had a minimum of a bachelor’s degree thirteen teachers were educated at traditional teaching colleges while two were educated at Ivy League institutions. Several of the instructors have multiple teaching credentials and/or a master’s degree.

Table 1 Participants

The setting

In Southern California, there are various juvenile detention facilities that fall under the control of local or state officials. The facilities in our study fell under the direct control of the County Probation Department (Probation) who are in charge of holding incarcerated juveniles as well as maintaining and staffing these facilities. A probation department is one of the many branches of the US criminal justice system. They are in charge of monitoring a wide variety of justice-involved youth and adults. Within these four facilities, the schools operate as semi-autonomous entities: the schools are in charge of hiring and maintaining their own faculty as well as educating incarcerated juveniles that are required to be in school during the regular workweek. These schools are tasked with educating high school–aged youth but must adhere to the rules, regulations, and authority of the Probation Department. Poor leadership within the semi-autonomous entities is an issue that we discuss in our findings; we note the ways that teachers cite poor leadership as a cause of their double bind.

Unlike traditional classroom teachers, teachers in correctional facilities were put into positions to act as branches of the correctional facility staff. Teachers were made aware that they were responsible for monitoring “gang issues” in the classroom. For this reason, teachers are constantly monitoring supplies that can be stolen and used to deface the facility or to hurt other inmates and faculty: such as counting the number of pens, pencils, and paper and limiting the number of school supplies students had access to such as books, glue, and post-its. This also carries a huge amount of burden for teachers who noted the personal responsibility they would feel if their surveillance activities were not successful and a faculty member, student, inmate, or other person was hurt. It is important to note that correctional classrooms look very much like a customary classroom. They often hold between 10 and 35 students, and in most cases, there is a teaching assistant that provides full-time or temporary support. However, this varies broadly across each facility.

Findings

Overall, our findings suggest that as a result of teachers’ lack of appropriate training they experience emotional double bind. We begin by highlighting the common areas where teachers experienced a lack of training. We note that teachers often understood their lack of training as tied with their day-to-day experience with lack of resources and poor communication with correctional staff. While the teachers did not discuss how improved communication would result in improved teaching and learning, they noted that the poor communication affected their mood and their approach to teaching. We also note that teachers understood their lack of training as creating the context for a highly stressful work environment. As a result, teachers identified their work with students—the impact of teacher intervention—as a strong measurement of their efficacy while also noting that they were feeling overextended by expending emotional labor. We end by noting how teachers leaned on their previous, non-academic educational training, to support their teaching endeavors. Overall, we argue that the lack of training affected their description of their emotional labor and impacted their overall emotional well-being. Furthermore, we contend that teacher’s strategy of using their previous training or experience outside of teaching results in further emotional isolation as teachers feel that they must leverage their individual talents, experiences, and knowledge to make up for the lack of institutional resources and support.

Other research in correctional education has demonstrated that across North America educators who provided instruction in these spaces do not receive training specific to teaching in corrections. While researchers have documented this dynamic well, it continues to persist in the correctional classroom. Teachers specifically noted that formal education programs, via teaching credential programs, and general training at the school located within the correctional facility did not prepare them for teaching in corrections.

One special education instructor explained that this lack of training in their formal program affects their pedagogy as well as the support they have at the school site:

I think the lack of training [in my teaching credential program is] definitely a key factor in [my teaching approach]. The lack of training also affects me because of the lack of materials[and] the lack of support in the classroom. [The lack of support in the classroom is] not from the teachers outside but actually [support] in the classroom. (John, 41)

This teacher is noting how their formal education did not train them to teach in a correctional setting. As a result, it has affected John’s teaching approach. Secondly, it affects daily activities; they have less materials in their class to provide students with instruction—likely a result of the school’s budget to make these purchases and their lack of knowledge regarding what materials they can/should stock up on. In the participant observation portion of this study, we note that teachers are often pulled in many directions due to students’ own education levels and skill sets. In one classroom, one student may have a difficult time adding, another completing long division, and another difficulty with variables all the while the teacher is attempting to introduce the pre-algebra unit. In other words, when the teacher mentions a lack of classroom support, they are referring to support for students to be successful in the classroom because of the range of content knowledge students have.

Another instructor noted that lack of training extends to the training received at the actual school. When asked if they received training to teach in corrections, they responded:

For correctional instruction? No, not really. Not as such. We have in services (a staff-like meeting for the teachers) been told directly deal with it. There was one, where it was kind of off the cuff don’t do this. Females have this sort of approach with male [wards...] but nothing formal. (Rose, 58)

This teacher notes the ways that they didn’t receive training through their formal educational program to teach in a correctional facility. Furthermore, there are no teacher education programs that provide training specifically to provide instruction in corrections. Instead, the teacher notes that the training is in the form of “off the cuff” statements about what to do or what not to do with students. “Off the cuff” trainings and information are not grounded in research. This affects their ability to provide instruction and navigate the classroom environment.

While teachers note that their formal education was lacking, they also note that institutionally colleges and universities have systems in place that bypass the formal education process in order to get teachers into correction classrooms. One educator noted:

Unfortunately, the college of education, they don’t even do student teaching through our system. I think some of the private universities have given waivers for people who are given teacher education programs to do their stuff at the court schools. (Manuel, 26)

Correctional educators continue to receive a lack of training to teach in corrections despite decades of research that describes this issue. The teachers we interviewed described a lack of training inside their respective detention center. Manuel also discusses how their teaching credential program does not provide training in this field. Additionally, they do not provide future teachers with the ability to gain placement opportunities in the correctional classroom. This means that despite the well-established lack of training for educators who teach behind bars, correctional facilities and teacher education programs continue to fall short of providing the training necessary to be successful educators in these spaces.

The correctional educators in our research discussed being unaware of the basic workings of educational programs in their respective detention centers. Most educators received a set of keys and minimal instructions and were thrusted into teaching in these spaces. They also received little information regarding the basic procedures of their detention center. We note that this produced elevated levels of stress which educators cited as resulting in their challenges with providing instruction to their students.

Teachers noted that lack of training impacted their emotional well-being on the job. They were stressed and isolated. While the teachers in this study noted that they were able to persevere through these challenges, their descriptions of the effects that lack of training had on them are notable. For example, one math teacher said the following:

It is basically a sink or swim situation. Here you are starting to sub and a lot of times they don’t even leave you lesson plans. They just tell you, you are going to be in the history room. There is no lesson plan, there is nothing there and you are looking at 35 kids you are just there trying to intimidate you. So you either sink or swim and luckily I learned to swim. (Sam, 45)

The description of teaching at the school as sink or swim connotes the stress and anxiety one feels if one is to survive. Furthermore, this description also highlights the way that this teacher felt they were completely isolated from others that could provide assistance and support them in the classroom. Sam notes that the combination of lack of training and direction, along with students’ challenging behaviors, creates a heavy emotional burden educators in this space must negotiate.

Although teaching is the primary responsibility of teachers the environment of stress and anxiety transfers over to other areas. While teachers are struggling to teach their students, they are also challenged by administrative or pragmatic events and tasks. Already feeling emotionally tired receiving negative feedback in another area of their work life further deepens the feelings of stress and anxiety. A special education instructor said the following about the compounding stress they felt as a result of a fire drill:

I (Special Ed)] I wasn’t even trained for a fire drill. We had a fire drill and I was just like, OK, what do I do? And I basically grabbed the role book, grabbed the walkie-talkie and was just like “OK, lets go.” Because I didn’t know if I was supposed to stay in the room, or if the two rings meant stay in because something outside is supposed to be in or there is a fire and you are supposed to go out. I didn’t know any of that. They didn’t train me on any of that. There was just absolutely no training. And then the jail people said “you guys did really poorly” during a later meeting. I said I wasn’t trained I didn’t know what to do. (Maria, 23)

Already in a stressful environment, this teacher noted that they didn’t know what to do when another stressful situation occurred in the environment. Their narrative exhibit signs that they are over-stressed. Maria makes the decision that they think is the best but later in the debrief she and other instructors were told that it was not the correct way to deal with the fire drill. We note this teacher’s frustration with this environment and the situation they were trying to navigate spill over as they defend themselves by stating that they didn’t receive training to be able to effectively respond to the fire drill.

Both of these educators describe the lack of institution-specific training they received when starting to teach in corrections. They describe arriving in a classroom full of students with no lesson plan, curriculum, or general guidance for how to proceed. Maria describes having to negotiate an emergency fire drill with no institutional guidance. She and other teachers were later sanctioned for doing a poor job despite receiving no formal training on these types of events.

The educators we spoke to describe a double bind: they were not being prepared to teach the unique population often found in correctional classrooms, but they felt it was their responsibility to support students. In the classroom, they encountered students with diagnosed and undiagnosed learning disabilities, but had little resources to support these students. In the participant observation portion of this study, teachers remarked that students entered incarceration with low skill sets and that many students had not attended school regularly during the course of their young lives. Furthermore, teachers noted that many students had behavioral issues that were outside of their level of training or expertise. Our respondents discussed not receiving training from the teacher education programs, from the schools who employed them or from the detention centers where they provided instruction. One educator said the following:

I got my teaching credential and I am sure that is the truth for lots of teachers. You are not taught [to work here], for the high school for the secondary credential. Because they assume all students already know how to read, write and spell and they don’t. […] But if I don’t teach them who else will? (Janice, 45).

While this educator notes that their teaching credential program did not prepare them for teaching in the classroom, it is their statement regarding who will teach the students that is most impactful. The instructors included in this paper state that their challenge is that they are trained to teach high school, but that the students need teachers to be specialized in providing instruction in elementary school–aged skills. However, they describe that the challenge is that they don’t know who else would be willing to do this type of work with the students. Here, we see a teacher who is experiencing the strains of educating students at the correctional facility. These frustrations add up to expending large amounts of emotional energy at work, as we have noted above. However, they justify engaging in this challenging work because they feel no one else will teach this group of students. Educators note that their teaching credentials had not prepared them for teaching in correctional facilities, and teaching in classrooms with high school students who needed elementary school content. These strategies inform the teaching pedagogy of educators namely that teachers’ credential does not provide them with the knowledge and tools to be able to support their students. Presented with this reality, this teacher adjusts the curriculum, and their pedagogy; this educator notes that these adjustments are in service of the student, while also noting that if teachers are unwilling to do this additional work, the student will not receive an education that takes their specific situation in mind. Thus, this teachers’ final statement “ If I don’t teach them who else will?” demonstrated the emotional weight that the teacher is carrying. This is the emotional double bind that teachers face: the teacher must expend additional labor, and justify this additional work through the emotional commitment that they have towards their students.

Similarly, another teacher discussed the ways that students’ own challenges outside of the classroom result in adjustments or experimentations to benefit the students.

All my theory that I was learning was this is how you teach math, and this is how you deal with a problem and believe me I am all for learning as far as the theories. But when push comes to shove, when you are in the classroom you are writing your own theories in a hurray…Because a lot of those kids were severely abused emotionally, sexually and physically [and they need support]. (Leslie, 35)

Similar to other colleagues, Leslie notes that instructors don’t have the formal training to support students. This is frustrating for them and creates challenges in their teaching pedagogy. However, teachers also note that the lived experience of the students—their experiences of emotional, sexual, and physical abuse—propels their desire to make adjustments, and find solutions that would benefit the students because they need support.Footnote 4 In other words, the challenges that the teacher faces are minimal in comparison to the youth and this justifies the emotional burden on the teachers. Importantly, we are not comparing the emotional and lived experience of youth to that of teachers. Rather, we are arguing that teachers who are already emotionally exhausted feel that they must forge ahead. They feel this way because they are comparing their experiences to that of their students. This further entrenches the double bind that teachers feel. In order to provide students with appropriate curricula, the teacher must put in more labor into their work. The teachers justify this added emotional labor as necessary to meet students where they are and acknowledge their lived experiences of trauma and violence. We note that students should be receiving support and that teachers should as well. The problem with this emotional double bind is that for teachers they internalize the responsibility for their students and for society at large it places the responsibility and support of youth with individual teachers. We note that this is harmful for teachers and students as the challenges that teachers face are in fact systemic.

Finally, our respondents as a whole depended on previous training in order to be effective correctional educators. While we note that outside experiences and training can be beneficial for any educator, the problem lies with teachers’ reliance on these experiences instead of the training that they need to be successful teachers. As a result, of relying on their experiences, it further highlights their isolation from other teachers and the feeling of going at it alone. Given the lack of on-site training educators often spent a sizable amount of time looking for non-mandatory training they could modify and use in corrections.

Teachers noted that they had to draw on individualized experiences to support them in the classroom to close the gap in their content knowledge and also provide students with appropriate educational instruction. For example, one teacher noted that she used outside training to support their teaching pedagogy:

I worked with autistic adults and I received a lot of training from them that I use in this job. But not everybody has that, so I learned behavior management techniques that you use with autistic kids, positive reinforcement techniques and I was tested on how to say it exactly right. So I have used those techniques a lot. (Sara, 30).

Sara noted that these skills were extremely helpful in supporting their teaching. However, Sara also noted that not all teachers have access to this training since it was something that he received at another location. By using the information in the training, Sara was more successful at supporting students and it put her in a position where she continued to rely on external knowledge and resources. Similarly, another Frank noted that instructors were only able to teach students how to read because of the outside training they had received geared towards this specific skill:

That is the other thing I cannot believe, especially if you are going to be in such a system. I only felt confident in teaching someone to read because I volunteered several years ago for an outside program called Linda moot bail, they are a private company. (Frank, 46)

Both educators discussed the training they received prior to beginning careers in correctional education. These instructors cited being successful in the correctional setting due to this prior training. They note that most educators working in corrections often don’t receive this training or training of any sort. While this approach is less than ideal, our research and other work on this topic demonstrate the lack of training correctional educators receive and how they find individual solutions to address these issues. Thus, teachers must continue to be self-reliant creating further isolation.

Conclusion

In this paper, we discussed the general lack of training correctional educators received from their places of employment. The teachers we included in this research discussed the negative effects this lack of training had on their pedagogical and professional careers. This lack of training resulted in teachers experiencing a “double bind” that had various negative repercussions for teachers working in corrections. For decades, correctional educators have been discussing the lack of training they receive (Nurse et al. 2003). This article confirms that this continues to take place despite ample research addressing this issue.

Additionally, our article sheds light on the emotional as well as professional toll a lack of education takes on correctional educators. We provide several suggestions to address this issue. First, all correctional educators should be provided detailed information about the workings of their respective facility. Second, teacher educator programs should provide formal training specific to teaching in corrections. Third, correctional facilities should provide access to mental health services for teachers in this space. This is particularly important given the unique challenges of providing instruction behind bars. Finally, more educators and educational organizations should create pedagogy specific to correctional classrooms. Addressing these issues will help future teachers who work behind bars.

Notes

  1. 1.

    It is important to note that almost all of the students incarcerated in these detention centers were Latinx and mostly Mexican or of Mexican descent. They ranged in ages from 11 to 19 and had low educational skills. Most had not attended school regularly in their community and had been incarcerated for non-violent offenses. Five to ten students had a learning exceptionality which is twice the amount in traditional school (Flores & Barahona-Lopez). Finally, almost all of the students in these settings were working class or working poor and lived in segregated neighborhoods in southern California.

  2. 2.

    Detention centers, juvenile detention, and secure detention are all euphemism for a what are popularly known as prisons or jails. We use these terms interchangeably throughout the paper.

  3. 3.

    In this paper, the first author conducted all interviews and recorded all fieldnotes. The second author helped analyze data and collected background information for the paper. All authors contributed to writing and editing the manuscript as a whole. A small team of research assistants transcribed the data. In the paper, the phrase “we” is used for brevity and also to reflect our equitable and collect efforts.

  4. 4.

    Incorporating the lived experiences of students is in line with culturally informed teaching and critical pedagogy and improves educational outcomes for students (Flores & Barahona-Lopez, 2020; Bal et al., 2018). Using this approach encourages students to engage in class, makes learning relevant to their lives, and ultimately results in more engaged learners (Flores & Barahona-Lopez, 2020; Bal et al., 2018).

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Correspondence to Jerry Flores.

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Flores, J., Barahona-López, K. Correctional education and the impact on educators’ lack of training. Curric Perspect 41, 237–244 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41297-021-00147-3

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Keywords

  • Correctional education,Qualitative research
  • Juvenile detention
  • Teacher education