Volunteering as an Educational Tutor at Paul Dojack Youth Centre
Prior to arriving at Paul Dojack Youth Center, which is a custody facility for incarserated youth that have been sentenced for committing a serious crime or are awaiting sentencing, I was given a tour and advised about how everything was run and what I should expect. After I had been given my tour, I learned about the students’ pasts prior to being placed at Paul Dojacks. Some of the students in my unit to be had been charged with murder, attempted murder, aggravated assault, armed robbery, and well as other offenses. On the day I was beginning my volunteer placement, I thought about all of my pre conceived notions. I admit I was concerned about safety. I had thought about what I should wear and by that, I mean I was making sure I was dressed very conservatively. I thought to myself, is there anything I am wearing that could potentially cause others or myself any harm so off came my scarf and jewelry. I wondered what the students would be like.
I was excited as well as apprehensive to start my placement. Paul Dojacks is located just inside the city limits with only one road coming from the east. Along this road, there are signs that warn trespassers, a bridge, overhanging trees, the buildings, and a surrounding fence. My heart felt very heavy while driving up, I’m not sure if it was because I was nervous or because I was a little bit scared.
To enter the main building I had to go to a steel door and ring a buzzer, then the guard buzzed me in. Upon entering I realized my initial impression was that there was very high security. This included having to sign in, be buzzed through every door, cameras, and a 20 foot fence that surrounded the premises. I was feeling a little uneasy to meet the students, but excited. Upon arriving at my unit, I discovered that there was a substitute teacher there that day and that I would be working with 12-14 year old boys from ages 14-18. I started by working with one student individually outside of the classroom. He was a little shy at first. However, we both seemed to be more comfortable in the next hour or so. Although this student might have physically been put into a grade nine classroom in regular school, academically he is at about a grade four level. We spent the afternoon working on subtracting two to six digit numbers, we made a lot of progress. After an hour and a half of tutoring it was time for break. All of the students went into the common area where they started playing cards, walked around, or went to the bathroom.
Approximately, half way through break a fist fight erupted. At this point, we began to take measures to prevent a riot. The boys were broken up by a teacher in the adjoining unit while the response team came filing in. After this commotion, someone told me that the likely cause for the fight was because of a gang related comment, as many kids at Paul Dojacks are affiliated with different gangs. After this, I went to the adjoining unit to help another student with math, as the unit I was working with previous was placed under lock down. That was an interesting first day.
Through this experience I gained insight on how to handle high conflict resolution situations, how to work with at risk youth, and develop strategies for working with students that have learning deficits. Each student is at a different point in their education and has their own individualized learning program and with my time at Paul Dojacks, I gathered some insight on differentiation into my teaching practice. This experience for me has been shocking. and I have had a lot of learning moments.
Paul Dojack Youth Center is not just a place where kids are institutionalized for their crimes, it is a result of our negligent society. These students are kids, just kids. Yes they have made mistakes, but hasn’t everybody? Nobody is perfect and everyone has lapses in judgement, but we must consider the context for that lapse in judgement. Context is crucial. You never know what kind of life your student has had, or does have, when they enter your classroom. For some students you could be the only positive influence in their lives. We can address this societal construction by working together, schools, teachers, guardians, elders, community members, etc. by installing the message into students that their lives matter and when times are tough that they have people will be here to support them.
My initial thoughts have changed, however with that being said some parts remain the same. I do not feel that my safety is threatened as much because I have a relationship with the youth in my unit, however, you still have to be careful in case something goes wrong. Some of the things that have surprised me while tutoring is some of the student’s background. Some students committed their crimes because they were trying to “prove themselves” for a gang, they were caught doing drugs, or they were upset or uneasy with something in their life. The most shocking thing that a student has old me was that he had finished his time and was released but was sent back for breaching boundaries, which was being homeless an having nowhere to go and also getting into a fight with a civilian. This made me reflect on my own life. I never once had to think that I didn’t have a place to go home to. It is so surprising to think that this is the worry of some of the students you are working with. On a side note, I recently found out, from another professor in the Education faculty, that the location of Paul Dojack Youth Center used to be the location of Regina’s Indian Industrial School this is a topic I have researched and intend to further explore, in detail.
Over the course of my volunteer hours I’ve seen the students in my unit be shuffled from different units to new facilities and back again. Moreover, approximately eleven out of twelve of the students in my unit are either First Nations or Metis. These groups of Indigenous youth are marginalized by society from the very beginning, and it would be ignorant to say otherwise. These students are treated differently daily basis. It is important to recognize that the student’s actions, or crimes in this case, is often directly linked to the world that surrounds them. For example, if there is a high rate of drug dealing in a community a student’s microsystem that student becomes at risk for continuing on that same path because it is viewed as a norm.
Here are some of the things that I have learned while tutoring at Paul Dojacks:
- To be dependable.
- To be someone students can trust.
- How to deal with uncomfortable situations and address them.
- How to handle high conflict situations.
- How to work with at-risk youth.
- How to teach students with learning deficits.
- Gave me experience with differentiation.
- How to establish teacher-student relationships.
- Things aren’t always as they seem
This experience, in terms of community based service learning, has shown me:
- Background and context is crucial.
- Desirable behavior is different through every community and culture.
- Not conforming to the beliefs and actions of the majority does not make someone a bad citizen.
- Sometimes justice can sting.
- The ‘status quo’ can and should be challenged.
- Society privileges some while marginalizing others.
- Anyone can learn, given the opportunity and proper supports in place.
- There is value in challenging peoples understanding and perceptions of a societies constructions of “normal”
By far my greatest learning experience, to date, has been identifying the diversity of where these children are at in their learning. After working with the students, I realize that the majority of them have large gaps as far as course material goes. I have also learned that students may forget the material that is taught to them. For example, this is highly prevalent in repeat offenders as they may learn how to multiply before they are released and then when they return they cannot remember how to do so. These kids need someone that will support them in their learning, help them to recognize negative situations and influences, and supports their personal, spiritual, physical, and emotional health. I want to be just that. These kids make me want to be a better educator, they make me want to be someone that they can depend on, someone that will be there, and even being a friendly face can make a world of a difference. These students have opened my eyes to a new world, their world, and I can’t ignore that. As an educator, I plan to take action, to keep my eyes open, and to not overlook uncomfortable situations but rather to address them when they appear both in and outside of the classroom.
Overall, this was a wonderful learning experience that I would highly recommend (and do again in a heartbeat).