We don't normally receive letters from people asking us to publish their work on our blog. It is even rarer when the writer is currently incarcerated in federal prison. Recently, Neal Goyal contacted us. After discussing whether to publish his letter, we decided to post his letter to the ProLiteracy blog along with his essay. Neal is serving a six-year sentence for stealing $11 million in a Ponzi scheme through his Chicago investment firm. He is also a GED and literacy instructor in prison. Neal truly offers a new perspective on the importance of literacy among the incarcerated. Here’s what he wrote:
Photo by James Foster: Neal Goyal at the UCCRF Gatsby gala, Harold Washington Library’s Winter Garden, Chicago, Illinois, March 22, 2014
From Neal Goyal, Federal Inmate
My name is Neal Goyal, and I am a federal inmate. Currently serving a six-year sentence, I have been committed to redeeming myself for my past poor choices. As part of my desire to give back to society all that I have taken, I have spent the last three years of incarceration in leadership roles within the education department. The single largest issue plaguing inmates’ reentry preparation efforts is literacy. As such, I have taken pride in my lead position in the prison’s literacy program. As a believer in ProLiteracy’s mission, I commend the organization’s success in helping those in need gain access to literacy resources. We certainly feel your efforts.
Each day at 1:30 PM, I teach a classroom of literacy students who are learning to read and write. Students are either learning English as their second language or simply did not complete third grade. As an instructor who has used ProLiteracy’s platform of material to teach, I have seen incredible progress in each student. At the same time, delivering instruction to an adult is highly challenging. It requires us to break down the existing rules in a person’s mind, and then work to re-teach them the correct way to do something. A classroom of adult students mandates a high level of mutual respect between instructor and teacher. Humility from the instructor and teaching at eye-level are integral to the outcomes of a lesson taught.
Enclosed, please find “The Art of Teaching a High School Dropout,” an essay highlighting my experiences as an inmate GED and literacy instructor. Should you choose, you have my full permission to use this essay and letter on your website, blog or editorial projects. It offers an alternative perspective to your audience, showing how inmates embrace the importance of literacy as part of their plan for success upon release.
Thank you again for all of your efforts. ProLiteracy’s mission not only improves the lives of so many people, but it also motivates inmates like me to help execute your goal of achieving greater adult literacy. Above all, your platform gives inmates the greatest possible gift: resources that help individuals make meaningful progress toward their second chance at life.
The Art of Teaching a High School Dropout
Insights from a federal inmate on teaching adults who previously dropped out of school
Teaching is one of the most rewarding experiences in the world. To play a role in another individual’s education and learning means giving them an unquantifiable gift. Being an ambitious kid growing up with an entrepreneurial mind, I never thought I would be one to teach, let alone teach in prison. However, as I enter my third year of incarceration, I have come to appreciate the invaluable role that teachers play in society, and how teaching is an art form, guided by the soul of the instructor.
Growing up, I was a stellar student who excelled at most everything I put my mind to. But I did not realize how much of a role teachers played in my academic success. My ego told me that it was my own talents and drive that were exclusively at play. But really, it was my teachers who pushed me past my own limits. Whether it was my third-grade teacher, college professor, law school faculty member, or my parents, each of these instructors played critical roles in helping me evolve into a student who was eager to learn. But despite this hard work from a wide supporting cast, I did not have a full appreciation for teaching as a career, and all that went into it. I actually never understood why people decided to become teachers. After all, it seemed like a lot of work, with less-than-average pay. Arrogant in my thought process, I thought that “those who cannot do, teach.” I was wrong.
When I came to prison, I had so much guilt for my actions, the same remorse I possess to this day. Knowing that I had taken so much from society, I wanted to give back in any way I could. Intrigued by the prospect of being a teacher to inmates, I realized that I was blessed, having been afforded every scholastic opportunity available. With all the educational support I had received as a child, I wanted to be able to provide that same encouragement to those who did not have the same opportunities. The first eye-opening realization was that teaching is not a science, where there is a defined style, strategy, and formula. Rather, teaching is a malleable art form that evolves with each classroom, skill level, and learning environment. It requires gauging the class’s comprehension level and adjusting the speed of the progression accordingly. Teachers must help every student understand the concepts, despite the differences in learning style, speed, and natural ability.
But this was not traditional school teaching, this was prison. Half of the camp had not graduated high school, with a third of those individuals not having completed the ninth grade either. Nearly 25% of the camp could not read. To increase the complexity, by virtue of being incarcerated these were also the “bad kids of society.” Every student was an ex-gangbanger or drug dealer. Early on in my journey, I scoured books on teaching, reading everything I could on how to become an effective teacher. There were only a small handful of books that guided teachers on how to instruct rowdy and unwilling kids. But there was nothing that guided a teacher on how to teach the rebellious adult. So here I was in front of classroom of the so-called “bad guys,” except they were all grown up and most were older than me. These were not just unruly school-skipping teenagers who still had impressionable minds. These were defiant adults who dropped out of school 15 years prior and were set in their ways.
I had no choice but to give it my best shot, learning along the way. There were numerous challenges, hiccups, and points in time where I believed nothing would work. There were even moments when I wanted to give up. But as time progressed, I became more confident in my teaching ability and saw how true improvement was being made. These guys were learning. More significantly, they were wanting to learn more!
As I look back to how my teaching style evolved, there were unplanned changes I made along the way that yielded positive shifts in students’ attitudes. In fact, I came to understand that the problem was not the students, but it was me! Now entering my third year as a teacher at multiple prisons, I have had the opportunity to play the role of a teacher to over 1,000 inmates in a variety of capacities. During this experience, I have learned so much about the role of an instructor, and have identified five keys to teaching adults who have previously dropped out of school.
- Teach at Eye Level. Prior to incarceration, I believed I always had the answer, and my ego directed traffic accordingly. So I believed my fancy degrees and knowledge of the material would make me a qualified teacher. Wrong. Even though I was teaching them sixth-grade material, I could not talk to them like they were in sixth grade. Talking down to a group of “alpha males” is not a great idea. Everything you teach about must be at eye-level. If at any moment the students believe you are talking from up on a cloud, the class completely “checks out,” or worse, they get offended.
- Earning the Respect of the Student is Critical. By virtue of being a teacher, you are viewed as an authority figure. In prison, that is a bad thing. In fact, for most of these guys, authority figures have been the enemy for most of their lives. They need to believe you are their peer. Sure, you may not have lived a hard life on the streets like them, but you are now wearing the same uniform. Building trust, establishing mutual respect, and maintaining confidentiality, no matter what, is key. Plus, if you admit that you are learning alongside them, they will respect you for sharing your own flaws despite being at the front of the class.
- Build, Burn, Build. Providing a critique to a tough-minded student is often not well-received. When giving feedback, it is vital to build a student up first by highlighting a strength, delicately integrating the area that needs improvement, and then finishing with an uplifting vote of encouragement. For example: “Wow, your writing has gotten so much better. I would love to see your topic sentence be clearer in introducing the paragraph. With your great writing quality, this paragraph will look even more professional.” This not only builds their confidence, but it allows them to digest the constructive feedback you are offering them.
- Application to Real-Life Scenarios. Lessons should integrate real-life scenarios that students encounter as adults. Remembering high school, there were many instances where I did not comprehend the relevance of the subject matter. Here, if students do not understand the purpose of an exercise, they will not do it. For grammar practice, the activity may focus on sending letters to their kids at home. For math, examples of household financial budgeting are used. For writing skills, we implement resumé writing or cover letter drafting. If students understand how the lesson is relevant to their lives, they will remain engaged.
- Motivation is equally important to the lesson itself. I learned that I am not just a teacher, but I have to be a motivator. As a teacher, it is impossible to teach students everything. However, we can create an environment where students become self-motivated to learn more. By inspiring your group with continual encouragement and motivation, you build their eagerness to learn. So when you see them reading a book outside of class to further their knowledge of a subject, you have fulfilled the motivational role of a teacher.
Teaching continues to be a learning process. Each day, I encounter a new failure or situation that I have not experienced before. But so long as I stay focused on these principles, I have confidence in my ability to connect with a classroom. Today, my group of students is more eager to learn than ever. Not only are they excited about all they are learning, but they visualize for the first time the path to a better life. Where toughness and rough edges were previously evident, they served as a façade for the lack of faith these individuals had in themselves. Knowing that I can play a role in building their self-belief helps me see, finally, the value teachers bring to society.