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“Teachers: More than Just Educators”- A Letter from SCI Greene

Last week I received a letter from Sergio Hyland, a 32 year old man currently incarcerated in State Correctional Institution Greene in Waynesburg, PA.and the son of a school teacher. This was his second letter to PSU (the first can be read here) and echoed the theme of the first- a call to action to “save our schools.” For years, we at PSU have been committed to dismantling the School To Prison Pipeline. We witness first hand the damaging effects a rapidly expanding Prison Industrial Complex has on our communities, and the communities and families of the students who make up our membership. This year we saw the P.I.C. rear it’s racist and classist head again, by way of Governor Corbett’s spending of nearly half a billion dollars this year on prison expansion while the School District of Philadelphia was forced to lay off over 4,000 employees at the beginning of the school year due to a budget deficit of $304 million.

Sergio Hyland, is a member of an ever growing under-class of citizens incarcerated in the Commonwealths 26 correctional institutions. His letter offers both personal reflection and a clearly articulated description the immeasurable impact teachers have on the lives of their students, and by default, society as whole. Sergio’s words and opinions are his own and are not a direct reflection of PSU’s position. His letter is reprinted in it’s entirety, because as he defines in his letter: “Teaching is about humanity; caring for your neighbors. Qualities most teachers still possess.” Hopefully you are able to learn as much from Sergio, as we did.

– Hiram Rivera, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Student Union



I was always the oddball in school. The black sheep. I was the one who always sat in the back of the classroom, distracted- and being a distraction. At such a young age, I couldn’t understand why I was so easily frustrated; mad at the world, and everybody in it. I was constantly in trouble at school; detentions and suspensions.

Recently, I had a conversation with a person who I have a tremendous amount of respect for. And the reason why I have this respect for is because even though our lives have turned out differently, we grew up under almost the exact same circumstances and conditions. While I can’t mention this person by name, I can say that he’s a teacher for the state of Pennsylvania’s department of corrections. The conversation that we have, struck a nerve, and caused me to reflect upon certain past teachers of mine.

See, I’m not the most knowledgeable of his students, and at times, I find it difficult to understand even the most simple of concepts. But I try. And try. And try. He could have gotten ride of me a long time ago, in order to replace me with somebody seemingly better suited for the job. But he hasn’t. And not long ago, he explained why.

Our conversation was pretty long. Too long to share in just a few short paragraphs. But, to sum it up, he expressed that he saw something in me worth investing in. And he gave me every assurance that, while he won’t take it easy on me, he would give me every opportunity to learn what he was teaching.

In prison, its not a very popular decision for a staff member to do something positive for a prisoner. The “us-versus-them” mentality is too strong an influence for most staff to resist. Those who do find the strength and courage to resist it, are an undeniable oddity. A staff member sticking his/her neck out for a prisoner, is akin to the hen defending the fox. I understand that sad reality. Nevertheless, that reality is what continues to push me to prove that he made the right decision in sticking his neck out for me- a prisoner who he hardly know, but respects enough to believe in.

To understand why this is so important to me, I’ll have to take you back to when I was in middle school. My seventh-grade teacher, Mr. Kligger, didn’t know me from a can of paint, but for some reason, he decided to go out of his way to show me that he cared. He did the small things that really mattered, like making me sit right next to his desk- away from the other students. That way, I’d stay out of certain kinds of trouble. On special class projects, he made sure that I played a role in their completion. None of my other teachers ever even allowed me to participate. He made me feel like I belonged. In doing so, I got the chance to build good friendships that still exist today. More importantly, others got the opportunity to know the real me. I hated being out of his class, because when I wasn’t, trouble seemed to find me.

Taking notice, Mr. Kligger sat me down with the school disciplinarian- Mr. R.. They both let me know how they believed in me, but that I was doing myself a disservice by wasting my potential with my poor behavior. They told me how everybody thought I was a failure, and that I could prove them wrong.

Everyday after that, Mr. Kligger and Mr. R took time to check on me and make sure that I was staying out of trouble-in and out of the classroom. And because of their dedication and confidence in me, I believed I owed it to them to not let them down. I wanted to prove to them that they have made the right decision, and weren’t wasting their time on me. I wanted them to be able to look into the eyes of those who had given up on me and say, “I told you so.”

And that’s exactly what happened.

But the seventh grade only lasted for a yea. A couple of months into the eighth grade, I found myself being expelled, and sent to an “alternative” school, where everybody passed every class (wink!).

While I was happy to be moving on, I couldn’t take pride in this “accomplishment”. There was no “Mr. Kligger” and “Mr. R”. Just a bunch of strangers, more concerned with the bottom line, than whether or not I was truly being prepared for the real world. Business as usual.

When I assert my belief that my lack of success, and subsequent incarceration, can be blamed on a lack of “Mr. Kliggers” and “Mr. Rs”, throughout my life and throughout my overall school experience, I can understand why the reader may feel as if I’m “pointing fingers”.

In fact, I agree. I AM pointing fingers and placing blame. But I do- and always will-take responsibility for the wrongs that I’ve done. Still, that doesn’t absolve the system for its lack of understanding, concern, and appreciation for what I and millions of other students want, need, and desire, to be successful, productive members of the world community.

I don’t blame my failures on “poor” teachers. But I do blame many of those teachers for giving up on me. No child should ever be given up on-regardless of that child’s history, attitude, or behavior-because we all are subject to change. As a child, I may have acted as if I didn’t care, but I did. And though I haven’t seen or heard from Mr. Kilgger or Mr. R in almost 20 years, I still feel as if I let them down. But my life is far from over, and I have plenty of time to redeem myself, my family, and those who ever believed in me.

So, what does all this have to do with prison?! Everything! My teacher went to bat for me, when he could have easily let me go. Somehow, he saw something in me that made him want to keep me around. And because of that, I feel as though I owe it to him to be a success. I’ve put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself to become an expert at something that, just a few months ago, I know almost nothing about.

I love the Philadelphia public school system, and I know that the Philadelphia School District produces some of the nations finest teachers. But those teachers’ success will-and should-only be judged by the success of their students. And when I say “success”, I’m not simply talking about standardized test scores. Teaching has many inherent characteristics- what coaches like to call “intangibles”. Teaching is about humanity; caring for your neighbors. Qualities that most teachers still possess. Corporate-backed bureaucratic attempts to gut those qualities from teaching, must be stopped at all costs.

Teachers should come from the same communities that their students come from, and they should take pride in not just teaching, but knowing that for the rest of their lives, their students will remain a clear representation of what their teachers were. And more teachers need to take more chances on the child who feels out of place; the so called “incorrigible”.

Teachers make a difference. It may have taken a while to realize that, but I know, now.

So continue to fight for your positions; fight for your unions; and fight for your schools to stay open. But never forget that the most important fight, is for the students.

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