Up close to a prison educator’s rage at injustice

Sharon Pittaway
Lecturer in Curriculum at the University of Tasmania

At Mannus CC, Fed Rep Debbie Harris (far left) protests against moves to axe teachers

A number of years ago, when an educational program I had been intimately involved in was scrapped at the end of its two-year development period, I was angry. I felt disempowered and believed my team’s work over the preceding two years had not been valued by senior decision-makers.

I fought strongly for the decision to be overturned but my concerns were not taken seriously. If they were, other considerations (mainly budgetary ones) were deemed to be more important than the educational value of the program.

At the time, a senior colleague took me aside and advised: “Sharon, if there’s a choice between peace and justice, always choose peace.”

But choosing peace meant accepting things the way they were, and that didn’t feel right to me, not when the things I was being asked to accept were not right and not fair. Why did others get to make decisions about things that didn’t affect them had an impact on others (people I cared about), and why didn’t I have a say in the decision-making process? I had a stake in this too.

Peace felt too much like giving in, giving up, not fighting for what was right and fair, not fighting for my students and my colleagues.

Choose peace.

My sister Debbie Harris* works in a NSW correctional centre as a Senior Correctional Education Officer. In May, the NSW state government decided that inmates no longer need qualified teachers to teach them and so Deb and her team of teachers will be out of work by the end of the year. Education, the bedrock of a civil society, will no longer be offered by qualified teachers.

Even though the decision that will change her professional life was made some time ago Debbie is still angry. She feels disempowered. Her work and the work of her colleagues has not been valued; the relationships with her students and the significance of those relationships to the lives of those students have not been valued. They threw out her work as if it doesn’t matter — but it does matter.

Choose peace.

Debbie is angry. She still feels the sting of this decision months after it was made. She is fighting for justice and cannot settle for peace. She could walk away, not get involved, accept the inevitability of the situation — but she’s fighting for others, the inmates who require expertise and experience from their teachers.

Misty Adoniou [Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra], writing in The Conversation recently, concludes that “we claim that professional, qualified and quality teachers are crucial to improving learning outcomes and the economic health of the nation. But we pursue policies that don’t put these teachers in front of our most marginalised students” (theconversation.com/columns/misty-adoniu-107235).

Adoniou is talking about students learning English as an additional language, and those with disabilities. But she could just as easily be talking about inmates in NSW gaols.

Debbie feels the injustice of the decision to remove qualified teachers from NSW gaols deeply — it goes against what she knows is just and she rails against it, wanting it to be different, knowing that it could be different.

She doesn’t want to settle for the way things are, but it’s more than that. It’s a value deeply held: that when things aren’t right we shouldn’t stand back and let them happen. We should fight for others and for what we believe.

Choose peace.

But Debbie has chosen justice.

She feels that there will be no peace without justice and so she continues to fight.

I do hope, however, that Debbie will eventually find peace.

Dr Sharon Pittaway is lecturer in Curriculum at the University of Tasmania

*Mannus CC educator Debbie Harris exploded the myths behind the government’s plan to privatise gaol teaching in “Gaols and jobs furphy needs to be exposed”, Education, August 22