Teaching Young Offenders: A Spirituality of Practice

Teaching Young Offenders


Reflecting back on my own career in education, first as a secondary music teacher, then as principal of an elementary school, I recall my expressed desire to “make a difference in the world” as the reason for my vocation. Idealistic and naive words, coming from a hopeful young lover of music and art and poetry, newly minted from teacher’s college with grand plans to ignite love of learning and self-expression in my lucky students. Of course, the realities of the demands of the role quickly took their toll on my romantic idealism and I found myself struggling to impart curriculum, manage behaviors, meet administrator expectations, and find my way in a landscape that challenged my assumptions about teaching and learning.

What became a pivotal experience for me was securing a teaching position at Syl Apps Campus, in Oakville, Ontario, the school found within a maximum security detention centre for young offenders. It was here that all of my assumptions about teaching and learning were tempered and I embarked on what would be the formative work of discovering how I could truly “make a difference in the world.”

My young students were largely representative of a very marginalized, very impoverished—in all senses of that word—segment of the population. Most were victims before they were offenders. Their educational backgrounds were fragmented, interrupted by trauma and loss, and wholly inadequate to the task of preparing them for success academically. Many of my students had attended upwards of twenty different schools in their short academic histories. Teachers and schools were not friendly people or places for this population of learners.

Mine was the task of teaching English and instrumental music to groups of often young, transient, (students were frequently moved to other facilities or abruptly released), and disenchanted learners. Early on I realized that mastering music notation was secondary to guiding my students “on an inner journey toward more truthful ways of seeing and being in the world” (Palmer, “Teaching with Heart and Soul” 54).

Like many well-trained teachers, I set out to deliver strong, curriculum-based lessons at grade and ability level, only to discover, usually dramatically, through eruptions of rage and frustration untempered by typical behavioral constraints, that I was singularly missing the mark.

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