Teaching Employability in Prisons: Tony McGuire’s Harmony of Emotional Resilience and Building Instruction
Tony McGuire – a member of Community Resilience Initiative, and an instructor for Walla Walla Community College at the Washington State Penitentiary- had divided his Building Maintenance class into random groups where white supremacists may be working on the same team as Native Americans. This choice was intentional; “there’s no affiliation on a job site, so you don’t get that here,” Tony told his students. Yet not long after the start of such teamwork, tools began flying. One student was cussing, his eyes darting back and forth. Noticing the augmenting anger, Tony interrupted with advice for the student to take some deep breaths, and step aside for one minute.
The student sat down as Tony attempted to problem-solve.
On the surface, Tony’s three-month long course is diverse in topic; any given six-hour class may range from toxic stress in childhood to detailed instruction on how to “gut” a bathroom. However, his overarching hope for his students is simple- to create an atmosphere of success in a job setting. Thus, as he teaches about physical tools of building modification, he incorporates emotional tools of employability- awareness of our own traumatic pasts and resilience building.
Tony began this teaching approach having learned about the 10 ACEs from CRI; he realized that he himself had suffered consequences of his eight adverse childhood experiences. After much training by CRI on neuroplasticity, survival mode, the limbic system and the executive state, Tony learned that his trauma does not define him, that he can choose how he reacts to that which triggers him, and that everybody is capable of healing. It is with this knowledge and humility that he teaches incarcerated men that they have the ability to change and heal from their own traumas.
It starts with learning names.
“I learn their names, which is really key. It builds a bit of a relationship with them where they see that I’m taking the time to get to know them.” Tony weaves in the resilience strategy of the presence of a caring adult. “By the end of the first day, I know every one of their names.”
During the second week of the course, in a presentation about the ACEs, he teaches his students about their executive brain state, their limbic system, survival mode, and how quickly we can move between each zone. “Where are you functioning every day in my class?” he asks.
Yet he ultimately emphasizes choice. “I share my story that I’m an 8 out of 10. But I’m here by choice to teach you a tool. You’re a number, but your character defines you.” Every day beyond the ACEs presentation, the men in Tony’s class are taught a resilience building block- both in presentation form, in practice, and in modeling. For example, Tony uses the resilience strategy, “verbally saying, ‘I love you'”, to highlight communication, and encourages the incarcerated men to verbalize what they’re feeling. He teaches communication and the language of feelings to his students, who, as men, he’s observed only being labeled as angry or happy. And while still holding his students accountable, he gives them freedom to problem-solve.
It’s with this approachability, paired with education, that Tony achieves incredible successes in his class. “My philosophy is that we’re all one mistake away from prison. We think we [as teachers] have to hold this higher standard, but if our students know we’ve struggled, they’re more apt to relate to us and find us more approachable.”
Finally, Tony encourages teamwork, which his students have grown to deeply value.
After a few minutes of fiercely thumbing through his book, the student who had previously been throwing tools asked, “Mr. McGuire, can I talk to you?”
“Oh boy,” Tony silently worries.
But the student says, “I’ve gotta finish this quarter with this team. I’ve been a quitter my whole life, and I cannot quit this team. Let me calm down and I’ll go apologize. I’ve gotta make this work.”
And in awe, Tony watched his student, not even 20 minutes after his outburst, apologize to his classmates, and accept ownership of his actions. Shortly thereafter, the team was working together, asking questions, learning.
“Outside [the penitentiary], he would have just hit someone. But that day, he pointed to where he made the choice not to hit someone. And in 45 minutes, he went from survival state to executive mode,” Tony applauds. “That kind of stuff to me is priceless.”
Tony ended that day with what he himself learned in class: “You want to know what I learned today? I learned that resiliency works. And I am super proud of your actions.”
Tony McGuire will be a presenter at the 2018 Beyond Paper Tigers Trauma-Informed Conference.