Jailhouse Teacher and GIVE Award Winner – Cathy Johnson

It is National Volunteer Week, and time to salute those who give to their communities.  One of my favorite volunteers is Cathy Johnson, who just won the Mississippi Commission for Volunteer Service Outstanding Achievement in Education Award.

Johnson has been an adult education teacher all of her adult life.  She began by teaching soldiers GED skills in Germany in the mid seventies.  As she moved from post to post with her Army husband she applied for adult education positions in each new location.  Invariably, this would lead to the only opening available, which was in the city, or county jail where she would teach basic academic skills associated with receiving a General Equivalency Diploma (GED) to the inmates.  She has worked in five jails in five different states.

When she moved to Mississippi in 1995 upon her husband’s retirement from the Army, she accepted a job with Hinds Community College teaching inmates at the Hinds County Jail, located in downtown Jackson.  She loved her job, but the administrative paperwork associated with it continued to grow and eventually detracted from the teaching environment and became too much of a burden.In 2003 she quit her association with Hinds Community College and continued to work in the jail to this day as a volunteer.  She teaches four classes a week, two to male inmates and two to female inmates.  Over the course of her teaching downtown she has proudly been able to achieve more than 55 GED graduates, an amazing accomplishment considering that she often loses her students as they are transferred to other jails, or eventually freed.  She has no control over how long her students remain in her classroom.

Cathy is a born teacher.  She communicates with her students is a non-threatening manner.  They quickly understand that she is there to help them gain or improve skills that they may not have used for many years.  Unlike most students, hers literally beg her for homework.  They come to class excited to turn the work they completed in their cells and eagerly await her assessment of their work.

Although stern when she needs to be, she creates an environment conducive to learning.  She sees students almost every day have what she refers to as a “light bulb moment” when they suddenly capture a concept that they had never understood before.  Since her students have such different academic backgrounds and skills, she quickly has to assess what student needs what skill.  Basically, she has five separate subjects to teach to ready them to pass the GED: writing, reading,  math, social studies, and science.

Cathy’s real gift is allowing and encouraging her students to not be afraid to ask the “dumb question”.  She often strays from the subject matter to answer a question that might have no bearing on what they are talking about, because she feels that making everyone comfortable in a classroom is the only way to really impart knowledge.As important as the basic skills are, these students need life skills.  Most come from broken homes and have not had the luxury of growing up with parental role models.  They often lack even basic communication skills and have lived most of their lives without the love, care and concern of an adult guiding their way.  It is obvious, however, that they do want to learn and they do want to be better people.

For many, Cathy is the first adult in their lives who has actually cared about them.  She takes the time to ensure every student’s need are met.  She treats each one with respect and in return they eagerly anticipate their time in the classroom where they know someone will be there to help them.It is important to note that Cathy teaches in a room by herself with absolutely no protection.  Her students are in for a myriad of offenses up to and including murder.  These are not white color crimes.  For many years she has been asked if she were ever afraid to teach hardened criminals and her answer was best delivered by one of her students who said: “Don’t worry Mrs. J, is someone messes with you, we will take them out”.  This is a very true and apt statement of the affection and respect that they have for Cathy.

Cathy Johnson is a unique teacher.  She doesn’t work from a detailed lesson plan, and in fact her lessons for the day are often shaped by questions from the students.  If they want to know about government she teaches government and draws the three arms of government on the board and talks in detail about each one and what they do.  If a question comes up about the Civil War, the topic of the day will be the Civil War.  Interestingly, most of her students couldn’t tell you what century the Civil War was in, or World War II for that matter.  She is plowing fertile ground in any subject discussed.

Sheriff Malcolm McMillin is Cathy’s unofficial boss.  He has long admired the success Cathy enjoys with his prisoners – and her students.  Cathy asks for little in the way of support, but when she needs something for her classroom she marches into the Sheriff’s office and tells him.  He will provide whatever it is she needs.  Recently, after using the same blackboard for 14 years, she asked for a new one.  The old one was totally worn out.  Within a couple of weeks, a brand new board appeared and Cathy began filling up this one like she did the other one.  The Sheriff’s respect and admiration for Cathy led to her receiving the Sheriff’s Star of Community Service award in 2006 in front of a crowd of 400 people.Cathy doesn’t just teach; sometime she’ll preach.  She talks in definitive terms about how they can be successful when they get out and how to act in public.  She won’t let them get away with street language and ebonics without telling them that there is a time and place to use that form of language, and a time and place to clean it up and speak so that everyone can understand them.  If someone acts up in class and is disruptive she takes charge and sets them straight – FAST, much to the delight of the other students.

The atmosphere is constantly one of mutual respect; Cathy asks nothing of the students that she wouldn’t expect of herself, and they know that;  it is cordial and unthreatening.   Any question is fair game and she takes them all on.  When she doesn’t know the answer, she goes to the Encyclopedia and finds out.  If that doesn’t answer it, she comes home at night and researches it and reports back to the class the next day.

Cathy understands a classroom should not be all work and no play.  She bought a TV and DVD for the classroom, and will show movies to her students on some days.  Being a graduate of Marshall University, site of  the horrific airplane tragedy in 1970, she showed the class “We Are Marshall,” mainly because of the great message of hope that it has.  She carefully picks films that have life messages that can be easily understood by  the students. Additionally, Cathy routinely has parties for her classes.  Using her own money, she brings in food and beverages whenever a student earns their GED.  She provides a cap and gown and has a ceremony celebrating their accomplishment.  She is constantly buying her students dictionaries and other books that she gives to them.  One would be surprised how treasured a dictionary isto someone who will be in jail for a long time.

In 2010, Cathy not only worked in the County jail, but she also volunteered at Marshall Elementary School in South Jackson by reading to third graders.  Education is her passion and teaching is her gift.

In short, Cathy Johnson is an amazing person who gives freely of her time and money in order to help others. She does so without fanfare and expects nothing in return.  Over the years she has received hundreds of cards and letters from her students in appreciation for what she does, and particularly, how she does it.  It is fair to say that she may be the only teacher in the country who daily receives the best accolade one could ever hope for, and that is a student simply saying “Thank You for being here and helping me”.

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