Teacher in Maximum-Security Prison Almost Missed Her Calling

Every day, teacher Jody Addy walks through a metal detector, waits for a pat down, shows her ID and passes through locked gates before walking to her classroom in the middle of a maximum security prison in west central Texas.

Windham School District teacher Jody Addy teaches a class at the Robertson Unit in Abilene, Texas on Dec. 4, 2015. Addy has taught correctional education for 20 years and recently received the 2015 Lane Murray Excellence in Teaching award.

ABILENE –  Jody Addy walks through a metal detector, waits for a pat down, shows her ID and passes through locked gates before walking into her classroom, which is in the middle of a maximum-security prison in west central Texas.

Since 1995, Addy has walked the same path to teach literacy skills at the Robertson Unit, an all-male prison. It's a job she once spurned but now has held for more than 20 years at the prison. The congenial 47-year-old was honored this fall for teaching excellence in the Windham School District, which serves inmates throughout Texas.

Her colleagues say she helps prisoners realize their potential, and she believes that educating offenders gives them a chance at a legitimate life and repairs the damage they have done.

"I teach people who have wreaked havoc in their communities," Addy said. "The consequence of not doing this is dire."

Windham has partnered since 1969 with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to teach thousands of state prisoners, preparing students for GED completion and for trades such as construction, landscaping and welding.

Inmates in Windham programs typically function at a sixth-grade level, are in their early 30s and have little or no confidence that they will find employment after being released, according to a district performance report. Many also don't see a productive future for themselves.

The district's mission: to prevent inmates from offending again by giving them skills to lead more honest lives after being released.

Addy said that when she tells people about her job, most are encouraged that there's a way to help transition offenders "from criminality to a life of civility."

But "you always have someone who says, 'Why? Lock them up and throw away the key,'" she said.

An unlikely job

As a college student in Huntsville, Addy imagined she'd hate the job she has now.

One day, Addy and a friend were checking out the Texas Prison Museum during a break from class. Among the exhibits: Texas' electric chair, "Old Sparky," a Texas Prison Rodeo exhibit and displays about the state's infamous criminals.

But, for Addy, another stood out.

"We came upon this exhibit for Windham School District," she recalled. "I was getting a certificate, but I didn't know if I was going to teach. I looked at that and said, 'Man, I'm never gonna teach there,' really loud."

A stranger overheard.

"There was a man standing there," Addy said, "and he looked at me and said, 'Are you kidding me? That's the best place in the world to teach.'"

After graduation, Addy taught briefly overseas before returning to the United States. Looking for a new job, she thought of Windham – and remembered that stranger, whose name she never learned.

"That guy kept flooding back, so I checked, and they had a job opening," she said. "Of course they did. It was my destiny."

Making lessons relevant

Addy's colleagues say she stands out not because of her longevity but because of her compassion and innovative teaching style. She can compress history, math and everyday life lessons into a three-hour class period.

She lectured briefly last Friday on the history of the Tuskegee Airmen and the role Eleanor Roosevelt played in the all-black group of airmen becoming more prominent. Fluidly, she moved on to algebra, explaining how students can use it in vocational trades such as welding, and showed how to maintain spreadsheets and calculate monthly savings.

When a student suggested that someone could inflate the price on an estimate for a welding project, Addy offered a reality check.

"Honesty gets you more work," she said. "Dishonesty brings you back here."

Students say they enjoy Addy's versatility and sense she cares about them.

Kimothy Grigsby, 50, said students can talk to Addy not just about education but life problems, too. Grigsby has served almost 20 years of a 45-year sentence for murder. For him, getting an education will help him become a "stand-up guy," he said. In less than three years, he'll be up for parole.

Grigsby said he wants to be an example for his children and grandchildren. His job interests include painting, air conditioning and woodwork.

"I want to hold that certificate and show it to my kids and grandkids and say, 'Hey, this is it,'" he said. "Put a smile on their faces."

With a 10th-grade education, Cleggan Ware, 34, said he didn't appreciate at first Windham's value. Now, he's trying to better understand math and wants another chance to use his barber and construction skills.

"I didn't think it was important," he said. "I didn't want for nothing. I could just sell drugs." Ware is serving a seven-year sentence for tampering with a government document.

Graduation serves as a pivotal moment for prisoners and their families, Windham spokeswoman Bambi Kiser said.

"They've not seen them succeed. Not academically. Maybe not at all," she said. "And they get hope instead of shutting hope out all the time."

Addy, who won the 2015 Lane Murray Excellence in Teaching Award, said society should have higher expectations for offenders and recognize that their success is meaningful because it's easy to go back to a life of crime.

"It's a lot of work to get out and stay out. A lot more than people think," Addy said. "But it's not impossible."