HMP Peterborough

Teaching English in a prison – changing lives for the better

Published on : 9/17/20
  • Laura Catalano has already experienced her fair share of variety in a career that began just four years ago. Now, 15 months into her role as English tutor at HMP Peterborough, she feels she may have found her niche. 

    “I worked for two years teaching in the community after gaining my TESOL (Teachers of English for Speakers of Other Languages) qualification in 2016 at Peterborough College,” says Laura. “My first two jobs gave me good experience of working with different class sizes and levels of ability. I was able to follow my urge to explore my Italian heritage and did a three-month internship in a private school, were I had the opportunity to teach both adults and children.”

    Feeling that she enjoyed working with adults more, Laura started her job search after returning to the UK in July 2018.  

    Laura Catalano

    Pictured: Laura Catalano

    “I saw the job at HMP Peterborough advertised while I was still in Italy but I didn’t apply. I wasn’t sure a prison role was for me at first. But I reconsidered when another position came up and decided to find out more.”

    Part of Laura’s interview involved a 15 minute ‘micro-teach’ session with residents and it was this that convinced her she was in the right place. “I felt comfortable straight away,” she says. 

    She now teaches City and Guilds English at Levels 1 and 2, Monday to Friday, as part of the prison’s Functional Skills educational programme. 

    Asked why she prefers the work to a community environment, she says it’s down to the reaction of her students.

    I feel that people are more appreciative of what we’re trying to do here. I teach classes with a range of abilities, from those who have degrees to individuals who cannot read or write. Many students might not have had a chance to study before, or had a bad experience at school. We have an opportunity to change that.

    Laura says one of the major differences between working in community education and a prison environment is the teaching method. “With TESOL, you very much create your own resources and lesson plans, but here we work tightly to the City & Guilds curriculum. We deliberately try and create an atmosphere that doesn’t feel like a school, to help people who may have had negative experiences to engage with the lessons.”

    One of the ways that Laura sees the best results is through peer to peer tutoring. These are residents who support her in a teaching assistant’s role. “We find that people are more likely to respond positively to a peer who understands their situation on a one-to-one level,” she says. 

    She also gets a boost from seeing reluctant students get the bug for education. “That’s the most enjoyable part of this job ¬– when someone starts a class saying they can’t do it and then they go on to really achieve. I remember one example of a lady who was from a traveller background and hadn’t had access to education growing up. We started at very basic level learning to help her to read and write; she progressed so well that she received recognition at our quarterly achievement awards.”

    Laura recognises that there will be individuals who pose a tougher challenge.

    Some are adamant they won’t engage with functional skills courses, but there are so many other learning avenues we can offer – cookery and art classes, a cleaning academy, workshops, gym classes and more.

    It’s that sense of all departments working together that helps Laura feel they can make a difference. “If I’m finding anything difficult – professionally or personally – I know my line manager and the wider education team will support me. And I’ve never felt unsafe. I know that if I have an issue in class our prison officers are going to be there quickly.”

    Ultimately they are all working for the same outcome – to help people turn a negative experience in their life into a positive one. 

    “I tell my students that I’m not here to judge; I don’t know their crimes and I don’t want to. I’m here to facilitate, encourage and educate.” 

    Think you'd enjoy this kind of opportunity to help change lives through education? Visit Sodexo Jobs to find out more.