Zimbabwe-born teacher Allan Chidziva went from teaching with the Australian Defence Force to the South Coast Correction Centre in Nowra.
He said while his students changed dramatically, the principles of teaching remained the same.
“With the military, there is structure and everyone does what they’re told, but many behaviours change when people are incarcerated,” he said.
For many of the inmates, school was not a successful or enjoyable part of growing up.
Some were expelled, while others found themselves in the juvenile justice system and with no desire to learn.
“Managing that is difficult sometimes and jail is not a pleasant place,” Mr Chidziva said.
“To get them to a headspace where they’re willing to learn can be challenging because they’re dealing with a lot in their life.”
Drawing on experience of growing up in Zimbabwe
Mr Chidziva finished university in Zimbabwe in 2002 amid what he describes as “chaos and violence”.
With his wife, they fled to Australia in search of a stable environment to raise a family and secure careers.
He said his life experiences had helped shape the way he teaches his students.
“I’ve been lucky to grow up in different environments and in an African village, so coming to Victoria and along the way I’ve been able to gain communication skills so I can communicate with people of different backgrounds,” he said.
Changing people who are resigned to failure
Having worked in a variety of classroom settings, Mr Chidziva said teaching in a prison was the most satisfying job of all.
“You’re taking someone in a position where they’re resigned to not be able to achieve the things other people of their age have.
He said those basic skills had become even more important during times of lockdown and home learning.
“When they get out of prison, they can then help their kids with their homework or they can go to their child’s school teacher and communicate and maybe make better choices about their child’s health and nutrition, which is very satisfying,” Mr Chidziva said.
Bringing the bongos to jail
Music is central to Mr Chidziva’s African culture, and his instrument of choice is the bongo drums.
He said they can be a valuable teaching tool, as well as a source of entertainment for the inmates.
“Obviously the jail situation is hard to get things in, but we’ve been able to incorporate some music and the jail is a very multicultural community,” he said.
“Music is a universal language, so whether you’re learning maths or reading and writing, some people are keen to sing and you can put music in some of those subjects and make it into a song.”