Teacher Katherine Wolverton-Maki never checks her new students’ records. She doesn’t want their past mistakes to influence their future in her classroom.
It’s fair to say her students have made their share of mistakes — and we’re not just talking spelling.
Wolverton-Maki teaches inmates at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Lino Lakes. In a rare move, colleagues nominated and recommended her for Minnesota Teacher of the Year. She has been named one of 39 semifinalists.
The Department of Corrections’ director of adult eduction praises her ability to look past the “convict” label and focus on the “learner” in each of her students.
“I don’t want any preconceived notions about my students,” explains Wolverton-Maki. “It doesn’t matter what you did. You’re my student now.”
About 20 percent of the 1,300 inmates at Lino Lakes prison do not have a high school diploma or GED. Wolverton-Maki helps inmates pursue that goal. It’s often a mandated part of their prison sentences. Minnesota Department of Corrections is the second-largest adult basic education provider in the state, according to State Department of Education.
“Offender students often feel shame, embarrassment, anger and resentment toward their education, and Katie is able to give the students a safe place to learn and let down their guard,” said Melissa Callahan, educational director at Lino Lakes, in a letter of recommendation.
Wolverton-Maki’s classroom at Lino Lakes prison is as challenging as a one-room schoolhouse.
She teaches a classroom of about 25 adult men whose education levels range from fourth grade to high school. Their rap sheets range from felony drunken driving to murder.
Wolverton-Maki teaches all subjects, including English, algebra and composition. Inmates with high school diplomas act as her classroom tutors, grading papers and providing one-on-one help.
She largely creates her own lesson plans. Her class is ever-shifting as inmates come and go.
And there’s no summer vacation: Prison teachers work year-round.
Still, she worries that she’s not doing enough. “I always worry if I am getting to everyone, meeting their needs,” she says. “They really need the one-on-one.”
Dreamed of kindergarten
Wolverton-Maki, 43, stumbled into adult education. When she returned to college in the late 1990s to earn her teaching degree, she dreamed of a kindergarten classroom.
She did shape young minds for a few years, teaching remedial reading and math at a variety of Twin Cities elementary schools.
Wolverton-Maki is bubbly, bright-eyed and quick to praise. It’s easy to see her working with small children.
But she tired of chasing special-education jobs that came and went, so she applied for a prison teaching job in 2009. Much to her surprise, she landed it. She worked at the prison in Rush City before transferring to Lino Lakes.
“I’d have a stomach ache for two weeks driving up there. I’d never taught adults,” Wolverton-Maki said. “Do I remember how to teach algebra and geometry?” she worried those first weeks on the job.
Wolverton-Maki quickly found that the basics of good teaching still apply, even in a prison classroom: structure, routine and respect. “If you treat students with respect, you get it back,” she said.
She’s still bubbly and chatty. As she talked students through a recent vocabulary lesson, there was a healthy back-and-forth between teacher standing at the whiteboard and the students seated around tables.
“They are going to try and mess you up. We are going to be smarter than the test,” she tells the class, referring to the GED.
One major difference here, compared to past teaching jobs, is there are no hugs or pats on the backs. But there’s still celebration.
During a lesson break, Carlos Castillo stood in front of the class and received a spirited round of applause from his classmates. He’d earned his GED and Wolverton-Maki took a minute to acknowledge it.
“We miss having you in class. You’re a nice addition,” she said.
Her colleagues point to her special-education experience as critical to her success. Teachers throughout the Department of Corrections reach out to her for advice, said Lino Lakes computer teacher Michael Klinkerfues.
“She’s known as an expert in special education,” Klinkerfues said.
Many of her inmate students come to her classroom with a string of failures in traditional school settings. She works to supplant those negative childhood experiences with some academic success.
“I always talk about figuring out what kind of learner are you. Are you visual or audio? Do you need to move around? Are you tactile?” Wolverton-Maki explained.
Different ways to teach
Doug Shull is in Wolverton-Maki’s class. Two decades ago he quit high school to work with his father as a pipefitter. It’s a decision he’s regretted over the years. After being sentenced to prison for felony drunken driving, Shull, 42, decided to use this time to earn his GED.
“I started out almost reading children’s books,” Shull said.
As a child, he struggled in school and was easily frustrated. Under Wolverton-Maki’s tutelage, he’s now passed four parts of the GED exam.
“She can teach you several different ways. She will show you one way. If that doesn’t seem to click with you, she can show you a different format,” Shull said.
He said Wolverton-Maki’s cheerfulness makes her classroom appealing.
Shull knows that having his GED will help him land a job on the outside.
“It might open some other opportunities for me,” Shull said.
But finishing school also is a matter of pride. Shull said he looks forward to facing his father and his young son with his GED.
“I am proud. I can look back and say I’ve done it,” Shull said.
The state’s teachers’ union, Education Minnesota, will announce the Teacher of the Year on May 5.