What I do

What I do: Clive Byass, teacher for court-mandated adults

Clive Byass Teaching men and women over 18 who are in conflict with the criminal justice system, Byass belongs to a non-DOE chapter, the Consortium for Worker Education. This non-profit agency is an arm of the New York City Central Labor Council, created to provide all New Yorkers access to career training programs. His site is the Osborne Association in the Bronx.

Students arrive in your classroom from where?

They come from different places — Rikers, the Bronx House of Detention, various state prisons. Some are on probation; some are sent here as an alternative to incarceration. Sometimes they are referred from drug rehab, and I have to speak to their counselors to make sure a student is really clean and ready for the classroom, based on drug testing twice a week.

What draws you to working with this population?

I worked with a similar population before, but younger. When I started working at Osborne 18 months ago I was pretty taken up with it; I had never met people who served such a long time in prison. I have one student who served 23 years and is taking his GED soon. The structure, counseling and intervention here at Osborne helps them a lot and it’s fulfilling to see them looking at life a different way, and to be part of that.

Is it hard not to judge students by their crimes?

There are so many different things listed I don’t remember who did what! But sometimes I’ll see what students did when I have to put something in their folders: using and selling drugs, robberies, serious felonies, murder. I don’t judge them; different situations cause different things. For one example, a student lost his parents very young and was in and out of abusive foster homes. He took to life on the streets to look for love and family. I don’t judge that.

So what’s a typical day with these atypical students?

In the morning, I have tutorial classes for my struggling students. In the afternoons, I teach regular classes for the GED. On my own time, I do math refreshers in our Green Career Center. I’ve been commended for doing that — they said they should name a classroom for me! — and I was flabbergasted, but it felt good to have my work recognized.

What are the challenges?

I don’t have many! The guys come along and do what they’re supposed to do. I have the backing of the counselor and program director, and everything runs well. Very few students wind up back in the system. Many get inspired to turn their lives around. Last year 12 of my students got their GEDs.

So the gratifications outweigh the challenges. Still, any hard moments?

One heartbreak, when a student fell by the wayside. He missed his GED by three points. I spoke to him easy, I spoke to him hard. He was just letting his life go. His parents gave up on him. He got hooked on artificial marijuana, K2, and missed retaking the GED. Eventually he was remanded to prison.

Any great moment in particular?

A student who was incarcerated twice, including spending seven years in the box, meaning locked away for bad behavior and allowed to come up one hour a day for sunlight, who I met after his second bid. Things didn’t start well between us. Every other word out of his mouth was filthy and I had to check him on it. He came around, he became a good student, no issues. Blew everything except math on the GED the first time but stuck with it and did exceptionally well the second time.

What kind of work have some of your students gone on to do?

Drug counselor. Commercial truckdriver. Track worker with Amtrak. Jobs in the green industry, building evaluators. One is currently enrolled in college in the liberal arts. Another who I lost touch with was enrolled at John Jay for a career in criminal justice. Another is with a major construction firm making more money than I do!

What do you wish for your students?

That they all turn their lives around and become decent contributing members of society, and that their children are not seeing dad going in and out of prison, but seeing dad get training and employment.

And to let the past be the past.

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