Nominated by her peers at the Telford Unit in New Boston where she teaches cognitive intervention classes, Patterson was selected as the Windham School District’s Teacher of the Year for 2007.
“The number one reason is her heart,” Principal Yolonda Martin said about why Patterson was selected for the honor. “Her heart and her compassion are in this 100 percent, even on a bad day. You can give her the worst day in the world and she’s still smiling, she’s still moving forward. She never lets an obstacle bump her back. Besides her heart and compassion, she puts her mind into it, which means instead of coming to work and leaving from work, it’s 24 hours a day of her doing whatever she feels she needs to do to improve her classroom strategies.”
Patterson said she was both “shocked” and inspired by her selection.
“I didn’t really believe it because it wasn’t something I was looking for,” she said. “I wasn’t looking for any reward or recognition because I really don’t see the difference between what I do and what the other teachers do here or at any other unit.”
Ironically, Patterson didn’t want to become an educator like her parents had before her. As a youth, the idea of grading papers and making paper cutouts for the classroom bulletin board day after day just bored her to tears. Instead, she wanted to be a popular radio personality.
“My mom was a teacher and my father was a principal, so I tried to run as far away from education as I could,” she said. “I did not want to do that. But I found out later that that is what I was really called to do. It’s a full circle for me because, early in life, I wanted to be great. I wanted to be known. I wanted to be a star. But I found out that that was a very poor goal to have because it’s not about being great yourself, it’s about instilling greatness in others. That’s what makes you great, what you can do for other people.”
Patterson grew up in Chicago, Illinois and attended Illinois State University, where she majored in mass communications. She moved to Texarkana in 1990 but was disappointed to find a weak job market there for aspiring disc jockeys. So to make ends meet, she turned to filling in as a substitute teacher at the local high school.
“When I started substituting, I found that I really did enjoy teaching,” she said.
Patterson later earned her teaching certificate from East Texas State University and moved to a middle school in Texarkana as a full-time language arts teacher. While there, a colleague mentioned that Windham was looking for literacy teachers to work at the Telford Unit, which was then under construction. That was news to her.
“I had never known that there was education in a prison,” she said. “I had thought they were just in a cell and they didn’t have school. I didn’t know anything about prison education, and I really didn’t know anything about adult education. I had gone by what I had seen in the movies. In the movies, you don’t see offenders in a classroom learning. You don’t see them getting GEDs. You don’t see the person. You just see an inmate.”
Patterson began working at the Cole Unit in Bonham in March 1996 and moved to the maximum-security Telford facility as a literacy teacher six months later. For the past two years, she’s been teaching cognitive intervention classes, which are designed to change an offender’s behavior by changing the way he or she thinks.
“This is a rewarding job, but it’s a very difficult job,” she said. “You have to be very strong-minded, strong-willed. You have to be patient because it not something that happens overnight. You don’t see change the next day or the next week.”
Patterson said she strives to instill a strong sense of personal responsibility in her students.
“My primary goal as a teacher is to teach character, because I believe that character precedes intelligence,” she said. “You can be a very intelligent person and still be a jerk. One of the great satisfactions I get in this job is the knowledge that I have helped someone change from the inside out, change their perspective of who they are. They’re not all success stories, but what brings me satisfaction is that there are some students who will take the torch and pass it on to someone else who is looking for purpose and definition their life. I believe that goodness will win out, and it can spread from student to student, then to the entire unit.”
Patterson said improving an offender’s outlook can also improve the environment correctional officers work in by lowering the occurrences of confrontations.
“We explain to our students that the outward peace they seek in dealing with TDCJ officers begins with the peace they find within themselves,” she said. “Students that hold true to this idea are indeed making a difference in how they are interacting with other inmates and officers.”
Married 12 years, Patterson earned a master’s degree in adult education from Texas A&M University at Texarkana in May 2007. She plans to do some writing for correctional education publications and begin work on a counseling degree. In July, she will be traveling to Colorado to speak at a meeting of the Correctional Education Association.
Even though Patterson had to give up her dream of a career in radio, she says she’s content in having chosen correctional education as her life’s work.
“I’m happy with where I am now,” she said. “Now that I’m older, I really want to leave something for someone else, for my students. That’s why I put everything that I am and everything I have into my teaching. I realize that what I teach and what I do has an impact on their lives. So I don’t think there’s any better field than teaching.”