But education isn’t just about learning academic material, according to Ben Talley, an instructor at Joseph Van Pelt Elementary School in Bristol, Virginia.
To Talley, education is also about strengthening social bonds and community cohesion in a society of increasing polarization and social isolation.
As an educator and mentor, he has served as a role model for children and adults alike.
Up until three years ago, the 60-year-old Blountville native was teaching inmates at the Bristol, Virginia Jail to help them obtain their GED. He described it as a “calling” in his life at the time.
“People often give up on them, and it’s mainly our country’s poor and downtrodden. You don’t see many rich people in jail, and poverty breeds desperation,” he said.
“Without education, they’ve got no help, no hope. When they get their GED, they can go to community college, vocational school or at least find something else.
“The thing about poverty is you don’t just have a lack of money, you have a lack of people you can talk to for ideas to get out of it,” he said. “If they’re a felon and they can’t find a job, it’s easy to give up hope.”
In his work educating over 2,000 inmates, Talley said he aimed to help them “break the cycle” of desperation. He would often do what he could to help them find a trade or a path to a higher education.
Talley still keeps in contact with many of the inmates he taught, as well as their families. He continues to encourage his former inmate pupils to read to their children and to stress the importance of education in their families.
“I had them promise to read to their children at night when they got out, and they would keep their promise,” he said. “I teach a lot of their children now, and they come to me now and say, ‘Daddy is doing good now. He’s doing well.’
“I still visit them, and a lot of them are Facebook friends. We still go on hikes and stuff,” he added.
Today, Talley continues to teach within the Bristol, Virginia Public Schools district. Through various initiatives he’s helped establish, he stresses the importance of keeping children in touch with nature.
For 15 years, he has encouraged children in the district to plant trees in the community, and he often takes his fourth- and fifth-grade science students on hikes to teach them about the Appalachian ecosystem.
Talley said the students learn more when “all five senses are engaged.”
“We take them on ‘discovery hikes’ through the woods at Sugar Hollow Park, and lots of times, it’s their first hike,” he said.
“There’s nothing wrong with technology, but as my mother said, ‘Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.’ ”
Talley, however, was initially reluctant to be interviewed about his work as an educator for both inmates and students. He said working to mentor and help others isn’t about taking credit or praise.
“Everybody wants to leave the world a better place, and they don’t have to do something big to do that. It’s just about the little things,” he said.
“It’s nice to be able to help other people. We all deal with pain and sorrow and it’s good to help them find joy in life.
“If you do it for credit, it’s like karma – it doesn’t work as well.”