On TV and job, instructor rates because she relates
By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
Few are better suited than Lynette Collins to help a student through a national trauma.
The instructor for Grand Canyon University is a specialist in it as a teacher in a correctional facility for juvenile girls and, tragically, in her personal life — her 45-year-old younger brother, who was developmentally disabled, was murdered last year. More recently, she worked with a GCU student whose brother died from COVID-19.
Collins has used her real-world experience to connect with students at both GCU, where she teaches online courses for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and College of Education, and students at the LaPorte Juvenile Correction Facility in Indiana, counseling and teaching girls ages 13 to 18 in history, government, economics and sociology.
“It’s so critical to tap into not what you teach but how you teach, the relationships you make with people,” she said. “These kids, and students in general, need connection. If they can get one good person that cares about them and doesn’t have to, it makes a difference in their lives.”
The girls in the juvenile facility range from adjudicated minors to offenders convicted of serious crimes, such as robbery and even murder. Her connection with them is evident. The girls nominated her to be the teacher featured in April on the website of Honored, a nonprofit whose mission is to inspire a new generation of teachers nationwide.
“She has the innate ability to relate to the students here,” LaPorte Principal Travis Anderson told Honored. “You don’t see that very often. Some of our students come from troubled backgrounds, and it is hard to relate to them.”
But he added that Collins succeeds by building a trusting relationship with them, which makes a difference in their lives both academically and personally.
That has been evident to viewers across the world who have tuned into season 2 of the Netflix series “Girls Incarcerated.” Collins appears in episodes 3, 5 and 7.
She is a calming influence. For example, during one episode a girl approached her, saying, “I’m getting so angry, I’m going to start punching.” Collins quietly tells her that she understands: “You are going to sit here a few minutes, calm down and go back to class.”
The series allows people to see what correctional staff do every day to help children, Collins said.
“I love what I do at my Department of Corrections job, but I also enjoy what I do at GCU,” she said of her 10 years with the University. “It is a different type of environment. Do we still have students with issues and problems? Yes, but you kind of roll with it. This whole COVID-19 has turned everything kind of topsy-turvy crazy. But I couldn’t be more blessed to use what I’ve learned in both jobs.”
Facing up to challenges
Collins started her career with a degree in criminal justice but then earned a master’s degree in education from Indiana University and was hired by a charter school.
“Then we moved to the middle of a cornfield where there wasn’t a lot there but correctional facilities, so I got a job in substance-abuse counseling,” she said.
She later joined the LaPorte facility, first teaching boys, and when it transitioned to a girls’ facility in 2017, she taught social sciences. The six teachers there teach in four classrooms, and the money the facility got from the Netflix series allowed them to build a recreation center.
“It’s really like a one-room schoolhouse, and every single one of the girls is in a different level of class,” she said.
During her first week on the job, she got punched.
“A couple of the girls got in a fight and I’m not one to back down,” Collins said. “You have to intervene, so I jumped in the middle of it and she wasn’t ready to be done. I got a little taste of it. But recently we have been running smooth. From what I hear from different teachers, we are safer and have more accountability than a lot of public schools. But we do have pepper spray.”
The teaching challenges are often similar, she added.
“Honestly, kids are kids, especially this age group. Kids in general are crazy because they are kids. They have hormones, family issues. But we are fortunate that we have small class sizes and are able to do a lot of one on one.
“One of the most important things we can do for them is have an educational foundation for the future. In their heads it’s not that big of a deal to have a diploma, but when they realize that (it’s important) they work extra hard on getting their credits.”
In addition to regular courses, cognitive behavioral therapy is part of her day, “using a lot of metaphors to get to their root problems and what got them where they are now and how to jump over those hurdles,” she said.
Big challenges, bigger rewards
The biggest key is getting students to understand that they can do it. She tries to build their self-worth and help them understand the importance of making better choices.
“They have a tendency to kind jump off a cliff when one bad thing goes bad in their week: ‘Screw it, I’m going to fail anyway.’ But we try to get them to understand that even if they mess up once you can get yourself back on track,” she said.
The rewards can be much different than working at other schools.
They frequently lost boys to crime or death after release, but the girls have done well other than a few who re-entered human trafficking.
“When they get out and don’t go back on the streets, it makes you feel good,” Collins said.
Some released students see her while working at McDonald’s, and she feels good that they are on their way. One student who spotted her in Walmart literally ran down the aisle to see her.
“We’ve had girls that got out and went to college, something they never thought they could do because they had been told they would never amount to anything,” she said.
The experience at LaPorte not only influences her teaching at GCU, but vice versa.
“It just allowed me to have a different perspective, working for a Christian university and having the different support systems,” she said. “It’s an organization that sticks behind its students and faculty. They are not an institution that is just talking, they are doing.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.