Education, the Carceral System, and the Path to Teaching: An interview with Prof. Kelsey Jones ’08

Over the summer, Nigel Jaffe ’22 spoke via Zoom with Professor Kelsey Jones ’08, who will return this fall to the Purple Valley as the Distinguished Visiting Professor of Education. Check out this interview along with other articles on the department’s News & Newsletters page.

NJ: Welcome back to Williams! We’re so thrilled that you’ll be teaching in the psychology department. To start things off, I’d love to hear what you’ve been up to since you graduated from Williams.

KJ: A very long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (actually, in Brooklyn), I was a special education teacher. I really enjoyed it, and I was discouraged and saddened by how those students were perceived and treated in the schools, which had a lot to do with disability and racial identity. And so I decided to go back to school, and that’s when I started my doctoral program in Philadelphia. I started with a focus on learned helplessness for students in special education, but I was getting a lot of calls and updates about my students having encounters with law enforcement—in elementary school!—and that’s what led to my interest in the school-to-prison pipeline. 

My work looked at how these systems push children out of school, and what that means for their emotional, mental, physical, and intellectual health. I focused on adolescents who were being held in adult jails, and I worked at two correctional facilities, doing a lot of mental health and creative work with these young people. It was their stories that actually ended up bringing me back to schools because for a lot of them, these issues started in K-12. 

Going back a little further, I’m curious if you knew when you were at Williams that you wanted to be a teacher.

I actually didn’t start at Williams thinking I wanted to go into teaching. I had quite a bit of experience with tutoring and working with children—I love working with children. And then I took “Psychology of Education” with Susan Engel, and I was really struck by the project where we were asked to design a school. I realized that some of the professions I was looking at—specifically, my plan was to do pediatrics—were actually appealing to me primarily because I was interested in working with children. 

In my senior year, I decided to apply to some alternative teaching programs. I got really lucky and ended up in a masters program in childhood special education where the faculty were just so incredible. My experience in graduate school set me further down that path, but I think it was my time in “Psychology of Education” and also in “Advanced Seminar in Teaching and Learning” at Williams that really made me realize that I just love being with children in a classroom.

You were a psychology major at Williams, and now you’re teaching in the psychology department. What’s it like to be returning now to your alma mater as a professor? 

I’m really excited. I learned to love the process of teaching and learning at Williams. There’s something very special about having the opportunity to be at a place where teaching is so valued, and there’s something really wonderful about coming back to the place where I learned to really love the idea of teaching. I think it’ll be weird to not think of faculty whom I took classes with as my professors, but I imagine I’ll get over that pretty quickly. And I get to come back with my partner, who’s never been to Williams before, and I’m glad to be able to share this place with someone else, and create new memories. 

I think it’s also going to be very healing for me: I didn’t really come into my own until maybe the end of junior year. I was so afraid of being exposed as a fraud and, as a young Black woman, I was learning who I wanted to be. I was connecting with my identity in new and sometimes painful ways, and searching for myself at the school, in the department, in relationship with faculty, and in the course materials. I’ve done a lot of healing work as an educator, and there’s something really beautiful about coming back to a place that speaks to a range of emotions for me. Personally, it’s a gift to return and make sense of my experiences as a student; professionally, I hope to support healing for other folks on campus. 

That’s so heartening. I’d love to hear a bit about the courses you’ll be teaching this year.

The class I’m teaching in the fall is called “Defining and Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline.” That course is going to ask our entire classroom community: What do we mean when we say school? And what do we mean when we say prison? And what do we mean when we think about how people end up feeling or being physically incarcerated? People can feel imprisoned and limited in lots of different ways, and people can learn in lots of different places. I’m really excited to make that course a community-engaged course. I’m hoping to bring in stories of people who believe they are currently in the school-to-prison pipeline, whatever that means for them, and it’s going to be more of a project-based learning class. 

Then, in the spring, I’m teaching “Critical Perspectives in Special Education.” That course is going to take a look at how disability functions in schools, and how we can complicate the notion of disability. In that class, we’re going to be looking at disability in a lot of different contexts, but specifically how it shows up in schools and how we can help to heal some of the tension and the violence that’s done to folks— again, disproportionately to children of color, their families, and under-resourced communities. And I’m hoping to make that a community engaged course as well.

I would love for these classes to get people so excited to go into teaching. My secret mission is to get everyone to discover a passion and go be a teacher. But no matter what, there is room for everyone in these courses. If there are people in my classes who are already interested in teaching, my hope is that they learn something about how to teach well. For folks who aren’t interested in teaching, which is totally fine, I just want them to get a sense of how education—in all of its forms—has an influence on personal and professional development. And it would be wonderful if our work together could help them analyze and reframe the educational experiences they’re having right now, as students at Williams.

Along similar lines, what kind of research projects are you working on?

One project is rooted in work I did with an organization working to end the practice of trying and incarcerating young people as adults. I had the opportunity to work with folks who meet with youth in adult correctional facilities outside of Philadelphia, and I learned a lot about how adolescent development is affected by incarceration. I also learned about how these young people feel incarcerated even before they are in jails and prisons. I am revisiting interviews with currently and formerly incarcerated youth to share the many ways in which Black and Brown adolescence is confined; feeling suffocated and trapped because other people experience you as a threat is stressful and can lead to school pushout and, unfortunately, imprisonment. And when you think about adolescence as a time for exploration and growing independence, it’s deeply troubling to see how we steal these opportunities from our Black and Brown youth because we don’t know how to be in relationship with them.

A second project builds on these ideas and looks at different ways of imagining the school-to-prison pipeline. I’m working to develop images and metaphors to help people understand how this pipeline operates, and how familiar it is— we’ve seen all of this happen before, and these systems run deep. I work with children, families, and teachers, and sometimes the best way to understand a system is to see it. I also love the idea of getting creative and sharing something accessible with the folks I support in schools.

My other projects are rooted in racial literacy, the ability to read, recast, and resolve racial stress. The first is a practitioner inquiry project— I’m working with teachers from a project based learning school who are trying to understand how racial stress affects relationships with their students and colleagues. They each develop questions about their practice and then I support them as they collect data and engage in action research. It’s a great way to honor the knowledge of folks in the field and introduce them to a racial literacy framework that can improve their teaching. 

The other project I’m doing, which I’m super pumped about, is a psychoeducational program that’s based off of some work I did in Philly with Dr. Howard Stevenson. It’s called PLAAY (Preventing Long-term Anger and Aggression in Youth) and uses group sessions and physical activity—martial arts and basketball—to help young people recognize and cope with the stress that comes with developing and misunderstood social identities. Because racial literacy is so deeply rooted in mindfulness practice, we thought that it would be a great idea to use a physical activity that naturally incorporates mindfulness into practice: yoga. A long time ago I was a dancer, and a lot of that energy has turned to yoga and more intentional mind-body connection. So I’m looking forward to working on this new iteration of PLAAY and creating a new psychoeducational intervention with my partner schools.

What a fascinating group of projects! What else are you planning to get up to in your free time this year?

Maybe the most exciting thing about me right now is that my partner and I—and when I say “my partner and I,” I mean my partner—renovated a cargo van. It used to be a maintenance van for a university in California. We turned it into a recreational vehicle, and that’s actually how we drove out here. It was a really great way to travel because it was super safe. It allowed us to stay physically distanced on our journey, and it’s even got a fridge for our groceries. So when we get up to Williams we’re really excited to take the van out and explore! We’ll be in some of the best places to camp and be in nature, which I’m super excited about. I’m also looking forward to walking through fresh snow. I haven’t seen snow in a couple of years, and I miss it. And overall, I’m just really looking forward to being back in Williamstown!