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Teacher Spotlight: SCI Cambridge Springs’ Gregory Stephenson

November 16, 2018 12:00 AM
By: Kurt Bopp

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Teaching others what he's learned just comes naturally to Gregory Stephenson.

When a student tells him "I don't understand," it motivates Stephenson to find a solution and way to better explain it. He has a natural desire to educate and teach others what he knows.

Teacher Feature - Stephenson.pngAnd since 2005, he has pursued that passion at SCI Cambridge Springs.

Stephenson teaches Optical Assistant Eye Glass Preparation, or what is known in the optical community as "opticianry." His graduates go on to become the person who assembles the lenses and glasses, much like a pharmacist.

"A doctor writes a prescription, then they go to a pharmacy," he said. "We get that prescription from the eye doctor, and 'fill' that by getting the right lenses and frames."

Cambridge Springs is the only SCI with the program in the state, and because of this it is tasked with a big burden: Correctional Industries (CI) at the facility makes all the glasses for the inmates in the entire state. The inmates in this CI also make some for PennDOT and veterans homes, as well, for a total of 1,200-1,300 pairs of eye glasses every month.

The program went from 12 students enrolled per class to 20. It is an elective, so the students in his class want to be there as opposed to a GED class that's mandated.

Stephenson began with various jobs before returning to a technical school to study in their optical program. He began at Pearl Vision when he graduated, but the school brought him back just six months later to be a teacher. The school, based in western Pennsylvania, shut down after seven years due to low enrollment.

"I went back to work at the eye doctor and a gentleman came in and said, 'They're looking for a teacher up there at the prison,'" Stephenson remembers. "I had no idea where he meant. He told me who to contact, so I did, and took my civil service exam, and fast forward and I'm still here."

In addition to his teaching certification, Stephenson is certified by the National Contact Lens Examiners and the American Board of Opticianry—a certification now offered at Cambridge Springs.

For approximately eight years, Stephenson's students have had the ability to take the American Board of Opticianry exam at the SCI. It's a 100-question exam that's "pretty intensive," and if they pass they get the certification.

"The advantage to them, especially in PA, is it's not required to work at an optical shop," Stephenson said. "If they have that, it gives them a little bit of an advantage and outweighs the fact where they're currently residing."

Among Stephenson's highlights of his time at Cambridge Springs is getting the ability for inmates to receive their national certification, because that's something that stays with them forever.

Teachers and inmates aren't allowed to keep in touch following their release, but Stephenson has heard through letters back to the institution about former students getting jobs. Those success stories "make you feel good," he said.

His teaching philosophy is simply he'll lead the inmates to water and show them how to drink, but it's up to them to do it. He tries to build them up a bit to give them the confidence but it's up to them to take the plunge.

For him, it's about doing what he loves to give them the skills and abilities to go on to a better life.

"I've had comments like 'I really want to learn this because I don't' want to go back to my abusive partner' or 'I want to be self-sufficient' or 'I want my family to be proud of me,'" Stephenson said. "That's not in the paycheck. When you help somebody turn their life around and get a fresh start and you hear they've had success, it's a good feeling."

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