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Veteran educator says teaching in CDCR is the best job

CDCR educator wears pink blouse and sweater, smiling at the camera.
Dr. Nina Thomas.

In honor of Teachers Appreciation Week, we recognize the frontline workers who risk their lives every day, who give back to their communities, and who are unsung heroes. In a year that has been challenging to everyone, we want to make sure we are saying thank you for their commitment, dedication and contributions inside and outside of the department.

Meet Dr. Nina Thomas, principal at California Correctional Institution

During her college years, Dr. Nina Thomas swore she would never be a teacher like her mother. She thought there was no chance she would ever be a school administrator. A job in corrections? Never entered her mind.

Yet here she is, a veteran CDCR educator, feeling like she’s won the lottery.

“Education in the prison system is absolutely the best, not-known job,” Thomas said. She adds with a laugh, “You get all the fun and the joy of educating the students, without the parents.”

She started out thinking she wanted to do research as a way to reform the education system. Her mother convinced her that teaching was the best way to make a difference. Surprisingly, she loved the classroom.

CDCR educator started at California Institution for Women

On a whim, she applied and in 2008 was hired to teach at the California Institution for Women. While her students ranged from non-readers to those who were studying for their GED, all had issues accessing school. She worked to see if there were learning disabilities, language issues or trauma and developed individualized strategies. She set a tone of rules, expectations and fun.

“I truly believe we can change people’s lives in the classroom. Even if they will never be able to leave the institution we can offer a kind of freedom, a mental freedom, where they can access education and control their ability to learn,” Thomas said.

Her love of education, her outside-of-the-box thinking and her belief in her students and staff has led her to become a “leader amongst her peers,” said Jennie Wynn, associate superintendent in CDCR’s Office of Correctional Education.

Thomas was hired as a principal in 2019 at CCI and now oversees a staff of 52, including teachers, coaches and library staff. She has been a key member in a new group formed to mentor and support new principals.

Thomas said one of the biggest challenges was dealing with COVID-19, in an industry where virtual work rarely existed. She worked closely with medical and correctional staff on safe ways to continue educational testing, deliver packets for independent study, formulate new teaching strategies to deliver more targeted content in less time, and conduct virtual teacher trainings. Communication and flexibility was key, she said.

“I’ve seen so many people step up and become leaders during this time,” Thomas said. “My job has been to urge them to have a voice and a vision, then point them in the right direction.”

Story by Terri Hardy, Public Information Officer II, Office of Public and Employee Communications.