Survival Guide to Teaching Alternative School, Part 2 — Your First Year

3 oclock high - Jerry Mitchell

After you have worked your way through the prep and first few days of your new job teaching alternative school, what next?

During that first year, your teaching abilities will change and grow as never before because the students won’t allow it to be any other way!

In any setting, teaching causes you to grow  personally and professionally.

But, in alternative school, that is a hyper process. The demands of these students are bigger and more pressing than students who you might have taught in student teaching or in earlier teaching positions.

In those two big areas of teacher growth here are my ideas about surviving your first year teaching alternative school.

Personal Growth

Your identity with your students will be different than with previous students. It’s because your students see  and react to adults differently.

3 oclock high - RevellIn the worlds of too many of our alt-ed students, parents and their friends are sometimes

  • absent
  • dangerous
  • drug addicted
  • alcohol addicted
  • sex addicted
  • convicted criminals.

Lovely, isn’t it? Now imagine if you grew up with parents and other adults having any combination of those problem sets. I have had some students whose parents were in all of those problem sets.

So, you will be forced to strongly convey who you are and most importantly, who you are not. Which leads to the next area of personal growth:

The best alt-ed teachers connect, but don’t socialize with their students. Socialization for too many of your students has happened in toxic and dangerous ways. You need to understand that world, but you cannot be of it.

discoIf a student comes into school Monday morning telling others that they saw you at a house party, or at a club that they frequent, make sure that it’s a lie.  Can you have a good time in your personal life? Sure. Can you have a good time in the same venues as your students? No way. Once you have lost your personal credibility, it is really gone. That being said, will that stop them from making things up about you? Nope. Which leads to the next thing:

No matter what your students imagine and then say about you, press on. Understand that your students will not always make accurate conclusions about you, and when that happens, their conclusions will be doozies. Because the adults closest to them have been off the hook, when they see something about you that looks the least bit familiar, they will conclude that you are the same. If you add to that their own chemical abuse, you have a crazy-making combination that will cause them to conclude some pretty wild things about you.

Because your students can be so extreme in their broken lives, you will need to keep your own social circles very wide and diverse for the sake of your own perspective on people in general. It is critical to your psychological health to stay exposed to people who do not have as many problems as the people who you are trying to help.

Accept the coming and going of students, faculty, staff, and even administrators. Students live hard lives and sometimes have to leave and try someplace else. Alt-ed is hard on the professionals. Sometimes faculty and staff see the need to leave for some other workplace. Occasionally, administrators have to move on because of the extremes of being an alt-ed principal.

In all of those circumstances, develop relationships quickly, and let them go when they need to be. It’s necessary to your own health.

Professional Growth

Whether you are coming in from student teaching or from previous contract teaching, what you did in the last school probably won’t work in alt-ed. And so…

Study current research about alt-ed teaching and processes.

It is likely that someone in your district has already done a lot of research on models for alternative schools and set yours up with a particular model in mind. Your principal is probably conversant in that. It helps to talk to all of those who had a hand in developing the concept for your alternative school. They can point you to the concept materials that they used for developing your school.

Connect with other alt-ed teachers at your school and in other schools to find out what they are doing and have found helpful. These teachers are your primary resource. You will find that most alt-ed teachers are collaborative and generous.

Develop a curriculum model that incorporates choice for the students.

Your students will come to you feeling like victims of past classroom practices. Never mind whether they are justified in thinking that. They do. So their growth will hinge on new feelings of being empowered in their own learning. That means giving them choices about how they learn what the standards demand.

As I showed in part 1, alt-ed students are very independent and practical in their thinking. They will welcome a chance to move through the curriculum according to their interests and capabilities  and not trying to shoe-horn themselves into someone else’s plan.  In fact, that might have been the main problem for them in the past.

Desperate to find a different curriculum model after my first week in my last alternative school, one of my colleagues pointed me to a former high school science teacher, Dr. Kathie Nunley. Her Layered Curriculum concept clicked immediately as a strong one for addressing the needs of my alt-ed students. Over the next five years, I made that concept my own and kept it in constant development and refinement to meet my students needs in many courses. I recommend her very generous Layered Curriculum web site, .

Enjoy the Growth

I had the very best and most enjoyable years of teaching in the two alternative schools where I taught. Those were times of extreme personal and professional growth. Looking back, I believe that my last 5 years in alternative school were the years when I really became the best  teacher that I could be.

So, enjoy the growth that you will experience during this first year. It could be the most beautiful thing that you were ever a part of.