Survival Guide to Teaching Alternative School, Part I — The First Days


Out of the 16 years that I spent teaching in public schools, 6 were spent teaching in alternative schools. I know some stuff that might help.

This is my good news for you about teaching in alternative school:

The pressure will make you a far better teacher than you ever would have been if you had spent the same amount of time in a traditional school with seemingly compliant students.

But first, to survive those first few days, prepare to…

Understand the Institutional Realities

You will have to navigate through some realities of alternative school life that are there even before the first student walks in:

  • Some alternative schools were formed decades ago, but suffer from a lack of institutional memory due to heavy staff turnover.
  • Some have been started in a panic this summer and will be writing the opera as they sing it during this, and maybe even next, year. Not only have you just been hired in August, but your principal was hired in July.
  • Some are choice schools and so students must apply, which means that some families will do that the day before school starts. This means the principal doesn’t know how many to staff for in the coming year. Choice alternative schools start with 10 to 100 and might end the year with 200+. Your mileage may vary accordingly.
  • Some are mandatory, disciplinary, alternative schools, which are always on the verge of becoming toxic environments due to the students’ being coerced to be there for negative reasons.
  • While some are housed in nice, purpose-built buildings, most are not. My first year of teaching was in an alternative school that met in a National Guard Armory still being used by the National Guard. Some are in an isolated portable. Some are in storefronts and old office locations.

The upshot of all of this variety is that flexibility about facilities, faculty, staff, furnishings, and student numbers is a MUST. 

I’m not trying to be funny. It really is.

Understand the Students

The hardest part of any teaching is understanding the students. And in alternative school, developing an understanding of your students will be even more critical to your success with them.

The most important thing to remember, especially in the first few days of your first alternative school job is that these students are not the ones who clicked with traditional school teachers in traditional schools. If they did, you wouldn’t have them in your classroom now.

They need someone else, and that is you.

These are some things that I learned over time about alternative school students that may help in your first days.

Negatives that don’t have to stay that way:

  • Chaos is a part of their lives due to all kinds of family disruptions.
  • They might appear out of control when actually they are using the chaos to get what they want.
  • They are very well rehearsed at resisting others who want to control them. That will include you.
  • They are veterans at being threatened with any kind of action at any level by adults.
  • They are well-rehearsed at making excuses and deflecting blame when written up for discipline.
  • They haven’t learned many if any character traits, but just telling them about it didn’t work so far. Others have tried. You will do better.
  • Food is sometimes its own issue because they only eat at school.
  • They are very comfortable with violence between peers and sometimes react violently toward harsh authority figures. For a host of reasons they engage in it regularly. To many of them violence is neither wrong nor right, just a reality — a tool. Shaming will have little, if any, effect. Understanding its source will be your key to moving them beyond that loop to find new tools that are more effective.

Perceived negatives that are actual positives:

  • They are practical thinkers because in many cases they are the real adult in their home. Some cook and care for their younger siblings or their own children.
  • Related to that, they are used to being the authority in their families. They will respond to you much like an adult would. It was a natural progression in my career to go from alternative high school to adult ed.
  • This also means that they will respond to your practical thinking.
  • If character is presented as having practical value they are interested.
  • They will respond to different, new techniques that traditional school students would not.
  • Sobriety: Many are more sober than they have been since elementary school having just come out of treatment.
  • Money: I never gave any students money. I did loan them money to contribute to their pride and character. It was significant to them that I was sober enough to remember whether they had paid me back. The only second loans I gave were to those who paid me back for the first one. I didn’t lose very much money on those first loans and the ones who paid me back were very proud of their good credit. It was a status thing among their peers.
Part 2  — Surviving the long haul over the first year.