Success in an alternative school

Guest blog by Leah Burrell, North Carolina High School Teacher

I heard horror stories about unmanageable students in the alternative school. Some teachers refused to work with them. Since I often had success with “difficult” students, though, the principal assigned me to the alternative school this year. I knew that many of them had no support at home, so I was nervous about working with both them and their families.   Because of scheduling problems, the semester started poorly.  Once things settled down, I was able to start shaping student relationships.

In order to work with challenging students, a teacher must possess all six virtues. First, one must possess understanding. By this I don’t mean understanding curriculum.  I mean understanding students.  You have experiences with your students, your mind takes in those experiences, and you construct relationships from what those experiences mean.

For example, one of my students has bipolar disorder.  On her high days she performs well and is in a great mood.  On her low days she is surly and produces no work.  I learned to recognize and understand her symptoms, which has enabled me to help her accomplish her goals.

Teachers must also possess imagination.  Imagination makes all the difference in the outcome of your day.  The traditional math problems I use in my regular educational setting do not always work in the alternative school.  So I develop “off the wall” problems to gain their attention.  Once I hook the students’ imaginations they are more likely to complete their tasks.  They even do it with a smile, as opposed to the argumentation that other teachers experience with them.

Strong Character is the most important virtue when working with alternative students.  When I say strong character I don’t mean being in control of the classroom.  I mean finding the weaknesses that define your students and yourself.  You will often discover that your students’ fears are the same as yours.  This discovery helps you identify with your students and build relationships based on mutual trust and understanding.

Working with alternative students requires courage, humility, and generosity.  You have to have courage to face your fear of being an inadequate teacher. Students will sometimes say you are.  And they will sometimes say how much they don’t like your class or subject area.  Students with a history of difficulty in school don’t do anything just for the sake of learning, but it is still up to you to find ways to grab their interest.

This requires humility.  Not all your students are going to look up to you.  And their families don’t hold you in high regard, either.  This knowledge is humbling.

And generosity is important because these students not only require tenderness, but they also require a firmness that is generous at the same time.

Using the 6 virtues has made this year successful so far. I have not escaped unscathed, but I have found that teaching alternative school is not as horrible as some teachers made it out to be.  In fact, it might be an experience that all teachers should have at least once in their careers.


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