Alternative Schools

Waiting to see what the new year brings us, like at a starting line, so many factors contribute to success - including being prepared to run the race.

Waiting to see what the new year brings us, like at a starting line, so many factors contribute to success - including being prepared to run the race.


I work in an alternative school. Actually, it’s an alternative program within a large school. We have a closed off area of the building with a separate entrance and run by a slightly different schedule – we don’t hear the bells and are just fine with that!

I am completing my first year here and am excited about continuing next year. What makes this program so exciting for me after 13 years of teaching? I believe it has to do with a few things, the biggest being the heightened sense of entanglement with my students’ learning.

There are an increasing amount of alternative programs across North America. Each one is different. They have to be because one of the purposes of an alternative program is that it is tailored to the needs of the learners within it. Though each school is different, studies show that they have basic elements in common (Boss, 1998; Johnston, Cooch & Pollard 2004; Quinn & Poirier, 2006) :

1. A focus on changing the educational approach, not the student.
2. A belief that all students can learn with high expectations for learning.
3. Teachers and administrators are caring leaders.
4. “Low adult-student ratios in the classroom are considered integral to successful outcomes” (Quinn & Poirier, 2006)
5. Ongoing PD for teachers in the areas of alternative learning environments and factors, as well as communication with students and families
6. Relationships at all levels are key – they are positive, trusting, and caring
7. Students are able to create a solid connection with an adult who believes in their success.

In our program, our class sizes are small. This year our 3 classes ranged from 13 to 18 students. We interview students who are recommended to the program and each and every one talks about the distractions of a large classroom, the need to connect with teachers who explicitly care about their success, the need to learn outside of the box.

Things will change a bit next year. We will have a new head teacher who has never taught in an alternative environment before. We are meeting today to talk about our vision for the program. I’m writing this post to remind me of key factors, what needs to be in order to do the right thing by these kids. They only deserve that – to be done right by.

Boss, S. (1998). Learning from the margins: The lessons of alternative schools.

Johnston, C., Cooch, G., & Pollard, C. (2004). A Rural Alternative School and Its Effectiveness for Preventing Dropouts The Rural Educator 25 (3), 25-29.

Quinn, M. M., & Poirier, J. M. (2006). Study of effective alternative education programs: Final grant report. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research.

Know your stuff, then…

…do what feels right.

My practice distilled into one sentence, a sweet mélange of head and heart.

Illustration of Hearts and Brains, Pixel & Light Design. Click for source.

Illustration of Hearts and Brains, Pixel & Light Design. Click for source.

This past week it’s been repeating like a mantra behind all of the activity – know your stuff, do what feels right.

Stuff, of course, bears a lot of weight. Stuff can consist of curriculum, management, theory, school culture, student background, and more.

What feels right is where the teacher becomes artist. This year I regained my own trust in the do what feels right category. I spent much of my year looking to others for approval and recognition as it was my first year in this position and I really wanted to a) do a good job (as defined by others, I learned) and b) keep the position. Only in April did I realize this, that I wasn’t doing what felt right enough of the time.

Big lesson I learned this year. From my kids, from my colleagues.

Have I mentioned lately that I wouldn’t change my job for anything?

Know your stuff, do what feels right.

I just happened to find a blog post, written in a much more scholarly manner! on the same topic by Penny Ryder, Unity of the Head and Heart.

Antarctica goes North

Feeling a bit like this today. There are times when I feel confident, that I understand a situation, and then there are times when something happens that makes me realize what I understood was not really true at all. Antarctica goes North.

The rest of this post has been edited, on the advice of two educators I respect greatly. Thinking about it this morning, the morning after, I am deciding to take away some details, but leave the meat of what I am experiencing so that the record stands (about how I feel). I am not one to be silent about what matters to me, and nothing I write from here on need be censored after the fact. I will however, think carefully about how I write things. So, some self-censorship will be happening. This doesn’t sit very well with me. Not at all. But Michael and Ken are right, including these details could very well blur the issue and cause greater problems. They were written with anger and a little bit of spite. That doesn’t sit well with me either, so I need to make this right.

So, how do I proceed. It is not like me to be much less than completely honest in my posts, baring all. How do I talk about my feelings of confusion and questioning regarding a recent experience without describing the experience? Another example of Antarctica moving North. Details are important for me, they make the bigger picture make sense. But let’s see if I can focus on the big picture here.

I know that people are hurt. It is not a two-sided issue on that point, we are all feeling touched by a … disagreement that we are having. I feel shifted, where I once felt in congruence with my colleagues I now question that and I think that others are questioning it in themselves as well. It’s good to question things, but sometimes it takes longer to rebound when the questioning is so profound.

It’s good that today is a PED day for us, that I can focus on marking – report cards are due tomorrow morning – and that I can think about my students because they, after all is said and done, are why I teach.

Wait. After having just written that I realize I am wrong. I think that focusing too much on student-need and negating adult-need may be part of a bigger issue here. Teachers support students, many teachers will do almost anything to do so. But, in order to do so we need to work as a team, and we need to support the team and the individuals within it to keep things strong, so that we can support students in the best way possible.

A keynote speaker at a conference I attended years ago talked about teacher care. How we need to take care of ourselves, we need to take care of each other. And only then can we take care of our students with integrity.

I do know that this whole thing has given me a headache, is forcing me to redraw my map.