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When I returned to the classroom from administration in September of 2017 (see my previous posts, Priorities, and Changes (For The Better) for more insight), I stepped into a role that was very much different than anything I had experienced before. First, I was going to be teaching physical education, something that I had always been licensed to teach, but had never done before, and secondly, I was going to be working in an alternative, or behavior, school. Part of me was very excited for the opportunity to make a difference in students' lives that needed it the most, part of me was scared to death, not know what I was in store. Over the course of the next 8 months, I learned a lot about myself and about the whole concept of alternative schools, some of which was very upsetting to me.
Students are often in alternative school settings for behavioral reasons, such as fighting, possession of drugs or weapons, or other major or habitual offenses. Many times, these students are also behind academically because of a learning disability, lack of family/community supports, and/or general apathy. Students in these settings are expected to meet very rigorous demands in regards to behavior and academics, yet many of the things that would make improving oneself behaviorally or academically are taken away. For instance, in many alternative settings, students do not have access to any sort of technology unless it is under strict supervision from the teacher in a computer lab, something that teachers are not going to have access to every day. That being the case, teachers have to resort to "old school" teaching methods of stand and deliver and sit and get, worksheets, and textbook reading and questions. Students that are already disengaged become even more disengaged and often times fall further behind and turn to disrupting their peers.
Many students in the alternative setting have language skills that are comparable to, what my Grandma used to say, "sailors on shore leave". The use of inappropriate language was something that I became numb to, as inappropriate words were spoken by most students constantly, and regardless of redirection, it continued. However, how does one address it? Reprimand and have more language directed at you? Write a student up and have them miss class and cause resentment later on? The best that I could do is to politely redirect, model appropriate language and interactions, and do my best to not let it get to me. However, if the language became degrading to another person or resulted in bullying, I had to report it and did report it.
However, while it was frustrating to witness the apathy, the inappropriate language, and the nearly daily occurrences of near violence between students, there were some great things that I was able to experience. First of all, myself and my colleagues were the only people of positive influence in many of our students' lives. While one student is too many, too many of our students came from single-parent homes, were the children of drug addicts, gang members, or had parents in prison. To be able to have positive interactions with students from these types of backgrounds made me know that I was making a difference. Sure, one moment a student may be putting me down with some creative use of a series of four-letter words, but there were many more moments of positive interactions. The biggest key is that regardless of how negative of a situation there could be, positivity would lessen the tension of the situation and pay dividends later.
People have asked me how I could have worked in such a setting. My response was always the same: 80% of my students were in the alternative setting because of mistakes that they made, mistakes that my colleagues and I stressed would not define who they were as long as they worked to learn from their mistakes. The other 20% were there because of similar mistakes, but it was taking a little bit more time to learn from the mistakes and they had other issues, such as issues with adult figures, that prevented them from being more successful. I pointed out that in my previous schools, I had similar numbers: 80% of students were very easy to work with, while the other 20% were tougher nuts to crack. The biggest difference between the alternative setting and the standard setting? Class sizes in the alternative setting were about a quarter the size of the standard school setting.
I am now working in a more traditional school setting. I don't have students cursing left and right and cursing me out at times when I redirect their behavior. However, I am teaching a couple of nights of adult education American Government. Students enrolled in my classes are there for various reasons, but ultimately, there to get the credits that they need to graduate and get their high school diploma. I am also working in an alternative program that is held after school, designed for students that have been removed from a traditional setting for behavioral and academic issues. Do I have all of the answers to solving the issues of my previous school, adult education, and the alternative program that I am now working in? Absolutely, most certainly, not! However, by continuing to be a positive light in students' lives, working to redirect, not reprimand, and putting in the work to assist each student to be successful, I think that I am winning!
Until next time...
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