Survival Guide To Teaching Alternative School

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The First Days of Alternative School

Out of the 16 years that I spent teaching in public schools, 6 were spent teaching in an alternative school. 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.

alternative school classroom

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.

student writing

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 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.
student raising hand

Your First Year

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.

In the worlds of too many of our alternative school 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.

alternative school

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 alternative school 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.

If 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. Alternative school 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 alternative school 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.

student texting

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 alternative school. And so…

Study current research about alternative education 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 alternative education 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 alternative education 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.


Alternative education 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 alternative education 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.

What does an alternative school look like?
What does an alternative school look like? – An explanatory video by EducationNC

This article was originally posted on Brett Dickerson is an award-winning journalist.

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Savas Savides
Education born and bred. I have worked as a teacher for many private language schools, as a test centre administrator, as a teacher trainer, as an educational consultant, and as a publisher. I am an advocate for literacy and a huge proponent of using technology in the classroom. I have a BA in English and an MBA in Marketing. I mostly write about English Language Teaching. I live in sunny Athens.


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