When asked where I teach, people often respond with "Oh.... you teach those kind of kids?" or "What is THAT like?" I know the answer they are seeking--that "those kind of kids" are disrespectful students that are threats to our society. They want to hear horror stories of my days. The answer they hear however, is a far cry from what they are expecting.
Teaching in a traditional junior high setting for many years, I was bored. I wasn't challenged and unfortunately, didn't have administrators that had the same beliefs. For years I wanted to move to alternative education, but was scared because my job was too comfortable. I was scared of taking a risk that my heart was pushing me toward. Finally, I had a parent complain that the expectations in my classroom were too high. When I spoke to my administrator about how appalled I was, he actually said "Well, your expectations are awfully high for the type of people we have." WOW. Expectations that were too high. It was time for me to move on to a place where high expectations would be accepted and encouraged.
I left my comfortable job, followed my heart, and made the leap to alternative education. What I found was eye opening. My students are the same types of students sitting in a variety of classrooms across the country. My students want to learn. They are smart, athletic, kind, and compassionate. My students encourage and challenge one another. They push each other to succeed, knowing a mistake made can be corrected. They argue and fight. They try to sneak their cell phones past staff. They talk with sass. They make mistakes, but they work to repair the damage done by these mistakes. My students made a poor choice that led them to my classroom.
My students have parents who are hard core. Their parents mean business and support the educational system. They know their child has made a mistake and appreciate everything the school has to offer. These parents hold their children accountable for their actions. They are supportive and make it very clear to their children. My students know this. A mere hint at calling home can change a negative behavior quickly.
My students want to know if the adults in our program truly do care for them. They seek this out in a different way than those students I previously taught. My students sometimes put up tough exteriors, but value the relationships they build. These students would do anything for those that they know are in it for the long haul with them. These same students have kept me up at night worrying about them and hoping I'll see them walk through the doors the next day. When they do so, they are greeted with a hug. At the end of the day, they leave the same way. My students have expectations that are set high for them; expectations that are higher than most probably think they could meet. These students exceed these expectations because they want to prove they can. Ironically, these are expectations that are higher than the ones questioned earlier in my career.
I had a student recently who I hadn't seen for three weeks. When I saw her, we hugged. She looked at me and said "I thought you gave up on me. Everyone always gives up on me." Tears rolled down both of our faces as I promised her I would never give up on her. What a learning lesson for me. These kids are so used to having people walk out of their lives, that they don't always realize their own value and worth in our society.
Making the change to alternative education has been such a valuable learning experience for me. It has made me a much better teacher and person. While at times it has wreaked havoc on my sleep, it has opened my eyes to so much. It has reminded me that relationships are the root of everything. My days are sometimes hard. Really hard. There are nights I come home, hug my own kids, and want to shelter them from everything. There are days I text my husband and tell him how rough my day has been, only to realize it's 11 a.m. Then there are days I come home and talk about how much I love my students. These are the majority of my days.
The truth is that ten years ago, I don't know that I could have taught in an alternative setting. I don't know how I would have handled some of the situations that arise. The fact is however, I love it and have never once regretted following my heart. My only regret is not following my heart sooner. Selfishly, I'm glad there are students out there who make poor choices, allowing our paths to cross. These students teach me so many things each and everyday, and I'm blessed to be a part of their lives.