Social-emotional learning and trauma-informed practice are major passion areas of mine, and I first developed this passion during my time in alternative education. I spent the first 7 years of my career in alternative education, and found that although there are many different models, the foundation of them all was meeting kids where they're at. I don't know how this gets lost from alt. ed. to the mainstream system, but I often wonder if perhaps we'd be able to avoid the need for separate, siloed alt. ed. programs if mainstream teachers were more willing and able to implement alt. ed. pedagogy and strategies in their mainstream classes.
What is at the core of alt. ed. pedagogy?
Students are given soft starts, and are able to come in at a pace that works for them. The focus is on student arrival, not student's punctuality.
Deadlines are more or less arbitrary. Alt. ed. understands that student learning is non-linear, in spite of how our system is set up. Students are given chances to demonstrate learning at any point, even if it doesn't meet our deadline.
Emphasis is on individual student goals, rather than our goals for the student. Students are given a range of opportunity, from enrichment activities, to the bare minimum to meet requirements, understanding that every student has different goals for school. Alt. ed. also honours that some students see school as a necessary evil to get on with life - and that's okay! Of course we want to inspire and spark a love of learning, but it's okay if we don't right now. It doesn't mean the student won't find success later on, or find their love of learning later in life!
Students typically all have IEP's that allow teachers to provide alternative resources, additional time or support, and also make space for mental health struggles. The student's designation doesn't define them, but because students are typically sent to alt. ed. when they don't find success in mainstream settings, there is inherently more flexibility provided.
What strategies can we employ in mainstream spaces?
Celebrate every student's arrival, regardless of what time they walk through the door. It's no secret that our school is run by a strict schedule, usually enforced by a bell, with us having specific curricular minutes to reach for each class. However, students rarely operate at their best under these conditions. Soft starts, or even just grace with late arrivals, can improve relationships with students significantly!
Sure, you can encourage deadlines, but punishment when students submit late work doesn't help to build student confidence, nor does it actually assess student learning. Indigenous ways of knowing acknowledge that learning is life-long and non-linear, and as we work to decolonize our classrooms, we want to make sure we are giving students space to learn in their own time, as much as possible.
Students who are university bound will typically adhere to deadlines, assignment enrichment, and expectations. This is why I never understand why people use the excuse that "students need to be taught deadlines, because they'll never get away with this in university." Not every student wants to attend university! And many students will be successful on deadlines that inspire them - academic deadlines don't always inspire our students!
As much as possible, give flexibility! Is there a way to adapt an assignment to make it more interesting for a student who's struggling to connect? Can you give extra time on tests or a separate working environment, even if the student doesn't have an IEP? Can you allow students breaks as needed, food and water, and soft starts to the class? All of these are minor changes for you, but can dramatically change the culture of your space!
This is just scratching the surface of what mainstream teachers can learn from alternative education settings! The bottom line is, changing our spaces is a mindset shift. We shouldn't need an IEP or diagnosis to see all of our students benefit from alternative approaches to learning! This is how we can spark a love of learning, as opposed to compliant students who see our classes as a necessary evil to graduation. And if they do see us as a necessary evil, so what? Let's help them get through it as painlessly as possible, and if nothing else, show them what genuine support and caring looks like. We should always care more about our students than our core subject.
Have you ever worked in alternative education? What strategies stood out to you as something helpful for mainstream classroom teachers to employ?