Alternative schools offer a different educational philosophy to mainstream schools. They tend to be much smaller, learning is more individualised, and teaching can be more experimental. My school is located in a community centre, across two classrooms where we cater for twenty-four students. We teach only Stage 5 and are a fully accredited high school. The students have come to us, as mainstream education has not worked out for them for a variety of reasons. My day now includes driving the school bus, cooking lunch for them all and teaching across the curriculum.
I want to share with you the lessons that this shift in institutions has taught me. There is so much that mainstream schools can learn from alternative education.
Class Sizes – The work of John Hattie suggests that smaller class sizes don’t make much of a difference to student outcomes. However, the factors he does list as making a significant impact on student achievement would be much easier to focus on if class sizes were smaller. I have directly seen the benefits of smaller classes in my shift to alternative education. (Sorry Hattie!)
I have moved from seeing over 120 students on some days to seeing 24. I can intervene effectively when it comes to students with additional learning needs. I can provide richer and more immediate feedback because the marking I am doing does not take me 28000 hours to complete (Ok, slight over exaggeration!). Teacher / student relationships are richer as I only have to remember the interests and worries of 24 students. I have more time to plan, to evaluate, to scaffold. I know ALL the parents/carers of my students where I probably knew about 30% when teaching in mainstream. This is the reason many of our students seek out alternative education. They are getting lost and forgotten in over-populated classes. Although a costly exercise, class sizes need to be reduced. For schools located in disadvantaged areas this is even more significant.
Burn The Paperwork – Paperwork is making our teachers sick and about 85% of it is not necessary. Shifting to alternative education really highlighted to me the amount of unnecessary work teachers are asked to do in mainstream schools. In my current school if NESA isn’t going to ask for it at the end of the day, then we don’t do it. If it doesn’t serve our students learning, we don’t do it. For example, each term the parent/carer signs a blanket permission note covering basically any school excursion we might chose to run that term. We also have prewritten risk assessments for pretty much any activity. That way when I see my students aren’t engaged in their wetland case study in Geography, I can literally pile them into a bus and take them to a wetland without having to complete a few hours of paper work and obtain permission from four people above me to do so. I get that this will never be quite this simple in mainstream, but it can definitely be simpler. Another example would be assessment tasks. In most schools where I have previously taught their has been so much unnecessary garbage required on the assessment sheet that students have difficulty finding what they have to do. However, someone of importance deems that a school-wide pro-forma needs to be followed because it justifies their job. Does the pro-forma really make a difference to the students work? Nope, so get rid of it! Trust me, it is liberating.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Should Be The Priority – If you are not familiar with Maslow you need to be. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943) is a five-tier model prioritising what needs must be met for an individual to ensure motivation and self-actualisation. We know, as teachers, that self-actualisation is necessary to become an independent learner. However, mainstream schools often fail to recognise that a students physiological needs, safety needs, sense of love and belonging and esteem need to be in place in order for students to be motivated to learn. While advocating for additional mental health supports for a student of mine in a mainstream school I was told by my school leader to “separate the emotion from the curriculum”. Essentially what she was saying is just teach the content and forget about this nonsense.
Education providers need to recognise that the two cannot be separated, that learning cannot take place if wellbeing is not the number one priority. If a student feels bullied, or has issues with their friendship group, they will not be able to learn properly. If a student hasn’t eaten or their clothes are not clean, they will not be able to learn properly. If a student lacks self-esteem and respect for themselves, they will not be able to learn properly. My new school not only recognises this, but acts on this. Many of our student’s basic needs were not being met when they attended mainstream high school resulting in low attendance, poor behaviour and in many cases suspensions. Our students are now able to learn and are attending school because their basic needs are being met.
Tear Down The Silos – Mainstream schools tend to have a very silo approach to education. For example, let’s take Mrs Fraction a hypothetical teacher in a mainstream school. Mrs Fractions teaches maths. She hangs out with the maths faculty. Maths takes place four periods a week in the same classroom. The only thing that is taught in Mrs Fraction’s class is maths. The classes are streamed etc. Sound familiar?
In my school I now teach across the curriculum. I teach geography, English, PDHPE, and arts. I am continually making rich cross-curricula links. I team-teach frequently with my peers. Project-based learning has a priority in our week with students choosing what they wish to work on. Furthermore, every morning and afternoon we are working as a team updating each other on what is working or not working for each student and problem solving any challenges that may arise. This is 21st Century teaching and learning in action, but I know what you are thinking - this isn’t practical for mainstream schools! Maybe not, but it isn’t impossible. Finland did it. Singapore has made massive changes in this area. We need to rethink our approach.
Play Is Important – Just like paperwork is making our teachers sick, so too is the removal of play from our schools. Where is the time for laughter and joy in our overcrowded, over assessed curriculum? Many of our students come to us sick. Yes, sick – depressed, anxious, even suicidal. There are many factors at play here, but I believe mainstream schooling is a large contributor to this. Play, fun and time for stress-free connections need to be embedded in the teaching week. I am not talking about a once-a-term lunchtime concert or fundraising mufti day, I am talking about significant time for fun and renewal at least once a week. At our school we watch our students and staff carefully. When we can see they are tired and drained we change it up. For example, one of our favourite things to do is go to a small reserve by the lake. We take fishing rods and a picnic lunch. Some students will sit on blankets under the trees creating art works or using natural materials for craft. Others will take a stroll over a small bridge to a little island to collect wild flowers. A game of soccer, cards or even a fishing competition may take place. Last time we had an epic game (staff and students) of forty-four homes on the island. We laughed so hard as we tried to make it home. These days renew us all – staff and students.
And guess what… the world does not end. Subject hours are still met, outcomes are still covered, and best of all our students become a little less broken each time we do it.
Community Connectedness – When was the last time your school really connected with the community? I am not talking about parents and friends, I am talking about the whole community. Teenagers often feel isolated within the community especially those in lower socio-economic areas. It is important that students are given the opportunity to connect with their local community, not only for their benefit, but also for the benefit of all. Students learn to empathise with others of different ages and feel personal self-worth when they are able to contribute to society. Additionally, community members will have more time for your students and limited perceptions of a particular generation can shift.
Once a week we partake in community activities. These involve assisting at the RSPCA, feeding the elderly at the local community centre, participating in random acts of kindness, working with playgroups and primary schools, or visiting local business such as farms to improve their understanding of a particular topic. The personal growth I see in my students through participating in these activities are profound. We also have many volunteers come and work in our school. People of different ages, social status and cultures volunteer their time to support our students. The students learn through these unique relationships developing new mentors and feeling a bigger sense of connection, support and belonging through their teenage years.
I am not saying that mainstream schools are doing things wrong, but I do want to highlight that it is not the only way. John Dewey once said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself”. This is what I feel has shifted for me through this transition. I am no longer teaching my students the skills they need for life, I am walking the journey of life with them… albeit off the beaten track.