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Reflections from an Alternative Education teacher – Another day – Another chance to make a difference…

Friday is here.  The weekend is at last within reach.  My thoughts drift off to a warm, sunny afternoon of pleasant yardwork, maybe an evening concert, and a nice quiet dinner with my wife.  Only one more day to get through.

The students in my alternative education classroom have been quite busy this week – some of it good and some of it not so good.  Two explosive outbursts, a few kids falling asleep while a guest spoke, one AWOL from work – after each incident a long conversation, heartfelt apologies, and some reasonably valid reasons such as a long night listening to parents fight or anxiety from a fourth day of sobriety.  While it is personally satisfying to have been a part of turning these situations around as teachable moments, I am definitely looking forward to a few days of peace and quiet.  Maybe slide a movie in with a relaxed discussion afterwards – Gattaca seems a good choice since we have been studying genetic engineering in science.

As I reach up to the shelf where the DVD sits I am rejoicing at the prospect of an early segue into the weekend – a quiet day with everyone pacified by the engaging and mildly informative film.  Then it happens – as it often does.  As one of the kids asks, “What are we doing today Mr. Sowpel?” I begin to frame my answer around the fact that because we have had such a tumultuous week we can finish on a positive note.  Something in his voice however – a hint of curiosity, a spark of interest catches me and I hesitate before answering.

I think of how easy it is to fall into the trap of because.  “It is okay to lighten the workload today because we did so much this week”  or “He fell asleep in class because things are hard at home” or “You can skip the essay because I know you know the material and you already have an 82 average.”

When I hear myself thinking the word because, I realize I am justifying something.  Maybe making an excuse or coming up with a reason to do or not do something.  I have trained myself to pause and reflect when I encounter that word.  And many times the simple question of a student makes me do the same thing.

The easy answer (“Watching Gattaca”) to my student’s question will, I am certain, be met with a positive response.  Kids love movies – even those with thought-provoking and insightful themes.  And a spirited discussion and debate about determinism, nature versus nurture and the medical and societal impact of genetic testing would be a favorable learning outcome.  But I ask myself, “Is this the best I can give them today?”

Of course the answer is no.  The lesson I had planned for the day involves much more engagement – much more energy – much more effort.  It requires me to give 100% of my focus.  It will push the kids to their limits and might result in an emotional outburst or two.  But that’s fine.  That’s what we are here for.  To challenge ourselves – they as students and me as a teacher – all of us as learners.

Friday is just another day after all – another day to make a difference.  I guess Gattaca will continue to sit on the shelf collecting dust – it already has an inch or two anyways.

George Sowpel is the lead teacher in an Alternative Learning program at Monomoy Regional High School in Harwich Massachusetts.  He welcomes comments and questions and can be reached at and @MonomoyALP