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Author Bio: George Sowpel is an alternative education teacher at Monomoy High School in Harwich, Massachusetts. He can be reached at if you have any questions or comments also at @MonomoyALP.

As a teacher for fifteen years of high school Alternative Education I face many challenges, though not those that many would assume come with this position. I am often asked how I deal with surly, unmotivated and angry adolescents.

My reply is that I haven’t met those kids yet.  I try to look beyond all that and see the goodness, the generosity, the humor, the sensitivity and vulnerability. Does the former make an appearance every now and then – of course! But I have yet to find a kid who wanted to be left out, marginalized or hated.  Most want the same things we all want – to be respected, to feel wanted and loved, and to be needed.

The challenge lies in creating an atmosphere and a culture that supports those elements. When a student arrives in my classroom I want that student to feel valuable and to know that his/her contribution is not just welcome, but necessary for the activities and lessons that day to have meaning for all of us.

When I began teaching I tried very hard to do this alone.  I worked to develop students’ trust by always being honest and sincere with them and expecting the same back.  I developed an attitude that strives to be positive and full of encouragement and validation – not just for effort but based on high standards of excellence.  I set the bar for each student based on his or her abilities.  I have found that students often mirrored the respect and “love” that I expressed to them.

I became “an expert” at determining where a student was at emotionally when she entered the classroom – perhaps after she had endured a night listening to her parent’s drunken arguments – waiting for a slap or thud as someone fell down.  I could tell when a young man had spent the night struggling to carry his father in after he found him passed out on the front steps or picking his mother up from the kitchen floor – when a student had spent the night sleeping in the cemetery because his mother told him he was worthless and good for nothing.

While their peers were developing a strong homework ethic, these students spent time developing defense mechanisms like acting as if they didn’t care, or anger and hostility. When counselors and guidance personnel tried to intervene, the code of silence to protect their families’ secrets sometimes surfaced.

I am not trying to be an apologist for all at-risk youth.  There are plenty of students who choose to spend their evenings getting high and playing video games rather than doing homework – some who look to gangs for power and belonging, and others who find the money of drugs alluring.

I am not laying all the blame on parents either – there are many who do all the right things and still have apathetic and angry children.  I am trying however to draw attention to the need for us as teachers to look beyond the behavior, to search for the spark of goodness in each child and to kindle and nurture that spark until it becomes a flame.

As I mentioned, I tried to do that alone when I first began teaching.  I soon found that mentoring and coaching the students could become a full time job leaving little time for academics!  My solution was to involve more people from the community in these roles.  A valuable partnership that we developed with the Elder Services agency in our area brings people with wide and varied life experiences into our program.

Another connection was made with a local arts group who now provides poets and artists to help the students explore themselves and develop positive self-esteem.  We reached out to talented individuals in our school and community and have integrated meditation, self-exploration and other methods of teaching the students to express themselves and their needs/emotions and vulnerabilities in a more positive manner.

Another very important step was to empower the students to create and foster a positive and achievement-oriented culture within our classroom.  To that end the students are part of the process to develop rules and guidelines.  We collectively reflect on and learn from negative situations when they occur and we work hard to support each other.

Once every several weeks we collaborate on a community service project such as helping out at a food pantry.  We share “family” meals at the holidays in our classroom and we make a point of integrating our own personal victories and roadblocks into our academic discussions – such as how a character acted in a novel we are reading.

While I have the good fortune of a self-contained classroom and get to spend all day with my students, I believe that some of the concepts I have described could be incorporated into mainstream classrooms as well.

Perhaps investing time getting to know and reaching out to a troublesome student rather than butting heads may yield positive results.  Seeking out of school connections for some of the kids in your class through phone calls to an arts group or interest-matching community connection such as an entrepreneur or a tradesperson could work.  While these actions are out of the norm of most teacher’s responsibilities, the extra effort often sends a positive message to the kids that we care.

My experience as a teacher within an Alternative Education program has taught me two very important lessons about students and behavior.  Never judge a book by its cover – there is usually some underlying cause of misbehavior and while it may not be our jobs to discover what it is or to fix it, we can try very hard to find and encourage what lies beneath it.

Secondly, students and teachers benefit from the creation of a classroom environment and culture that cares as much about a student’s well-being as it does his or her academic achievement.  Looking to the community and introducing some “unorthodox methods” such as a ninety second meditation or inspirational quote discussions may help create that culture.

As the scope of our academic responsibilities grows larger from the Common Core and PARCC etc. we find ourselves pressed to make the most of our time in the classroom.  While new tasks or responsibilities may require an additional commitment on our parts, I have found that they yield improved engagement and less time wasted on dealing with misbehavior.  It is helpful to think of the saying “invest time to save time.”  I thank you for reading this column and hope that you find something edifying within it.  I can be reached at if you have any questions or comments also at @MonomoyALP.

Honoring all who teach and work to make the lives of our youth better – George Sowpel