Teaching in alternative schools: Costs and opportunities

Year: 2012

Author: McGregor, Glenda, Mills, Martin

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


Increasingly, teaching has become state business and educational 'outputs' have become measurements of national competitive advantage. Such a technocratic business model is likely to conflict with the emotional labour inherent in teachers' work, and, as noted by Ball (2006), leads to 'a struggle over the teacher's soul'. Constrained by state demands to conform to macro-policies of measurement and accountability, the professional identity of the individual teacher is under threat. Within mainstream schooling sectors, it seems that most teachers have little choice but to comply with systemic controls over 'their teaching selves' as made evident in pedagogy and curriculum choices. However, research situated within alternative and democratic schools reveals a different picture.

The data for this paper are drawn from a project which investigates those types of alternative schools that seek to cater to the needs of young people who are unlikely to return to the mainstream sector for philosophical reasons and/or negative experiences which may include bullying, conflicts with authority, academic 'failure' and a host of life circumstances that impede 'success' at school. Such alternative sites concentrate on the school environment, curricula and pedagogy, rather than addressing a perceived student deficit.

Data from our research reveal that teachers in alternative schools demonstrate a particular philosophical commitment to teaching. They want to 'make a difference' to the lives of their students, often have strong views in support of student rights and freedoms, and feel frustrated by the bureaucratic constraints and 'numbers games' of contemporary educational systems. Many suggest that the alternative schools they work in provide them with the freedom to teach according to their philosophies. However, philosophical freedom comes at a price. Working conditions in alternative schools vary in terms of job security, professional development and salary structures. Such conditions are likely to impact upon the long term viability of teachers' engagement in the sites and thus the longevity of the schools. In focusing upon the stories of teachers in alternative schools we draw attention to the nature of 'teachers' work' and the need to develop policy initiatives and practices both within mainstream and alternative schools to support and reward their commitment to their profession.