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An Alternative Teacher in a Mainstream Classroom

I haven't taught in a traditional high school with 30+ students in a class since my first year of teaching. I have spent the last 8 years working at alternative schools in Nova Scotia and Alberta with students who were unable to find success within these traditional schools. I learned a lot from these students and in fact, I owe any success I've come across to them. They taught me how to be an effective teacher who can reach young people who have become disillusioned with their experiences in schools.

As I started back in the classroom this year teaching to large class sizes and working with diverse student populations, I quickly became aware that my teaching needed to do a better job of adapting to my new classrooms and students. For so long I became accustomed to working with 10-15 students in a class, sitting in a circle, talking about social studies and how the issues of the world impacted our lives. Within this environment, I quickly realized that building authentic relationships with students was the key to any success we were going to have in the classroom as well as allowing students real lived experiences to guide our journey through social studies. With such a small class size I was able to customize the learning to student needs and allow spaces where they could express their identities, cultures, and experiences. Creating a safe classroom with a strong sense of belonging was at the heart of my small classroom.

So, at the beginning of this year, the question was how do I create these conditions in my classroom where I can build strong relationships and create a strong community where everyone felt welcomed and accepted? To say the least, it has not been easy. I set high expectations for myself as an educator and it has been a challenge this year to replicate what I have been doing in alternative schools for the last 8 years into a traditional classroom of 30+ students. Building relationships have taken much longer than I am accustomed to and creating a classroom culture that works for all students is a daily work in progress. Unlike the small classrooms of my past, I can't take anything for granted.

The age-old classroom size debate is always worth engaging in, but for my purposes in this particular blog, I'd like to take the time to reach out to educators who work in similar conditions to myself to gain insight into how they effectively teach so many young people in one class. It is imperative to me to create a classroom culture and pedagogy that is embedded in equity and social justice. So my question to those expert teachers reading this (hopefully a few do) is how do you create a learning experience for diverse groups of young people where every single student feels welcomed, cared for and has the opportunity to share their experiences in the classroom? What are the theoretical and practical methods and knowledge that you use to ensure that students don't fall through the cracks in your classroom? Is it possible to create a meaningful and equitable learning experience for students in a classroom of 35+?

For much of this year, I've felt like a new teacher again. I've had to figure out how to teach effectively to large class sizes as well as using the guiding principles I've learned from all of my past students to ensure that students are engaged and loved in the classroom. It hasn't been easy, but I do feel that I'm slowly gaining my usual swagger in the classroom.

Over the course of this year, I'm hoping to recommit to writing my blog as often as I can to share my experiences as an educator committed to equity and social justice and how I navigate experiences in my classroom around pedagogy, assessment, discipline, classroom culture, curriculum and many other issues both at the classroom and systemic levels.

Any time I've had the opportunity to work with other teachers I've expressed the value in being honest and vulnerable in our assessment of ourselves to spark dialogue with other educators about the issues we face in our profession. We must commit to ensuring that we discuss these important issues and hopefully, we can start to build a larger community amongst educators in Alberta that are committed to building classrooms and schools embedded with the values of equity and social justice.


  1. Looking forward to your blogs Dan! Looks like you have similar questions that I have too about teaching large social classes, and I look forward to learning from your experiences.


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