Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Breakfast Club

Post by Tammy Chelf: Tammy has been in the BCSD for 18 years, the last 5 years as the Lead Administrator at Thomas Edison (Alternative) Academy  

I must admit that I was thrilled to be asked to share my experiences from the world of alternative education.  It has been a passion of mine for many years.  I have had the opportunity to see it from the eyes of both a teacher, as well as an administrator.  In many ways the lenses are not much different.  The thing about alternative education is…’s ALL about relationships.  Building relationships has been, and continues to be, the one guiding principle that transforms  students from being  “lost souls”, “delinquent kids”, “attendance problems”, “single parents” ,“drug users” or any of the other labels that sometimes have been given to them – to being real people, with real goals, real dreams, and the ability to be successful.   Kids are smart.  They know how people perceive them, and in most cases, that dictates the way that they will respond.  It is our job as educators to let a student walk through our door with a clean slate, leave those pre-conceived notions behind, build relationships and educate our students.

Recently, I watched one of my all-time favorite movies from the 1980’s called “The Breakfast Club”.  It is a timeless classic that I think every educator should watch at some point in their career.  The movie is about five students who appear to have nothing in common and are faced with spending a Saturday detention together.  Throughout the movie, the students learn so much from one another and end up becoming friends.  My favorite quote from the movie comes from an essay that was written by one of the teenagers to fulfill the group’s detention obligation.  It states: 

“Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong.  What we did “was” wrong.  But we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us….in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions.  But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain….and an athlete….and a basket case…a princess….and a criminal.  Does that answer your question?”
                      The Breakfast Club

 If ever there was an essay that so depicted my beliefs about alternative education, this is it.  Our students enter our doors for a vast majority of reasons.  Some of these are things that we can control, many are not.  Our students also come from a vast array of experiences, both educationally and personally.  Our challenge as educators becomes figuring out how we are going to deal with these differences in a classroom setting to provide a sound education.   In one particular class period, a teacher may have to plan for a student who is brilliant, but credit deficient; a student who is low achieving and has been diagnosed with ADHD; a student who has lacked any connection to school for so long that they have absolutely no motivation what-so-ever;  and ten to fifteen other such characteristics.  Like teachers in a traditional high school setting, this can be an extremely difficult task.  Therefore, I go back to the realization that the most powerful tool that we have in our toolkit – is relationship building.

Thank goodness for alternative educational settings.  The majority of our students have indicated that they do not think that they would have graduated if they stayed in their traditional high school setting.  Not because of substandard practices or uncaring adults – but many times, because of size.  The ability for us to offer unique educational experiences in a smaller environment allows us to focus our attention on not only the curriculum, but gives us more time to really get to know our students.  It allows us the privilege of being able to see strengths in our students that may have been overlooked.  We are able to provide emotional support at times when a student may be extremely troubled and to provide stability in a sometimes very unstable life.

I would not trade the experiences that I have had in alternative education for anything.  The life lessons that I have learned from my fellow colleagues, and even more importantly, from the students who I have been fortunate enough to know – have been invaluable.   Each year at graduation or every time a past student walks through our door to visit, it is more rewarding to me than any other badge of honor I could be given.  

I am the lucky one. 

“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up.  The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

-          Thomas Edison


  1. Tammy,
    You have modeled to your team the impact one person can have on a student when your focus is on the success of every student, regardless of their past history. The empathy you have for each student who enters your door is admirable. Your compassion and belief in each student is evident as each student is given a "fresh" start. I also recognize that the success you have had in both keeping students in school, providing valuable community resources, and supporting them in earning their high school diploma takes a team effort. Kudos to you and your team on a job well done! - jimmy

  2. Well said Tammy! So proud to have joined your team and to be working in this alternative environment. I have always said what we do here is just good teaching practices!

  3. Tammy,
    Great post and reflection! I couldn't agree more with your statements about building relationships...they are an essential component in any learning environment. I too can attest to the relationships needed in the alternative setting as my wife worked with you for four years and every time she sees a former student a hug is inevitable. Your ending comment sealed the deal for me...we are the lucky ones!
    ~ Colin

  4. Tammy,
    You are right on with building relationships and that we are the lucky ones. I look at it a little differently. I am lucky not only because of my interactions with the kids but also the things that I learn from your wonderful staff. You can tell as soon as you walk into Edison that each school district (North Scott, PV, Bettendorf) has sent one of their best teachers down to work at Edison. Unfortunately, that does not always happen in all alternative settings. Thank you for everything you and your staff do for our students!!!

  5. Thanks for sharing, Tammy, and for all you and your staff do to engage struggling learners.