Heidi Albin’s work at Complete High School Maize recently garnered a respected teaching award and $25,000 cash prize, recognition the science teacher credits in part to the Kansas alternative school’s unique approach to learning.
Albin recently received the coveted Milken Educator Award for 2017—dubbed the “Oscars of Teaching” by Teacher Magazine—for her efforts to connect with students who struggled in traditional high schools. She currently teaches biology, earth science, health, and agriculture, but incorporates other life skills and unique approaches to keep students engaged, according to Fort Hays State University, Albin’s alma mater.
In addition to the traditional curriculum, students are exposed to life skills through elective units such as survival skills, first aid and cooking. They get to experience chick hatching and husbandry. Albin wrote a grant for a community garden at her school and raised funds to acquire a therapy dog to help students cope with depression and anxiety.
“Whatever the students need to know is what we teach,” she said. “An alternative school is focused on meeting the needs of students in more direct ways than traditional schools. Our program is targeted to those issues.”
Maize’s approach is in line with a national movement toward an alternative “trauma-informed” approach to education that’s redesigning classrooms into less formal and more welcoming environments for students who have suffered trauma or struggle with other mental and emotional issues.
Alternative schools like Maize are considered pedagogical schools because they use a distinct theory and practice of learning and teaching.
David Sikkink, Notre Dame University sociologist and lead researcher of pedagogical schools for the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture’s School Cultures and Student Formation Project, which examined character formation in 10 sectors of American education observed, “moral and civic formation was communicated largely through commonplace practices and structures—a regime that was best understood as something that happens ‘on the ground,’ especially in relationships among students and between teachers and students.”
Albin didn’t take a traditional route to become a teacher, instead earning her bachelor’s degree in biology before taking advantage of FHSU’s Transition to Teaching program. The “T2T” program is designed to allow mid-career professionals to transition to teaching through an online program while they learn on the job.
“I was able to learn some more about science than I might not have had the opportunity to learn in the teacher education program,” she said. “The T2T program was perfect for what I wanted to do.”
Maize attracts outstanding teachers like Albin in part because of its ability to establish unique “commonplace practices and structures” that students need to succeed, and because of its support for educators who embrace the challenge.
For example, Albin worked with 1995 Milken Award winner Steve Woolf, now a superintendent, to incorporate a program he designed to engage students in the outdoors with adventures and experiences in leadership and service, FHSU reports.
The “WILD” program also promotes conservation, and Albin’s work to bring it to Maize played a role in her nomination for the Milken Award.
“His mission is to help young teachers doing great things,” Albin said of Woolf. “I want to pass that on. I work really hard, but I don’t want to keep that to myself. It’s more worthwhile if I can share it.”
Not every school can tailor its curriculum to students the way Maize does, yet every school serves children suffering from trauma and anxiety. The Education Law Center offers models, training tools, and additional resources for educators in its report, “Unlocking the Door to Learning: Trauma-Informed Classrooms and Transformational Schools.”