Scott Aalund joined Phoenix Academy of Los Angeles as a teacher in 1997. After leaving to work in Head Start in 2002, he returned to Phoenix Academy in 2005, where he now teaches a special Day Class. Recently, he won the prestigious Teacher of the Year award from the Los Angeles County Office of Education. Here, he writes about the challenges—and rewards—of working with our kids.
On my first visit to Phoenix Academy twelve years ago, I remember the school’s secretary laughing after I asked what kind of private school it was. I wasn’t familiar with the program and, with its pleasant entrance and unusually peaceful atmosphere, it didn’t look or sound anything like the large public schools where I’d taught in the past.
We started playing a guessing game, until she finally explained that the school served students who were recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. It wasn’t a private school, she told me, but they were fully accredited and the class sizes were small—a maximum 17-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio. Wow, I thought, this would be a challenge.
When I came back for an interview and tour, the principal assured me that teaching at Phoenix Academy would be a rewarding career with the at-risk school population in Los Angeles County. What I really got was the opportunity to re-charge my teaching career, change some attitudes about education, and make positive contributions to the communities, families, and students I serve.
Every year, several of my students ask, “Why do you want to teach drug addicts, anyway?” My response is not simple and sometimes causes me to get a big lump in my throat. I teach at Phoenix Academy because I believe I am part of an organization that offers at-risk youth the second chance they so desperately need to get their lives back on track. I am constantly reminded that the challenges I faced growing up in a small town in North Dakota in the 60s and 70s pale in comparison to what my students face every day. The family difficulties, pressure from peers, and access to illicit and dangerous drugs require them to develop a strong character, resilience, and a positive support system to survive.
Despite these struggles, I’ve learned at Phoenix Academy that every student has the potential to accomplish something great and worthwhile—and my job is to help them find it. As I tell my students, “You may feel like everyone else in your life has given up on you, but I’m not going to give up on you.” To convince them that I was really serious, when I first started, I learned the Phoenix House philosophy—words that they must recite at least twice a day—and delivered it in front of my class. One of the kids got up and presented me with a dollar bill, which I’ve kept to this day. That token of their faith in me—along with the letters I’ve received from former students and their parents—are the fruits of my labor.
Through the years, I’ve witnessed the transformative power of an effective drug-treatment program—in combination with a supportive and responsive education program. Just as traditional approaches to education do not work with every student, not all drug treatment programs work with every client. But the therapeutic community concepts of taking responsibility for your actions, being held accountable, working as a team, and showing concern for others are successful techniques in helping my students live sober and productive lives.
Watching a student make better choices, problem solve, and rise to the challenge instead of running away from adversity is powerful and inspires me to look forward to each day on the Phoenix House campus.
Now, whenever a new student asks me why I do what I do, I think of the following quote from Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-North Carolina):
“A second chance means an opportunity to turn a life around—a chance to break the grip of drugs…[A second chance] is the humane thing to do. It is the responsible thing to do. It is the right thing to do.”Scott Aalund, Educator, Phoenix Academy, Lake View Terrace, CA Back to Index