substance abuse

This Is What It's Like To Be A Teacher At A 'Sober' High School

These kids, they break my heart every day.

“I’m sorry about yesterday,” Jared mumbles as he shuffles into my classroom. “I’m couch surfing for a while. I can’t go home, and I was really tired and grumpy.”

He toes the ground and smiles sheepishly.

These are my high school students, making my heart burst open with love for who they are, and often sadness for what they are forced to endure. Heartbreak is just part of my job because I teach in a recovery school ― one of only 50 “sober” high schools in America. Our school is a place where kids who struggle with addiction can come to school without being constantly tempted by drugs and alcohol, both of which saturate the environment of many high schools.

Here, at 2 p.m. every school day, 20-plus teenagers amble up the stairs, noisily of course, and flop onto battered couches where they talk about their lives of drug and alcohol abuse. Using the Alcoholics Anonymous framework, our students, ages 14 to 18, bond as a community, because staying sober in this country as a teenager is a heroic and monumental task and they cannot be successful in solitude.

“If I hadn’t gone here, I would have died,” says Troy, a brilliant 16-year old.

Trust me, this is an exhausting and difficult job, one that is as much mental health counseling as teaching, but it is extraordinary and gratifying in more ways than I can measure. Because addiction and recovery require people to be brutally honest with themselves and others to avoid descent back into lives of chaos, these students develop language and habits that will, if sustained, create a lifetime of happiness.

“There is no better place for a teenage addict in recovery to get back on track,” says Sarah, a smart and beautiful 16-year-old whose addiction was life-threatening. “There’s one word that describes this school: support.”

Interagency Academy is Seattle’s largest public alternative high school with eight campuses spread throughout the city serving the most vulnerable teenagers ― kids who are homeless, incarcerated, permanently expelled from other public schools, or involved in gang violence, drugs and sex trafficking. We take hundreds of students into our school throughout the year, in a rolling enrollment environment. No kid is turned away and no one is expelled. We are the last stop, the last hope in this city for teenagers who want to get a high school diploma and find their way out of poverty and abuse.

My campus focuses on kids who self-select and want to stay sober. Many students come directly from rehab to our school, but many also come through our general intake process, without the means to go to rehab. Our job is to provide them all with a safe environment where they can learn how to live without drugs or alcohol.

Not a day goes by that I am not touched by the courage these students show ― by their grit and determination. Remember how hard it is to be a teenager under the best of circumstances? It’s such a confusing, awkward time of life, when we struggle to figure out who we are and where we fit in the world. So, on top of the “normal” teenage angst, wild mood swings and raging hormones, imagine trying to stay sober in a culture that celebrates intoxication.

When a student withdraws or acts out, our first question is always along the lines of, Hey, what’s going on? Are you OK? How can I help?

Just ask any high school kid if drugs and alcohol are readily available and a huge part of the mainstream culture in their school. The answer would almost certainly be “yes,” with the requisite eye rolling in response to an adult asking a stupid question. A newly recovering addict doesn’t stand much of a chance of staying sober at an average high school.

My day starts at 8 a.m., with kids wandering into my online learning classroom in the basement of a high school gym building. There are three academic classrooms and one office that houses our life skills coach, Ms. September Clark, a loving and compassionate professional who keeps track of these students on every level, and whose job it is to hold them up when they fall. Almost daily, some student faces emotional turmoil that could toss them into relapse. We don’t suspend or expel anyone, but when a kid is suffering or acting out, the team leans on September to give that student a space to feel safe.

We are trained in trauma-informed teaching, which means we recognize that everyone has suffered some level of hurt in childhood that affects behavior and learning. These students score at the high end of the Adverse Childhood Experiences scale and most have experienced abuse, neglect, incarcerated parents, domestic or sexual violence. Our kids have endured much more than most and yet here they are, showing up, trying to stay clean.

Knowing that trauma triggers difficult behavior, we don’t respond by demanding obedience or banishing students from the program. When a student withdraws or acts out, our first question is always along the lines of, Hey, what’s going on? Are you OK? How can I help? In a comprehensive high school, these are the students who get yelled at, ignored, isolated or suspended. Teachers seeing 120 kids a day, with 20 or 30 per classroom, hardly have a chance to relay basic information let alone deal with personal trauma or addiction issues. The average recovery school has about 35 students total and meets each student where they are. This is how all education should be ― highly individualized and in tune with what each student needs.

I had one student who would crawl onto the couch in my class room with a laptop, and cover herself completely under a blanket. She was routinely suicidal and came from a family with a history of generational mental illness and abuse. As a team, we helped her start to talk about her hopes for the future, and she’s still in school. We also have mental health professionals available for emergencies and weekly therapy.

Another student ― a tiny, fiery young woman ― routinely speaks sharply to me or leaves my room in anger. My goal with her is not compliance and obedience, but working with her to recognize her triggers, and learn to manage her anger while celebrating the tenacity that has helped her survive.

Most of these kids have “co-occurring” mental illness: addiction plus depression, anxiety, eating or bipolar disorders and other mental health issues. Yet they are smart and funny and very much exasperating “regular” teenagers. The recovery model trains them on the fundamental values of willingness, self-examination, accountability, honesty and authenticity. In recovery support ― a daily meeting led by Seth Welch, our on-site drug and alcohol counselor ― they learn to talk about their deepest fears and feelings in the context of their sobriety journey. This means that in the classroom they are conversant on social-emotional matters that would leave most adults stammering in confusion.

“So, you made a commitment not to distract anyone,” I can say to a student. “And I don’t see you honoring that commitment.”

They take their recovery seriously and many have seen the results.

“This school has meant so much to me,” says Trevon, a young man who was plagued not only with addiction but attraction to gang violence. “No matter my background, [this school] accepts me in the end and now I can actually accomplish my dreams.”

“I had no idea how capable I am of doing this,” adds Renee. “And like they say, ’My worst day sober is better than my best day high.’”

As a teacher, there is nothing more miraculous or satisfying for me than seeing a student come to us shaky and scared, and then grow into a confident achiever, strong in sobriety.

Addiction and truancy put most of these students behind their peers in terms of high school credit, so we focus on helping them retrieve what was lost and graduate with a Seattle public school diploma. Sarah lost months and months of school and is now on track to graduate in two years.

“They give me support with my learning style and understanding with the school I missed in my active addiction,” she says.

As a teacher, there is nothing more miraculous or satisfying for me than seeing a student come to us shaky and scared, and then grow into a confident achiever, strong in sobriety. Not all make it, of course. Sometimes students relapse back into regular use and they have to go to another Interagency site so we can keep this community safe for sober kids ― though they are still enrolled in the high school. But for every student who goes into sustained relapse, there are five who are steady and on track. And still, so many kids suffering from substance abuse in “regular” high schools are unseen, untreated and heading down a path of self-destruction.

As a teacher, this is a dream job. The classes are small, we are free to work closely with individual students and our team is tight and supportive. I watch the 10 or 12 kids in my classroom ― headphones on for music or focus ― working diligently on their online history or science class and I think, This is what education should be like for every kid.

And I know I’m not the only teacher or student immensely grateful for the recovery school.

Note: All of the students’ names in this piece have been changed to protect their privacy.

Phyllis Coletta is a recovering lawyer now living in Seattle. She can be reached through her website,

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