The Power of Circling, Part 1

The thing that I miss the most now that I have moved from a building leadership position into the district office is the opportunity to connect with students on a daily basis. My role in our district changed quite a bit when I made the jump this past July, and each day is a learning opportunity for me. While I definitely have to search a bit more for that regular contact with students and the special kind of busy-ness of a school building, I have been loving exploring my role as someone whose primary job is to make sure adults have the means to meet the needs of our students. I’ve definitely discovered a passion for helping teachers create Future Ready learning spaces that everyone can be proud of.

When I think about what it means to be future ready, my mind tends to wander beyond the classroom as much as it’s focused on actual instruction. One area of shifting perspective in our district that I’m particularly excited about is our growing focus on Restorative Practices and all that the approach brings with it in the way of building relationships, strengthening communication, and amplifying student voice. We have been on a restorative journey for several years now, a timeline that should not be surprising to folks who have been paying attention to the shifting educational tides across the country and, indeed, internationally. As with any change, slow is fast, and getting the right people on the symbolic bus is a delicate and deliberate process. This is especially true with Restorative Practices.

The central idea of RP (or RJ – Restorative Justice – if you are coming from a juvenile justice perspective, where this work started) goes against everything we, and generations of students before us, learned in our own schooling experience. It’s certainly a departure from our focus on punishment and incarceration in the 20th and early 21st Centuries. So many of us have existed in a world where the only solution to harm is swift and immediate consequences that often look like pushing away, isolation, with little room for discussion around the offense and closure for the offended. If you look at statistics around graduation rate, suspension, and other “zero tolerance”-type consequences, you know that this is not a sustainable approach for any of us. (See: Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations)

I think that bears repeating. We have existed in a world where our focus has so often been on punishing the offender that we haven’t stopped to think about the importance of giving a voice to the individual or individuals being harmed by the action. In schools, this typically involves at least two students coming back together at the end of a suspension with the expectation that they will exist in the same space WITHOUT conflict. It’s an ideal thought, but what’s the reality? The reality is that there is a broken relationship there, with conflict often further encouraged by outside sources (friends, acquaintances, difficult-to-ignore social media which even adults struggle with). What are we doing as schools to interrupt that conflict and show our community that we value discussion and problem-solving? Restorative Practice is a definite path to that.

I reflect on my own journey as a building level school leader, and there are definitely times that I wish I could go back and have a “do-over” when I think of interactions with students who broke the rules. That do-over would likely include more of an opportunity to process the “whys” of the situation, rather than moving from action to reaction. I admit that, as a young high school assistant principal, some of my decisions were driven solely by how adults, mostly my own colleagues, would perceive me; A poor reason to make most decisions when it comes to students.

Now, in my 7th year of school leadership, having worked at both the high school and middle school level, I’m more certain than ever (and also more confident than ever) that a restorative approach as part of a comprehensive response to disruptions of the code of conduct is essential to not only help students learn from their mistakes but also to give those who were harmed a voice. It’s one of the best things we can do to keep our most disconnected students on a path to graduation and successful adulthood. Not to completely pull the rug out from anyone side-eyeing this post, I also believe that this approach should be deliberately partnered with our more traditional responses to discipline in schools. I agree that sometimes a student needs to be removed from a particular situation due to challenging or dangerous behaviors. But I also believe that all parties involved should have the opportunity to add their voices to the discussion in order to teach about building or re-building relationships, the keystone to any well-managed classroom. That is surely the only thing that will lead to a student’s success, and ultimately isn’t that why we are all here?

Stay tuned for a series of posts in the future focused on restorative work. Coming soon – classroom circles and doing proactive work to avoid reactive consequences. Want to learn more about Restorative Practices/Justice in public education? Check out these resources:

  1. The Skidmore College Project on Restorative Justice
  2. The International Institute For Restorative Practices
  3. Restorative Justice in School: An Overview (Cult of Pedagogy – one of my favorite education blogs)
  4. The South Glens Falls Community Coalition for Family Wellness (Yes, that’s me in the videos. A shameless plug, but a basic introduction to the work we are doing.)