A blog posted on the website The Educator’s Room, written by exhausted teacher, Adam Sutton, recently stated that Restorative Practices (RP), “in our current education system...is a doomed practice.” He goes on to say that RP’s goal is to “interrupt and halt the school to prison pipeline while helping students overcome and cope with trauma.”
At first, this sounds like a death blow to restorative practices, but not so fast...
The way that Northern Arizona Restorative Justice (NARJ) teaches and uses RP is broader than what Mr. Sutton describes. While RP’s goals include the ones Mr. Sutton outlines, we educate teachers to use RP to:
Perhaps this article will allow us to again make clear the underlying problem, which is that our current system of education is broken, and strips teachers of the passion and purpose to teach.
Teachers are not given sufficient support to deal with the challenges they and their students are facing: increasing levels of trauma that interfere with students’ ability to learn, the vaping crisis, drugs and alcohol, mass shootings and the resultant shooter drills, the impact of technology, and the like. While some schools have added more counselors, school guards, and other non-teaching roles to help with these challenges, the people working in those positions are often overworked and reactive to problems.
Can we come together and help teachers and school workers fix a broken system?
The position of teacher is heavy with too much need, and not enough help. We all want kids to get help–academic or otherwise–when they need it. But we struggle to meet the need with current resources. As Mr. Sutton says, “If a student needs a place to vent, a shoulder to cry on, or a quiet place to breathe, I want them to get it.” We all have this same desire, and we share a responsibility to create effective support together.
Mr. Sutton clearly took to heart the facts that have led to the wave of RP in schools around the world. He acknowledged that students who have experienced abuse and neglect face obstacles to learning. He mentioned how students who lack basic safety and security are difficult to effectively teach.
In fact, today’s kids show many signs of trauma that are found in war-torn countries. Studies have shown that between 30% and 50% of today’s youth have experienced one or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Research links ACEs to long-lasting negative effects on health and wellbeing. The trauma that our kids face today is setting the stage for a lifetime of unhealthiness.
The reason RP can help with trauma is because trauma is often characterized by a breakdown in relationships. RP seeks to repair the harm caused when relationships break down, and restore those relationships to a greater level of trust and understanding.
Today’s young people are navigating a social landscape that is foreign to the majority of educators and adults today. As kids and adults everywhere scramble to keep up with the massive amounts of change taking place in our society, RP offers us the opportunity to learn together. Restorative practices are the bridge between our divides.
We understand that teachers cannot do this alone.Trained restorative facilitators and volunteers in our communities are willing and able to give support for the many teachers who are exhausted.
When we conduct trainings in RP for teachers in the Verde Valley, we avoid the message that conveys, “Here overworked teacher. More work for you.” Instead, we acknowledge that teachers have more to do than they can handle, and that we are here to help.
When NARJ recently visited a local school to talk to teachers about restorative practices, we pointed out that RP was meant to help them focus more time on teaching and less time on behavior that distracts the class from education. We answered the questions that the teachers were asking. We gave them some new ideas from restorative practices. We offered to be there to help them learn.
Since our visit, this school and several others we have worked with directly, have been excited and not exhausted by RP.
Relationships always face conflict, like the student who disrupted the class in Mr. Sutton’s example. He described a student who was sent to the office for swearing at and disrupting the other twenty-five. The kid was in crisis and crying out for the help of his teacher and classmates. He needed to be heard and was instead sent to the principal’s office.
Mr. Sutton felt the rip of so many teachers’ hearts when he had to choose the needs of the twenty-five over the needs of the one. It was not that Mr. Sutton did not do enough. It was that he did not have enough that he could do. What if Mr. Sutton could have called in a restorative facilitator, or two, to assist him with the twenty-six kids in his care?
What if Mr. Sutton had found a way to have regular RP circles in the classroom, where kids can ask for help, offer support, understand the conflicts they have experienced among their classmates, and repair harms between themselves? Teachers using RP find that they are like preventative medicine. They are not just there to address disciplinary events. Cultivating RP has helped teachers change the culture in their classrooms, as well as the behavior of their students.
Relationship building is the most important thing we can do with our students. RP is of immense benefit when we think from this new paradigm.
What if the student could have had someone - counselor, principal, etc go through a restorative process with him to find out what was the root of the problem? The next important step would be to send the student back to class where another brief circle could be held, easing the student’s re-entry into class and allowing them to make amends that could restore their relationships with fellow students..
Or, what if someone could take over the class, so the teacher could participate in the initial circle? Another approach would be to greet the student, give him the materials he needed, ask him if he needed time to cool down, and then have him join the class, waiting until after school to talk with him further and/or do a circle with other staff. The following day, he could make amends to the class to finish the process.
These are not necessarily the only potential outcomes. Restorative Practices employs the wisdom of the group to serve and support everyone to create a positive experience together. We trust that you will find your way through offenses using RP as a tool to experiment with along the journey. Experimenting, along with experience, will eventually bring us all greater expertise.
The volunteers of NARJ and many other restorative organizations are willing to help. We are willing to come in to host circles in the classroom, cafeteria or conference room, during school hours or after. We are willing to address conflicts so that teachers can address learning.
Mr Sutton asked one thing of us all: If we are mad at him and other teachers for not doing enough, are we willing to be mad enough to demand that our system of education change?