Amongst the chit-chat of life, most of us encounter the famous question, “So, what do you do?”. Well, I’m a Restorative Approaches (RA) Coordinator, and most people don’t have clue what that means. So recently I’ve found myself perfecting the “30 second elevator speech” about how my job fits into the world education and what I do at my school.
My work as an RA Coordinator has two parts, like two wings on a bird, that must be in balance in order for our school to keep our students in the classroom, engaged and learning. To be a restorative educator, or lead a restorative school, we have to engage in the two wings of preventative and responsive RA. In short, preventative RA is teaching values, building relationships, and creating connection; responsive RA is dealing with conflict and repairing relationships and harm. When preventative and responsive practices are expected, taught, and used, then Restorative Approaches are how we do things in our community, not just a program or a process we have to go through.
So often our students lives are inundated with trauma, gang activity, abuse, neglect, poverty and other forms of oppression. We are here to serve them something different: a place where dignity feeds their spirit and relationships bring meaning to their lives. The preventative wing of RA requires those relationships. To do so we work with our students to discuss critical issues of conflict, explore what makes a good community, and learn values that strengthen and uplift. Most importantly we talk with each other, maybe through the process of a circle, or maybe just in the hallway or cafeteria. From these relational practices on the preventative wing of RA our classrooms and schools to emerge as places of belonging and connection. That connection actively draws our students closer to their education and achievement. A student will be more willing to learn from you if they know you care. If we seek to discover the best ways to support achievement, healthy school culture, and succeed with supporting the whole child, then we must consider these Restorative Approaches.
If you are an educator, or have worked with youth, you know that what I’ve described as preventative RA doesn’t always work, because there are know silver bullets. RA is a philosophy, a mindset, the way we do things, NOT a guarantee. Why? Because we are human. Because healthy relationships, a holistic life, and learning to deal with conflict are not a destination, they are a lifetime of work. Because there will be students whose trauma runs so deep that you or your school alone cannot heal their wounds. Because there will be days when your mood is off or the students are raging under a full moon. There will be conflicts you can’t prevent. There will be lots of attitudes and boundary crossing that students will need to experience, and you will take the brunt of it.
It is during these times when we tend to kick kids out or shut kids down and we become responsible for distancing them from the classroom and the instruction. It’s at those moments when we must engage the social-emotional aspect of teaching and lean on the responsive wing of RA. Responsive RA keeps us in check for how to deal with conflict when it happens, what to do when values go awry, or how to facilitate repair when harm has occurred. Responsive RA gives us options such as Restorative Dialogue, 1-1 mediation, and healing circles to address group harm. When students repeatedly mess up, act out, and violate school rules, RA teaches us to respond by seeking alternatives to suspension. We must provide students the opportunity to right their wrongs and avoid the disconnect that occurs when students are excluded from class or the building. Prioritizing these restorative processes honors the adolescent journey of moral development and positions educators as the guides who know education is more than just reading and arithmetic.
With Restorative Approaches as a guiding philosophy we as educators can live up to our responsibility to provide our students with quality educational experience that empowers the academic and social emotional-self. When we infuse our teaching practice and our school culture with the elements of Restorative Approaches we pave a pathway for our students not only towards academic achievement, but towards the best versions of themselves.