Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring
As teachers wrestle with classroom management, with the root causes of disruption often stemming from life circumstances many students face that are beyond anything a teacher or school can change, restorative practices (RP) can go a long way toward creating a healthier, more productive and enjoyable classroom environment and school community for everyone.
Time is typically the number one challenge identified by teachers and other school staff in using consistent RP in their classrooms and in working one-on-one with students. Class periods often feel too short to hold substantive community-building circles, exacerbated in those settings where students must travel from one end of the building to the other when changing rooms.
However, those teachers who do make the time report improved classroom dynamics; decreased behavioral disruptions; and improved relationships among students and with teachers due to improved communication, respect and self confidence in students. In addition, teachers have expressed to me that, contrary to eating into academic time, holding regular robust classroom circles seems to result in traditional academic sessions being more productive, with students more engaged.
The following experience recently shared with me by one high school teacher illustrates the positive results of investing time and energy in RP.
My class of eight freshmen and sophomores was disruptive to the point that I could not carry out a 20-minute lesson with them. I had to quit doing group challenges because they could not be trusted to not throw or hit each other with objects used. If a student was not noisily disruptive, she/he sat in disgust at others’ behaviors, rolling eyes and not participating.
I met with students one on one and talked about each person’s responsibility in the fallout of class. I helped them notice their part as it relates to a whole. It was in the next class after these individual meetings that I implemented restorative circles.
The first two classes, I threw our regular Student Leader routine out the window and focused only on restoring our very cool class. I changed the seating arrangement. We sat at tables arranged so could see one another – not yet in face to face circle. I wanted them to have the safety of “hiding” behind the tables to begin the conversations we needed to have.
In that first class we watched some videos our RP Coordinator had recommended on restorative circles to get all students on the same page. Our first topic was admitting our responsibility in disrupting the group. I made a list of all that came up.
We couldn’t have a talking piece for the first two sessions. The following class, we revisited the list we had made and identified common themes: boredom, making noises, very easily distracted, wanting everyone to shut up and not disrupt. I asked them to pass around a poster to write suggestions for class rules/expectations. Each student had a different color and when the group decided on an expectation, they took turns scribing.
In the third class, we held a face-to-face circle with a talking piece. The topic, again, was taking responsibility for actions, suggestions for strengthening that, and how can we all support each other to keep distractions down.
The fourth class we again had a face-to face circle. The topic was a review of expectations and willingness to notice behaviors.
Then we started talking about everything and nothing. The topics ebbed and flowed from one thing to another with students listening and relating to one another as opposed to talking over and reacting to one another.
We now begin each class with a 5-10 minute debriefing conversation about school, home or whatever the student needs to say.
We begin each class with 2 minutes of mindfulness.
– Jane-Ann, JMG Specialist, Oceanside High School, RSU 13
As one middle school teacher – whose excellent circles I have had the pleasure of witnessing – stated, “My students need to learn how to communicate and treat each other well as much as they need to learn Spanish and French.” Another teacher, hoping to cancel his Monday circle in order to catch up on work after being away at a conference, said his 8th grade class would not hear of it and insisted they hold their circle as usual.
Social and emotional development in young people is critical to their life trajectories. The community they spend most of their waking hours in nine months of the year has a massive impact on that development. Spending half an hour at least a couple times a week for students to talk about whatever they need to in a safe, nonjudgmental setting with their peers goes a long way toward building a community that will help them step onto a positive path. Worth the investment and you might find that it helps, rather than takes away from, the reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.