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Restorative Practices: Creating a School Culture

January 22, 2019
By Andrea Wenger

Creating a school culture based on restorative practice "isn't rocket science," noted Kathy Evans, during professional development training with K-12 teachers at Eastern Mennonite School on a recent morning. "But it's really hard." 

Evans, a professor of teacher education at Eastern Mennonite University, co-authored with Dorothy Vaandering  The Little Book of Restorative Justice in Education: Fostering Responsibility, Healing, and Hope in Schools (Justice and Peacebuilding) in 2016. 

You hear a lot about restorative discipline in the classroom, said Evans. That's good, she noted. But it's not just about discipline. "It's about how we shift an entire school culture to a place of respect and mutual concern that supports the inherent dignity and worth of all."

When a student is acting out in class, she noted, whether they are in second grade or 11th grade, they are acting out of some need... a need to be heard, a need to move their bodies, a need for attention. Whatever it is, Evans encouraged teachers to stop, breath and remember the dignity and value of that individual student. The intention will help teachers do what is best in that moment for the individual and the entire community.

The concepts aren't new to EMS faculty. Peacebuilding, restorative discipline and restorative justice are terms referenced frequently. "We hope that lessons learned in all divisions and in our life together challenge students to look at complex issues through the eyes of others, to listen carefully, and to respect and value others as children of God," notes Paul Leaman, head of school.

When school members experience conflict, administrators and teachers often use a circle process to create safe space for difficult conversations. In a circle, participants face each other and pass a "talking piece." Only the person with the talking piece may talk; others listen. Participants can "pass" when the piece comes to them if they aren't comfortable sharing. Everyone has a chance to be heard. "Our goal is to deepen and restore relationships," notes Lynette Mast, peacebuilding teacher for the elementary division.

Mast implements a peacebuilding curriculum with grades K-5. Students learn from Jesus’ example through Bible stories, class discussions and activities. At the beginning of each year, elementary students and teachers sign a “pledge of nonviolence” that sets the stage for how they want to live and learn together in community for the school year.

"But this doesn't just happen in peacebuilding class," notes Maria Archer, K-8 principal. "Elementary teachers are committed to making sure we are all accountable to each other, students and teachers. When restorative practices become a part of our every day lives, conflicts are addressed not ignored and most importantly, each person has a voice."

A circle process with talking piece being passed.

Earlier this fall, middle and high school teachers practiced circle process skills together in a staff meeting. Justin King, high school principal, and Maria Archer, K-8 principal, shared tips and ideas. Weekly, Archer emails teachers ideas to use in Tuesday morning neighbor group discussions. These are used in circles or a more traditional open forum.

"The idea in using the circle for general discussion is for everyone to become familiar with the format," Archer explains. "That way, when we are dealing with a conflict or difficult situation, the format is not new."

King admitted at the practice time, that some students -- and adults -- may be skeptical. "What is this 'mumbo jumbo?' students may ask," he laughed. But, he explained, there is something special about sitting in a circle. "It slows us down and makes us intentionally present. When we make time for one person to share and others to focus on them, it's hard not to listen."

Teachers are experimenting, checking in, trying the model and other tools to ensure a school culture where every student is known and "nurtured to their capacity" as Evans encouraged. 

Evans will return to the school in February for another professional development session, diving deeper into the applications. "We're fortunate to have this resource so close to us," says King.  EMU was the first university in the country to offer restorative justice programs within a graduate teacher education program.