Building the trust of school staff, using Restorative Justice Peacemaking Circles

I’ve been teaching teachers and school staff about using Restorative Justice in schools, since 2007.  Since that time, I’d like to think, I’ve gotten better at doing that.  I’m really thankful for all the people that have shared feedback, offered points of improvement and stayed in contact.  Over the years I’ve heard very positive stories from educators that use the model and methods . . .

changed the way I think about my students, the best classroom management tool in 21 years
my students now live up to my expectations, instead of seeing them as unattainable
I know more about my students, we have stronger relationships than ever before

I firmly believe a key component to effective schools outcomes and implementation is to get the foundation of Restorative work happening to BUILD COMMUNITY, BEFORE repairing harm.  This is where the breakdown in trust can happen.  Staff want to know how to do the ‘repair harm’ before learning how to build community.  The trust for the process and the trust of people are key skills in being an effective practitioner.

In order to be teaching people Circles and Conferences, you’ve got to know how to build community.  As Restorative Justice trainers emerge from community based programs, it should be acknowledged that not all have the ‘build community’ capacity.  Most community based RJ programs, respond to an incident that initiated the referral.  Building restorative community is a different (but similiar) process.  I’ve learned 5 tips for building trust with school staff when teaching others school-based Restorative Justice.  In essence building the trust as a trainer is as important and building community!

  1. They have to be safe enough to tell you their fears and challenges.  I use three words, and we play a word game like hangman to get these in the room: Impossible, Unrealistic, Dangerous.  Those are the 3 resistance to Restorative Practices.  I relate my stories around these, I categorize challenges into one of these 3, and I provide structured responses and time for the training group to develop their own answers to their own challenges.
  2. Demonstrate and model Circle.  There are two ways I do this, in a quick mini-demonstration, where we do four simple passes of the talking piece.  I also try to do a real, heart-felt, soul-connection, someone cries Circle.  You have got to show and have them feel the power of the humanity that comes from Circle.
  3. Ask, don’t tell.  I repeatedly say “build community . . . common . . . unity”  I ask them to “try it” and to try it “like this”.  Teachers have a great deal of knowledge and confidence, they earned it!  They are in front of an audience ALL-DAY!  Just as a community Restorative Justice program promotes ride-alongs in law enforcement, I promote “teach-alongs”.  If you are teaching teachers Restorative Justice and you haven’t spent time in a school, go to a school and shadow a teacher, all day.
  4. Be sure you are not putting another straw on the camels back!  Connect to current design, current approaches, find the strengths and community places that exist.  It can be very difficult, especially when we think about the work of Restorative Measures as the most fundamental change in school discipline since we stopped spanking in schools.  

    .  Start where they are and build from there.  One more, or a new thing, is easily dismissed.  Use videos that show the universality of the concepts.

  5. Be you.  The best you possible.  People don’t trust a shyster.  If you don’t have experience facilitating, you shouldn’t be teaching.  You can get experience by volunteering for a community Restorative Justice program.  Ask for students to volunteer and be in Circle (tip from Nancy Riestenberg) so you can practice and develop comfort in Circle facilitation.

The field of Restorative Justice is at a beautiful place with schools.  We need to keep it real and continue to honor those that have taught us, and to do the work in a genuine and authentic way.