Interview by Kris Miner, with elementary school teacher, Catherine Cranston.
KM: How has training in Restorative Justice Practices made a difference in your classroom?
CC: The biggest change for me has been the change in teacher language. I now use the words harm, offender, victims, and community members to describe the students in my school and classroom. I talked to students about fixing the harm they have caused instead of breaking the rules. I explain to students how each rule keeps them safe from harm or keeps others safe. The whole purpose of the rules at school is so everyone can feel safe and learn. This has changed the way both the students and I look at rules. For most students school rules are all about rules set up by grown ups for grown ups. Looking at rules through a restorative lens means recognizing that breaking a rule may cause harm to everyone in the school community or everyone in the classroom. Rule breakers are offenders and everyone in the classroom can be victims. This gives misbehavior a context and the students see how their actions affect others in the classroom and others in the school. Misbehavior is a violation of people and relationships. For seven and eight year olds that is quite a new concept, because up until now everything has been all about them.
KM: How has embedding Restorative Practices in your classroom changed your day to day classroom discipline?
CC: The central focus of behaviors is repairing the harm, not punishing the rule breaker. We spend time and effort on putting things right by asking these questions: Who has been hurt? What are their needs? Whose obligations are these? Rather than focusing on the traditional methods of discipline such as: What rules have been broken? Who did it? What do they deserve? The Restorative Questions are a new way of looking at discipline.
KM: What would be your advice to other teachers who are interested in implementing Restorative Practices in their classrooms?
CC: I am certainly not an expert by any means. I can only tell you how it has worked for me.
First, I just took a class on using the circle process and read two books on Restorative Justice. I must admit that at first I had a hard time thinking of how to apply this whole thing to classrooms or schools. Many of the publications are focused on criminals, prison, or the courts. “The Little Books” of Restorative Justice were very helpful for me in making that leap from the criminal justice system to the school system.
There was no awareness in my school of what RJ was, although my entire building is a Responsive Classroom School. I personally see many connections between the Responsive Classroom process and Restorative Practices so when talking about RJ to other teachers I tried to bring Responsive Classroom into the picture as often as possible. Most teachers in my school were already using fix it sheets and morning meeting circles so that is where I started to make the connection between RC and RJ.
My next step was to talk about the impact the circle process and restorative practices was having in my own classroom. I didn’t try to talk anyone into doing it…I just talked about how much of a positive impact it was having in my own classroom.
I spoke to my principal and asked her to sit in on circles both in my classroom and at the Restorative Justice Center. This gave her a clear picture of the circle process and how it worked in both settings. She loved the idea and was ready for the next step. So I approached her about implementing problem solving circles as a school wide program. I facilitated the school wide circles on Fridays and asked teachers to refer victims, offenders, and community members to the circles. The power of the Friday Circles and the excitement of the students who participated prompted other classrooms teachers to begin asking me about Restorative Justice.
The next step was when I wrote a grant to a local foundation for funding to support a one day Restorative Justice Training for the staff at my school. This was a basic overview of Restorative Justice and a first introduction for most of the staff. Some teachers were very interested and asked me for more resources.
Many teachers began asking more questions about circles. So my principal asked me to facilitate a circle for a staff meeting to process a problem the school was currently experiencing. This staff meeting circle was a first RJ/Circle experience for most of the staff in my building.
KM: Now that you are in the second school year of using Restorative Practices are there any changes between year one and year two?
CC: Yes, the biggest change for me is that my class last year was filled with behavioral issues so most of my circles were problem solving. In addition to that last year I didn’t introduce circles and restorative justice practices until well into the school year. I wasn’t really able to begin on day one with proactive RJ strategies. The problem solving circles really gave all parties strong voices. I received very positive feedback from victims, offenders, and community members in the school (students and staff).
This school year I have been using RJ practices since the first day of school. I have continued with morning meetings, but have changed the sharing portion of each morning to include a circle sharing where every student speaks. I have also added a closing circle to end each school day. Closing circle only lasts for 10-15 minutes but every student gets a chance to share and story tell. I have found this closing circle serves two major purposes. First, it gives each student a chance to process verbally the issues from the day. It has become a proactive way to solve small problems from the day. It has also provided a forum for discussion of issues that might become problems in the future. The students are able to bring up topics they “wonder about” or topics they are “worried about”. Closing circles help the students get ready for learning because they have less to worry or wonder about.
Starting RJ practices from the first day of school has created an incredible sense of belonging and safety for all the students in my classroom. I just finished Parent-Teacher Conferences last week and received positive feedback from every parent about the circles and how much their children absolutely love school. I invited several parents to participate in the morning circle and they were amazed at the process. I truly feel the sense of belonging and sense of safety is why the children are excited about being in school.
Thank you Catherine!