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.


To teach Restorative Justice, have “treats” repair harm and remember best practices.

When I began teaching Restorative Justice, my motives were about being in Circle with the same set of people for 16 weeks.  A post somewhere on this blog explains learning about people teaching in Circle.  I was at the 1st National Conference on Restorative Justice and a meeting was added in with Howard Zehr.  I knew about his study guides on the Good Books Website.  Another new friend shared his syllabus and I was on my way.

I knew MUCH more about Circles and Restorative Justice than I knew about young adult development and teaching methods.  I love to train and had a few years of training experience by this point, so that part didn’t concern me.  My priority was merging Restorative Justice practices into the class experience.  I wanted to emphasize the Circle as my teaching “mode”.  The educational experience was to be at the Center of the Circle, and the educational topic was Restorative Justice.

I can still picture that very first Circle of students, I remember names and faces and stories.  It was a meaninful event in my career.

A few of the practices I use to enhance the “Restorative-ness” of teaching Restorative Justice:

4 stages of Circle.  Each class/CIRCLE includes an open and close, a getting acquainted question, a building relationship question and for our issue, we talked course content.  The taking action phase of the Circles was the “check-out”, “take away” or “reflection” on the class period.  One thing I remember, is that college students seemed to enjoy original thought.   We would have different aspects of the class time, or different perspectives presented when we did this ending.  It also allowed for students to relate to each other and have a different understanding on the topic taught that day.  The students taught each other what they learned.

Student/Teacher.  I intentionally focus that equality in Circle, means we are all students, we are all teachers.  Remembering this, practicing from this point means flowing in and out of my “authority” position in the class.  I kept the Circle and I also instructed the class.  I learned as much from my students as they did from me, it was just “different” types of learning.  When you empower each person to be “teacher” when they have the talking piece and “student” when they do not, you pave the way for them to listen with a specific intention.  You set up the Circle questions to work this magic into your teaching.

Engage the triad.  Referring here to Victim/Offender/Community.  I was fortunate to have a local business man taking the course, he was on “audit” status.  He brought an adult community perspective, the diversity added to our class experience.  I brought in volunteers from SCVRJP, both speakers to storytell and community volunteers to explain and experience Circle as a community member.  One requirement for the students is to attend an SCVRJP session and participate as a community member.  It was noted in many papers that the students themselves were also “offenders” who had not been caught (underage drinking or impaired driving), however they found transformation in attending and gratitude for experiencing the session without the additional consequences.  Our Circle questions also focused on sharing related to the triad.  For example, “tell a story about a time you caused harm, and how you repaired it”.  (Only to be used when the class was ready)

Treats.  I emphasis attendance, as all professors do.  I explain you cannot get the experience of the Circle if you miss class.  I also emphasis that we miss out on your perspective, when you miss.   After we have established class values I explain how WE the class, are harmed by the absence of any community member.  I let the students know bringing treats for the class is the way to “repair” that harm.  Even if I miss, I bring something!  We have had apples, mini-bags of chips, and cookies.  Eating and breaking bread together bonds a group.  Side note: many students share that my class has high attendance.

Just as a Restorative Justice process transforms the victim, the community and the offender – the restorative justice teaching experience transforms the learners and the teacher.  When you feel a deep meaningful connection to the work, you know you are in “best practice” flow of Restorative Justice.

Teaching Circle as a method of communicating and processing and Circles as Restorative Justice process.

SCVRJP and UWRF have a great relationship.  I am have been fortunate enough to have key staff in Circle Training.  They have taken the process and applied to different groups, enhancing the communication and structure of teams.  UWRF also provided Talking Circles as part of Social Justice programming.  These experiences have proven to be valuable to students.  I know I like facilitating discussions around racism, gender equity, GLBQT rights, especially with fresh young minds.

The photo above was taken when I was facilitating a training for the student leaders of UWRF Destination Trips.  The goal was to give the student leaders another “tool” to process service learning experiences.  It was a training where I really felt like “Johnny Appleseed”.  Each attendee was given a talking piece.  I brought several pieces from my collection, ones I was okay passing on and sharing.  The participants picked a piece, and then shared why they selected the item.  The Circle was able to share how they saw the individual in each piece.

It was fun team building as the leaders exchanged feedback with each other.  Then I suprised the group, by gifting them each the piece they had selected.  I got to imagine Circles happening over Spring Break.  If I remember correctly groups were heading to California, Chicago and the Southern United States.  I know for sure one Circle happened, the group used the Destination Trip t-shirt as the Circle center.  Although the talking piece from the training was forgotten, it was still mentioned and they used something of a similiar color.

Today I am preparing for different type of Circle, instead of processing, reflecting and team-building like the example above, I am preparing for a Victim Empathy Seminar.  This is a Circle session where community members meet with offenders whose victim is not ready for a face to face meeting, but a social worker, probation officer or court official referred the case to SCVRJP.

This type of Circle embodies Restorative Justice.  Our Circle will specifically have an issue to address, I use the 4 stages to do this.  In a communication or processing Circle, its less structured about addressing any harm, or righting a wrong.

My suggestion to Circle-keepers in training – is to find a balance of each.  Find ways to implement a little bit of Circle in meetings or car rides.  My daughter once grabbed a pepper and declared it a talking piece, which brought us some much needed peace.

I love Circles for processing or problem-solving, for increasing communication or repairing the harm.  A new friend referred to this as a “Human Technology”  I loved it!  In the face of all we do, there are things that as humans we can still offer each other as “Technology”.