Peter Trapp, Oconomowoc, WI firstname.lastname@example.org
For many years, I thought my job as a teacher was to build a positive relationship with my students by treating them with respect while helping my students gain proficiency in math. I bought into the idea that in order to control the classroom, I needed to be ready to correct kids immediately, and give out consequences as soon as someone broke a rule. This put a lot of pressure and stress on me. I felt obligated to be ready for power struggles with disobedient students to achieve an orderly working environment. The problem was there were not good consequences available.
I could email or call their parents and hope the parents would not only take my side, but also back me up with some sort of consequence at home. It was a rare case where both of those conditions were met.
I could keep the offender in for recess and hope it bothered them enough that they would not break the same rule again. This would often turn into more of a punishment for me than for the students. I could track them down and, if successful, I would get to spend my lunch period with a student that was upset with me. Also, going outside for recess in Wisconsin in the middle of winter is not considered a treat for many students. So by keeping them in, I was doing them a favor.
Many students take the bus. This meant they were not allowed to stay late or come early for a detention.
I could write up a student for an offense, but it never seemed to do anything.
If all this failed, I expected the school administration to take care of the problem student so I could instruct the rest of my students. That rarely happened. I was often told this behavior is common. And besides, what did I want the administrator to do that would help the student? Suspensions are determined by the administration, and there seems to be a hesitation to suspend students at our school. Even if they suspended the student, the student would simply return with the same behavior after a day of rest.
Accountability seemed impossible to achieve. Students would misbehave and either not get a consequence at all or not feel the pain of the consequence to the point of changing their behavior.
There simply were no good options. In plenty of classes with nice enough students the issues were small and manageable. However, without a good way of holding an offender accountable, all it took was one bad mix of students to turn my classroom into a place no one wanted to be. It was bad enough that I was considering changing professions.
Over the summer our staff was encouraged to take Restorative Justice (RJ) training. I skeptically registered figuring it would be another “Let’s give everyone a hug and hope things get better without the icky feeling of handing out consequences” program.
I was very wrong.
What I love about RJ is that it encourages me to treat students the way I would want to be treated.
One of the first skills they teach is to speak by leading with your emotion. Initially I found this difficult, but since putting it into practice, it helps keep my sanity. For example, instead of telling a disruptive class, “Stop talking. I have been interrupted multiple times!” I can share, “Class, it is very frustrating to me that I can’t finish a sentence during class today without someone interrupting.”
RJ teaches that few people are good mind readers, and this social skill is even rarer among young people. By sharing my feelings, I take the guesswork out of the situation for the students, and I am also able to be more real with them. They appreciate that I am willing to be open and honest with them. By example, I am encouraging them to do the same.
The second skill RJ cultivates is asking students reflective questions. When there is an incident of harm, RJ trains the teacher to take those involved off to the side and ask:
- What happened?
- What were you thinking of at the time?
- What have you thought about since?
- Who has been affected?
- In what way have they been affected?
- What do you think needs to be done to make things right?
These questions help students think about how their behaviors affect others. This lesson and skill may be one of the most impactful and life-changing gifts I can give my students. Once a student realizes what harm was done, hopefully they feel obligated to make it right, even if it is costly to them.
RJ showed me that accountability does not come through administration, parents, or the teacher handing out the perfect consequence at the perfect time. Rather, it comes through working with the offenders and the harmed, to help the offenders see what they did was harmful and was not acceptable. Then it helps both the harmed and offender resolve the incident in a restorative manner. A vital first step in corrective measures is having the ones who inflicted harm look into the eyes of those they harmed and recognize their pain – this, combined with the fact that they know their teacher is not going to let this matter rest until it is positively resolved.
In addition to training in reflective questions, RJ advocates the use of Restorative Circles. A Circle can be as simple as gathering your class to share their thoughts on a proactive topic. A Circle could discuss, “What does respect look like in this classroom?” The topic could be more pointed, addressing a negative behavior that repeatedly disrupts the classroom.
Equipped with RJ training, I am finding teaching much less stressful and more enjoyable. The burden of dealing with disruptive students is placed on the offenders by simply asking them questions like, “What was going on in class yesterday? What were you thinking about? How do you think that affected the rest of the classroom? What can we do to make this better? What will we do if this happens again?”
I no longer teach with the burden of being ready to immediately respond to disruptions with a consequence. The students know I will hold them accountable for their actions. It might not be that day. At an appropriate and opportune time, the offense will be addressed with restorative justice.
My relationships with students are improved. We understand each other better and know each of us is responsible for our classroom environment. I can focus on teaching, and when a student steps over the line, we as a class guide them back into our classroom community.