The Best Classroom Stress Reducer: Restorative Justice

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Peter Trapp, Oconomowoc, WI

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.

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Algebra Tiles Session

  • Used throughout CPM middle and high school courses
  • Concrete, geometric representation of algebraic concepts.
  • Two-hour virtual session,
  •  Learn how students build their conceptual understanding of simplifying algebraic expressions
  • Solving equations using these tools.  
  • Determining perimeter,
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  • Use an area model to multiply polynomials,
  • Factor quadratics and other polynomials, and
  • Complete the square.
  • Support the transition from a concrete (manipulative) representation to an abstract model of mathematics..

Foundations for Implementation

This professional learning is designed for teachers as they begin their implementation of CPM. This series contains multiple components and is grounded in multiple active experiences delivered over the first year. This learning experience will encourage teachers to adjust their instructional practices, expand their content knowledge, and challenge their beliefs about teaching and learning. Teachers and leaders will gain first-hand experience with CPM with emphasis on what they will be teaching. Throughout this series educators will experience the mathematics, consider instructional practices, and learn about the classroom environment necessary for a successful implementation of CPM curriculum resources.

Page 2 of the Professional Learning Progression (PDF) describes all of the components of this learning event and the additional support available. Teachers new to a course, but have previously attended Foundations for Implementation, can choose to engage in the course Content Modules in the Professional Learning Portal rather than attending the entire series of learning events again.

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Building on Instructional Practice Series

The Building on Instructional Practice Series consists of three different events – Building on Discourse, Building on Assessment, Building on Equity – that are designed for teachers with a minimum of one year of experience teaching with CPM instructional materials and who have completed the Foundations for Implementation Series.

Building on Equity

In Building on Equity, participants will learn how to include equitable practices in their classroom and support traditionally underserved students in becoming leaders of their own learning. Essential questions include: How do I shift dependent learners into independent learners? How does my own math identity and cultural background impact my classroom? The focus of day one is equitable classroom culture. Participants will reflect on how their math identity and mindsets impact student learning. They will begin working on a plan for Chapter 1 that creates an equitable classroom culture. The focus of day two and three is implementing equitable tasks. Participants will develop their use of the 5 Practices for Orchestrating Meaningful Mathematical Discussions and curate strategies for supporting all students in becoming leaders of their own learning. Participants will use an equity lens to reflect on and revise their Chapter 1 lesson plans.

Building on Assessment

In Building on Assessment, participants will apply assessment research and develop methods to provide feedback to students and inform equitable assessment decisions. On day one, participants will align assessment practices with learning progressions and the principle of mastery over time as well as write assessment items. During day two, participants will develop rubrics, explore alternate types of assessment, and plan for implementation that supports student ownership. On the third day, participants will develop strategies to monitor progress and provide evidence of proficiency with identified mathematics content and practices. Participants will develop assessment action plans that will encourage continued collaboration within their learning community.

Building on Discourse

In Building on Discourse, participants will improve their ability to facilitate meaningful mathematical discourse. This learning experience will encourage participants to adjust their instructional practices in the areas of sharing math authority, developing independent learners, and the creation of equitable classroom environments. Participants will plan for student learning by using teaching practices such as posing purposeful questioning, supporting productive struggle, and facilitating meaningful mathematical discourse. In doing so, participants learn to support students collaboratively engaged with rich tasks with all elements of the Effective Mathematics Teaching Practices incorporated through intentional and reflective planning.