Educator Stories

The Elephant in the Room

The cartoon on the left represents the Untitledcrossroads at which we have arrived in today’s education system. While we recognize that there are very significant differences in the way each child learns, the expectation continues to be results-oriented in a very standardized way. At the end of the year, there is still a measurement required in terms of how well each individual has performed according to the average, and whether or not that child is ready to continue to the next level, equally prescribed. It’s as much of a conundrum as trying to get an elephant to climb a tree! How then, as educators, do we teach effectively within a system that no longer matches our core values and beliefs about how a child learns? A shift in thinking is never a comfortable thing. We tend, especially in times of change, to curl up into the comfort of our traditions and balk against the idea of adding more on to our already very full agendas. Alternatively, we grasp frantically onto the new trends hoping that they will save the day: Multiple Intelligences, collaborative learning, differentiated instruction, popcorn reading, foldables, pathway supports, zero tolerance, no zeroes allowed and on the list goes. Needless to say, teachers, administrators, and students are overwhelmed with the demands of this fast-paced society; we spend a great deal of time trying to navigate the information overload that has become our norm and hope that we as adults-and our children-make it through to the next holiday with our sanity fully intact and our bathroom passes hanging smartly by the sign-out sheet next to the door. Before throwing up our hands in defeat, I’d like you to consider the following studies:

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  • Normal children today are more anxious than child psychiatric patients in the 1950’s. This trend in anxiety and depression will continue to increase over the next decades. The reason? Our young people are feeling socially disconnected, unsafe in their environment, and mistrustful of others. Little wonder, then, that the authors of this study entitled this era, “the age of anxiety.” (Dr. Jean Twenge, 2000)
  • A study by Dr. Lynda Younghusband (2000) on Newfoundland and Labrador teachers fits with the age of anxiety and feelings of isolation too. According to Younghusband, teachers express that educational change in the province in the past few years has resulted in leaving them feeling bombarded by demands and deadlines within the work day, with little time to reflect on their practices. Feelings of resentment for lack of personal and familial time were also noted. Okay, now you can throw your hands up in defeat. Everyone is feeling alienated, resentful, and overwhelmed students, teachers and administrators alike, so how can anyone cope with reaching her highest potential?

Let me share with you a little of my journey: Feeling like a hamster caught in one of those exercise balls (which believe me, I don’t want to be), I initially tried to keep up with the demands. “I must work harder so my students will succeed” was my inner mantra. One day, in the extreme heat in my classroom (windows bolted to prevent possible injury-or escape?) and filling in forms as to how many of my students were failing and what I was doing about it, I felt a modicum of resentment. This increased the following week when I had to fill in forms showing which students were passing which, in my opinion, was already indicated on the previous forms. Added to that was the horrendous job of keeping track of the hall pass which, at that time, certain kids were pilfering at an alarming rate. Was this a diabolical plot to undermine the bathroom needs of their peers? Or, was it a pointed action designed to send the message that bathroom oppression is not the answer in a school system? As I searched high and low-not for the philosophical meaning of it all but rather my hall pass-I thought, “When did I become the potty police rather than an experienced teacher of literature?” When I did then recover my hall pass, it was time to move on to a deeper question. It started out as, “Wait…what?” and then grew into, “How can my values as an educator fit with today’s classroom in a way that my students are encouraged to grow into responsible and independent young learners? Really, that’s a true story.

This is a huge question with which to grapple but, like most complex concepts, there is a simple shift that needs to occur in order to create a space for this “Wait…what?” dialogue to begin. Simply put, we need to reconnect with the values that, at the core, make us feel a sense of belonging to a community, and a sense of being valued as human beings.

So, teachers, let’s throw off the “scent of burning martyrdom” and have a spritz of RJ-it’ll cure what ails you. Instead of looking to the future, sometimes a journey into the past may hold the answer. Often, in society’s attempt to keep up with itself, important lessons are lost. I think this is the case for Restorative Justice, the new/old paradigm shift that will allow educators to re-evaluate their core values, to reconnect with their students on a meaningful level, and to create the space where real learning can occur. Restorative Justice is not an “add-on”; it’s an “instead of”, providing a much needed refocus on what’s important for the well-being of our community.Restorative Justice has its roots in the spiritual and indigenous traditions. Essentially, in being created or being a part of things, it follows that we must be interconnected to others, and to the world around us. That makes each of us not only a valued member for what we have to offer, but also makes us accountable to the planet and those inhabiting it.

Does this sound like a tall order, or is it astounding in its simplicity? The good news about RJ is that it’s a philosophy, not another “to do” list. At the grassroots, it entails one little change which will open a whole cornucopia of possibilities. Howard Zehr, an RJ advocate, suggests that we must change our lenses-the way we look at others- from ones that judge to ones that honour. In doing so, we will learn to appreciate the gifts that each one of us brings to the whole. Then, and only then, can we rebuild the trust and relationships that we, as human beings, so desperately need.

Starting with that simple question: “Am I honouring?” can lead to a whole shift in the way our classrooms foster growth and learning. With the RJ philosophy in mind, the space where metaphorical elephants, monkeys, and goldfish in bowls meet, becomes an intriguing adventure.

~Kelly Jesperson

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Resisting RJ for Myself

Though I have the RJ framework questions available and want to use them, it’s hard to do so when the difficulty I am facing is my own conflict with a colleague. In my first real challenge since learning about the RJ framework, I found myself grappling with how, when, where, and why I was going to follow this new framework. I hit many roadblocks…to be honest, it was VERY difficult getting past my own emotional “stuff”…it is so much easier to be a facilitator than a participant!. I learned very quickly you cannot facilitate a restorative process if you are a participant in it. I also learned, it is very easy to go to your natural “defaults”…feeling angry, hurt, sullen, or frustrated…

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Secondly, RJ assumes that open communication occurs and for a variety of reasons that I cannot go into here, I felt unable to share what I was feeling and how it was impacting me. So my fear was that the process would victimize me again because I could not share my thoughts and feelings and while my colleague might be healed, I would still be hurt.

When I was asked to think about the framework questions for my face-to-face conversation with my colleague, it seemed impossible. I guess the key in this case was that we were both harmed and we both caused harm. So who was making restoration to whom?

One of the key things that led to a successful outcome was taking some time to process what had happened. Far too often, we try to “fix” things when we are still “in the moment.” In this processing time, I began to ask myself the RJ questions out loud and I really made an effort to articulate an answer to myself. This process REALLY helped me gain clarity on what had happened, how I felt, and what I felt needed to be done to make things right. I then asked myself the same questions and tried to answer them as honestly as I could from the perspective of my colleague. It was amazing to me how the questions helped me gain perspective. And when we finally did have our face to face, it helped us gain understanding and empathy for each other’s situation.

The RJ questions for me became critical in the process of reflecting on what had happened and where we could go to make it right. While our situation did not lend itself to full disclosure in a circle process (and not all situations will) the restorative questions framework can certainly help in the resolution of many conflicts. The key is to be open to challenging our “defaults” and looking towards restorative practices to guide the way!

~Educator, Newfoundland

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Roxanne Skanes from Coley’s Point Primary in NL sends her unique discovery: I had begun using the acronym ‘CHAT” when speaking with those who need to talk or repair. I found I was often saying “I think we need to have a little chat about that!” and thought, maybe let it stand for something with an RJ twist. I came up with: a ‘C-aring H-arm A-wareness T-alk’ which the students are quickly catching onto!

The Substitute

“A substitute commented to me that the one thing she has taken from her time at HGP is the circle and talking piece. As a substitute she never felt connected with the students that she usually only saw for short periods of time. Now when she substitutes she begins every class with a check-in circle and always finds out something interesting about the group of students she is teaching at that moment. She loves it!” Brenda, NL

Circles and Adult Students

In my university course for pre-service teachers I begin each class with a light-hearted check-in circle. The impact can be incredible …

Personally, I found circles helped me a lot for presentations in other courses. Having the opportunity toshare ideas each class gave me confidence and practice I needed, even though it was only for a few seconds.

I absolutely love this aspect of the course. I honestly have never felt this comfortable speaking in class, from elementary to now! I cannot wait to actually try this in my own classroom to help students, such as myself, break free of the fear of speaking up in a judgment-free talking circle. Krystal


The Little Things

Restorative justice culture has slowly evolved in my school this year. It is interesting that the moments that make you think restorative justice is growing are not these blow-your-mind experiences. They are however, small, yet highly significant changes.

• A child raises his hand to be the next person to bring in a talking piece;
• A young person passes for the first time because they feel the right to do
• A child apologizes for something in a circle check-in, out of the blue;
• A child’s eyes open up when she hears the teacher talk in a way about
themselves that makes the student realize the teacher is a human being.
~Educator, NL

Circle Surprises

Circle question: what age would you like to be? Grade 4 boy: I would like to be 24
years old, because I would have a job, a car, and I’d be a professional wrestler.
Circle question: what is your favorite Christmas song? Grade 5 girl: Well, I would like
to sing mine. So she sang I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. The other kids had
never heard her sing by herself before, and they were all super impressed!
Circle question: what would you like to be when you grow up? Another grade 5 girl: I
want to be a music teacher because you get to learn all the instruments, sing all the
time, and it means I’d be really pretty too (flattery will get them EVERYWHERE!)
~Kathy Conway Ward

Something to Share?

We would love to share your story! Do you have a story to share about your experience exploring Restorative Justice in the classroom? We would love to hear from you!

Photo Credit to Kathleen Parrish

Photo credit to Kathleen Parrish