Restorative Practices for the Win!

This year, I transitioned from a more traditional disciplinary approach to Restorative Practices. As a side note, when I first started this transition, I referred to the approach as Restorative Discipline/Restorative Justice. But, I recently attended a conference on Restorative Practices where the speaker explained that Restorative Practices focus more on relationships/relationship building, as opposed to rules, discipline, and consequences. Therefore, we should refer to them as “practices”, rather than some set of disciplinary procedures to follow.

Initially, I think this is what interested me most about Restorative Practices. I was drawn to the notion that, sure, rules, expectations, consequences, and traditional disciplinary measures help. In fact, I’ve worked with students for whom a detention and a parent phone call home suffice and are the only disciplinary measures necessary. However, as I continue in my career in education and meet more and more students, I’ve noticed that traditional disciplinary approaches and consequences are only a band-aid. Traditional disciplinary measures don’t seek to understand the underlying causes of behavioral issues. In order for me to truly understand my students and the underlying causes for their behaviors, I have to build relationships with them. After all, it’s not the right rules that make a classroom or a school an amazing place to be for kids; it’s the right relationships (Maynard and Weinstein, 2019).

Anyways, things started off slowly with the transition to Restorative Practices. By no means are restorative practices time-efficient. Truthfully, Restorative Practices require more time, patience, and energy as opposed to more traditional disciplinary measures. What is more, the transition is often confusing for both teachers and students. I recall working through an issue with a student in my office who proclaimed, “I don’t want to do another circle. Just give me the stupid detention so I can get out of here.” To be honest, a few students shared this sentiment. Nevertheless, I kept at it throughout the year.

At the end of the year, I received a pleasant surprise from one of the students who so eloquently expressed her disdain for Restorative Practices, particularly Restorative Circles. She’d been in my office multiple times throughout the year. She had difficulty understanding emotions (hers and other students’ emotions) and seeing things through other students’ eyes. At first, I remember her being dead silent during a circle I was facilitating with her and another student. Yet, as we worked through her issues in circles throughout the year, she really started to come out of her shell and express herself. I used different circle techniques and questions to get her to think about her actions from other perspectives. I encouraged her to dialogue with me and her peers about how her actions harmed herself, her friends/classmates, and the school community. In our circles, we analyzed the harm of our actions, discussed ways to repair the harm, and dialogued about how we could prevent future harm. Eventually, she became a leader in some of our circles. Going from not saying anything to actually helping to facilitate our conversations was eye opening for me. She truly began to understand the importance of relationships and their importance to herself and the school community.

On the last day of school, she gave me a card (see the image above). There wasn’t much to the card. However, like I said before, we started out in a pretty rocky relationship. She didn’t like me and she didn’t want to work through her issues in our circles. She saw traditional disciplinary measures as a way to get out of talking and working through her problems with others. But, as we talked and built relationships, she really began to blossom. She built relationships, started to see how her actions impacted others, and began to empathize with her classmates. For me, that’s a big win for the relationship building power of Restorative Practices!

Reintegration: Essential for Schools AND the Real World Post Education

Historically, human justice systems have generally encompassed four main tenants of punishment: retribution, rehabilitation, deterrence, and incapacitation. Retribution refers to the idea of the punishment for a crime being proportionate to the harm caused by the offender. Rehabilitation, which is preventative in nature, supposes the offender requires some type of treatment or intervention to improve the mind and body. Ideally, deterrence uses punishment to dissuade potential offenders from choosing crime to begin with. Incapacitation refers to the possible permanent removal of an offender from society who is deemed too threatening.

It’s no secret. Crime results in offenders experiencing stigmatization. With crime, offenders often spend the rest of their lives with the stigma of being a criminal. In addition to experiencing this stigmatization, offenders are often then subject to other societal disadvantages (loss of the right to vote/difficulty finding gainful employment/constant stereotyping/etc.). If you work in a school, you may notice that this experience is not all that dissimilar to that of our students who exhibit behavioral issues. Our “problem kids/bad kids/behavior problems” (whatever you want to call them) are often stigmatized after exhibiting behavior problems in the classroom or in the school, and may be labeled as such. Considering that our self-identity is immensely impacted by how others view or label us, Lents and Kazemian (2017) state:

Individuals form their self-identity on the basis of how they perceive others to view them… Once individuals are marked by a deviant label (ex. Offender), this label reinforces their feeling of being an “outsider,” alienating them… The resulting loss of status weakens the desire to conform to social norms, and thus leads to further deviance… As the label reinforces the identity, the negative identity, in turn, reinforces deviance. (p. 15)

Thus, labels carry burdensome weight, and it would appear that these offenders who have been labeled, also feel alienated and are less motivated to even try to prevent future offenses or reintegrate back into society. The negative identity associated with the label is reinforced after an offender has been labeled and faces obstacles to reintegration.

When I think about this in the context of schools, I recall “restorative justice” practices. Though I’m not an expert in this area, I like to think that I employ aspects of restorative practices, such as encouraging the repair of harm caused by misbehavior, mediating cooperative and reflective practices and dialogue that lead to relationship rebuilding, and reintegration as I invite students back into the school community. I need and want them to be contributing members of our school society.

The focus of any justice system should be on that system’s positive effects, such as how well the system prevents “reoffending” or “recidivism.” Research has shown that systems that focus on retribution, deterrence, control, and incapacitation are highly ineffective at reducing reoffending. In fact, not only have fear-based interventions been ineffective at reducing recidivism, research has found that they may actually contribute to the problem. However, systems that capitalize on human beings’ innate desire to reintegrate into society and culture are more successful at reducing recidivism.

Knowing what we know about criminal justice systems, if we don’t work to reintegrate students after they’ve served consequences/done their time/whatever you want to call it, aren’t we just exacerbating the problem? If students remain stigmatized and see no point in reintegrating into the school society/culture, aren’t we perpetuating a system that does more harm than good?

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Education/Teaching: This Profession Isn’t Just a Paycheck, It’s a Purpose.

I had a rather nontraditional start to my career as an educator.  I graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in Mass Communication with an emphasis in Broadcasting.  After graduation, I got a job in a public relations/marketing/advertising agency downtown.  I was so excited to start my post-college life.  I saw myself living downtown and making a living in the business world.  I felt confident that I had a job and that I would soon be making enough money to leave the nest and start my own life.

However, it now occurs to me, I never really thought about my purpose.  I do have to give myself a little credit.  I was only 22.  Finding a purpose in life takes some people their entire lives.  At the age of 22, purpose wasn’t something I was thinking about.  In fact, I hadn’t really thought about my purpose at any point in my life.

Anyways, I started my job interning as an account manager for this PR agency.  The hustle and bustle of the commute and the first day felt exciting.  I was “adulting” and it was kind of cool!  Fast forward about three weeks…  After some time making the commute in the rat race and working in the agency, I began losing interest.  It didn’t feel fun anymore.  I started dreading going to work.  There was nothing invigorating about sitting at a desk, staring at a computer screen, writing emails, and making cold calls all day (of course, not all PR agencies are like this.  However, this was my experience).

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was missing something extremely important.  I was not fulfilling my purpose.  I had no conviction.  I had no passion.  I felt like an easily replaceable cog, just spinning and spinning as the days went by.  I had daydream nightmares of myself getting old still doing the same thing, day in and day out, staring at a computer screen, writing emails, and making cold calls.

The day came for my internship to end, and I was not offered a full-time position in the agency.  This may sound strange, but I felt a small (very small) sense of failure because I was not hired on full-time, but I also felt an extreme sense of relief.  After that internship, I was fairly certain that I wanted nothing to do with the business world, or at least a company that made me feel irrelevant and easily replaceable.  Some may say I didn’t give the business world enough time and should have stuck it out because not all businesses or agencies are like the one in which I worked.  I know that.  Yet, I’m extremely thankful I didn’t stick around.

My mom was a principal around the time that my internship ended.  She told me that I should look into substitute teaching to make some money while I was job searching.  I did.  AND I LOVED IT!  Who loves substitute teaching?  Subbing is notoriously difficult.  Students don’t always treat subs well.  The pay isn’t that good.  I had no insurance/benefits.  I didn’t know much about education at the time so I occasionally felt unprepared.  But, I began to notice something.  I noticed something about myself as I began interacting with students and the school/district community.  I was happy.  I felt a connection with education and with all my students and their families.  I began to feel a sense of purpose.  Because of the connections I was making with students and the school community, I felt like I was making an impact.  My students, (which weren’t really mine at the time because I was only subbing, but still), really helped cultivate this purpose in me.  I began to feel a strong sense of conviction.  I needed to become a teacher in order to help positively change the lives of my students!  So, that’s what I did.

I’m writing this post because I’m currently interviewing candidates for multiple teaching positions in my building for the 2017-2018 school year.  There are hundreds of books on interviewing.  These books delineate types of questions to ask potential candidates.  They highlight nonverbal cues to look for while interviewing candidates.  However, none of the books touch on purpose, or at least they don’t go into depth about it.  One of the things I’m looking for in candidates (among the plethora of other criteria I look for in good teaching candidates) is PURPOSE.  I wish I could define this better (so then I could write that book, lol).  Sometimes, I even wish that purpose was more quantifiable.  I’ve hired teachers in the past who were/are very passionate, and I think this is an aspect of purpose.  Yet, I don’t think it’s the same thing.  It’s hard to describe.  But, as a leader making hiring decisions, sometimes, you just know when someone has/knows his or her purpose.  It comes through in all of their answers and their questions.  It comes through as they describe their day-to-day responsibilities interacting with children.  It becomes apparent when candidates talk about the time they spend with their school communities.  At the end of the day, I’m looking to hire teaching candidates who view this job as their purpose, not just a paycheck.

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Turns Out, Happiness is the Key (or, at Least One of Them)

Did you know the following benefits of happiness (Achor, HBR, 2012):

  • 56% greater sales
  • 3 times more creative
  • 31% more productive
  • 40% more likely to receive a promotion
  • 23% fewer fatigue symptoms
  • Up to 6 times more engaged
  • 39% more likely to live to age 94
  • People who are happy and positive are more productive, which results in a better ROI for companies and school districts.

I attended a 2-day Happiness Advantage workshop in Schaumburg this week.  At first, I was skeptical.  I mean,  I already knew happiness was important.  I knew being happy was a big part of success and creativity.  I knew that happiness helped fuel relationship building.  However, I didn’t know the aforementioned specific benefits of being happy.

Also, happiness is a mindset.  We must make a choice to be happy.  As obvious as that may seem, I never truly thought about happiness that way.  I thought that if I worked hard and became successful, I would be happy (almost automatically).  However, that thinking is backwards.  I must first choose to be happy, which will help my brain work better, and then potentially help me become more successful.  As the presenter mentioned, negative emotions narrow our focus towards fight-flight, whereas positive emotions broaden the amount of possibilities we process, thus, making us more creative, thoughtful, and open to new ideas (Fredrickson, 2004).

In addition, I learned that we have to be careful.  Apparently, it’s fairly simple to fall into the “darkness” or be negative (which shouldn’t be hard to believe.  Just turn on the news).  What is more, I also learned that there are specific habits that people engage in order to remain consistently happy.  During the training, I made a commitment to try at least one of these habits for 21 days.  I’m hoping this commitment will become a habit so that I can begin working on developing another one of the happiness habits.

To clarify, it’s not that I’m not a happy person.  I am happy.  There are many things that make me happy.  However, as the presenter also said (or asked), we’re not always happy at work.  He asked a poignant question: why do we always wait until retirement to be happy?  We should be focusing on ways to make work happy, so that happiness is part of our regular routine and so happiness is also shared with all the people with whom we come into contact.

I definitely plan to live by what I learned.  I was about to say, “implement what I learned.”  Yet, what we learned can’t really be implemented (in the most literal sense).  The Happiness Advantage focused on a paradigm shift/mind shift/seeing the world through different lenses (emotional lenses).  The presenter wasn’t selling a program or some type of scripted curriculum.  Being happy is within us all.  We must choose to be happy.

Let’s bring this post back to the classroom and apply it to my context as an educational leader.  I believe the rubber will truly meet the road when I’m faced with the plethora of issues that plague educational leaders (or, educators in general) on a daily basis: student misbehavior, problematic parent, having difficult conversations with teachers, etc.  When I’m faced with those challenges, I hope I can remember what I learned from the Happiness Advantage training.  I hope that I can remember my commitment to being happy, and spreading that happiness to others.

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The Importance of Good Mentors

I just finished reading a book on being a successful school administrator. The book included anecdotal observations and experiential information from past and current educational administrators. It was unanimous. All of the administrators who provided their expertise for publication in this book said the same thing: all educators, including assistants, teachers, curriculum coaches, maintenance and janitorial staff, building level administrators, and district level administrators need good mentors.

I try to read at least two educational books a month and as many research articles I can find. I’ve scoured the internet searching for books to read that could help me in my profession. I’ve picked my colleagues’ libraries clean in search of practical books/information that can help me grow. All this searching and reading has been extremely beneficial. However, besides on the job experiences and making mistakes then learning from them, I think mentoring is probably the most propitious form of growth in my professional practice.

Many districts place heavy emphasis on the mentoring and induction of our new teachers. Yet, I know there are some districts that provide no formal mentoring for their administrators. I’ve heard how some districts assume that because someone was a successful teacher, they will be a successful administrator. I find that assumption problematic.

I’m thankful that my district invests in its administrators by providing them an opportunity to work closely with mentors. During my first year as an assistant principal, I was partnered with a retired high school principal. Because of the difference in grade level experience of my mentoring relationship, I was skeptical at first. However, even though my mentor was a previous high school administrator, much of the wisdom he shared with me has been certainly applicable. In addition to my formal experiences with a mentor, I’m thankful for a superintendent who invites all the administrators in the district to learn and grow with him. I feel that he has taken me under his wing and helped me understand things and get better at things along the way. This informal mentoring has been and continues to be just as beneficial as the formal mentoring.

Essentially, I think it’s important for districts to remember that as administrators, we need mentors, too.

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