Everyone knows the traditional drill when a student is sent to the principal’s office. The first question usually is, “Why did you do that?” Without any opportunity to actually answer, the student assumes the role of recipient of the principal’s tirade. As principal at Baltimore’s City Springs Elementary/Middle School, I experienced a crucial “aha moment” when I learned this approach was contributing to the disruption in the halls and classrooms.
But when I started to employ “restorative practices,” I experienced the amazing things that can happen when students are given voice.
There’s a whole body of research around restorative practices. The premise is that people are happier, more productive, and more likely to make positive changes when those in positions of authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them.
In my ninth year now as a City principal, I have learned that when teachers and administrators give students voice—allowing them to speak up and for themselves—a culture develops that is conducive to learning. That even applies to disciplinary situations.
Our initial implementation of restorative practices in 2007 was an arduous, but transformational process that involved training of not just teachers and administrators, but all staff—anyone who worked inside the school. After the initial training, daily schedules for all students were revised to include “circles,” discussions aimed at community building through authentic dialogue. Teachers pushed back that feeling circles were taking away from instructional time. But eventually, teachers came to the realization that proactive circles were reaping rewards; classroom culture was transforming throughout the school. Teachers also recognized that the loss of instructional time for circles was less than the loss of instructional time due to behavioral disruptions they had been experiencing. As a leader, resisting the pushback and, instead, providing ongoing support and training was key to our transformation.
So now, when using restorative practices, a visit to the principal’s office is a very different experience. It starts with the principal asking “What happened?” in a particular incident and then truly listening to the students’ responses to that question. When students feel that an adult is actually listening to and concerned about their side of the story, trust develops and eventually permeates through the entire school community.
It’s that trust—rather than a fear of consequences—that transforms a student’s experience in the principal’s office or in the classroom, from one of punishment to an experience of understanding and true accountability. The principal and other adults in the school who are trained in restorative practices become sources of information and support rather than figures of punishment and fear, which is key to having an impact on our students’ futures.
Some mistake student voice for permissiveness or lack of accountability when, in fact, giving students “voice” enables educators to teach replacement behavior and gain insights into the struggles that our children are facing. In such an environment, students thrive and adults thrive as well. I believe there is a moral imperative to create school environments where children can thrive, emotionally, socially and academically.This is especially pertinent in a school in which the overwhelming majority of children suffer from direct and indirect trauma, which has become an all too common side effect of urban poverty.
With hard work, commitment and the necessary resources, I believe we will find a way to provide environments in all of our schools where students have voice and are successful.
Our students have a right to such an environment. And we have an obligation to provide it.