Our Students Need “Restorative Justice” To Be More Than A Buzzword

In schools across the country, anyone can recognize the signs of a year coming to an end — high school seniors bearing robes and smiles, teachers purging cluttered cabinets, elementary recesses extending into eternity — the culminating events that signify the closeout of a school year.

This is a critical time of the year for school administrators.

Leadership teams are making shifts on their hiring boards, evaluating the performance of their teachers and students, and vision-setting for the next school year. They’re in a stage of reflection and examination, reviewing the past year’s successes and failures, while also strategizing for the impending school year, being sure to carefully balance the needs of each.

This is the perfect time for school leaders to take a critical look at their student culture, and re-evaluate the philosophy and methods that guide the way they discipline their students.

This is the process we are engaging in now.

I currently serve as an Assistant Principal for KIPP WAYS Primary located on the west side of Atlanta. The spring trimester has brought about an endless amount of competing priorities — interviews, testing, evaluations, strategic planning, etc. — but there is one thing that ranks above the others for us on the Leadership Team: our student culture.

We know that this is something that we can do better. Something that we have to do better. We know our students are on a path to become surgeons and astronauts and teachers and artists, but the question that haunts us is this: “Are we leading our students to become good people?”

This is where we feel like we’re failing them.

That’s why we’re opting to try to mold a student culture built on Restorative Justice. The phrase “Restorative Justice” might be the most enigmatic term in recent years in education, due to very few schools understanding what it looks like in execution, and even less schools executing it well. Our understanding on the concept is one that we’re gradually building. It isn’t a perfect process; It is tedious and frustrating and incomplete.

We are learning and unlearning simultaneously. There are mindsets and habits that we have to adapt, and many others that we have to abandon.

We are taking a risk.

We have committed to doing the research, talking to the experts, investing our staff, and creating a plan that is ambitious but feasible. Here are some of the initial steps we’ve taken and questions we’ve asked ourselves throughout this process:

1. Created a vision for student culture that was specific and simplistic.

We had to be painfully honest with our current student culture. We discussed where our expectations had slipped, and recalled teachable moments that were missed. We had to take ownership for incidents that could have been avoided if we had a student culture that was crafted with more intentionality. As a Leadership Team, we then wrote out what we expected to observe from our students in their interactions with peers and adults, then created priorities and  backwards planned our way to implementation.

2. Aligned our daily schedule and structures to our vision.

We asked ourselves:

Does our current discipline system serve as a tool to reach our vision?

Does it affirm students? Does it celebrate them?

Does it hold them accountable without disempowering or humiliating them? 

How do we guide students and teachers in repairing relationships?

Do we have protected time and opportunities thoughout our schedule for students to engage in social emotional learning? 

Do we have restorative structures that are both proactive and reactive?

Are we explicitly teaching skills and mannerisms that are socially acceptable in a variety of contexts?

Restorative Justice only works if there are clear structures and time for it to live. Repairing harm in a community takes time and patience. Helping students understand how to respectfully engage with their peers and teachers is a learned process.

3. Planned out professional development sessions to invest staff and build skill sets to set up quality execution.

It is an unreasonable expectation to assume that teachers should automatically know how to facilitate restorative conversations, or build a classroom community that aligns with the vision of the school. A vital part of creating a restorative culture is making sure that teachers are prepared to implement it. Our summer professional development sessions have to message the importance of a strong student culture, in addition to the teachers’ role in bringing the vision to fruition. We also have to norm and practice the way we engage with students, use intentional and positive language, and hold students accountable. The mindsets and habits of our staff have to serve as models for our students. We have to serve as mirrors.

4. Designated a member of the Leadership Team to own implementation and accountability.

Accountability is another key component of executing Restorative Justice. An administrator has to be available to give feedback to teachers, analyze student culture data, and determine whether or not structures are being executed with fidelity. Consistent pulse checks have to be conducted using the student culture vision as the North Star. It is understandable to make mistakes and have missteps, but it is essential to constantly adjust and get better.

Creating a student culture with Restorative Justice as the foundation is an overwhelming process that isn’t going to happen overnight, but we know our students deserve a culture where they can feel safe, respected, and appreciated.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

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