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Restoring Ourselves Through Restorative Practices

It’s Tuesday at a middle school. COVID cases are rising, staff is stretched to the limit, and the students are caught in the middle of the dual distresses of their loved ones at home and the educators at school. A student is disrupting your opening by talking loudly and horsing around.  The teacher attempts to put it to a stop with a loud, “Knock it off! I’ve had enough from you.” The student mutters a few obscenities under their breath. The hood goes up and the head goes down. That student is lost for the period and you don’t have the energy to bring them back. You’ve already racked up a loss and a little bit of your teaching heart. It’s 8:03 AM.

Our Own Downward Spiral  

As either teacher or administrator, you may have found yourself in an emotionally wrought situation with a student this school year. Educators around the globe have spoken with great concern about how this year is different. Teacher-student relationships aren’t what they have been in the past and traditional classroom management techniques don’t seem to be working.

The thing about these heated moments is that each of us brings our own stew of experiences, mental models, and biases to the situation. And don’t forget that these are fueled by the emotions of the moment as well as those that are lingering from earlier in the day. When situations arise that are unexpected, we tend to rely on mental shortcuts to help us make a quick decision.

The problem is that these decision-making shortcuts can sometimes introduce errors. We fire back more sharp words and escalate the situation. Or we suspend the student even though the district has an initiative on alternatives to traditional discipline. In either case, we chastise ourselves later for not being at our best, thus feeding a downward spiral about our own future in the profession.

Moral Rewards of Teaching

Restorative practices have gotten a lot of attention in the last two decades and we’re not going to devote a lot of words about its effectiveness in reducing disparities in exclusionary discipline. There’s much that has been written about that already. Instead, let’s focus on something that isn’t discussed nearly often enough. Why is it good for you?

It is certainly well understood that teaching is not only a profession but also a vocation. Speak to most educators about why they entered the field and three themes will emerge:

  • Meaningful relationships with young people
  • Investment in the future of communities and society
  • Sharing the beauty of learning and witnesses growth

These are collectively referred to as the moral rewards of teaching. Demoralization is what occurs when these moral rewards are inaccessible. This is different from burnout, which speaks to one’s capacity and resources. Burnout is real; it is the product of physical and emotional exhaustion. But demoralization accelerates burnout. When the cost is high and the reward is low, we consider tapping out altogether.

Restorative Practices for Your Sake

So, let’s speak selfishly for a few minutes (something educators rarely do). What’s in it for you? Why invest in restorative practices now?

RP emphasizes proactive relationships with students. There has been outsize attention to victim-offender dialogue in restorative practices. To be sure, it is an important dimension, but a really small one in terms of the overall effort. We’ve been using RP for more than a decade at the high school where we work, and we can tell you that high stakes conferences between victims and offenders, which are Tier 3, occur only a few times a year. But RP happens every day, in every classroom, at the Tier 1 level.

Restorative practices significantly enrich the toolkit educators have for maintaining a safe and orderly environment precisely because of the continuous investment in positive relationships with students. It includes regular use of circles for academic and social purposes.

We’ve been parts of circles that have focused on genocide in World History, debriefing a field studies trip on geocaching in Earth Science, and discussing the story of one’s name in English. In each case, there wasn’t a problem that needed to be fixed. Instead, it was all about enacting what Vygotsky taught us: all learning is social. Beneficial for students, of course. But of huge benefit to the teacher, who gets to share a bit of themselves and learn more about their students each time. And if the time comes when a restorative conference is necessary, the foundation of a relationship is already there.

RP emphasizes community. A second moral reward is as a pathway for investing in community and society. RP emphasizes the need for classroom communities to function together.  Regular class meetings run with and by students provide them with a platform to form agreements and resolve challenges about how we work and learn together. The reward for the teacher? Witnessing the growth of young people as they become decision makers, leaders, and members who are invested in the common good.

RP makes good teaching possible. Don’t you love it when you see the light of understanding on a student’s face when they suddenly “get it”? Whether you’re teaching how to graph linear equations or blending letters to read a new word, that thrill doesn’t go away. But they can’t benefit from learning when there’s not a way to recover.

Let’s take that scenario again. You hear the sound of horseplay beginning. But RP is alive and well in your school, and the notion of an impromptu conversation is a regular occurrence. Better still, you have an existing positive relationship with the student. After giving a direction to get the rest of the class working together, you kneel down and quietly say:

“I have a great lesson that I’m really excited to get started on. But the distraction you’re causing is making it hard for me to get started. That’s not the Parker I know. How can I help you get ready to learn?”

That’s not going to work if there is little in the way of a relationship. But when there is, the turnaround is often quick. There’s no loss of face from the student’s standpoint (the conversation was quiet, quick, and private). If Parker’s reply is more serious, an RP school has additional layers of Tier 2 support that might come from an administrator or other RP-trained personnel. The overall effect, for your benefit, is that you feel supported. You aren’t alone because there is a collective responsibility among adults that we ensure the success of every educator.

Restoring Ourselves

Let’s keep the moral rewards of teaching at the heart of what we do. Educators don’t need to sacrifice themselves for the profession. Instead, use restorative practices as a pathway for you to regain your footing by doing what you do best: developing productive teacher-student relationships, investing in community, and making learning possible.

Written by

Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College. He is the recipient of an IRA Celebrate Literacy Award, NCTE’s Farmer Award for Excellence in Writing, as well as a Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education. He is also the author of PLC+, The PLC+ Playbook, This is Balanced Literacy, The Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12, Teaching Literacy in the Visible Learning Classroom for Grades K-5 and 6-12, Visible Learning for Mathematics, Grades K-12The Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbook and several other Corwin books.  Nancy Frey, Ph.D., is Professor of Literacy in the Department of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University. The recipient of the 2008 Early Career Achievement Award from the National Reading Conference, she is also a teacher-leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College and a credentialed special educator, reading specialist, and administrator in California. She has been a prominent Corwin author, publishing numerous books including PLC+The PLC+ PlaybookThis is Balanced LiteracyThe Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12Engagement by DesignRigorous Reading, Texas EditionThe Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbookand many more.  To view Doug and Nancy’s books and services, please visit Fisher and Frey Professional Learning. 

Latest comments

  • I respectfully admire your path in life, Albert, and work to build trust, cooperation, confidence, and self-worth. Previously teaching in Flint, MI, I am now an international teacher who thrives on developing quality character so the four qualities mentioned above can exist. Those Flint kids taught me so much!

  • Insightful…not just for teachers. Thank you for this! It made sense to even me, and I’m not a teacher.

    Working with Boys to Men Mentoring Network, I too can attest to the importance of proactive relationships.  We also maintain “a safe and orderly environment precisely because of the continuous investment in positive relationships with students.”  Our groups are conducted in circles and our aims are to model accountability, consistency, honesty, vulnerability, and respect; to in turn cultivate trust and the like; and to encourage and to support boys on their path to becoming the men they want to be.

    While working with the boys we do (roughly 40% of whom are growing up fatherless), I often hear terms like “at risk,” “troubled,” “problem child,” and so forth thrown about.  Much as the article states with regards to its circles, “there [in my view, hasn’t been] a problem that needed to be fixed. Instead, it was all about enacting what Vygotsky taught us: all learning is social.”  We and our boys learn alongside each other.  Ours is a mission to build that very “foundation of a relationship” the article speaks of. 

    It is vital to understand, respect, and address the youth we serve as humans first and foremost, and neither as mere classifications, correlates, academic & socio-economic indicators, nor potential to be exploited. Sure, they may be “students” who constitute “classes”, “study groups”, and “student bodies”, but beneath it all they’re people. They exist within a rich and complex contextual perpective of their own, that informs their very thoughts, emotions, and behaviors – with unvoiced ambitions & insecurities all their own.

    At Boys to Men we encourage the youth to explore and express these very things. We model, hold space, listen, and learn as they do so.

    I deeply respect teachers who serve so many children.  They have the privilege and responsibility of coordinating and facilitating classroom communities and interacting with the youth more frequently than we (as facilitators and mentors) do.  Teachers have a great opportunity to make a significant impact on so many levels.

    One thing is for sure in both our lines of work, genuine & positive relationships are foundational.  These days the youth are increasingly sensitive to BS, fault-finding, pedanticism, pretense, patronization, and sophistry.  They have to know we’re here for the right reasons and that we’ve got their backs.  There must be a buy-in at the most fundamental level. And, though it is not up to us to force, fix, or rescue them (at least within reason), the cultivation of genuine & positive relationships will be greatly rewarding for everyone involved. 

    Achievement and learning thrive in caring communities.  Seems pretty straightforward to me. These principles can be applied just about anywhere.

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