Article Detail

Whole-school Change through Restorative Practices
Steve Korr, IIRP Instructor
Laura Mirsky, International Institute for Restorative Practices, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Posted 2012-08-02

Presented by Steve Korr in a plenary session on August 2, 2012, at the 15th IIRP World Conference, Building a Restorative Practices Learning Network, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA, August 1-3, 2012

Over the past few years, I’ve provided professional development in restorative practices through the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) SaferSanerSchools Whole-School Change Program to numerous school districts and schools and have also helped shepherd implementation of these practices. (Restorative practices are strategies and processes that help build school community, enhance relationships and help students take responsibility for behavior and repair harm they may have caused.) During this process, I’ve observed some issues that seem to be universal, including the following:

In the beginning of the change process, all the talk is about kids. But when the process is really underway, it’s becomes about adults. Changing adults is much more challenging.

For adults to make changes requires a unity of vision from the top. You can’t delegate vision. Wherever the buck stops, that’s who needs to take full responsibility for behavior and climate change. With restorative practices, unlike with other programs, you can’t just “plug it in.”

Restorative practices, because they promote enhanced communication, bring to light issues and problems with staff and leadership—relationships, past conflicts, etc.—so people should expect this. Furthermore, you can’t make real change unless you deal with the things that come up.

Trust the kids. That becomes the biggest challenge: Do we really believe that kids are capable of growing, learning and changing? Circles are not just another way to control kids. You need to have “fearless positive regard” for kids, even the ones who habitually misbehave and cause the most serious problems. And you have to believe the same thing of staff, in terms of their potential for change.

Finding the right balance of support and pressure to facilitate implementation is key. How does one create pressure to be restorative? This issue is discussed constantly by administrators of schools implementing these practices. There is general agreement that school leadership must model restorative practices, and that someone in a leadership position has to be responsible for ensuring that the practices are implemented.

Dr. Joseph Roy is superintendent of the Bethlehem Area School District (BASD), in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA, which is in the process of implementing restorative practices district-wide. Implementation began with BASD’s two large urban high schools, Freedom and Liberty, in school year 2011-2012. (Previously, Roy was principal of Palisades High School and Springfield Township High School, two of the first schools to implement restorative practices under an IIRP pilot program, which began in school year 1998-1999.)

Regarding the balance between support and pressure to implement restorative practices, Roy said that because the approach is different from traditional punishment, the initial reaction from some teachers is that the practices are “soft on crime.” He’s sometimes seen his administrators being apologetic with staff about implementation, because, he said, “They’re not sure.” When that’s the case, he said, “people smell weakness and feel like they can resist.”

As superintendent, Roy said, he’s been one step removed, relying on principals and assistant principals to carry the ball. He’s realized, however, that he needs to reinforce restorative principles with his administrators. “I can’t delegate that. That was a learning epiphany I had this year. I am the person behind it all. I need to have more direct verbal contact with my administrators, reinforcing and supporting them. I need the principals, assistant principals and myself to be more out front about it, to persuade the teachers who aren’t buying in right away and to support those who are.”

Roy said that the next step was to make teachers “visibly accountable” for restorative practices implementation by ensuring that they are doing circles in their classrooms. He believes one way to tell if they are is by noting which teachers have the highest number of discipline referrals. These individuals “might be good teachers, but they are the worst classroom managers.” At Springfield High School, he explained, “We made it clear: You are responsible for your own classroom management. Here’s how we will help you; here are the restorative tools we expect you to use. If you choose not to use them, that’s on you, and if your classroom referrals stay at the same level because of that, that’s on you, too.”

From my perspective, Roy has articulated the central conundrum around restorative practices implementation: How do you prescribe that staff employ the practices but be restorative about it, doing it with them, not to them or for them? The answer seems to be that, yes, you do stipulate that teachers use the practices, but you also need to be very clear about your rationale for doing so: It’s to make it possible for the school community to learn and grow together. You’re not directing that teachers use circles so you can “catch” the ones who aren’t doing it; you’re providing direction so everyone using them has a common theme for discussion, and so that everyone will be able to support one another with implementation issues that come up.

Furthermore, if staff don’t have the sense that administrators are asking them to implement the practices because they believe in their ability to do so, and if it isn’t tied to the growth process, it ends up in the “to box” (top-down imposed change), and it won’t work (see Figure 1). Just as teachers hold students to high expectations, believing in their ability to learn, grow and change, administrators get the best results from school staff. This dynamic is passed on down the line: If administrators believe in the teachers, the teachers will believe in the students, making it possible for everyone to take ownership of the process and feel respected.

Rhonda Richetta, principal of City Springs Elementary Middle School—an in-neighborhood charter school under the auspices of the Baltimore Curriculum Project, in inner-city Baltimore, Maryland, USA—has been leading restorative practices efforts there for more than four years.

Richetta said it was essential she have faith that adults can change, as well as in the ability of her staff to implement restorative practices. “The leader of the school has to be really invested and truly believe that their staff is capable of doing it,” she said. “If I hadn’t believed in them, our restorative practices initiative wouldn’t have gone anywhere.”

Even so, Richetta said, she had encountered staff members who thought that some kids are just bad, and that there was nothing they could do to change them. “Those staff aren’t at my school anymore,” she said. “They couldn’t embrace restorative practices if they didn’t believe kids were capable of change. There’s no sense in trying to implement restorative practices if we don’t believe kids are capable of change.”

Even with staff members who do believe that children are capable of change, said Richetta, she’s seen instances when a child’s behavior had affected the entire class and the teacher held a restorative circle (to facilitate reflection and repairing harm) with just that child, the teacher and an administrator, instead of involving the entire class. When Richetta asked one teacher why she had done that, the teacher said she didn’t think involving the whole class was appropriate because the other kids hadn’t done anything wrong. “That goes back to traditional discipline,” said Richetta. “You pull the ‘offender’ out and deal with him. This is not nearly as effective as the restorative way, which involves everybody who’s been harmed. I asked the teacher, ‘What about the power of the group?’ Since everyone was affected, the result would be far better than just dealing with you and the one student.”

Richetta said that she herself had to learn to trust the impact a group of children can have on the behavior of their fellow classmates. “In the past, I would bring a child into the office, and we would deal with the problem and go back to class. Now instead of that, I’ll sit down in a circle with the whole class and let the class resolve the problem. The power of the group is one of the things I think is most effective about restorative practices.”

Some City Springs teachers who work with the youngest children (in kindergarten) didn’t see how circles would work with them, because they thought the children were too young to be able to express themselves. Said Richetta, “Our experience has been that circles are harder with younger kids, because their thinking, reasoning and communication skills are not well developed. It’s much harder for a kindergarten kid than an eighth grader to talk about how his behavior has affected others.”

The kindergarten teachers brainstormed creative ways to deal with this challenge and devised a process for responding to incidents of misbehavior that affect the whole class. The class sits in a circle, and the teacher talks about what has happened and then asks everyone to talk about how they feel about it. To help express their feelings, the children refer to drawings of faces representing different emotions: angry, sad, frustrated, happy. The children are used to thinking about feelings in this way because they’ve previously spent time identifying the emotions in the drawings. “Even though they aren’t able to express themselves like an eighth grader,” said Richetta, “They are still able to say how they feel by referring to the ‘feeling faces.’” In this way, even the smallest child is able to understand the impact her actions have on others.

Sometimes kids embrace restorative practices and bring the adults along with them. Dr. Christopher Plum is chief academic officer of Plymouth Educational Center, a group of three charter schools in Detroit, Michigan, USA. Plum has overseen restorative practices implementation at the three schools since fall 2011.

Dr. Plum talked about a recent incident when students were in a principal’s office working out issues they’d been having in class with each other. Suddenly, said Plum, “The principal said, ‘Wait, this sounds like something you could solve in your classroom with your teacher.’” The students said that they’d tried that, telling the teacher, “We want to have a circle,” but that he had told them, “Not now. We don’t have time for this; maybe later.” So the kids had gone to the principal instead.

Said Plum, “The teacher was missing it, in the name of teaching content. As if anyone was mastering content with the problems going on in that classroom. The kids understood. They cared about the problems in their class as a whole.” Plum continued, “There are lots of examples of kids going to administration and saying, ‘Hey listen, we need to have a circle,’ and the problems get resolved. We also have older kids running circles for younger kids.”

We hear wonderful stories everywhere. The common theme of the stories is, when people take the risk to try the restorative approach and see the response and get a sense of the power and impact, they start saying, “This really works.”

In Bethlehem, Dr. Roy said that, to model buy-in for restorative practices, Freedom High School principal Mike LaPorta took a big risk in a high-profile situation. When several Freedom seniors (popular sports stars who had never been in trouble) were involved in end-of-the-year pranks (breaking into school after hours, baby-oiling the halls, putting red dye in the fountain, etc.) he held a restorative conference with the students, their families and other school staff, which he called “one of the most impressive, intense and exhausting experiences in my professional career.”

At the conference, the students expressed remorse for their actions and were assigned consequences, including suspensions, the task of making formal spoken public apologies to staff and students, 100 hours each of community service and a return to school during school year 2012-13 to address students regarding good versus bad choices. LaPorta deliberately invited some staff “curmudgeons” to the conference who had been criticizing restorative practices for being soft on crime. After experiencing a conference they changed their outlook.

In a decision that was controversial to some other members of Freedom’s staff, LaPorta decided that the boys would be permitted to take part in their graduation ceremony, because, as he wrote in an email to staff, “These boys have been punished enough!”

When they heard that the boys were going to be allowed to participate at graduation, some of Freedom’s teachers threatened to boycott the ceremony. LaPorta gathered the faculty together and talked about the incident, the conference and the outcome. Roy supported LaPorta, telling the teachers he was surprised and disappointed to hear that some of them were thinking about boycotting, saying, “It would be a shame to mar graduation because of your intolerance, and it would be on you, turning your back on your principal when he’s trying to be courageous with a difficult situation.” He continued, “We have to remember, we’re educators 100 percent of the time. We don’t become executioners in discipline situations. Discipline situations are just another opportunity for education.” In the end, Roy said, he received good feedback from the teachers, all whom attended graduation.

Because of the way LaPorta chose to handle the situation, said Roy, it became clear to Freedom’s faculty that he’s “all in and unapologetic.” Roy continued, “He modeled the risk taking because he’s committed to it, and he sent a powerful message.”

In my perception, this situation was ultimately not about the kids, but about the staff: a clear example of some adults hanging on to the punitive response to behavior, and more important, an example of adults in authority having the courage to do something different because it’s the right thing to do, and because “it’s what we do here.”

Restorative processes are easier to implement with children than with adults, said City Springs principal Richetta. In a traditional school environment, she explained, “there are unwritten rules for administrators: things you can and cannot say to staff.” She explained that when a staff member comes to her to complain about another staff member and asks her not to say anything to that person, she asks them, “If you were a child in this school, what would we do? We would sit down and talk with the other person. You know we’re supposed to be a restorative school, which means that when I have an issue with you, I have to be able to talk to you. We can’t say we’re a wholly restorative school if we’re not restorative with each other.”

Restorative practices can promote enhanced communication and reveal formerly suppressed issues and problems, Richetta said, adding that the practices had helped her staff feel like they had permission to discuss matters that they couldn’t before. “If something was bothering them, instead of bringing it to light, they would keep it inside and build resentment or complain privately to a few people. That prevented us from being a working team.” Now, she said, her staff sits in weekly team meetings, and each meeting starts with a circle go-around, where they can express themselves.

City Springs staff are becoming more and more open with each other, functioning more and more as a team and helping each other to perform better. Richetta related a story told her by a staff member that vividly illustrates this dynamic.

As the school year was drawing to a close, staff held a circle go-around during their weekly team meeting. Each person was asked to say one word that described the school year experience for them. When her turn came, one staff member burst into tears, sobbing, “Ms. Richetta gave me an unsatisfactory evaluation!” At first everyone was dead silent. “Evaluations are something teachers just don’t share with each other,” said Richetta. But soon the other staff members offered their colleague sympathy and compassion, and more important, they have reached out to help her improve as a teacher. “Admitting this took a lot of courage,” said Richetta, “But it’s a good thing she did, or she would have been swimming—or sinking—by herself.”

The teacher felt comfortable sharing such sensitive information because her group had been meeting together every Thursday and having those kinds of conversations all year long. “These are people working so close to each other—just a few feet away—yet in so many schools, they’re in their own little worlds and don’t collaborate or help each other. In fact in some schools they may even be competing with one another to get higher test scores for their kids than other teachers do. Restorative practices provide an opportunity for school staff to collaborate and help each other.”

When you have that kind of support, it helps all teachers to be successful. And restorative practices aren’t just for teachers and students; administration, even at the highest levels, need to be on board and walk the walk, and this can help set the bar for everyone else. Dr. Plum talked about how the administrative staff’s use of restorative practices at Plymouth Educational Center had helped resolve their own issues.

Last fall, Plum said, staff was struggling with a collective identity across buildings. They had been in one building for 15 years, and in the last three years they added a high school and a ninth grade academy—ending up with a total of three campuses. “This looked great on paper,” said Plum, “But we had no system of communication across the three buildings. This really reared its ugly head in front office operations. We had three different cultures, each doing their own thing in their own way.”

Because they weren’t communicating, resentment started to build. “One person would go from one building to another front office and make comments, and this would be perceived by the other office as a slight or lack of support. Finally, one front-office person sent me an email with a list of concerns about everybody else and CC’d everyone. In his mind, he was just bringing things to light, but it sent a shock wave, because nobody had learned to restoratively confront. After this, people were shooting SCUD missile emails at each other.”

At first Plum said, he panicked, thinking that this was bad for the schools’ culture. Then he realized that they needed to have a restorative circle. He brought in everyone, from executive administration to food service and custodial personnel. “I knew we were going to get to the bottom of this restoratively, and model for all the other leaders. This is how we’re going to solve problems.” He set a mandatory evening date, saying, “If you need coverage for your duties, find it. This is not optional.”

The circle took two to three hours. Plum started by spelling out the restorative protocols and questions. Then he stated what had brought the group together. “Then we had a massive clearing of the air. We ended with a commitment to deal with problems in a restorative way. We agreed that we have to be able to have crucial conversations and confront things that aren’t right.”

This was really good modeling, said Plum. He felt that the experience had made it clear that restorative practices weren’t only something teachers or kids were doing, but that executive administrators were doing it, too. Since then, said Plum, there haven’t been any big problems with administration. “When administrative staff bring something up to me, they’ll tell me, ‘This happened, but we talked, and we’re fine.’ It’s working.”