For many years I bought into the idea that in order to have control of the classroom, I needed to be ready to correct kids immediately, and give out consequences as soon as someone broke a rule. This put a lot of pressure and stress on me. I felt obligated to be ready to have power struggles with disobedient students in an effort to have an orderly working environment. The problem was there were not good consequences available.
I could email or call their parents and hope that the parents would not only take my side, but also back me up with some sort of consequence at home. It was a rare case when both of those conditions were met.
I could try to keep them in for recess, and hope that it bothered them enough that they would not break the same rule again. This would often turn into more of a punishment for me than for the students. I would try to track them down and, if successful, I would get to spend my lunch period with a student that was upset with me. Also, going outside for recess in Wisconsin in the middle of winter is not considered a treat for many students. So by keeping them in, I was doing them a favor.
Many students take the bus. This meant they were not allowed to stay late or come early for a detention.
I could write a student up for an offense, but it never seemed to do anything.
Suspensions are determined by the administration, and there seems to be a hesitation to suspend students at our school.
There simply were no good options. I had plenty of classes with nice enough students where the issues were small and manageable. All it took was one bad mix of students; it got so bad that I was looking into a different field of work.
Over the summer our staff was encouraged to take Restorative Justice (RJ) training. I signed up with a skeptical attitude. I figured it would be another, “let’s give everyone a hug and hope things get better without the icky feeling of handing out consequences” program.
I was very wrong.
What I love about RJ is that it encourages me to treat students the way I would want to be treated.
One of the first skills they teach is to speak leading with your emotion. This is something that was difficult for me at first, but since putting it into practice I have found it helps me keep my sanity. Instead of scolding the kids by saying, “Stop talking, I have been interrupted multiple times!” I can say honestly, “It is very frustrating to me that I can’t finish a sentence during class today without someone interrupting.”
RJ points out that people, in general, are not good mind readers, and young people are often even worse mind readers. By stating what I am feeling, I take the guesswork out of the situation for the students, and I am also able to be more real with them. They appreciate that I am willing to share my feelings with them. I encourage them to do the same.
The second skill that RJ promotes is asking students reflective questions. When there is an incident of harm, we can take the people involved off to the side and ask some of these questions:
- What happened?
- What were you thinking of at the time?
- What have you thought about since?
- Who has been affected by what you have done?
- In what way have they been affected?
- What do you think you need to do to make things right?
These allow students a chance to think about how their behaviors affect others. There is no better consequence that I have found. Once a student realizes what harm he or she caused their classmate, he or she feels obligated to make it right, even if it is costly to him or her.
For a long time, I have struggled with what accountability should look like. I shared an idea with other teachers that it is my job as the teacher to teach, to try my best to build relationships with students, and to treat them with respect. If a student is unwilling to go along with the program, the administration should take care of that.
I started to realize that by waiting for administration to come and save my classroom through consequences, I was waiting for something that rarely, or perhaps never, happens. I would talk to administrators and they would say something like, “Those students are like that in every class. I don’t know what you would like me to do. I could suspend them, but they would just come back the same way with one less day of education.”
Accountability seemed like an ideal that was impossible to achieve in our current system. RJ showed me that accountability does not come through administration, parents, or the teacher handing out the perfect consequence at the perfect time. Rather, it comes through talking to the offenders and the harmed, and helping them come to the conclusion that what happened was not acceptable, and that we would not drop it until they could solve it. There is nothing that will hold a student more accountable than having to look in the eyes of the harmed people and see their pain.
Finally this would lead to the major avenue of RJ Circles. A circle can be as simple as your class getting together and sharing their thoughts on a proactive topic like What does respect look like in this classroom? Or, the topic could be more pointed about a behavior that has been recurring in the classroom. An example of this could be what has been happening during the lessons recently that has caused so much distraction.
Having these tools in my back pocket has taken a large majority of the stress of teaching away. I have been able to put some of that burden back onto the offenders at times by simply asking them questions like, “What was going on in class yesterday? What were you thinking about? How do you think that affected the rest of the classroom? What can we do to make this better? What will we do if this happens again?”
I don’t necessarily have to have a consequence to hand out immediately. The students know that I will hold them accountable for their actions. It might not be that day. I can come back the next day and ask those questions.
My relationships with students are at a new level now. We understand each other better. We know that we are all responsible for our classroom environment. I can do the teaching, and when a student steps over the line, we as a class can help guide them back in.