I first learned about Hull, England about 4 years ago. I was scrambling at work, trying to build my knowledge of restorative practices (RP) as I attempted to shift the culture at my elementary school in East Harlem. I had been engulfed in 11-hour work days, navigating emotional and physical outbursts from students, families and sometimes teachers. I felt like most of my day was spent inside a school-sized pinball machine, pinging from one classroom to the next, attempting to put out fires. As the Director of School Culture and Family Engagement I quickly realized what it meant to be in charge of all things having to do with student behavior. Amidst my chaotic day-to-day, literature from the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) helped guide me through my incremental implementation of RP.
One fall afternoon, deep in a post-school malaise, nursing a headache and trying to hold back drool, I read an IIRP article that coined Hull, England, the “first restorative city in the world”. While I stumbled through making changes at my school, I thought fondly of a whole city that was immersed in restorative work.
The start of the journey:
Five years ago our school often felt like it was in a state of disarray as we all worked long hours operating under the espoused belief that we would and could provide an excellent education to any and all students. Early on, it was clear that we did not have the capacity or skillset to do so in a way all students, families and staff deserved. My fellow school administrators and I often joked about who had the most stress-induced canker sores in a given week as we continued to push through school days and brainstorm next steps. Restorative practices became the ray of light I saw at the end of the tunnel.
I first became familiar with restorative justice (RJ) as a kid, seeing my father on public access tv talking about the importance of getting RJ in to our local criminal justice system. As a 10-year old however, I was only thinking about how short my dad’s jean shorts were on tv and didn’t really understand the concept until much later on. IIRP defines restorative practices as “a social science that studies how to build social capital and achieve social discipline through participatory learning and decision making.” I have come to explain it as a way to build relationships, hold each other accountable, while centralizing the power of community.
RP is often differentiated from the more commonly referred to restorative justice, based on the idea that the approaches used can and should be done both proactively as well as in response to harm. In the criminal justice field, RJ has historically connoted a post-harm approach, seeking to hold “offenders”, or those who committed harm, accountable by direct dialogue with “victims”, those harmed. The process focuses on the repairing of relationships and planning for a better future rather than reverting to the traditional, punitive-based response to crime, wherein the victim is rarely heard from and exclusion and isolation become the chief outcome. Origins of the work can, and should (it didn’t start with a bunch of white people in the 70s), be traced back centuries to various indigenous populations, including First Nations communities in the U.S. and Canada, as well as the Maori in New Zealand.
As an elementary classroom teacher, building a classroom community was paramount. I would do everything I could to create a restorative environment that both acknowledged the realities of the world outside the classroom while fostering a safe community to grow individually and as a unit. At my best (read: after failing to create this space when I was a brand new teacher), I was using restorative practices continuously throughout the day – circling up with students to provide opportunity for student voice, using affective statements and questions and trying to always involve students and families in next step conversations when harm was committed. These approaches are taken by most of the teachers leading classrooms that give off a sense of warmth and respect. They may just not call it being “restorative”. Having the skills and background of the work in my own practice, I wanted to feel this at the school level and knew rolling out RP as a school leader fit with the underlying tenets of our school and umbrella organization.
With the support of a principal eager to turn the corner from our current day-to-day reality, I started by outlining a plan (we called it the “Restorative Pathway”) to respond to the many fires we were fielding with more restorative measures – less exclusionary practices (e.g. sending students out of class, out-of-school suspensions). The first year was largely spent on shifting how we reacted to misbehavior, challenging the need for exclusion and trying to get really creative about restorative substitutes to generally more punitive approaches. For me, this meant endless conversations with staff and leadership about why punitive practices don’t actually deter misbehavior. I was often met with the retort, “but how will this show the child they can’t do that again?” or “it just seems like we are not sending a strong enough message”.
New to this implementation, I wasn’t always confident that having kids circle up (restorative circles being one of the key approaches to building community and responding to incidents that arise) would work. I just knew what we were doing – countless meetings with families telling them their kids weren’t cutting it, one to two day suspensions, sequestering students in my office – wasn’t working for anyone. However, just by challenging our notion of how we had been responding and thinking about what could be more restorative led to a huge drop in our suspension numbers, far more time for students to be in their class and for me, at least a feeling that we were on the right path.
The benefits of Restorative Practices:
The next couple of years were spent truly pushing our proactive work. I talked to staff about proactive circles and pushing ourselves to use affective statements and questions to limit any potential fires on the front end. We were able to develop a Behavior Support Team (a combination of student support staff members across the school) that met to grapple with how our day-to-day approaches were meeting student needs. Were we being restorative? Were we operating using a needs-based lens? How were our adult responses meeting the lagging skill or unmet need the student was demonstrating with their misbehavior? We beefed up our Culture Support Team (my role, Dean of Students, and Behavior Support Specialist) as we learned intervention techniques together that would allow us to more fully meet student needs. Our team pushed students to conference together and to be accountable to their community. Throughout this work, which included de-escalation training, Responsive Classroom curriculum, and meetings upon meetings (upon meetings), I kept coming back to the tenets of restorative practices. Are classes doing a morning and closing circle? Does our response to this child’s outburst allow the community to heal and grow together? Are we setting the student and those harmed up for future success?
After four years, our work had reduced suspensions by 85%, a response to an incident rarely used and deeply contemplated if brought to the table (there’s a much longer conversation on why one would ever suspend that I would love to get in to another time). Students were spending exponentially less time out of class. Teacher’s circle time in the mornings and afternoons were vastly improved. The Culture Support Team spent much more time proactively working with struggling students, building positive emotional responses and developing student’s capacity to work with others. In moments of response, the Behavior Support Specialist, Katurah John-Sandy, increasingly led the way with support that helped pinpoint the needs of the parties involved and pushed both those harmed and those that had harmed to do the restorative work needed. Our two amazing social workers, the Dean of Students and Ms. Sandy all also learned to facilitate restorative circles and often modeled this work for teachers. Most importantly, the overall feel and tone of the school had become much more calm and focused on learning. That being said, even with a strong core team, implementing what IIRP calls a “restorative milieu”, where everyone engages in similar approaches, was immensely difficult to accomplish in the four years in my role. Recognizing that space and time is often the best way to see what else is possible, I was eager to witness the journey being taken by practitioners in Hull, England.
A trip to the World’s First Restorative City:
In 2004, Estelle Macdonald was appointed headteacher (principal) at Collingwood Primary School, an ethnically diverse elementary school situated close to Hull city center, serving a predominately low-income family base. She was deep in building her own version of a restorative school community, but was also eager to find further support for the work. She connected with the IIRP in Bethlehem, PA, sparking a partnership that would lead to the creation of the Hull Centre for Restorative Practice, a hub for a myriad of teacher/community training services focusing on restorative approaches. In the past decade, this work has made inroads with dozens of local schools, the criminal and youth justice system as well as many other local non-profit groups. With clear struggles with poverty and homelessness, the city itself reminded me in many ways of some of the rustbelt cities I grew up around in the midwest. The port offered a glimpse into what once was a thriving industry, but had clearly fallen on hard times in the past few decades. However, also clear was the current resurgence, with a particular focus on a handful of well-curated museums. This work was further catapulted by the city being named the 2017 U.K. City of Culture. In conversations with local leaders, it was clear that folks are excited about being named the “world’s first restorative city” and eager to continue the work.
My first full day in Hull was spent in a day-long RP training with a wonderfully invested veteran teacher trainer named Mo Garner. Having gone through RP training before, I spent the day soaking in Hull Centre’s training approach, while learning from fellow participants about their own work. Our group consisted of cafeteria staff, a physical education instructor, youth workers, and various classroom teacher roles. The breath of expertise highlighted the reach of the Hull Centre. RP has the ability to positively transform a variety of roles and working communities. I was glad I spent the training day with other folks invested in the RP approach, but like any curious educator I also wanted to see what the worked looked like in a school building. Luckily, the good people at Collingwood agreed to a last minute visit!
Collingwood Primary School:
Upon arriving at Collingwood Primary I was greeted by the Head of School, Miss Robertson (Mrs. Macdonald, the headteacher and CEO of the Hull Centre, was on a RP research trip to New Zealand!). Miss Robertson immediately brought me to the staff’s morning circle. As we walked to the staffroom I asked, “so you all do this once a week?” She replied, “No, we do a staff circle every morning before students arrive.” I sat in the circle and participated in the whip-around question (a proactive circle approach key to RP) – What is the best thing that you have ever won? Staff members chuckled about each other’s unique stories of winning a raffle or, as one staff member put it, winning a car that he never ended up receiving, “but that’s a long story,” he said. This ten-minute activity was followed by 3 minutes of quick updates and then off to classrooms to greet students. Simple, right? But, so telling. In these 13 minutes, it was clear that the restorative practice journey at Collingwood was a whole-school endeavor. Whether every teacher was doing the same thing in their classrooms or not, the fundamental belief in the power of a circle and the focus on building community is how they start each and every day.
After the staff circle, I accompanied a lead teacher, Miss Garner, to her Primary 3 and 4 split class, where I observed a group of eight and nine year olds joyfully navigate their own restorative classroom community. To start the morning off, students sat in a circle on the colorful carpet and went one-by-one checking in with how they were each feeling to start the day. This proactive circle time allows students to feel welcomed and heard to start their day of learning. It was clear that the circle procedure was deeply engrained in the students day-to-day routine as children reminded peers of the importance of active listening and asked follow-up questions when appropriate. One of the many gems I heard from Miss Garner was about her belief in RP and the importance of how the approach is “sold” to teachers. This highlighted what my trainer said the day before – that RP is not a behavior policy, but rather an approach to how we build relationships and foster community. In her class, Miss Garner pushes students to take on these approaches independently, modeling this work and providing anchor charts and child-friendly reminders for circle guidelines and affective statements:
Lessons learned and learning:
Visiting Collingwood Primary made me proud of the work I had been a part of in East Harlem, but also highlighted some clear hurdles I hit in our process of developing a more restorative culture. Our pockets of success were still at times up against fundamental conflicts around approaches to building community and responding to misbehavior. All stakeholders must be open to challenging our own assumptions of power and control in a given community. Staff members often get caught in an archaic belief in punitive responses to misbehavior as a means of establishing control and wrongly believing these responses deter further misbehavior. All of which can and often is, compounded by issues of unchecked bias, institutional racism and a lack of necessary identity self-reflection. In my short time in the U.K. I have quickly noticed that conversations around racism and more specifically, whiteness, are rare. I believe that without a conscious dialogue around these issues in any geographic location, a true restorative community – for everyone – is not fully possible.
Additionally, as the meter moved drastically in both the belief and the practice of restorative approaches in my school, we still were not able to fully embrace families in the fundamental framework. I heard this same struggle from folks at Collingwood. In my experience, largely, it is not until families become involved in the work due to an incident that they are able to appreciate the comprehensive and thoughtful approach. I am eager to think about rolling out restorative practices as a family-led endeavor, building community by starting with those that matter the most.
Restorative practices has to be a whole-school investment. Like anything we teach our students, if we turn around and do the opposite, the lesson won’t stick. Facilitating restorative approaches with students means the adults in a school building (or police department or business) need to also recognize where we are on the restorative continuum. I have found that the root of this work comes from our ability to step back and interrogate how we are accountable to the ever-evolving community that surrounds us. I am extremely grateful for my journey to Hull and my continued Fulbright work here in Edinburgh as I look to get increasingly closer to the image of the restorative happy place that I originally had during my post-school daydreams.