Let’s face it: Our public schools are, in the main, alienating and repressive institutions whose function it is to provide our society with an army of docile, even if skilled, workers whose labors will further enrich the rich. Our schools also recreate all the prejudices of U.S. society and so are rife with racism, sexism, class prejudice, ageism, xenophobia, homophobia and more. That’s why they need to be completely restructured and replaced with communities that recognize and manifest the absolute equality of each person within that school regardless of color, nationality, class, gender, age and ability.
One way to effect this fundamental transformation is to extend our use of restorative justice theory and practice to everyone who works or studies in our schools. This change would hold everyone accountable for how the school is run and for how people treat each other.
No longer should these practices be used to solely help students mediate or resolve conflicts and take responsibility for their actions. Yes, of course, it is necessary to teach our children how to more productively deal with conflict and their emotions, but to solely focus our restorative justice interventions on these things and not also look at the harm that is created by the adults in our buildings is, at the least, ageist. When done in schools where the majority of the staff is white and the students are mainly of color, this limited approach is outright racist and class prejudiced, if not sexist as well.
Rather, everybody, from the principal to our teachers, students and support staff must all be supported to be accountable to each other for everything they say and do. If we are going to uproot the institutional prejudices that are embedded in the hierarchical nature and daily functioning of our schools, then we must learn how to engage all those who work and learn there in the transformation process. We can’t just tell people that they have to change their behavior. We must provide our coworkers with a process of change if we are to make systemic change a reality within the daily functioning of our schools.
And we can begin to make this cultural shift even during this ‘Age of COVID’. Actually, this may be the best time to begin making this paradigm change. Since we’ve already gotten used to altered ways of planning, meeting, teaching, assessing, etc., why not seize this opportunity to make profound changes in how we run our schools and relate to one another? Let’s take the first steps toward fundamental change by taking restorative practices out of the Dean’s Office and using them to guide all our projects and interactions.
Restorative Justice In Action
Restorative justice has two basic principles. First, we work with the person who created harm/erred to help them understand the negative impact of their actions on others. Secondly, we engage them in the process of “repairing the harm”—working with those who were hurt by their negative behavior to resolve the issue.
A principal can start by gathering ‘key stakeholders’ together and developing an ‘accountability plan’ with staff, student and parent leaders. This ‘accountability plan’ would acknowledge that we are all in this new reality together, that we have already made errors trying to cope with our COVID world, but from this moment forward, we’ll be dealing with our planning and missteps in a more positive way.
She/he would clearly state that everyone’s input will be taken more seriously and that when any of us made a mistake, there would be no finger-pointing or blaming of that person(s). Whether it’s the school’s virtual instructional plan, how much space you’re allowing for students’ emotional needs or any other policy, since we all developed the plan together as partners, then we will all collectively take responsibility for fixing what one or some of us messed up. We will remember that each of us is part of the greater whole and collaboratively work to identify what went wrong and allow those who made mistakes to participate in developing the ‘new way forward.’ This approach to correcting errors will be restorative justice in action.
Functioning in this manner would truly be a paradigm shift as it focuses on shared leadership and intergenerational and multiethnic collaboration as opposed to the traditional hierarchical culture, rife with its blame-gaming and wasting of people’s time, energy and dollars. Replacing these destructive ways of relating with our collective, cooperative and caring ethic will take us a long way toward uprooting the systemic prejudices that are embedded in our schools.
With all sectors working on developing our plan, we are lifting up the ideas and participation of everyone regardless of age, class, race or gender. Similarly, when people make mistakes, they will all be held to the same standard and supported to take part in helping the collective grow. Applying this restorative justice framework to the ideas, speech and behavior of everyone in our school’s community equally, will help us take a giant step toward achieving equity within our schools.
Matthew Guldin is a consultant and a lead trainer and coach in restorative practices for the New York City Department of Education (NYDOE). He has spent more than 40 years serving New York City’s families as a history teacher, an assistant principal, and as dean of students. He is a veteran of all the progressive educational movements coming out of NYC since the 1960s. This work began with his ...