Teacher Prep

Washington Still Hasn't Gotten the Message That Our Schools Need Restorative Practices

Thousands of students have walked out of classrooms and marched on Washington to send a message on gun violence. Message not received. Instead of listening to their constituents, many of the leaders our kids hoped to reach dishonestly blamed the Parkland shooting on federal guidance. That federal guidance helps teachers and schools reduce exclusionary discipline like suspensions and encourages proactive approaches to address the causes of misbehavior and hold students accountable in the inevitable cases when students make the wrong choices, known as restorative practices. Sen. Marco Rubio argued that efforts to implement these restorative strategies, essential to discipline reform, may be making our children more susceptible to events like Parkland. President Donald Trump asked Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to head a school safety commission charged in part with reconsidering this guidance. Practices suggested by the guidance have contributed to reduced disparities in suspensions and arrests for students of color and students with disabilities.

They're Wrong

As a Brooklyn educator of 13 years, I reject the connection between discipline reform and school gun violence. I am a strong proponent of restorative practices in the classroom because they help kids build their emotional competencies to handle challenges stemming from violence and poverty. As a second-grade teacher, I know that by implementing restorative practices early on, we equip students to be successful in later grades. This federal discipline guidance helped teachers like me meet my students where they’re at. I remember a student from my earliest years of teaching, long before schools began implementing restorative practices in earnest. He regularly flipped tables and cursed at teachers. But I saw that my student, whom I will call Ben, was a natural leader. I gave him different jobs in the classroom to prove to him that he could harness his leadership qualities. Our school’s administration was ready to suspend him after yet another incident. I took a different approach. I left Ben to settle down and learned his father had been recently incarcerated. It would be so easy to say that he was a bad kid and needed to be suspended, but if we write off students like Ben, what will happen to them as older students? What’s more, Ben had been pushed out of class so many times due to behavior that by the time he was with me in the fifth grade, he barely knew how to read. I didn’t let Ben off the hook that time, but also did not recommend suspension as the remedy! I found ways to restore our relationship by teaching him what respect means and what it looks like. For Ben, his classroom job as table monitor was a powerful incentive for him to self-regulate his behavior. When he didn’t live up to my and his own behavior expectations, he couldn’t be a table leader again until he made things right. If we had just suspended Ben, I worry that we would have sent him out into the world full of anger, but without the tools to manage it. I am frustrated by those like Sen. Rubio who would say that restorative practices don’t hold students accountable for their actions. Implementing restorative practices in the classroom does not mean that there are no consequences for students. It is a higher form of accountability for the student, who is asked to consider the impact of their actions not just for themselves, but also on the entire class, and then repair the damage. For example, if students are caught fighting, they have a face-to-face conversation and might create a presentation for the class on the proper way to solve your differences. There are certainly challenges with implementing restorative practices. Anything new is met with resistance. This is true with children, but also teachers. In my experience, shifting the school culture requires buy-in from the entire school community and should be aided by a designated point person who leads the process. The federal guidance can help build this buy-in and provide the resources needed to make such a shift. Finally, implementing restorative practice takes work and time. Even when done right, I’ve seen how shifting the school culture can take a year or more to correctly implement. My second-graders are too young to have walked out and protested with their older peers, so I feel that I must speak up on their behalf. I am one of many educators who believes that federal guidance should remain in place. Denigrating restorative practices and other non-exclusionary discipline will not make our schools safer from threats of violence, guns or otherwise. But it will erode the culture of trust I, and so many others, have worked hard to build in classrooms and will fail to provide my students with the supports that they deserve.
Tianitha Alston
Tianitha Alston is a second-grade teacher at George Washington Carver Elementary School in Brooklyn and a member of Educators for Excellence-New York.

Join the Movement