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Teacher Prep

When I Failed My Student, Restorative Justice Picked Us Up

During one of my daily writing warm-up exercises Alex, a sophomore in my remedial English class, decided to exercise his defiance by yelling, “Get off me lady, I’m not doing anythin’ you tell me to do.” At that moment, all logic and reason left my mind. I sent him straight to the dean’s office. Alex smiled and laughed as he left the room with his classmates cheering him on. I realized that in those few minutes, I gave up on my student. The next day, I quietly approached Alex at his desk. I let him know that I lost my cool, and I apologized for kicking him out. I needed him to believe that he belonged in my class, not the dean’s office, in suspension, or on the streets with trouble waiting for him. I also needed to model healthy behavior after making a mistake. “Adults sometimes fail too,” I said. Alex begrudgingly agreed to a do-over. I was honest when I told him: “I will not give up on you even though other adults have.” In the following weeks, I became relentless in finding positive things about Alex. I started giving him more challenging academic tasks, ones that would not cause him to get frustrated but allow him some success. He worked hard and his self-esteem improved slowly. After weeks of trust-building, there was a turning point. We both looked at the door and I told him, “That’s where you check your baggage; for 45 minutes you don’t have to think about it.” I could see in his eyes that he actually believed me. Alex’s life was not completely changed because of the 45 minutes we spent together each day but, for 45 minutes, I got the best version of him. What if every minute of a struggling student’s school day looked like this? What if all teachers could find the good, challenge the not-so-good and patiently allow students to learn and grow? What if all kids could build resilience and live up to their potential? I believe the answer to these questions lies in the use of restorative practices. The acronym REST can help you remember the essentials:
  • Relationships Build them or restore them. Stand at your door and assess and address students’ needs before you get started on the day. Talk to them. Get to know them. Let them know you’re on their side.
  • Empathy Listen more than you speak while suspending judgment. Ask questions. It is easy to project our own values, ideas and opinions in these moments. Let the children take the lead in describing what they think and explore the necessary changes they may need to make with your caring and patient guidance.
  • Safe Environment Structure and consistency are key to creating a safe culture and climate within the classroom. When students form quality relationships with peers and adults, a safe zone is created. Our students may not have this secure environment at home so it’s especially important that we as teachers are holding them accountable for their actions, with compassionate and logical consequences.
  • Teamwork One of the best ways to build a supportive, safe climate is by solving problems together. The problem-solving does not happen in isolation, but rather in groups—perhaps in a peace circle format. What “language” works for you and your students? It may differ from student to student, but honest, open and non-biased communication and cooperation are crucial for restorative practices to work.
More and more, students come to our classrooms having experienced adverse childhood experiences or trauma. It is possible to allow a struggling student a short period of “rest” from these experiences by applying restorative practices. However, you can’t do it all alone. It’s important to be vulnerable while seeking professional training and support in this endeavor. Ask your district leaders for restorative practice or trauma-informed training. There are Title II funds available for this. There may be union funds available. Apply for a grant and work it into your professional development goals. I am confident that the positive relationship Alex and I formed gave him a much-needed respite from the dangerous path he was on, even if for 45 minutes each day. Those 45 minutes eventually became hours in his life. Alex is now on track to graduate and he is actively looking for post-secondary opportunities. He has a job and a girlfriend, and he is playing soccer. He is staying away from trouble. Alex couldn’t have gotten where he is today without restorative practices, and neither could I.
Shannon Levitt is an English and Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) teacher at Crystal Lake Central High School in Crystal Lake, Illinois, and a Teach Plus Illinois Teaching Policy Fellowship alumna.

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