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Using Restorative Practices In Schools, Creating A Better World

Updated: Jun 12, 2022

It is in the shelter of each other that the people live. Irish proverb

“Don’t smile until Christmas!” That was the ridiculous chorus seasoned teachers sang to younger teachers like me some years ago. Thankfully, schools and teachers are changing their tune. That is good news for all of us.

Jon Shelby, who is the assistant principal of Cashmere Middle School, and is my newish neighbor mentioned an approach being using in Cashmere called “restorative practices.” I had heard this terminology, not in relationship to schools, but to truth and justice approaches in South Africa after apartheid. I wanted to know more.

Jon agreed to a coffee date with me and my friend, education expert, Dr. Gene Sharratt. Gene knew about restorative classroom concepts and enthusiastically endorsed them. His reasoning was this sort of approach keeps kids in schools. Gene had just finished a state research report funded by the Gates Foundation. He said the most effective schools are emphasizing the importance of relationships.

All of us acknowledged the importance of kids learning reading, writing, and math. The way to help kids be better able to learn and achieve is to help them feel that they belong. That adults care about them, are supportive, and fair.

The three restorative practices Jon discussed involved 1) jointly setting class agreements, 2) restorative circles, and 3) restorative approaches to broken agreements

Class agreements involve all students and the teacher envisioning a good class environment. They discuss the behaviors it would require from everyone. After much discussion and debate, no more than four agreements are chosen and posted.

Jon says example agreements are, “We will have fun while letting everyone in our class learn” and “We will wait to talk until others are finished speaking.”

Jon mentioned the importance of having classrooms where students start, at least periodically, with a circle time. These are opportunities to get to know and understand each other better. Kids take turn talking by passing around a talking stick.

I can imagine using questions like: “What have you done or learned that you are proud of,” “When have you been a good friend to someone,” “What are you hoping to learn or what are you hoping to do in the next few years?” These sorts of questions help us connect to each other as real people with fears, wounds, and dreams.

What to do about misbehavior? Problem behavior drains everyone. Teachers get exhausted constantly disciplining (hence advice around being stern) and students get short-changed during learning interruptions. Jon’s job, the assistant principal, is typically about punitive punishment. Suspensions. Expulsions.

But those approaches are not effective for education nor for kids’ long-term well-being. They do not help students be better prepared for being good citizens, good workers, good spouses and parents, good friends, nor for living the good life.

The restorative practice that Jon uses engages those involved in a broken agreement with five questions. What happened? What were you thinking about? Who was impacted? What are you thinking now? How do we make it better?

Strong relationships – ones that are supportive, respectful, and thoughtful is the bottom line I took away from restorative practices. In fact, Jon talked of the research where just one charismatic, supportive adult can make all the difference in a kid’s life and in their ability to learn.

Gene told of meeting a young man who went to West Side High School. Gene asked why he had left his previous school? “They didn’t care about me. But I love Mr. Kalahar. [the principal] He helped me set some goals. He believes in me.”

Gene then talked of why this work is so important. “June, we must do a better job of engaging our students in learning that applies to their life. We need a thriving, skilled and educated future workforce. We need students who can collaborate, who vote, and take their civic responsibilities seriously. To keep these students in school, we must teach in a way that they can learn and thrive. We must show we care. We can’t afford, as taxpayers, to keep losing 15-20 percent (Washington state average yearly dropout rate) of our students from actively participating in our future workforce.”

I will be taking what I learned from Jon and Gene seriously. We can do better because we must. All of us, not just educators.

The ideas within restorative practices – collaboratively envisioning a good place where we can all live, learn, and work together; understanding that we are responsible for creating this place, that our actions make a difference; and knowing that there is still hope, that we can make things better after we mess up…those are beautiful, inspiring, and, best of all, effective concepts for creating a better world.

And…surely, even if we cannot do all the restorative practices, we can caringly connect with one person, a child, a teen, an adult. We can make a difference.

How might use restorative practices to Journey to The Good Life?


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