Looking back at 2020, I think it may be safe to say that we may all need some Spirit-led restoration in our lives. I certainly do. I have hope that 2021 will be a new year filled with promise and hope, but I don’t think we can get there unless we are able to restore relationships across political boundaries, economic barriers, and all of the differences and painful interactions that have happened in the midst of the stress of this past year.
Recently, our entire team spent two days learning about restorative practices. Focused on building and restoring community, they are a radical way to embrace fractures and wounds in our communities, whether among our colleagues or our students. Our vision for restorative practices is for them to enhances our vision of teaching students of all abilities how to live as the body of Christ. Restorative practices have particular potential to not only help students with behavior, communication, or mental health challenges, but to help all students and adults experience belonging.
So often, behavior is treated as a catalyst that expels students from community. But if we view behavior as student communication (Greene, 2008), it is natural to dig further. Perhaps 2020 has taught all of us how important community is; yet also gotten us all out of practice in actually living it out.
Restorative practices range from being intentional with affective language to prescripted circles and conferences. Throughout the continuum, a theme begins to arise: the person in the position of most power is in the role of asking good questions, humbling themselves to listen openly and honestly to the answers. Through this practicing of empathy, school leaders honor student voice and help students find resolutions that bring everyone back into community.
One tenant of restorative practices is the use of ‘affective’ statements and their role in building such a restorative culture. Affective statements provide the most informal version of restorative practices, and frame our feedback to each other and our students in positive lights, using ‘I’ statements and expressing feelings in private. For example, instead of saying ‘stop that’, we say ‘I worry about other kids’ safety when you push them in the halls.’ Restorative questions focus on retelling the story of a conflict, using key guided questions to find resolution. And restorative circles can be used proactively to build community, and used responsively when harm has occurred.
Teachers are some of the best at providing affective, constructive feedback to students. The authors of the IIRP manual on restorative practices state, “One of the lessons of restorative practices is to first become consciously aware of the techniques good teachers use intuitively or occasionally and then use them consciously and strategically – on purpose, all of the time.” (Costello et al, 2019, p. 39) Such an observation gives me hope that restoration of our lives can start in Christ-centered schools most of all.
Restorative practices, as commonly discussed, have not evolved from faith-specific communities. But in practice, they paint a picture of shalom, that holy peace and knowledge of God’s image in each other. Restorative conversations can help us recognize the differences among us and begin to heal the hurts.
Pursuing restorative practices in all areas of our lives would be one step in humanizing ourselves and each other, building to a faith practice that is more inclusive than fracturing. There is power of asking good questions while seeking true restoration to community. So if we seek to serve as good and faithful leaders, such tools are essential to productive conversations, in any environment.
Maybe returning to life in person will be enough to heal some of the pain that 2020’s isolation brought about. But we all may need practice to truly listen to each other, to adopt a way to live in community that restores instead of breaks apart. And we can start that practice now, listening and asking good questions to receive the communication behind every behavior in our relationships.
Costello, B., Wachtel, J., and Wachtel, T. (2019). The Restorative Practices Handbook for teachers, disciplinarians and administrators. Second Edition. International Institute for Restorative Practices, Bethlehem, PA, USA.
Greene, R. W. (2008). Lost at school: Why our kids with behavioral challenges are falling through the cracks and how we can help them. New York: Scribner.