After 32 years of teaching, I recently received training in restorative discipline, a process designed to help students, teachers and administrators resolve conflict in a way that creates peace and restores relationships.
Our administration made sure that all of us who work with students received this important training. After four full days, I emerged both reassured and re-energized, my general instincts about running a peaceful classroom had been validated and I had learned a new language and concrete processes I can put to immediate use.
Our trainers, Ron and Roxanne Claassen, wrote the course text: “Discipline That Restores: Strategies to Create Respect, Cooperation and Responsibility in the Classroom.” An underlying assumption of “discipline that restores” is that conflict is inevitable; what can vary is how one responds to that conflict.
This model argues that the best way to restore peace is for the parties involved to be the ones to decide what should be done to make things right again, and also that the process be conducted in a constructive manner, invite cooperation, emphasize active listening, follow a clear series of steps, allow input from all parties, and result in a written agreement signed by all involved.
Such a process fosters relationships and respect. “Trust grows when agreements are made and kept,” was the mantra intoned repeatedly by the Claassens over the course of our time together.
Up to the shift we’ve just undergone at Sierra High School, the schools of my experience had all employed a hierarchical structure of increasingly punitive consequences: a call home, lunch detention, suspension, expulsion.
Even as a new and inexperienced teacher, I knew intuitively that punitive discipline backfires; though possibly resulting in compliance, it most often leads to resentment, reduced self-esteem and distance.
As a new teacher, I was secure in my subject matter but completely untrained in any pedagogical or disciplinary strategies. The principal who hired me was more interested in my Stanford master’s degree and fluency in German. And so I began my first job as German teacher at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.
With a history dating back to the late 18th century, the school had housed and educated generations of privileged children: a future president, leaders of many stripes.
In my three years there, I taught German at all levels, using a preselected textbook – and my own creativity – as my pedagogical guides. Fortunately the students were kind, patient, respectful, and doled out to me in small numbers.
In hindsight, I might not otherwise have made teaching my career.
One experience there highlights not only my inexperience in managing a group of students, but also hints at my early inclination to finesse difficult situations rather than to react angrily or resort to punitive measures.
The class was small, 12 students. Standing in front of a large desk, I was speaking to the kids when they began to laugh, first nervously, then more loudly. I asked what was so funny, but could get no answer. The laughter grew louder, and I struggled to figure out what was going on. What did these kids know that I didn’t?
Finally one of them led me to the back of the desk and pointed. There knelt one of my most mischievous students, puppets on each hand, trembling with laughter. He had been conducting a silent puppet show behind my back. I laughed so hard that I had to sit down, relieved finally to be laughing with them.
I don’t remember ever needing to use punitive measures at PA, nor do I even remember the particulars of its system. Before I learned the language of restorative discipline, I knew intuitively that – if there was going to be a positive outcome in any conflict I might have with a student – it would come from the two of us working it out together.
Rarely did I have a need to call a parent, and I generally avoided using any of the subsequent steps in the line.
For years I have followed that intuition in my interactions with students, relying on humor, personal attention and a carefully maintained persona. I’ve developed a quick-wittedness and ability to think on my feet. Standing at the door as each student walks in, I smile, make eye contact, notice something about them.
In some ways, it’s a game. I use my pretend power to bring them in, to charm them into paying attention to me, to each other, and to the work. With one sweeping motion of my hand and a swooshing noise, I suck the chatter from their mouths as they sit and watch transfixed.
They know it’s an act. They know I’d just as soon hug them as say a harsh word, my dictatorial facade a cover, part of the dance we do together.
One time a kid had his sunglasses on – against the rules – raising a purposeful barrier. The situation required some finesse. No hard approach would work here, and anyway, I was incapable of that hardness. So I smiled at him – not a false smile.
Others noticed that I hadn’t intervened. First one, then three, then 10 kids covered their eyes with dark lenses. They were smiling at me. They were toying with me. I felt a thrill.
The planned lesson of the moment lost its importance. I walked up to my student and asked to see his glasses, sweet-voiced, with no malicious intent. He handed them over; I sat back on my front perch and tried them on, inviting compliments. I got a few giggles.
Other pairs came to my hands, and I tried each of them on too. The giggling grew, the little tension that had arisen now totally dissipated. We laughed together, put our masks away, and then got back to the lesson.
Not all conflicts are as easily solved, and I am thankful to have the language of restorative discipline now to help with more difficult cases. I’ve met with five students already, and, for the most part, we are all keeping our agreements.
Restorative discipline has given me a new set of clear processes to practice what my intuition has been telling me for years: that I share power with my students, and that we can work together to make my classroom a peaceful and comfortable place to learn.
Beth Linder Carr of Tollhouse teaches English and drama at Sierra High School.