This is a guest blog by Ashley Hill, School Culture Coordinator at Rhodes School for the Performing Arts in Houston, TX
“We have to reassess how we react…” - Nipsey Hussle “Perfect Ten”
When I began restorative work in 2015, I was a classroom teacher in a corner classroom with two huge windows facing the sunrise. Restorative work was a kernel concept that my learners and I were digging into for their research and writing. That March, our school had become a hotbed for local news media attention and was getting a lot of bad press. Together, we examined the increasingly confrontational school community around us, and we saw students fighting students, teachers and principals being shoved and disrespected, reactive and subjective disciplinary practices, chaos. We remained hopeful, anticipating the end of the school year, and fabulous exam results. In the meantime, I moved around the room and inquired about what had been taking place around us; in our hallways, the cafeteria, on social media, on the news. We agreed. The students that I shook hands with and instructed each day did not look at all like the picture being painted. Rightfully, they were indignant. Addressing them as brilliant minds, and as their instructional leader, I invited them into a conversation around ownership, responsibility, and culpability. This led to questions about the right and wrong ways to “do discipline,” and restorative practices came to the forefront of our conversation. From there, the rest is history.
The course was AP English Language and Composition, a course dedicated to the mores of rhetorical analysis of non-fictional and argumentative texts. It also included developing sound argumentation. So the topic of restorative was more than just a topic of conversation for my learners and I, it became an organic fixture in the course curricula. We grew increasingly curious together around how to contextualize the concepts of restorative justice, discipline, and dialogue. Before any of us knew what we were doing, we began to wrestle with different ways of being together, different ways of experiencing classroom, and school community life in our little corner. As individuals, we did the messy work of figuring out what this “new” concept meant for us internally. I remember leaning over a student’s shoulder in the library computer lab, as they presented me with their most recent discovery: UT Austin and TEA were partnering to offer Restorative training to Texas teachers and school leaders for free, beginning that year. I shared that they had just taught me something fascinating and new. Then I encouraged that learner to unpack and incorporate the article in the styles that I had clumsily taught them; rhetorical analysis, synthesis, argumentation. Little did we know that in less than a year’s time, the principals at our school would receive that very same training. Quietly, and carefully, we dreamt of what a restorative ethic might look like in our collective school community. So much so, that by the end of the following school year, we had taken our ideas to the broader school community and it was a student’s voice who aptly proposed that teachers and school leaders ought to be formally trained in restorative practices.
I could tell this story a thousand times because of how the self and the community are so integral to one another. That initial kernel began to pop and populate, reverberating across the school and eventually the district until it became what is now a mainstream conversation. So, in welcoming the voices of young people, I became empowered to seek wisdom and guidance from restorative experts across Texas, which led me to champion a vital practice that I feel is sorely underappreciated in America’s schools today. I like to say that I became a restorative practitioner rather organically. Without consulting my administrators or appraisers like a dutiful teacher, I instead chose to journey alongside my learners and I allowed them to empower me; we leaned on each other. I blame my unorthodox pedagogy on my seminary training, which opened me up to the possibility that certainty is questionable, and that asking the right questions is more important to learning and growth than fixed and immutable veracity. As a side note, I believe that a vocational style of educational leadership is valuable in approaching restorative work and which, regardless of faith practices or expressions, is helpful in understanding and honoring the stories of others.
This way of being has helped me to become a better listener when I train other students, adults, and school leaders alike. Choosing this way of being has enhanced my ability to lean into tough and critical conversations, to admit my own faults, and to accept the beautiful diversity of the human story. In my time as a practitioner, I have seen and heard many stories, and come to realize that in listening, sharing, and very simply passing the talking piece in a restorative circle, we restore ourselves and one another. In contributing ourselves, we invite others to know us, to appreciate us in our complexities, triumphs, and flaws. In our failures, shortcomings, and offenses there is understanding to be found. Restorative is not about excusing, and it is only as touchy-feely as the facilitator who is guiding the session. It is some of the toughest work that I have ever done. To sit with and in discomfort, longing, and deeper pain than I can unpack in one session. It’s about letting the air hit the situation just enough for others to be made aware, and have an opportunity to make it right. We can come to care for one another in a deeper way, we get to practice and learn how to tackle skills of life that are often untapped such as contrition, humility, and even fear in a safe space and equal footing. It is not without its challenges. I have seen reluctant learners, adults and adolescents alike. However, I have yet to hold space with others who are not in some way changed by their experiences when encountering others in a restorative space, or when experiencing a restorative chat.
In my current role as a school culture coordinator, this is a huge part of what I do. Quite simply, I take up space to force others to look at issues, and I hold space for others to be able to navigate those issues. I champion. I model. Sometimes I preach, LOL. I lend my voice to help disrupt negative systems, toxic work cultures, and hostile environments. I do this by bringing attention to things as they could be and ought to be. I help folks imagine a different kind of space and world, a different way to tune in, a different way to listen, to be present, and to speak. What we give to ourselves when we assess ourselves is the gift of growth, which we can then share with others. Restorative practices are about assessing ourselves to help us assess the world around us. When we look at problems, offenses, wrongs, and harms, what we often see is a lack of attention to some unhealed aspects of life. We cannot restore something that we have not first examined and sought to understand. This is why I have become a firm believer in restorative as essential for not only self-care but community care as well.
I drove to work today listening to the words of Nipsey Hussle in the song “Perfect Ten.” In typical former English teacher fashion, I dissect every lyric. What Nipsey said resonates with me and with the restorative work I get to do because, while it may sound cliche, life can be stolen at any moment, and simply put, it is important that we spend our lives well. It’s a remarkable lesson. Empowering us to not only live well for oneself but to remain constantly aware of how we can remain present for one another. Collective reassessment leads to collective understanding, which can bring immense healing. In practicing self and community care through restorative work, we are afforded the opportunities in time and space to practice being fully human while allowing others to do the same. Now go, listen to "Perfect Ten". As my learners might say, it’s a bop.
Join us for Awareness Wednesday on January 29th at 4:30 p.m. central time to continue the conversation about restorative practices in education: https://zoom.us/j/970529198, meeting ID 970 529 198