A headline associated with the recent Oscars caught my attention lately. It's another one of those crazy "getting suspended for something silly" stories from the US. You've probably heard a hundred of them before. You know the ones - student gets suspended for pointing a finger like a gun in a game, or forsaying God bless you or whatever else. This time an African-American high-school student in Texas got suspended over the length of his dreadlocks. The reason it made the news (unfortunately this is probably all too common and wouldn't be newsworthy in itself) was that he actually got invited to the Oscars show by a celebrity couple, whose short film ("Hair Love") had been nominated on the night. I think the real reason it caught my attention though was because it contrasted nicely with a story I heard the same day from a Limerick City teacher. We are sometimes slow to praise what happens in this country, but this deserves recognition I think.
Picture the scene. A student refuses to put away their phone in class. What do you (as the teacher) do? Instinctively we are programmed in this society to reach for the consequence or sanction. Put him/her out of the classroom, give a verbal reprimand or detention, suspend if it's a question of repeat behaviour. It can quickly become a nuclear arms race type scenario where there can be only one winner and one loser. In cases like this the student can never actually win as the odds are completely stacked against him/her (along with public sympathy being firmly on the side of the teacher). How could it be otherwise?
But what if we took the contest away? What if there was a win-win solution to the above scenario? What if the teacher could maintain respect and "control"and the student could maintain his/her respect and self-esteem and the work could resume? You are probably thinking that's not possible.
In the case above the Limerick teacher took the contest away. They offered a choice between staying in the class without the phone, or leaving the class with the phone and then returning when they were ready. This wasn't actually as easy a choice as it might sound when you're dealing with someone who may, in fact, be looking for an argument as a distraction. With some patience and persistance the teacher kept to the choices and the student eventually agreed to make a decison. They left the class for a time and returned after to do some work (I am aware that this may not be as easy a choice for all schools to offer but in this case it was). At lunch time came the follow up. With some more patience and a little exploring the teacher was able to learn that the student was in fact, struggling with a lot more than a phone. They had doubts about being in school in the first place and about their ability to pass their upcoming exams. They were also confused as to why they see simple direction such as "put your phone away" as someone being cheeky or even as a threat. Suddenly the picture is very different and the phone seems a whole lot less important. Suddenly the work needed comes into focus more clearly. Suddenly the power of relationships comes into play.
This is a true story from a school in Limerick recently. On another day, in another school, that same student could have met with a detention or suspension and had their view of themselves validated in the process. One can only imagine how the school in Texas would have reacted. If a school gives suspenion for hair too long, then surely expulsion would be the only option there. (There was another interesting parallel with the stories in that the Limerick student was from a so-called disadvantaged area and so was in a somewhat similar position to the African American minority student. We'll keep that for another day).
As I said at the start we don't do praise here in Ireland often enough. I know it's only one story and one student and one teacher, but this is how the world works, or rather how it can work. And this is how restorative practice works - one story at a time.
Sometimes one wonders whether stories like this are "too good". Can we convince ourselves that an approach is right, without actually checking in with the people whom they concern? Since writing this I have had the good fortune to meet with the student from this very story. I had spoken to the teacher about my intention to write this and they were able to set up a meeting. This was an opportunity to hear first hand whether this apparently "soft" approach works.
When I met the student they said they had known the rules. They didn't like or agree with them but they knew the rules and could therefore accept them. More importantly they knew the teacher (and not just that teacher but all teachers) were on their side and they appreciated that this school was different to others. They felt wanted in the school and that teachers wanted to work with them. Finally they knew that if this school wasn't like this, i.e. wasn't different, they wouldn't be able to stay and learn and work towards the job they wanted.
Take a bow Limerick.
That's Restorative Practice
My name is Joe Power and I am the RP development officer for Limerick. I thought I would write about my experiences in developing my own understanding of RP, as well as in trying to spread it across Limerick. The reason for this is that I find that both my own and other people's experiences are remarkably similar and there could well be some opportunity for others to benefit from these thoughts (or ramblings!!). Anyway I hope you gain something from it.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.