There's a saying in sport that goes like this: if you remember the referee it's not a good sign. Usually it means he (or she) has been getting involved too much, stopping the game for silly reasons or just over-reacting, which means the game doesn't flow (and drives both players and spectators batty). The best referees, in fact, are usually ones you didn't even know were there. If you tried to remember, you'd probably could think of something they did but nothing should immediately stand out. No one becomes a referee for the fame. Your job is to let others do theirs. A bit like.... you know what's coming..... yes, you've guessed it, restorative practice. I thought about this lately when I was asked to be a referee for an over 35's camogie game. It was happening as part of a fundraising day for the GAA club and apparently volunteers for the job were few and far between (who'd have thought, eh?). My only thought was "keep it simple, apply the rules, let them get on with it, and hope I get through it". With both sides screaming for the final whistle after only 20 minutes (and me happy to oblige), I managed to stick to my plan and get away without upsetting anyone (local GAA mistakes can affect your grandchildren's place in the community years from now where I live - it's that tribal). So, I survived and made my way off the field.
Resolving or mediating a dispute between two people or running a problem solving circle in a school is a lot like what I've just described. At the end of the day it's not your issue, it's theirs. Although you might be affected by proximity, or association with one of the parties, this is really an issue between other people, that they need to resolve. Of course, like any game in sport, there can't be a resolution unless there's the safety of a "referee". I was at a school a few months back introducing the practice of circles, when on my second visit the principal and teacher told me about a number of issues that had arisen that week. They concerned serious name-calling, threats and racial slurs and it was near to the point of suspensions being applied. They asked if the circle could be used to address things. Normally, you allow a few weeks of gently introducing circles before addressing serious issues but, given the issues at hand, it was clear we needed to do something.
In this situation, the teacher and principal had obviously been addressing the behaviours but (and this is where the principals of RP can guide you) this was something that the students needed to be involved in resolving. I am not saying the teacher and principal have no role, far from it. They can and must do everything in their power to respond. But sometimes, less is more. Sometimes another lecture will only make things worse. Sometimes you need to try something different. At times like this, I see the role of a circle keeper/facilitator as one of making themselves "invisible". By this I mean, let the parties to do what's needed, i.e. tell their story, name how they've been affected and come up with ways to repair the harm. This is how the circle went:
1. The circumstances of the circle were explained up front (Fair Process), in that it was as a result of recent behaviours and was going to be an attempt to make things better. In addition the ground rules of safety were set. No one was to mention anyone else by name. People could talk about their own behaviours (or not talk at all, as everything is still voluntary) but, when it came to other people, only do so in general terms (no naming, no blaming).
2. The first round was a normal check-in, "name a favourite pastime or hobby". This helps set people at ease and get people used to speaking.
3. The next round was to ask "who is someone that has influenced you in a positive way in your life". The students named parents, relations, teachers, etc. The goal here is to get them thinking morally and also put in a scaffold that helps as they progress through the subsequent and more difficult rounds. You can't just jump right into the difficult parts, people need to be eased into things.
4. In the next three rounds they were asked "how do students treat each other around here?", followed by "how are you affected by it?" and then "who is brave enough to take responsibility for their part?" Outside of circle practice, you would have had a teacher naming behaviours, perhaps guessing at feelings and apportioning varying degrees of what would most likely be perceived as blame. The beauty of the circle is everyone gets to tell their story from their perspective. Because no one is directly named it avoids any potential arguments and everyone gets to hear what the impact of these behaviours is, regardless of whether they themselves are involved or not. As it happened the students were remarkably brave in naming what was happening, and taking responsbility for their part. Even those that said they were reacting to provocation were still able to say that this was not appropriate, i.e. they saw through their own excuses. And those who said only a little were still able to listen to what everyone else said. After all, the only thing you need to be able to do in a circle is listen.
5. The final question was to ask "who feels they need to do something about what has happened to make things better?". Again people made commitments to try and repair relationships, sometimes relationships outside of the class in their own family. In all of this I spoke less than anyone and offered no judgement on what was said, except to praise them all at the end.
I am not suggesting that a single circle like this can cure all the ills of a classroom where conflict has taken hold, nor that it is the only way to respond, or even that "traditional" methods of engagement can't or don't ever work. I merely wish to illustrate how stepping back, taking yourself out of the picture, and letting the affected parties talk to each other safely can provide ways of responding that you could never think of on your own. I have no doubt that it will need further circles like that day (as well as your regular "fun" peace-building ones to make that a happier class but I will never forget that circle. Nor will most of those present either I suspect. The next time you come on a conflict, make yourself invisible and allow the people that need to shine, shine.
As for the GAA and referees? That's another days work!
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.