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Restorative Practices, Exhausting Teachers

Guest Writer: Adam Sutton

Restorative Practices (RP) is the new darling of education circles.  As its goal, RP seeks to interrupt and halt the school to prison pipeline while helping students overcome and cope with trauma.  To do this, RP relies on developing relationships with students which enables them to reflect on and repair the harm they have caused.  RP’s goals and methods are praiseworthy. Unfortunately, in our current education system, this is a doomed practice.

Let me be clear: I support Restorative Practice.  I came to teaching because I like kids.  I like listening to them, helping them, being around them.  In so far as believing that students need caring, compassionate adults in their lives, I’m as big a proponent as anyone.  I want kids to get help–academic or otherwise–when they need it. If a student needs a place to vent, a shoulder to cry on, or a quiet place to breathe, I want them to get it.    
Moreover, I know that students who’ve experienced abuse and neglect face obstacles to learning.  And, when students lack basic needs like safety and security, I know I’m not being effective. Today’s young people are navigating a social landscape foreign to the vast majority of educators today, yet kids need adults to help them cope with these problems, and Restorative Practice seeks to do this.

But, teachers cannot do this.  
I’m not saying they can’t do this as a cover for saying I don’t want to do this work.  My chin is quivering and my eyes have tears in them as I sit exhausted writing this. I, as a teacher, am not qualified or positioned to provide the level of support that Restorative Practice requires.  

As an example, the other day as my class began, a student who has had many traumas in their life entered class late.  They had no books, no binder, not even a pencil. They proceeded to circulate the class engaging as many students, who were settling in for class, as possible.  I was slowly and deliberately making my way towards this student, not wanting to draw more attention to the situation. No one was hurt or in danger. It wasn’t an emergency; it was an annoyance.  No sooner did these thoughts cross my mind than this student began angrily launching expletives across my room.  
What should I do?    
Restorative Practice is a powerful, transformative experiment in humanism.  Unfortunately, our school system wasn’t designed with humanism in mind.  It was designed for structure, routine and efficiency. This was painfully obvious as I stood outside my classroom with my student.  They were not prepared for class, late, unfocused, agitated, and suddenly irate. This student was in crisis. I knew they needed help, but I had a classroom with 25 other students in an uproar too.  26 people needed me. They needed my full attention and presence; they deserved it too. But, if my job is to teach a class of 26 students, how can I care for each student in crisis also?
I sent the student to the office.  I chose 25 over 1.  
If you’re mad at me because you think I didn’t do enough, fine.  But, you better be so mad you demand our system of education change too.  If me, and other teachers, are going to be the ones addressing and helping students cope with crises and traumas as if we are social workers, counselors, administrators, and security officers in addition to teachers, we can’t have caseloads of over 130 students.  Class rosters have to be a fraction of their current size. We can’t continue to have our days structured by the precise chime of a bell if we are to be responsive to the needs of kids at the moment.  
Alternatively, if it sounds absurd to have teachers doing the jobs of a half dozen other professionals, advocate for hiring more professionals.  Support the notion that teachers should specialize in doing what they do best: teaching. Either way, if we want RP to govern our interactions with kids, we have to change the system supporting Restorative Practice.

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