Why We Need Restorative Practices
IN MY TWENTY-ONE years as an educator, I have witnessed time and time again the power that teachers, staff, and leaders can have on educational systems and, most importantly, on students.
Human beings are social by nature, and we rely heavily on our relationships with others to form who we are in this world. We can all turn to our childhoods and recognize that who we have become is largely a result of our experiences with those who raised us (or were supposed to). When we were adolescents, our friends also had a tremendous influence on us. As adults, we continue to be shaped by our relationships with others. We learn so much from them—how to behave, communicate, and speak. Our values are based on this learning. Just as love, joy, celebration, and achievement are a part of our human experience, so are pain, loss, and fear.
We need restorative practices because of this reality. Many of us walk in this life without having healed from the pain, loss, or fear that we received in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Many of us also carry historical and ancestral trauma that, if unhealed, will be passed down to our future generations, causing continuous pain through a cycle of trauma. Healing and learning from our pain and trauma are possible, but only when we are willing and able to reflect on and own all of our experiences—the good, the bad, and the ugly. The truth? This is tremendously hard and scary work. But when we don’t do it, we continue to keep ourselves from reaching our true potential for goodness.
Restorative practices provide a framework for being, reflecting, forgiving, and growing. We need this framework because there are so many of us who are carrying trauma that can show itself as fear, hurt, anger, disappointment, blame, distrust, control, self-aggrandizing, insecurity, and so much more. When we don’t face these truths within ourselves, we continue to inflict our pain onto others.
Restorative practices are transformational in that they also offer a way of being through which systems and organizations can heal. Educational systems and those who work in them have a great deal of influence on students—on who they are and who they are becoming. Adults in school systems deserve the opportunity to grow and heal from the personal and professional harm that has occurred in their lives. By engaging and becoming truly restorative, teachers, leaders, and school staff can then offer this transformational way of being to students, parents, and their community. Imagine every person being able to communicate their remorse and acknowledge the suffering they inflicted—and ask for forgiveness and the ability to repair the damage. In order for this to happen, adults in school systems need to have the opportunity to grow and heal from the personal and professional harm that has occurred in their lives.
What Does It Mean to Be Restorative?
Let’s begin by sharing what restorative practices are not: They’re not new. They’re not simply a step-by-step process to fix students and staff. They’re not a manual full of topics to get students to share their experiences, thoughts, and emotions. They’re not a training that you complete or a book that you read. They’re not just about mediation or forgiveness. Pedro [my colleague and a contributor to this book] and I have each been working in education for over twenty years. We understand the educator’s need to see restorative practices as a framework for designing lessons or learning processes in the classroom to change student behavior. As educators, we have a tendency to try something new with a hard focus on outcomes. We want to know, “How does this work? How will this improve my classroom/teaching? When will I see a change in my students?” But restorative practices are not just an outcome.
Restorative practices are sagrados, sacred. These practices are rooted in indigeneity and offer a way of life that recognizes our responsibility for self, others, our community, our Mother Earth, and all earth’s creatures. Restorative practices provide a way to both build and repair relationships with self, others, and the broader community. We adopt these teachings—this way of being—so that we can improve and build a stronger society for future generations.
Restorative practices are based on the belief that all human beings want and deserve to be heard, seen, and accepted. They are based on the belief that all human beings intrinsically want to do the right thing and embrace growth. People who have a restorative mindset and what we refer to as a heartset are authentic and reflective; they can build trust, listen with their hearts as well as their minds, embrace difficult and awkward situations, seek growth, and provide opportunities for others to grow. They are human-focused to their core.
Having a restorative mindset means that you have the tools and methods to guide restorative practices. It also means that you believe others are capable of wanting to address and repair harm. Having a restorative heartset means that you’re emotionally grounded and you embrace vulnerability and authenticity in yourself and others.
Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention and rehab program, believes that a truly restorative person doesn’t just serve students, staff, and community, but savors life with them. He says, “We don’t go to the margins to rescue but to be rescued.” We recognize that we walk in life alongside students, connect beyond academic learning, and feel impact through our shared human experience. Restorative practices allow us to create a space where we can be heard, seen, and accepted. Through dialogue, we can share who we are, where we come from, what we desire, what our hopes are for ourselves, our families, and our communities. When we listen to the hearts, pain, and dreams of others, we feel truly connected in our shared experiences as human beings. We stop seeing people as the other or as having the potential to be our enemy or the bad guy. This connection is the basis for healing and problem solving.
Restorative practices are about being and doing.
In our society, we have a difficult time being direct with others about what we think or feel for fear of hurting someone else’s feelings or of being perceived in a negative way. Talking with someone who you perceive as having hurt or harmed you is uncomfortable and scary. Many of us fear being judged or labeled, and we avoid real conversations. We have a tendency to shy away from conversations that may offend or make someone else uncomfortable, and instead, we live in a state of discomfort. We also have a hard time taking responsibility for our own actions that contribute to conflicts. We are not really taught how to solve conflicts or how to effectively communicate when we’ve been harmed. Because most of us haven’t developed healthy conflict-resolution and communication skills, when conflict happens or harm occurs, many people hold their emotions in, which can result in unresolved pain that leads to pent-up anger and stress. What also happens is that we start to see the person who hurt us as a villain.