I joined a group of colleagues in getting advanced training in restorative practice about 5 years ago. It was the best training I have ever received – and any of my colleagues will confirm I am a bonafide grumpy pants so I don’t offer praise on CPD stuff openly!
As a standard issue bloke, five foot ten, size ten shoes (but with safety packaging added around the waist) I was always able to pack an intimidating figure if I needed to. If a child yells at me, I can shout over them, arch slightly over them and make them defensive. Why? It was what I was trained to do.
My first acknowledgement of how this didn’t quite fit in education was when I met an American colleague who never shouted and operated what she called a ‘safe classroom’ which sounded impressive but, when she got threatened by a group of angry teenagers who clearly didn’t operate such a classroom policy, she yelled for me to ‘save her’ from the unsafe experience. It was my ‘classical’ training that indeed saved her.
Over a decade later, things have changed. I have since worked in three regions, three schools and for six head teachers (plus a few acting HTs) and have had a flavour of current and evolving behaviour strategies. I have read and listened to a lot of dialogue regarding behaviour management over the years and before Restorative practice, I had one other gem from Andy Vass. That was to instruct, when a child is being a pain and maybe throwing insults (or bricks), you should rise above it. ‘Two reasons. One – He/She is a child. Two – you are not.’ That always stuck with me. So beautifully put.
When I explain my day to day interaction with restorative practice as ‘behaviour management’ I fear that I undersell it. It is about building relationships and trust and success and, the word we fear using in high schools, love. We need to build up our pupils. Some arrive in school with a significant need to be built up.
It is those pupils who misbehave and get into trouble can be categorised into different groups. I will let the reader divide them into groups as suits themselves, but I want to declare one group. This is the, ‘just yell at me and be done with it’ group who have grown up with anger. It is a skill they learn, switch off and let the adult scream. When they are finished, nothing actually changes. The adult is more stressed, the pupil is more stressed, but it is a way of life. Lessons learned by pupil through yelling? Be bad. People will yell. Life goes on. Nothing actually learned there.
Yelling at a pupil also introduces the Amygdala Hijack. This is not something I am an expert at, but I understand the theory through my own experience. If you have ever been yelled at by an irate or grumpy boss, colleague, parent, wife etc, that feeling of “woah…shut up…I can’t think here…” kicks in and processing ability reduces. So yelling at any pupil creates only negative lessons. Adults hate me…teacher is awful…I hate school…I hate learning…life’s unfair. They may not do the ‘crime’ again, but we aren’t there to police them, we are there to engage with and nurture them, even in later years of high school (and even with the ‘bad boys.’)
I found the principle outline of restorative practice allowed me to develop my pupil relationships the day I started introducing it. Those pupils who just want a yelling at to get back into class and get on with it hated the question, ‘What were you feeling when you said/did…’ Not asking what they did, not asking why. Asking what they were feeling and have the focus on feelings on them, their ‘victims’ the whole class. Wow, what a difference. On my class registers this year, I have perhaps two pupils who don’t engage well with this method. And two more who struggle a little – and I focus on the disengaged pupils as part of my remit.
What was even more surprising for me was this: with the improved relationships and higher expectation of engagement, and my deeper understanding of how anger comes from fear (The Anger Onion….), I have been able to get the poorest achievers in my school to attain more. Every single S4 pupil (including the ones who are ‘Special cases’ or ‘not our fault that…..’) have achieved something this year and many exceeded their own expectations.
I know that many readers will think that last paragraph is nonsense. Me too, I removed it three times and wrote it back in three times. There is more to that success and perhaps another posting as it involved intrepreneurship (google that word if you need to – I believe every teacher is, or should be, one), working with social work, empowerment by Head Teacher, PT, families etc etc. But if the ethos of the restorative classroom/school isn’t there, what do we have to build on for those kids who don’t traditionally love school because the rules say we should?
If we want to make outstanding, non-faddy, differences in our classrooms, it really has to start with the relationships with the children.