Cooling Down and Perking Up: Restorative Practices for Student Success

Guest post by John Bartlett

It was a normal morning during my second year as a teacher. I got to school early and went to the office to get my second cup of coffee before school started. On the way back to class, it happened—a girl fight. As an educator, you know what I am talking about. You also know that generally girl fights are much more difficult to separate than boy fights. As I stepped in between the two female combatants as their hands clutched at each other’s hair, one of the duelists knocked my coffee cup out of my hand to meet its ultimate demise on the tile floor. Coffee went everywhere including on the two girls. Long story short, their parents were not happy. They reported to the principal that I had poured coffee all over their “innocent” young ladies. 

I often tell that story to my students or my staff or even an audience, and I always follow with the same question: “Do you know why the young ladies got burned with coffee?” The semantics of the answers vary, but they are all basically the same; the ladies got burned because there was hot coffee in the coffee cup. If there was water in the coffee cup, they would have simply gotten wet. My point? Whatever is in the coffee cup is going to come out when it is bumped. It is simple physics. The same is true about students, staff, and humans in general: When we get bumped, whatever is inside is coming out in one form or another.

This simple truth leads the conversation at Bearden High School about how we relate to one another and how we administer discipline. In the most basic terms, whatever is inside our students is bound to come out if we bump them emotionally. Many times, we see this manifested as anger; other times, it’s frustration or disrespect; and sometimes, it’s withdrawal. This simple understanding has been our launch point in working with our student misbehavior and our foray into redemptive practices.

Many of our efforts in dealing with student misbehavior or student life issues have traditionally focused on shaping student behavior through a series of rewards and punishments. I experienced that a few years ago, when a student was absolutely boiling over with anger. Every time another student or teacher “bumped her”—either literally or figuratively—she would explode. The resulting behavior resulted in multiple suspensions, both in school and out of school, with little behavior modification. It wasn’t until I witnessed her explode that we were able to get to the bottom of the issue. After a screaming match in the hallway with another student where she used a few colorful words—some that would make my Marine Corps Drill Instructor blush—I took her to the guidance office instead of the assistant principal’s office. It is in this quiet setting that this wounded young lady confessed to me that she had recently been raped and had not told anyone. No wonder she exploded. She was full of anger and wounded. If I had not taken the time to find out what is going on inside this young lady, there is no telling what her future held.

This year, we have embarked on the journey to help our students empty their hot cups of coffee and deal with the issues going on inside of them that prevent them from being successful within our classrooms and hallways. Our faculty took the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) survey and engaged in several hours of ACE training, helping us realize the impact that adverse experiences such as divorce, abandonment, and abuse (sexual, physical, and emotional) have on a student’s ability to be successful and productive. The outcomes of this training are still to be determined; however, the conversations around the question of “What happened to this student” or “What is going on inside of this student that prevents him or her from being successful” have at least started.

As we embark on this journey, a couple of key points stand out:

1. The principal must lead the way. A change of this magnitude cannot happen unless the principal and the leadership team are completely committed to the cause.

2. Reshape in-school suspension. To help students deal with destructive behaviors, what used to be a warehouse of student isolation must become a center for redemptive and restorative practices.

3. Enlist your community. Community partnerships with your parents and stakeholders, including drug and alcohol rehab centers and the juvenile authorities, creates a 360-degree focus on therapeutically solving internal issues within our students.

4. Don’t forget about the adults. When we took the ACE survey, I scored a 5 (people scoring 4 or higher are more susceptible to destructive behaviors and four times more likely to commit suicide). Many of our teachers score above the 4 threshold. When we focus on creating a healthy culture, we must also provide avenues for the adults in the building to deal with internal stresses and issues.

As we continue on our journey to deal with the emotional “hot coffee” that fills our students’ cups, we are hopeful that the inclusion of restorative practices will lead to more successful, productive, and healthy students.

What are your experiences with restorative practices? What can you do to raise awareness and understanding of the impact of ACEs?

John Bartlett, EdD, is principal at Bearden High School in Knoxville, TN. A husband, father of two wonderful children, and father figure to many more, John is honored to be recognized as the 2016 Tennessee Principal of the Year.

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