Un-standard Deviation: Swapping Circles for the Syllabus
Martha A. Brown, Ph.D.
Founder and President, RJAE Consulting, Intl.
As an adjunct professor, I teach a course in Educational Measurement and Assessment to pre-service, undergraduate teachers. I am also a consultant and restorative justice teacher who does not consider herself a practitioner. On the two days following the election, our syllabus stated that we were to learn about the standard deviation. However, at the time I could not have cared less about it. I was traumatized, wounded, afraid, and frankly, could not stop crying. How could I teach? How could I expect my students – most of whom were people of color- to learn a statistical concept after the tragedy our nation just experienced? I knew I was being called to push myself out of my comfort zone of research and teaching to hold Circle.
I drew my courage from the words of a teacher in Oakland, CA who had told me that “sometimes you just have to have a talk day.” I told my students that as well. I started by telling them that as teachers, they would have to make decisions about how to care for their students in the event of a gang war, a drunk driving accident on prom night, domestic violence, a fight, or worse, a mass shooting. Their program does not teach them about trauma-informed practices. I drew upon everything I knew about Circles, restorative justice in education, social emotional learning, and trauma and gave them a short talk about trauma as a biological response, emphasizing that when a person is in a state of fight, flight, or freeze, they cannot learn (or in my case, teach.)
By that point in the semester, my students were used to sitting in Circle to discuss topics related to our lessons. But that week, we held a real healing Circle, complete with centerpiece, flowers, a box of tissues, and subdued lighting. Using my Tibetan chimes and a script for a “Responding to Community Trauma Circle” I brought 30 students in 2 classes into a place of safety, expression, and support.
Deciding to hold a healing Circle in class was a tough call for me. Although I have held a few Circles in my lifetime, I had never done anything this intense. But it was time to walk the talk, even though I was afraid that I would not do it “right.” Not only that, I am a strong person and a tough professor, and I was about to let my students see the real me, the vulnerable, hurt me. How would that change us as a class? How would we move forward after something like this? I would find out later.
So during our Circles, they saw me cry and grieve. They also saw each other struggle, cry, hold hands, or sit in numbed silence. While holding true to the principle that what is said in Circle stays in Circle, I will try to describe what happened during those Circles on the days immediately following the announcement that Donald Trump was the president-elect.
In the first round, I asked students to say how they were feeling. A few students tried to get out of their heads, talking about what they “think” yet talking with great emotion. Latino students openly cried as they told stories of the children in their lives asking them if they would be taken away from their parents and families. A gay student told of bullying as a child and his fears about having Mike Pence as the vice-president. The devout Christian woman next to him held him as he sobbed. Students honored the talking piece and rushed tissues to those in tears. One African American woman confessed that she had been missing class because she felt like she was having a nervous breakdown as she started coming to grips with the hatred of Black people in this country. I wept uncontrollably as I shared the shame I carried for being a White person, and how disgusted I was with “my people.” I also came out to my students and shared my fears about losing my civil rights as a gay woman – and I did that intentionally so my gay student would not feel alone.
Conversely, I was shocked to hear that many of them did not pay attention to the election at all, and thought Donald Trump was just a joke. Students repeatedly said that they could not believe what they saw when they woke up in the morning, and so they were not yet at a place where reality had sunk in. This told me that they also did not vote, something that was difficult for me to hear, considering everyone was in a teacher education program. I had to honor the process and bite my tongue, knowing that my civic responsibility lecture would have to wait for another time (it came the following week).
The few White students and Trump supporters were clearly uncomfortable with what they were hearing and seeing. Given the rhetoric and behavior of Trump supporters throughout the campaign, this may have been the first time they actually heard and listened to the concerns of those on the “other side,” which was the majority of Circle members. One White woman came from a family of police officers, and she was upset about police being shot. Her White privilege was evident to everyone. She spoke her mind freely, but squirmed when other students talked about racism and police brutality. Again, I trusted the process, hoping that hearing others’ stories would open her eyes just a bit and her heart even more.
After several rounds, those who were initially silent began to share – even just to say a few words. I then asked them how they planned to take care of themselves during this stressful time. Many of them simply said, “Pray.” They would turn to their families for support. They would cling to hope that things will be alright. Almost everybody said they would stay away from FaceBook.
During the next round, I asked them what gifts they felt they had that could help bring people together, or how they thought they could contribute to healing our divided country. This was a difficult question to ask a group of people whom I knew were not very civic-minded. Many in the group did not vote and were now regretting it. That said, they placed their faith above all else, and reinforced that they would pray, hope, and love. When the Talking Piece came to me, I told them that I was going to stand up. Stand up for injustice everywhere, and stand up for them.
The mood of the Circle had changed. The heavy cloud of gloom, fear, and despair that covered us had been lifted. The tension was gone. There was a calm feeling of togetherness, of community, of safety. It was time to close Circle with a reading from Circle Forward called “Considering the interests of others is the best form of self-interest.” It was written by the Dalia Lama. Students were riveted by his words, listening intently, even as I choked up while reading it to them.
After the Wednesday Circle, which was far more intense than the Circle on Thursday, the strong, Jamaican Christian woman said, “Professor. Can we all please just hug?” And every single person in the class hugged every single other person. We did not stop hugging until we had all reached every person. There was nothing but love in that university classroom.
What happened next? We still had about 45 minutes of class left. With clear hearts and heads, we learned about standard deviation after all.
Did my students become closer? Absolutely. They are now working together on projects, exchanging phone numbers, meeting on weekends, and helping each other. They rely less on me and more on each other. Some send me funny emails to make me laugh during the week. We laugh together more in class, and it seems they even pay attention a little more – even on boring topics like percentiles and stanines. I think they have a deeper understanding of the kinds of power they will have when they become teachers, and how to use that power for good. Of course, I hope they have a deep desire to learn more about restorative practices so they can use them in their classrooms.
What about my relationship with my students? Do they respect me less because they saw my heart (and tears)? I think not. To them, I am not just another professor. I am their professor. The one who cares about them. That – along with hope, love, and prayer - will help us all heal. After all, we are stronger together.
 See Brown, M. A. (in press). Creating restorative schools: Mapping a way through the educational landscape. Living Justice Press, St. Paul MN.
 Boyes-Watson, C. & Pranis, K. (2015). Circle forward: Building a restorative school community. Living Justice Press: St. Paul, MN.