Redemption

Redemption:

1.   the action of regaining or gaining possession of something in exchange for payment, or clearing a debt.

Brene’ Brown has probably helped more people deal with their guilt and shame than anybody. I’m grateful to her. She’s helped me a lot too. But there is this one thing that I just can’t stop beating myself up about: it was how I, as a white teacher, acted and taught and felt when I worked in an all-black middle school.

I was a very new teacher, and I did what a lot of new teachers do – they teach exactly like they were taught. But that didn’t work for me, and it didn’t work for my students. I couldn’t get through. I remember looking across the school campus thinking, “It’s like the kids come to school doused with gasoline waiting for someone to light a match, and someone always does.” There were fights every day. Outbursts and defiance in the classroom. Refusals to engage with learning. And I cried all the way home every night, knowing I was failing terribly. I started to resent my students for my own failure. Black teachers in the school told students, “Don’t let the white teachers steal your education.” I was angry with them even though I didn’t know what that meant.

I refer to this time in my life as when “I didn’t know nothin’ about nothin.’”

The biggest nothin’ I knew nothin’ about was white privilege. I mean, I was a liberal – one of the good ones, right? I hadn’t yet discovered I was white and what whiteness meant. So of course I couldn’t figure out why so many of my students called me a racist when I was doing everything I could (at that time) to teach them.

In 2010, shortly after I started graduate school, I read a textbook about teachers dealing with racism in their schools, and that’s when I learned that I was white – and NOT one of the good ones. I cried for three weeks as I processed how much harm I caused my students of color because I was blinded by whiteness and racism. I started reading books. I started learning. I started trying to figure out what I could do with my white skin that would cause no further harm or oppression, or maybe even do some good in the world. I’ve been on that journey since 2009 – ten years now.

In that 10 years, I’ve not only learned about anti-racism and anti-oppression, implicit bias, and culturally responsive teaching, I’ve also learned about restorative justice. At the heart of restorative justice is accountability and harm reparation, which means that I am accountable to the students I harmed with my racism. I need to make things right. But that was 13 years ago! How can I even say I’m sorry when I don’t know where they are? And worse than that, am I even worthy of redemption? For 10 years, I’ve been working with restorative justice in hopes that maybe someday, I can clear my debt with that group of young people. In my book, I share a little about my journey of redemption. But even writing a book on restorative schools didn’t bring me peace.

Then one morning, I received this email:

 Hello, my name is Kenisha Vance and I think you were my English teacher at Marcus B. West Middle School. That would’ve been the year of approximately 2006 or 2007. I was reaching out to verify if that was indeed you.

My heart stopped. I went right to paranoia. Was this student hunting me down to tell me what a shit I was and how badly I ruined her life? But then her name started ringing a bell, and I pictured who I thought this woman might have been back then. I wrote right back:

Kenisha - I’m trying to picture you and I think I know who you are! I was your social studies teacher. Miss Reed taught English:) How are you? I hope you are well. We are all much older than we were then, eh?

Kenisha responded a few moments later. I held my breath.

Wow all this time I thought you were my English teacher. All is well, I am currently receiving my Masters of Social Work from XYU. I am reaching out to let you know how much you’ve impacted my life since then. I never forgot about the lessons you taught me and I still have the small painting you gave me. It meant a lot because back then I did not have many people in my life who uplifted me. Thank you for that.

My tears just started flowing. I remembered Kenisha. She was indeed a special student. One time during the standardized test I was proctoring, she totally melted down. She slammed her pencil and yelled, “I can’t do this math! I’m going to fail!” and she started to cry. I knew it was just the pressure of this stupid test she was feeling – Kenisha could do math just fine. So I stood beside her and said, “You can do this. Just take some deep breaths and a minute to gather yourself. You know you know how to do those math problems.” She pulled it together and kept going. This girl had perseverance and resilience!!

Still, I wanted to make sure I had the right person in mind. I responded:

Wow. Ok now I’m really curious!

Were you the student I said was "college material" and spoke to your grandmother about making sure you go to college?  And take a pic of the painting and send to me.

I went back in time to the day I said, “Kenisha, you’re college material.” And she said, “What’s college material?” And I said “You’ve got what it takes to make it in college and I want you to just plan on going – whatever it takes.” That afternoon, I called her grandmother and planted that same seed. I didn’t know their situation at all. I just wanted her grandmother to know that a teacher spied something special and amazing in her granddaughter and hoped they would find a way to send her to college. I continued writing:

I have to be honest with you. I made a lot of mistakes back then. I call it the days when I didn't know nothin’ about nothin’.

Since then, I discovered restorative justice, got my graduate degrees, and am learning constantly....still. I consider my journey with restorative justice one of redemption to try to make up for what I think was tremendous harm I did as a white teacher who just didn't get it. About once a week I think about going back into teaching to do it differently - and better - but I'm not convinced schools would even let me - at least not the schools here in FL where test scores are all that matter.

Your reaching out has touched me in a way you have no idea - I'm crying my guts out. You stood out - and I could support you - but I failed to do that with most of the other students. I am so happy I had a positive impact on ONE person at MBW.

So I'd like to send you one more thing - my book - called Creating Restorative Schools. I think as a social worker you'd appreciate the lessons in the book - and the call for more just and equitable schools. This is the work I'm trying to do now, but it's hard and slow because the systems are just so broken. My guess is you are going into social work to also try to help, make a difference.

If you'll send me your address, I'll mail you the book - and I hope our paths will cross again!

I am so proud of you. When you reached out, I was hoping it was to tell me you went to college 😊 Send me a pic of the painting and of you - all grown up!!!

Here is the painting I gave her:

redemption+pic.jpg

 

Kenisha wrote back:

So I am not sure if you spoke to grandmother or not but we always spoke about school and traveling. You were the first person to mention Grenada to me and you had us read Anne Frank which meant a lot to me.  West was a hard place for a white teacher and although I don’t remember or was too young to understand, I do not recall you being a bad teacher. You impacted me tremendously and I appreciated you. I’m happy to hear that you have done self-reflection and decided to right your wrongs, seeing as many people do not do that.

 

Along with her address, she sent a picture of herself. I replied:

Would you mind if I wrote a little blog or something about our story? Would not use your real name. And it would be another keepsake for you. I’m going on a short writing retreat next week in a very special and spiritual place and I think it would bring some healing to me to write this out.

She said, “I don’t mind at all.”

….

It’s still hard for me to say whether Kenisha’s words have given me the redemption I’ve been seeking. Ultimately, I need to forgive myself, and that’s not something I am very good at. But she helped move me along in my journey. In fact, I’d say she moved me miles down the road.

I remember being in my 20s, about the same age Kenisha is now, and I wrote letters to the teachers who impacted me too. Teachers do what they can in a short time, and then just hope they made a difference. Today, teachers have so many more tools at their disposal than I did, and that the teachers who taught me did: trauma-informed restorative practices, mindfulness, chair yoga, culturally responsive teaching, a more inclusive curriculum, professional development on racial equity, Black Lives Matter, presidents and presidential candidates of color and female…But even without these initiatives and people, teachers have always had one tool in their toolbox that mattered more than anything else: CARING.

Did I care about my students? More than anything. Did it always come out the right way? No. Not even close. But through all that knowing nothin’ about nothin’, the care I showed Kenisha made a difference. In one email exchange, I went from being the white teacher who screwed kids up to being the one teacher that made a difference in Kenisha’s life. I think she paid off a chunk of my debt. And now I have her smile to remind me of the impact she’s had on me, like she has that painting to remind her of the impact I had on her. Thank you Kenisha.

I am so happy that you are in this place where you can look back on things and reflect. I am very much aware of my blackness and racism in the school system and outside of the school system and it is a very touchy subject but you do so with such grace and honesty which is very important. Know that you did the best you could in a very hard situation. MBW was a place where not only white teachers were being disrespected but so were black teachers, and the vast majority of those kids there were not being pushed to be all they could be. We were all in a lose-lose situation. All you can do is continue to learn but give yourself credit for even trying to improve yourself. There are so many people out there who do not care and there are still teachers out there who are discouraging their black students and doing harm who aren’t conscious enough to stop it, but you did and that means something. You impacted my life in such a huge way. You and one other teacher impacted my life and the funny thing is you both are white! Two white women impacted my life and made me believe in myself. I will always be grateful to you and her for all the care that you gave me. That was you back then. I’m happy God put it in my heart to send you that email because I truly see that you needed it just as I needed you back then.

Why assessing readiness for RJE is critical – A message to School Administrators

I love that you’re thinking of implementing Restorative Justice in Education (RJE) in your school or district. You already know it takes time, money, training, support, and resources. You understand that successful implementation of RJE could transform your school, your staff, and your students, and you’re excited. But hang on – excitement and knowledge doesn’t set you up for success. Ever wonder why great programs and initiatives fail in schools? They weren’t ready for it. But what does “readiness” mean?

Readiness looks at the extent to which the people in your school are willing and able to implement RJE. It makes sense, right? You might have high turnover, just got a new administrator, just introduced 300 more kids into your school, or your staff is suffering from innovation burn-out and doesn’t have the energy- or capacity – for one more thing. If people aren’t motivated, if they don’t collaborate well, if you have a lot of staff vacancies, it’s going to be very difficult for your school to embrace and implement something that’s supposed to create school-wide change.

RJAE Consulting has partnered with the Wandersman Center to develop a readiness assessment specific to schools wishing to implement restorative justice. This assessment comes in the form of a survey allows and us to look deeply into three areas essential for implementation: general capacity, motivation, and innovation-specific capacity. That’s how we came up with the formula R = MC2: Readiness = Motivation x Capacity (innovation-specific) X Capacity (general)

Most schools have strengths and weaknesses, and readiness assessments allow you to know exactly what those are. By looking at motivation and capacity, we can determine what you are really good at and help you start implementing RJE from a strengths-based perspective. We also support you in getting better at the areas where you might not be as strong. So throughout the implementation process, your entire school gets better – or gets more “ready.” How do we know things are changing? We use the readiness assessment over time as one tool to monitor implementation.

Readiness assessment reports are great tools for you, your staff, and your RJ trainer because you know exactly how to spend time and resources. And we can continue working together beyond the initial assessment to strengthen those weak areas, to monitor implementation, and keep the focus on school-wide change (not individual students’ behavior).

To talk about how our readiness assessment can facilitate the implementation of RJE in your school or district, contact RJAE Consulting. Read more about readiness on our website. We are here to set up your school up for success!

 

5 BIG Mistakes Companies Make on their Surveys – and How to Fix Them

Because in my line of work I’m called upon to evaluate programs, I almost always respond to survey requests from businesses. I do this mostly to see if companies are sending out GOOD surveys. But often, the surveys are, well, pretty awful. And that means you are not getting the feedback you seek. Constructing a good survey is not as easy as it looks, and sometimes it makes sense to hire a professional who has expertise in survey design and analysis.

Start with this question: WHY are you sending surveys to your customers? Hopefully, it is because you want their HONEST feedback. Sending a survey is one sign that you care, but sending a bad survey says you don’t respect your customers’ time or opinions.

Here are 5 common mistakes I’ve seen in surveys from airlines, application developers, marketing departments, auto dealerships, and online retailers.

1.    You require answers. This is a real turn off. You’re taking the decision-making power away from your customers. Let people answer what they want to answer. And even worse, don’t require a certain number of characters in the answer!  Instead, give your respondents the power to answer the questions they want, and write as much or as little as they choose.

2.    You have one survey for many audiences.  Generic surveys are bad. The survey gets too long, and questions don’t apply to everyone. This wastes time, makes people irritable, and results in decreased completions. Instead, create separate databases and surveys for each audience you want to hear from.

3.    You ask leading questions.  Your surveys should be free of bias and leading questions like this one: “How great was your service today?” Good surveys should elicit feedback and let you know both what you do well and how you can improve. That’s how you’ll grow and get better. Surveys seeking a superficial pat on the back tell us you don’t really care. Instead, just ask – “How was your service today?”

4.    You punish your employees. My auto dealership sends a service survey full of biased and leading questions, yet their advisors’ bonuses are based on survey results! If someone is unhappy with the repair done by the tech, why punish the service advisors? Instead, decide what areas of your business you want to asses, consider response rates (are you hearing only from unhappy people?), and use the results fairly and appropriately. A bad survey taken by only a segment of your customers should never be weaponized against your employees.

5.    You don’t listen to the feedback. I was in a group of people talking about a national home improvement chain survey that made us all laugh and roll our eyes because we never saw anything get better – and so we all quit responding to the surveys! If you’re going to ask us to spend time giving you feedback, be prepared to listen and respond. Tell us – or better yet, show us -  how you’ve improved based on feedback. You cannot make everyone happy nor can you make every change, but if you hear, repeatedly, that your customers can’t ever find anyone to help them, hire more people! Your customers know if you’re listening – or not.  

If you would like professional help designing and analyzing your surveys, contact RJAE Consulting. We will get you the results you need and that your customers deserve.

Taking a Systems Approach to Restorative Justice in Education

My colleague Jan Noga recently turned me onto systems thinking, and I saw that it fit hand-in-glove with my work on readiness for and implementation of Restorative Justice in Education (RJE). So, let’s think about systems!

First, what is a system? At its most basic, a system may be defined as a group of interacting, interrelated, and interdependent elements, connected and joined by a web of relationships, that work together to form a whole. A system works to achieve a purpose. Further, when considering more complex human, or social, systems, the whole will always be different from, and greater than, the sum of its parts.

Systems thinking is a process of identifying the boundaries of a system, engaging with multiple perspectives within the system, and observing the interrelationships and connections that exist between the parts of a system and their relationship to the whole. Systems thinking can be described as looking through a wide-angle lens to see the connections between the parts, not just the parts themselves. It engages circular rather than linear thinking. Using a systems approach, RJAE Consulting can help you think about your school system We look at the big picture. We look at the relational ecology of the school. And we look at how your system is functioning within school walls and as part of a larger system - the district and the community.

RJE is about relationships – how people relate to each other in a school. We can assess the relational ecology of a school by looking at relationships between and among people. RJE implementation is also about relationships – but it’s about the relationships between different parts of the school that makes up the system you are engaged with.

Let’s use disproportionate discipline – a problem most schools have – to think about systems in schools. One purpose of RJE is to create just and equitable schools and classrooms, thereby disrupting systems that disproportionately discipline students of color, students with special needs, and LGBTQI+ students. Unfortunately, too many schools don’t take a systems approach with RJE. Instead, they use it as a kinder, gentler way to punish individual students who don’t conform to the school’s norms or are believed to be getting in the way of the school’s purpose. But RJE is bigger than that.

Let’s make this more concrete. Without systems thinking, you could reduce student behavior issues to individual students in conflict with individual teachers or with other students. Sounds pretty cut and dried, right? Wrong. Systems thinking lets us look at the teachers and their methods (Are they authoritarian? Do they lecture or use collaborative and relational pedagogies?). It lets us look at educational content. (Do all students see themselves in the curriculum or is one dominant perspective being taught?) It lets us look at the learning environment (Is it colorful, fun, and welcoming or dreary and oppressive?) It lets us look at the expectations for students. (Are they there to learn critical thinking and problem solving or are they there to pass a standardized test?) It lets us look at how the school is funded and organized? (Are resources scarce?) Is leadership visionary and supportive or punitive with a focus on compliance?

When you take a systems approach, you might see that some behavior issues are caused by students feeling that they don’t belong. Students may be pushing back against a system that they perceive is hostile and unwelcoming to them. RJE aspires to transform schools into places where everyone belongs by understanding how the system works (or doesn’t work). Changes the conversation, doesn’t it? RJAE Consulting can help you set your school up for success by tapping into the full transformational power of RJE and taking a systems approach to implementation. Contact us now.

Buyers Beware!  Bandwagoners Abound! 

Increased interest in restorative justice in schools appears to have attracted some folks to the field who have little understanding of what RJE really is. This is potentially dangerous to the movement in that these folks could cause more harm than good by giving people the wrong information about RJE. (Hint: it’s not a thing that you do. It’s bigger than that.)

If you have been approached by someone “selling” RJE – particularly in a slick package – do your due diligence before signing on the dotted line. Here are some questions to guide your inquiry:
           

  • Is the consultant a member of a major restorative justice organization? For how long?   

  • How many years has the consultant been involved with RJ and in what capacity?           

  • What kind of training has the consultant had, and who conducted the training?           

  • Who have they worked with? Who can recommend them? Are they known to others in the field? Do they have a good reputation in the field?           

  • What evidence do they have of success, and how do they define success?          

  • Are they “selling” a one-size-fits-all approach (like a “program”)?         

  • Do they appear to present simplistic “quick-fix” solutions to complex problems?

There are more questions for you to consider on this webpage thanks to Nancy Riestenberg and Living Justice Press!

Are Restorative Justice Organizations Always Restorative?

As the restorative justice movement grows in the US and Canada, more coalitions and associations are forming at the local, state, and provincial levels. These organizations seek to bring practitioners, researchers, advocates and others together and often provide training workshops or even host regional conferences or gatherings.

In many cases, especially during the start-up phase, the people doing the work of establishing the RJ association are volunteers. But sometimes, the way in which organizations come to fruition and the way they behave after are not always congruent with restorative values. It is the nature of organizations to be hierarchical, having boards, executive directors, officers and differing levels of membership. If the association files as a non-profit, it must have this hierarchical structure in place. This creates a challenge for RJ associations and coalitions to act restoratively, given how power is distributed in the organizational structure and how power is redistributed in restorative processes, like Circles. Associations tend to be triangular and exclusive, while restorative processes are circular and inclusive. Hence the opportunity for conflicting priorities, values, and behaviors, and the reason this blog takes an ontological approach to addressing this problem.

How, then, can an RJ association, organization or coalition be restorative in nature when the legal structuring of organizations perpetuates the traditional hierarchical power imbalances? To understand this, we must look at what being restorative means. It means that restorative values not only ground everything we do, but that restorative values are obvious and evident in everything we do. When it comes to RJ, this means we must ask the question: “Are relationships at the heart of what we are about and what we do?” “Are we inviting and inclusive?” “Are we open and honest about how and why our organization came into being?” “Is our approach to growing expansive or exclusive?” “Are we honoring all the people involved in our word, actions, and processes?”

Do Circles promote social and emotional learning? Yeah. Youbetcha.

I use restorative pedagogy in my college classroom. By restorative pedagogy, I mean that we spend time in Circle. During our first class, we spend about an hour building relationships and learning about each other. Then we move into course content: how do you feel about this course? What do you think about standardized testing? What are the qualities of a good teacher? We then do other activities, including some lecture, some videos, class discussion, and then end class in Circle again, with questions like: What’s confusing for you? (Circle as formative assessment) How are you feeling right now? (emotional literacy) What are you plans for getting everything done by the next time we meet (life skill/time management). By using Circle pedagogy, I show students that I care, that I listen to and am interested in what they have to say, and that what they are thinking and feeling matters. I also teach them – through experiential learning – how they can keep Circle when they become teachers. On my course evaluations, students often write that the best part of my class were the Circles.

Un-standard Deviation: Swapping Circles for the Syllabus

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.”[1] 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”[2]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.

What happens when you introduce restorative Circles at the American Evaluation Association Conference?

On November 10 at the AEA Conference in Washington DC, I conducted a 90-minute experiential session that allowed evaluators to explore how restorative, or peacemaking, Circles could fit into program evaluation in a variety of contexts.

Sixteen women participated in the session (where were the men?). They came with open minds and open hearts. Two were very familiar with restorative practices, several came because I invited them, and some came out of intrigue. One woman said at the beginning that just based on the title of the session, she knew this would be the highlight of her conference.