By Shannon Finnegan – alternative educator at the Hopkins Alternative Program in Hopkins, MN; engagement guide at Thrive Ed; and 2020 MN Teacher of the Year Finalist
I vividly remember my reaction when I first discovered that the Brooklyn school that had just hired me mid-year, right after I finished my Master’s Degree, was a “Restorative Justice” (RJ) school. It is a visceral memory – I cringed, recoiled, rolled my eyes, and put my inner defenses up. Already, as a 6th year teacher, suspicion, wariness, and resistance to new “initiatives” in education had been ingrained in me by my colleagues and mentors at my previous school in Minnesota.
Today, I cringe at this version of my teacher self. I recoil when I think about all the questions that ran through my mind in those early weeks and months: How long will this new fad last? Do they have any idea how much curriculum I have to get through? What good will sitting in a circle and talking about our feelings do? Why can’t we just set high standards for behavior and hold kids accountable to those standards? At the same time, I also have empathy and understanding for educators just starting out with Restorative Justice who are struggling with some of these same questions and reactions. I was once in their shoes, too.
Luckily, my Brooklyn school was made up of educators and staff around my age and experience level. As many of us had not been in the classroom for decades and been subjected to wave after wave of new initiatives, the eye rolling, inner defensiveness, and suspicion among my colleagues was relatively low. Instead, the staff were passionately committed to social justice, willing to try just about anything in order to support our students, and were grateful for any resources, training, or support that our poorly funded and under-resourced school could get.
When I joined the staff, they were in their second year of a grant to implement Restorative Justice from the New York City Department of Education. Two years prior to my arrival, the school had made the news for having some of the highest suspension and expulsion rates in the city, so the city gave them a grant to train staff in RJ Practices, hire more social workers, and hire a RJ coordinator. While I was initially resistant, it was not long before I joined the implementation team and helped to co-lead the group of student leaders who were at the heart of circle keeping and training students and staff on Restorative Practices. Today, I will tell anyone who will listen to me that Restorative Justice transformed that school, my students, and myself.
Over the course of three and a half years, I saw the following transformations take place:
1. My school became a community. When I started at my Brooklyn school, other staff wouldn’t even greet me if they passed me in the hallway. Students fought all the time, absenteeism was high, and there were few extracurricular activities. It was a battle to get students to wear their school uniform because there was absolutely no school spirit. In fact, most students did not want to be associated with our school because of our reputation.
By the time the NYC Department of Education decided to merge our school with another small school, we had become a tight-knit community. There were multiple extracurricular activities, absenteeism rates had dropped, the school hosted multiple community events for students and their families, and students were even designing their own school apparel – much of it highlighting our work with Restorative Justice. Students and staff alike were devastated when the city announced our school would be merging with another.
2. My students gained leadership skills and pride in their work. Before our RJ work, student absenteeism was high and academic engagement was low. Our students struggled to pass their classes, and few passed the NYC Regents Exams (high-stakes standardized tests required for graduation in New York). There were daily fights, many of which had students pouring out of their classrooms to cheer on and watch. Students often did not feel safe at school, which explains why many opted not to even show up most days.
As we engaged more deeply with Restorative Justice, I witnessed students take ownership of their school community. As we took a critical look at the school system and dug deeper into forming authentic relationships with one another through student-planned and student-led community building circles, students began to attend school more frequently, and academic engagement improved.
While fights still occurred occasionally, students’ reactions to fights changed. Instead of pouring out of their classrooms to watch, students helped staff break up the fights. Students were empowered to take control of their school environment, and they had a desire to protect their peers from the School Resource Officers (SROs) who would show up to break up the fight if we couldn’t get it under control quickly enough, often leading to the arrests of their peers.
In my own classroom, I credit Restorative Justice with the increased academic success of my students. While I hesitate to ever use standardized tests as a measure of success, I will share that in my first year of teaching at that school I had 1 student out of 40 pass the NYC Regents Exam, and barely at that. In my last year, nearly all of my students passed. The reason is simple: my students now felt safe, respected, and loved at school. They were ready to learn.
Lastly, our students became leaders in Restorative Justice work. Our students were presenting at conferences and hosting visiting educators to teach others about the benefits of Restorative Justice Practices. They were co-authoring academic papers with staff, and taking on active leadership roles within our school. Many of them have gone on to study or work in the areas of social justice, youth empowerment, and education.
3. I fundamentally grew as a teacher, leader, and human. I’m now going to share with you the story of a defining moment for me in my life and in my career. It is the story that I automatically began telling when asked to “share a story that illustrates your work in the classroom” in the middle of my MN Teacher of the Year interview last year. It is also the story I share with the students in my Restorative Justice course at my current school that sparks the most conversation and, in my opinion, allows my students to trust and feel safe with me and to understand my passion for Restorative Justice. (I am changing the student’s name to protect his identity.)
I was having a bad day. It was one of those days I was so incredibly thankful that my co-teacher had seemingly unending amounts of patience for our students. I often used his calm demeanor as a self check for my sometimes-too-quick Irish temper. I remember standing outside my classroom, giving myself a pep talk in my head before the start of my next class: I will love James today. I will have patience for James today. James was that kid for me. I was in my second year of teaching him and he required a lot from me: a lot of attention, a lot of patience, a lot of inner pep talks. He was loud, full of energy, sometimes a bully to other kids, and rarely an engaged learner. When James approached my door I forced the biggest smile I could muster and said, “Good morning, James. Welcome. I’m glad you’re here, take a seat.” James blew right past me, already yelling and laughing with his friend across the classroom.
Later in the class period, while I struggled to maintain my students’ attention, I grew frustrated with James’s desk partner. He was having an off day and was matching James’s energy in detracting the class from the lesson at hand. I grew frustrated, the too-quick Irish temper bubbled, and I approached their desk and said one of the most damaging things I’ve ever said as an educator: “What is with you today? I expect this type of behavior from James, but not from you.”
Ouch. Wince. Cringe. I hate sharing that with other educators. I hate sharing that with anyone.
I immediately knew I messed up as soon as the words were already out of my mouth. James, understandably upset, jumped up from his seat and took off out of our classroom. I looked at my co-teacher apologetically, and he motioned that I should not go after him. I knew he was right. James was too upset right now for him to hear me, and I was too upset to speak to him.
Luckily, because we were in full swing with Restorative Justice, I knew exactly where James was going. He was going to the Peace Room. There, he’d have social workers, the RJ coordinator, and other students to help him process what had just happened and blow off some steam before going to his next class. I also knew what was coming next for me.
At the end of the day, the RJ coordinator poked his head into our classroom. “Ms. Finnegan? Do you have a minute to talk about the situation with James from today?” I felt my cheeks getting hot and turning red, but I agreed and welcomed him in. We chatted for a few minutes, and the RJ Coordinator informed me that James was requesting a circle with me to talk about the incident.
Here, I was faced with a decision. In Restorative Justice, both parties have to be willing to sit down together in a healing, or conflict-resolution, circle. If I wanted to, I could opt not to participate. This is where the heart of Restorative Justice lies for me: it applies to everyone, not just students. It recognizes that the adults in a school can also cause harm, that we also have to be held accountable for our words and actions. As I was an active member of the Restorative Justice Implementation Team, I knew I had to walk the walk if I was going to talk the talk. I agreed to give up my lunch period the next day in order to participate in the circle with James.
The circle with James was one of the most humbling and eye-opening experiences for me as an educator. We gathered during lunch and he brought a friend of his from our class with him for support, while I brought my co-teacher to support me. The RJ coordinator led the circle beautifully, and the space he created allowed James to share with me that it was not just the incident from the day before that was hurting him. “I know you don’t like me, Ms. Finnegan,” James shared, “You always try to be fake nice to me, but I can tell that deep down, you don’t really like me.”
The thing is? He was right. This kid had driven me nuts and made my job difficult every day for two years straight. But hearing this from him, hearing that all my inner pep talks did nothing to hide my body language or facial expressions from him – that he read me like a book, absolutely gutted me. Of course he wasn’t engaged in my classes. Of course he cried out for attention on the daily. He didn’t feel safe, loved, or respected in my presence.
I’m not going to say that things with James and I were perfect after that, but they were measurably better. We saw each other as humans that day; we gained an understanding of one another. While he shared how he felt, I, too, got to share how I felt – how hard it was for me to teach when we butted heads. The things we shared in our circle gave us a solid foundation to stand on for any future conflicts we had with one another. I’m happy to report that two years after the schools merged, I returned to Brooklyn to see James’s class graduate from high school. When he saw me, he gave me a big smile and a hug. We still stay in touch, and I happily tell him that he taught me the most important lesson I needed to learn as an educator, and that his story is still a part of who I am and how I show up in the classroom today.
If you are feeling resistant to Restorative Justice Practices, you are not alone. But I promise you that authentically engaging with RJ while centering your students’ voices and experiences can fundamentally transform your school, your students, and you.