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October 1, 2021
Vol. 79
No. 2

Show & Tell: A Video Column / Leaders: Don’t Steal the Conflict

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With restorative practices, teachers must stay in the loop.

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Classroom ManagementSocial-emotional learning
Illustration of a masked thief running away with a large crayon
Credit: October 2021
Teachers play a critical role in restorative practices. Yet when a student's behavior is part of a conflict that threatens key relationships, the teacher is often left out of the process for repairing those relationships. Consider the following situation:
Isaac, a middle schooler, yells something inappropriate in class. The teacher offers a correction to his behavior. He apologizes. A few minutes later, Isaac is talking to a peer during the lesson. The teacher asks him to focus on the lesson, which he does, but minutes later, he's out of his seat, verbally confronting another student. The teacher has had it and sends him to the principal.
Isaac stomps down to the principal's office and sits outside it. He's clearly starting to calm down by the time he is called into the principal's office. The principal talks with Isaac about his actions and the disrupted learning and how Isaac should act instead. Isaac cries and says that his dad was deployed over the weekend, and he doesn't know when he will see him again. Isaac apologizes to the principal. The principal says, "Why don't you stay here for five minutes, then go to the restroom and collect yourself. Then we need to get you back to class."
Isaac arrives back to class, goes to his seat, and opens his book. He is now calm and doing his work. But his teacher is not—she's still angry. And hurt. She wants to know what the consequences were for his disruptions to the learning environment.
In Isaac's case, there was restoration—but with the wrong person. His teacher had worked hard to establish a strong relationship with him, knowing relationships are key to restorative practices. Perhaps Isaac didn't even realize that he harmed his relationship with his teacher. He certainly did not have the opportunity to hear her perspective, since the disruption was handed off to the principal. The principal solved it, learning something important about Isaac in the process. Unfortunately, the teacher didn't.

Difficult Conversation Tip

If you're feeling too emotionally charged, seek an objective third party to broker the discussion.

Stealing the Conflict

We call this "stealing the conflict." Because the conflict was taken over by the principal, no resolution—central to restorative practices—occurred for the teacher. Incidents like these have significant impact:
  • Damage to the teacher-student relationship because a conflict isn't fully resolved between them.
  • Increased likelihood that a punitive approach to behavior is meted out.
  • Reduced agency—the belief that your actions will result in good things happening—because the teacher no longer sees a cause-and-effect relationship involving her ability to impact students' behavior. And teachers with reduced agency are at risk for burnout.
If we want to use restorative practices in school discipline, let's ask, Where does discipline happen? The conventional school model holds discipline as a centralized process. Disruptive students are sent to the office of the principal or the dean of students. Yet this practice is rife with problems, especially in creating ongoing conflict for teachers. Specifically, it can fuel teacher-principal conflicts. A 2019 Education Week poll found that 52 percent of teachers named student discipline as the primary source of friction between themselves and their principal (although only 24 percent of principals named disagreements with teachers about student discipline as a problem).1
A restorative practices culture, however, holds the relationship between teacher and student as the central influence. Restorative practices are a set of approaches that (1) seek to build community and respectful relationships to prevent serious behavior problems from arising, and (2) use dialogue between key parties involved, not just punishment, when problems occur. If the discipline culture is one where administrators take primary responsibility for handling conflict and handing out discipline, restorative practices are undermined because a key relational party—the teacher—isn't involved in dialogue and decisions.
To be sure, more serious infractions should involve administrators; we don't advocate stopping processes that protect kids and adults. But most conflicts that occur in schools are low-level and nonviolent dust-ups that happen in classrooms every day.
One way to keep teachers part of each restorative process for a non-serious behavior violation is to encourage them to use impromptu conversations. These conversations, a critical tool for restorative practices, are short, private talks between an adult and a student designed to resolve a low-level conflict or assist the child in clarifying his or her thinking and decision making. Any teacher can become competent at having impromptu conversations about a difficult situation. Here are five tips:
  • Ask questions. Try not to lecture.
  • Use "I" statements to explain your feelings, not "you" statements that put the other person on the defensive. Affective statements are key.
  • Listen. Don't get so caught up in formulating your response that you miss something important.
  • Keep an open mind to the possibility that you were wrong.
  • If you're feeling too emotionally charged, seek an objective third party to broker the discussion.

Foster Self-Regulation

A key outcome of restorative practices is that students build their self-regulation skills so they can make decisions that support their learning. And self-regulation helps students get more out of impromptu conversations following a behavioral problem. Therefore, many effective classrooms are structured to create psychologically safe spaces for students to gather themselves before engaging in an impromptu conference. In the video that accompanies this column, teacher Mariana Tate of Otay Elementary School in Chula Vista, California, explains how she uses a "calm down corner" in conjunction with an SEL program to help her kindergarteners reset. This creates a window of opportunity for an impromptu conversation with any student as needed.2

Administrators, Support Teachers

School leaders committed to restorative approaches should position themselves as willing to assist, but not steal, the conflict. This might mean they devote a portion of each professional development session to a discussion of common discipline scenarios so teachers can formulate restorative responses. Or talk with teachers regularly about challenges they have with individual kids, helping them create a plan for addressing these challenges. The school leader's involvement in creating dialogue with teachers about discipline can reduce a source of friction while building teacher-student relationships.
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Show & Tell / Leaders: Don't Steal the Conflict

1 year ago
End Notes

1 Education Week. (2019, October 16). Principals, here's how teachers view you.

2 This video was originally created for the PD InFocus video collection, which is part of the ASCD Activate learning platform. To learn more about ASCD Activate, go to https://www.ascd.org/activate.

Doug Fisher is a professor of educational leadership at San Diego State University, where he focuses on policies and practices in literacy and school leadership. Additionally, he is a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College, an award-winning, open-enrollment public school in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego that he cofounded in 2007. His areas of interest include instructional design, curriculum development, and professional learning. A passionate educator, Fisher's work is dedicated to impacting professional learning communities and nurturing the knowledge and skills of caring teachers and school leaders so they may help students improve their learning and attain their goals and aspirations.

Fisher is a member of the California Reading Hall of Fame as well as the recipient of an International Reading Association William S. Grey citation of merit and Exemplary Leader award from the Conference on English Leadership of NCTE. Previously, he was an early intervention teacher and elementary school educator. He has published numerous articles and books on literacy and leadership, teaching and learning, and improving student achievement.

 

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