The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 89 Transcript
Jennifer Gonzalez, host
A student threw a chair at a teacher.
That’s the story I heard. It was a story meant to illustrate how bad a particular group of kids was, and now I can’t even remember who the teacher was or where the school was located, or even the gender of the teacher or the student. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard two or three different stories about students throwing things at teachers, each one told with the intent of showing just how bad those kids were.
But every time I’ve heard a story like that, my first thought has always been, Holy crap. What kind of a relationship did that teacher have with those students? What was going on in the minutes, days, and weeks leading up to that chair being thrown?
And I know how that sounds. It sounds like I’m blaming the teacher. Or that I don’t think a student should be held responsible for doing something as awful as throwing a piece of furniture at another human being.
I don’t think that. But here’s what I think probably happened in all of those schools: The student was removed from class and promptly suspended, maybe even expelled. And if and when that student returned to school, nothing much was done to repair that student’s relationship with the teacher. Or to really address the other issues that may have been going on leading up to that chair being thrown. And if that kind of work isn’t done, if we focus only on making our punishments stricter, then things like chair throwing will keep happening. And nobody wants that.
Getting students to behave in a way that is conducive to learning is a perennial challenge for teachers. On this podcast I have dealt with the topic a number of times. And every piece of advice–all the tips and hacks and bits of wisdom–they are all useful.
But one approach to addressing problematic behavior–restorative justice–really stands on its own, because it focuses on building relationships and repairing harm, rather than simply punishing students for misbehavior.
I have wanted to share more about restorative justice on my site for years, but every time I started, I found that the topic was just too big, too complex to handle all at once. Usually, I try to share things that teachers can understand and apply right away, and the concept of restorative justice just wasn’t letting me package and deliver it in a tidy little bundle.
So rather than try to do that, I’m going to just start with an overview. This will not be a comprehensive study of restorative practices, but an introduction designed for teachers who are just starting to get interested in this approach.
Helping me do that is my guest, Victor Small, Jr. Victor is a middle school administrator in Oakland, California. He’s been using restorative practices for several years and supports other teachers through a Twitter chat–using the hashtag #RJLeagueChat–and a Voxer group called the Restorative Justice League, where educators talk about the challenges they’re facing in implementing restorative practices and help each other work through tough situations.
In our interview, Victor walks me through some of the basics of restorative justice–called RJ by many of its practitioners–and talks about how teachers can get started.
Over on the site, I’ve put links to the resources Victor mentions, plus a few book recommendations that can help you learn more. Just go to cultofpedagogy.com, click podcast, then go to episode 89.
Before we get started, I’d like to thank our sponsor, Pear Deck. Every day, teachers present material through PowerPoint or Google Slides presentations while students watch from their seats. The problem with that model is that it doesn’t really engage students: Some will tune you out, others might be lost, and not every student wants to speak in front of the class. With Pear Deck, you can take that same presentation, add interactive questions, and send it straight to student devices so they can participate in real time. As students engage with your Pear Deck, you see their responses on your device, so you can tell right away who’s getting it and who needs help. Built by experienced educators and tested in the real world, Pear Deck is integrated with G Suite for Education and is a fun way to get every learner participating.
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Okay, let’s learn about restorative justice in school.
GONZALEZ: Victor Small Jr., I would like to welcome you to the podcast.
SMALL: Hey, thank you. I’m happy to be in the podcast.
GONZALEZ: And we just got done having a little chat beforehand and we’ve got a lot to cover, so we’re going to just get right into it. Let’s just start off by just letting people know sort of what you do and how long you’ve been practicing restorative justice.
SMALL: Absolutely. Okay. So this year I’m a middle school administrator in Oakland, California. I work at Edna Brewer Middle School. I’ve taught with RJ for a couple years, but this year I’m bringing a restorative mindset into my role as an administrator that’s really in charge of behavior management with the eighth grade at my school.
GONZALEZ: Got it. And I’ve heard you just now say “RJ,” which having been in, I’m lurking in your restorative justice Voxer chat right now, and so I’m used to now hearing that abbreviation RJ, but you say RJ instead of restorative justice, which makes a lot of sense because “restorative justice” is a mouthful.
SMALL: Yeah, it is, it is. It is easier, and it feels, RJ just rolls right off of your tongue, doesn’t it?
SMALL: It’s such a smooth way to say it.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. Definitely. Okay. So our goal here, you know, knowing that RJ is huge and complex and does not have one sort of single, clean, just do it like this and here’s what it is. I’m planning on doing more episodes on this, so this is going to be sort of the intro for people who are really just, they’ve heard about it, they want to get started but they just don’t really know where to start, so we’re going to try to give people a really good introduction.
GONZALEZ: And I thought you’d be a good person, since you’ve been right in it for a couple of years now.
What is Restorative Justice?
GONZALEZ: So how would you explain restorative justice to someone who had never really heard of it before or just was starting to hear it. How is it different from the way that schools traditionally handle misbehavior?
SMALL: That’s a good question. Okay. So let’s start with this. First of all, restorative justice is a system of justice. So what we have rife throughout our country is the criminal justice system, right? And so that’s based on assigning punitive measures for messing up. Like if you commit a crime, you know, even if the crime hurts someone else, you still have to pay a fine or you have to go and do time behind bars, something like that. That’s really how we deal with issues based on that justice, right? Or those are the consequences, the outcomes. Restorative justice, instead of giving you jail time or a fine, we focus on really the harm that was created to the person.
So say you stole a car, for example if we’re applying restorative justice to, you know, the country, right? You stole a car, instead of you necessarily doing jail time, really what you would have to first do is make sure that you restore the situation to the person who you actually harmed, which would be the person whose car you stole, right? So you would have to restore that some way. Either you’d have to get them their car back or get them a new car and apologize or something like that. Basically, the debt that you owe to society is to that person that you harmed.
And so when we apply this system in a school setting, what we’re essentially teaching students is your behavior has effects that isn’t necessarily out there in the world somewhere. Your behavior affects people, and so in order to pay it forward or to deal with the consequences of that, you’re going to have to figure out how to make things right. And so when we talk about restorative justice, we’re talking about that, the system, that systematic idea. When we talk about restorative justice practices, we’re talking about the things you’re doing as adults on campus to ensure that students are recognizing that they’re doing something wrong when they’re doing something wrong and finding a way to make it right.
GONZALEZ: Got it.
SMALL: And so one of the things that is a large misconception when schools start trying to switch to this, you know, they’re always really interested in getting kids, trying to make kids be restorative without doing the groundwork. And part of the groundwork is that building the school together as a school culture. So finding ways to get kids to spend time with each other, to get to know one another, to understand who each other is, you’ve got to give them time to grow with one another, basically you’re doing team building, you’re doing community building, you’re having events going on where kids are putting on the events and they’re running the events, and they’re working together, and they’re learning more about each other, and that’s how you’re able, only if you’re doing that, if you’re setting the groundwork like that would you be able to get students to be more able to be restorative, if that makes sense.
GONZALEZ: Right. And so one of the misconceptions you’re saying is that people just jumped right to the practices that happen after some wrongdoing has happened as opposed to looking at all the sort of proactive work that happens before you ever get to the point of an incident?
SMALL: Oh yeah. No, this is, you know, the reason why I’m really a very big proponent of RJ is if you’re doing it right, you’re going to prevent a whole lot of issues from occurring.
SMALL: And because you’ve set the groundwork, you’ve given yourself easy ways to fix them once they start. I mean, point blank, if you’ve got everybody in the school liking and getting along with one another, well when they do something wrong, it’s a lot easier for that kid to apologize.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. If they know each other well, they’re going to probably, they’ll be less likely to assume a negative intent when there are misunderstandings.
SMALL: Oh yeah, totally.
SMALL: But also, you keep them from doing harmful things to one another, because they know one another. We as human beings are like that. You don’t usually do mean stuff to your friends all the time, you know?
SMALL: You’re less likely to do something messed up to someone that you know. If you know everyone and you mildly get along with everyone, well you’re probably not fighting.
SMALL: And you’re probably not bullying a whole lot.
GONZALEZ: So I’m trying to, I’m trying to process this now as if I am one of my listeners, and I’m thinking, okay. If I’m a teacher in a school that uses traditional discipline and they may be thinking, “Well we do a lot of team building stuff already, so what’s wrong with suspending a kid if they get out of line?” Like, let’s talk for a minute about the whole notion of zero tolerance and what the problem is with exclusionary discipline.
SMALL: Oh, that’s easy.
SMALL: So point blank, when you tell a kid, when you send a kid home and you tell the kid that they can’t come to school, what you’re basically communicating to the kid is that we don’t want you around.
SMALL: And saying that to anyone is hurtful, let’s be honest. I don’t care who you are. If you’re somewhere where you know you have to be because people tell you you have to be there and you’re told that you need this to be valued in society and be productive in society, and you’re told by that same place that you can’t be there because of something you’ve done, you’re being communicated to that we don’t want you. That’s how it’s going to be taken. Also, what is the kid going to be doing at home? I mean let’s think about the origins of school in America. School in America wasn’t started because we wanted to teach kids necessarily. That’s something that developed over time. Originally this was a large-scale babysitting service so that parents could work. And often we have two parents in the household working. So who’s going to be there at home monitoring a kid probably in a situation with a TV, with a laptop, with a tablet, with their phone, with video games. Are you seriously believing that you kick that kid out and communicate to that kid that we don’t want you here, that that kid’s going to be sitting at home the whole time doing their homework? Seriously?
SMALL: You think that’s going to happen? I mean, fine. If you think that’s going to happen, by all means. But they even don’t consider that to be a punishment, but we do for some reason.
GONZALEZ: Right. Well, and then consequently, typically the kid ends up further and further behind in their classes and then they feel more and more not a part of the school, and then it just has a snowball effect, typically, and I think even without somebody knowing the statistics, we’ve all seen this as teachers that you know, a kid that gets suspended frequently is not going to be a kid who’s succeeding in school.
SMALL: And they certainly don’t come back to school going, “Hey, I was wrong. Sorry about that.”
SMALL: I’ve never seen that happen.
GONZALEZ: No, no.
SMALL: Never seen that happen. I’ve been teaching for, before I went to, this is my first year in an administration. I was teaching for like 10, 11 years. I mean it’s just, you don’t see kids coming back from suspension going, “Hey, my bad.” You know? Not very often.
GONZALEZ: Right. And that’s the other big piece that RJ addresses is that typical discipline doesn’t ever really get to the point where the kid is remorseful about what they did and trying to repair it. It’s just push them out and then just reintroduce them to school without much thought.
SMALL: Totally. Yeah.
SMALL: Again, if you don’t do the groundwork. You know, suspension can be done correctly. There can be ways that you do it right, but you have to know the kid, you have to know the situation, and you have to be intentional about setting up systems to make that work. But again, it should be like the absolute total last resort, not the first.
GONZALEZ: I gotcha. Well, and then that’s what zero tolerance policies in schools have been shooting for is we need to teach them a lesson, we need to communicate to everybody, “Look we don’t tolerate this type of behavior.” And so that seems to be, from the reading that I’ve done on my own, that seems to have been a big motivator toward introducing RJ into schools is that we’ve just got this system now where kids are getting suspended for defiance, and they’re getting kicked out of school.
SMALL: And they’re getting arrested.
SMALL: I mean, let’s think about this. Think about how poor of a job you’re doing as an educational system than you have students that are forced to go into the system, right? Like, they’re forced to go into the system. We know what happens if students are truant. After awhile, you know, people get taken to jail, people get fined. We know that, right? Students are forced to go to school. And so if they’re forced to be there and somehow throughout the system of their lives they end up in jail or in prison as a result of being at school, a place that’s supposed to be a place of learning now —
SMALL: — exactly how is that on the kid?
GONZALEZ: Okay. I’m going to answer you like somebody who really believes in zero tolerance, because I want to make sure that those people are not turning this off. I want to make sure that their questions get answered.
SMALL: Yes, please, please.
GONZALEZ: They’re going to say, “So you’re telling me that a kid who shows up and throws a desk at a teacher, we’re just going to talk to him about his feelings and make him apologize and he gets to just come right back to class?”
SMALL: Okay. First of all, there’s so much there to that.
GONZALEZ: I know, I know. I wanted to throw it all at you at once.
SMALL: There’s so much there to that. I mean I think that’s — so if you are intentional as a teacher about creating personal relationships with your individual students, no one’s going to throw a chair or desk at you.
GONZALEZ: Right. That’s always been my belief too, yes.
SMALL: It’s not going to happen. That’s the first thing. Like, again, preventative. Right? There are measures to do after we get into that situation, right? So we have to actually sit down and wonder, why did the kid throw the desk or the chair at you? Had you done something to provoke that? If you had not done something to provoke that, why did the kid do that? It doesn’t seem, it seems insane to me that anyone with some sort of rational mind would pick up a chair and throw it at someone without being provoked in some way, shape, or form. Maybe the student believed that you did or said something that is completely out of line. We as adults have to own that. You can’t just do and say whatever you want to another person that’s attempting to become an adult. They have feelings, they have emotions too, and they have less control over them than we do.
SMALL: So like when you look at it from the perspective of we know that what’s coming into our classrooms at times can be a bundle of emotions, because we have no idea what happened when they went home. We have no idea if they got into a fight with their parents. We have no idea if their parents are getting drunk. We have no idea if they’re being beaten or if they had to fight their way, literally, to school or if someone jumped them on their way to school or if — we have no idea of this.
SMALL: These kids and individuals are so complex that we can’t just say, “Hey, you threw this chair. Goodbye.” We’ve got to figure out exactly what is going on, because I’m guaranteeing you that’s not the normal, “Hey, I’m getting up to come to school today. Guess I’m going to throw a chair at someone.” No one does that. No one says that. And if you believe that, if you honestly believe that a kid intentionally woke up that morning, came to school with the mindset of, “I’m going to throw a chair at a teacher,” then I’m sorry. I’m not sure —
GONZALEZ: You don’t need to be teaching.
SMALL: Whoa, let me not get into, I don’t need to get into that.
GONZALEZ: No, no. And yet, I think it is that mindset, maybe not necessarily in those words. I think the way that I’ve seen that mindset more than anything is sort of the “kids today” mindset or “these kids in this neighborhood don’t know how to behave” or “their parents aren’t teaching them manners.” So they don’t necessarily think that the kid had that mindset ahead of time, but they think well this child has basically got no training or whatever. And so they just feel like they’re a lost cause already.
SMALL: Well that, and that’s kind of the other part of this, right? If you dehumanize someone, when you refer to anyone out of their name, right? because they’re not “these kids,” they’re Jeremy or Michael or Matthew or Tayshaun. That’s who they are. Right? When you refer to them as “these kids today” and you lump them all there, you’re dehumanizing them. You’re making it easier for you to look at the kids a certain way rather than investigate what is going on.
GONZALEZ: That’s good, Victor.
SMALL: Because if you know what’s going on, you know who they respect, you know who’s important in their lives, you probably have a better shot of getting them to not throw a chair at you.
SMALL: Or actually reach them and get them to be a part of the class.
Common Restorative Practices
GONZALEZ: Okay. Let’s move to, let’s get into some specifics about what RJ actually looks like, sort of on a day-to-day basis. There are some kind of common features and practices that people typically associate with restorative justice. So you can just sort of run down a couple of those that you’ve used and that you typically see in RJ schools?
SMALL: Yeah. So, I should say not typically in RJ schools. Typically in RJ schools that do it right.
GONZALEZ: There you go. Good.
SMALL: I have to say it like that. Because you have to be intentionally doing these things. So the teachers have to be intentionally trying, working to create personal relationships within their classrooms. So they’re doing things like having circles and telling kids about their lives, telling stories about what happens to them, giving the kids a chance to have an insight into their own personal culture. Giving the kids a chance to talk about their own cultures. One of the things that’s really huge that I really love is just asking, just take roll, asking a question. It can start really base-level, “Hey, what’s your favorite color?” And just work its way deeper each day. And that way, that’s a good way to get kids to know each other’s personalities. You get to know their personalities. They get to know your personality because you start answering the question. Doesn’t take long, maybe it adds an extra five minutes to taking roll, but how long was roll going to take anyway?
SMALL: They can do that while you’re doing a do now or a bell work or whatever you want to call it, real easy stuff. One thing you also want to do is you want to do icebreaker games as well. You know, again, reinforcing them getting to know one another, giving them a chance to get to know you, that’s going to be really important going forward. You want to give them challenge type games that are safe, puzzle games to work on together that are safe, because you want to build that growth mindset.
SMALL: And that’s important with this as well, because if kids know that, if they believe that they can and you’ve created, by getting, having them get to know one another, you’re creating a community of support for the child in your classroom. So it gives them the ability to get some support if they’re struggling.
GONZALEZ: Okay, good.
SMALL: And these are things that you want to do, these are all things you want to start doing Day One when you start this, I mean because you always want to, what’s really good about restorative justice and it being preventative, you’re thinking of the community you want to help create. I mean they’re going to, you’re going to need to give them opportunities to have input into the rules and all that other stuff, but building the community that you want to impress on them is pretty helpful as well. When things go sour, this is helpful, because then you can have healing circles and you can have mediation circles. Because if you’ve laid the groundwork, and those type of circles are when things go bad, right?
SMALL: When there’s like a death in the family or something happens, God forbid. I’ve seen schools use healing circles for suicides. I’ve seen schools use healing circles for loss of a teacher, teacher is being fired, things that go wrong, because we know it could happen.
GONZALEZ: Right. What does the circle actually look like? I mean I’m picturing literally people sitting in a circle. Are they in chairs? Is there a certain structure to the way it’s run?
SMALL: I’ve seen them run a lot of different ways. I like chairs. I don’t like desks.
SMALL: Because you put something in front of them, it’s not really a circle. They need to be, nothing needs to be separating them but air for me. So I like chairs. Some teachers have them standing.
SMALL: It really does depend on the configuration of your classroom, really, what you’re privy to.
GONZALEZ: Is there like an order that people go in? Do they take turns? Is there a person in charge of who gets to talk?
SMALL: Well there is a circle keeper, and a circle keeper doesn’t alway have to be the teacher. That’s also important. You’ve got to, when you’re creating a community, you’ve got to relinquish power. You do. You have to relinquish the power. You don’t have to be the person talking all of the time. What’s really helpful with this is the talking piece. And so what you want out of a talking piece is you want something that has some significance to you, some value to you or other students. Generally things that have stories attached to it.
GONZALEZ: So not a Koosh ball.
SMALL: No, probably not.
GONZALEZ: I’m thinking that’s usually what got passed around in circles when I was in school, it’s “Pass the Koosh ball.” So it’s got to be something more important than that.
SMALL: Yeah. The more significant the story attached to the talking piece, the better.
SMALL: And that can come in a lot of different forms, of ways. My wife and I made a Halloween costume one year, and so I have pieces of my Halloween costume that I use as a talking piece sometimes. I have gifts that have been given from students, from parents. I have magnets that I’ve gotten when I’ve traveled. It doesn’t have to be something sacred to your culture. It can be just something that has a nice story attached.
SMALL: What’s really big with this is giving, we tell stories to make these different connections with people. So if you, one of the things that makes for easy personal relationship building is telling stories, and any time that you can put something in there that has a story attached to it, that has a connection to your life, you in a sense become more human to your kids.
SMALL: And they want to learn from someone that they like more often than they want to learn from someone that’s cold and distant.
GONZALEZ: Right, right.
SMALL: They like learning from people that they like and look up to. The more that they know about you, again, the less possibility that they’re going to do something harmful to you intentionally.
SMALL: And that’s just what it is. So you need the talking piece.
SMALL: That’s really up to you then at that point how you want that to manifest.
I’m going to take a quick break to thank this episode’s other sponsor, Peergrade. Peergrade is a platform that makes it easy to facilitate peer review in your classroom. Students review each other’s work, while Peergrade takes care of anonymously assigning reviewers and delivering all the relevant insights to teachers. With Peergrade, students learn to think critically and take ownership of their learning. They also learn to write kind and useful feedback for their peers. Peergrade is free to use for teachers and students. To learn more visit cultofpedagogy.com/peergrade.
Now let’s get back to the interview.
GONZALEZ: I’m noticing something here on the notes that you took that you haven’t mentioned, and I’m not sure if you’re planning on getting it, but it says reintegrative shaming.
GONZALEZ: It’s a very interesting phrase.
SMALL: Reintegrative shaming, yeah. That’s one of my favorite things in the world. It is, it is, because it’s a different way of approaching child behavior that I don’t think that we utilize a lot. I think what we do is, you know, we’re prone as humans to typecast a kid. They develop a reputation and we go with that.
SMALL: So what reintegrative shaming is, is it’s communicating to the student that I know that you’re a good person, I know that you’re trying, I know that you’re doing the best you can, but that action was shameful. It wasn’t a good action. You shouldn’t have done that. It’s bad. You’re not a bad person, but the thing that you did or the choice that you made was bad. So it’s the conversation of framing the action or the thing that they’ve done as not being pleasurable or being shameful rather than communicating to the kid that they are.
GONZALEZ: Okay. So it is, the goal is to make them associate a negative feeling with what they did to feel somewhat shameful about it, but not feel that it is about them as a person. It’s the choice they made that was something that they should regret.
SMALL: Right, right, right, which is true. It’s true.
GONZALEZ: Yes, yes.
SMALL: You know, if you communicate to a kid over and over again that they’re a piece of you-know-what, then guess what they start to become? exactly what you’re telling them, right? If you want them to be a good person, you remind them, “Hey, you are a good person, but this choice that you made was bad,” and that’s really how they should look at it too, right?
GONZALEZ: Right. You’ve also got something here about restorative mindsets and you mention that actually at the beginning when you said that you practiced RJ and that now you use a restorative mindset in your role. So you want to talk about that a little bit?
SMALL: Yeah. Everything that a kid does shouldn’t have to have a consequence. I mean it shouldn’t necessarily, unless it’s necessary, if that makes sense.
GONZALEZ: It does. That’s going to blow a lot of people’s minds to hear that.
SMALL: Well I mean let’s just, let’s call it what it is. I mean if a kid gets angry and says something to another kid and that kid gets mad at that kid, do they need detention for that, or do they need to just fix the problem and not be mad at each other? Probably just the fix the problem and not be mad at each other, go on about their lives.
SMALL: It doesn’t need a punishment for that.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah.
SMALL: Again, they didn’t (show up) to school like, “Hey, I’m gonna fight with this kid,” unless something’s very wrong. Right?
SMALL: Because, you know, it’s something that kills me. It’s that mindset of you remembering what it was like for you to be in school, for you to be a teenager, trying to just get through life, and that awkward stage and that emotional stage. You know, when we were different stages of our lives, we weren’t thinking of the things that we notice now as adults, if that makes sense.
GONZALEZ: Oh yeah.
SMALL: And so when you remember that, then it’s really easy for you to go, “Well they just made that mistake. They just need to shake hands and move on.”
SMALL: Maybe it’s better that you just say, “Sorry for this one, buddy.” You know? Maybe your written apology’s a good idea. Maybe you should reflect on this. They don’t need to be suspended because they chewed gum in glass. I mean let’s be honest. I’m just saying.
GONZALEZ: I know.
SMALL: It’s the idea that maybe the punishment or lack thereof should actually kind of fit the crime.
GONZALEZ: Right, right.
SMALL: And if they didn’t do anything wrong to the class or the community and they just did something messed up to another student, they can handle that between the two students. You could facilitate that. It teaches them, “Hey. You have to be accountable for your actions, because your actions do have impact on other students,” without having them sit in detention, right?
GONZALEZ: Right. Well, and do you think that teachers do take things too personally sometimes?
SMALL: Yeah, that’s a funny thing, isn’t it? I mean I get it, I get it. It’s something that we have to work on ourselves about, because it’s really easy for us to think that student behavior is about us, but we know it’s not. We know psychologically they’re not even thinking about us. They’re thinking about them.
GONZALEZ: Right. Yes.
SMALL: Their mind is completely on them, 24/7. They’re not thinking about us. Their actions aren’t happening as an intentional thing to derail our lesson that we spent, that we worked on until about midnight, you know?
SMALL: Like, I get it, I get it. You spent a lot of time on that unit. You spent a lot of time on that lesson. I get it. But sometimes your kids are going to do things that have nothing to do with you, that have more to do with what’s going on in their lives. Again, let’s remember they don’t have sick days. They don’t have bereavement leave. We do.
SMALL: If someone dies that’s close to us, we can take some days off and we can deal with it. They can’t. They don’t have that opportunity.
GONZALEZ: No, they just have to show up and push through.
SMALL: Right. If something traumatic happens to them, they don’t get a chance, they don’t decide they can take the day off. They don’t get that opportunity. They have to be there. So with about, out of, most schools are like 500 to 2,000 kids. You gotta figure in America with all the different variables that’s happening in different households that one of your kids just had the worst night of their lives.
SMALL: And they come into school because they have to. And I’m going to guarantee you reacting in the most negative way to them might be the last straw for them.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Absolutely.
SMALL: And that’s got nothing to do with your lesson.
GONZALEZ: Right, right.
SMALL: Nothing. Or you as a person.
GONZALEZ: Right. So it’s been two years at your school now that you’ve been implementing RJ, correct?
SMALL: Well it was at a different school. I was at a different school.
GONZALEZ: I gotcha.
SMALL: And now I’m at this school.
GONZALEZ: Okay. So can you talk to us a little bit about some of the successes that you’ve had at either school?
SMALL: Yeah. So I had a student last year, you know, one of the things that these personal relationships create is you give kids someone in their corner when they don’t necessarily feel like they have someone in their corner. You the teacher can do that, and that’s something I had the pleasure of doing, being the advocate for the kid, because the kid then gains trust and now you’re the person that they’re in your class and they really want to pass your class. They really want to pass your class. They’re now motivated because someone’s on their side. And I don’t mean “on their side” like “I believe every single thing that happens to them,” but I encourage, I learn more about them. The kids that, your toughest kids, you need to become the best friend of, because when you do that, over time you start to see the growth that they have, because they start to trust you, they start to trust that you have their best interest in that when they mess up they’ll actually listen to you telling them that.
SMALL: So I had some students that they had made some poor choices in their lives, but they also had been dealt a pretty crappy hand in life. And I don’t think I would have found that out had I went digging for that.
SMALL: Because so many people before I got to that child hadn’t taken time to do the research and find that out. I mean I was looking at this kid’s (discipline) file and they’re getting suspended for gum, they’re getting suspended for bringing food to school, and I’m thinking to myself, yo. They’re eating food at school? So that’s bad, because that’s — I thought that was something on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs really.
SMALL: Yeah, we’re really suspending kids for food? Are we serious? All right. I mean, okay.
GONZALEZ: Wow. That’ll make you hate school for sure.
SMALL: I bet, right?
SMALL: So that’s this kid. I mean this is, that’s the typical kid. They bounced around. I had them, let me tell you, this kid in particular that I’m thinking, I’m not using names because you know, I have to reach out to that kid. I haven’t (talked to) that kid’s mom in a bit, so I have to, now that I’m thinking about this, I need to check in and see how they’re doing, but.
SMALL: That kid had, let’s see I taught ninth-grade English. That child had transferred multiple times that year, schools, until they got to our school and in my class and they stayed in my class and at our school for the longest period of time.
SMALL: They had been in the grade and was passing classes and was showing up to classes. So we’re talking about a kid that’s defiant, we’re talking about a kid that was in a gang.
SMALL: But what we don’t realize as adults is that that defiance is them realizing that they have very little control in their lives, and they’re trying to take some control of something.
GONZALEZ: Gosh. I’m feeling so guilty listening to this, because I’m thinking about a kid who showed up one of my last years that I was in the classroom, and I had heard the same thing about him that he had been in three different schools that year, and of course he comes in part way through the year, and my first thought was to be irritated because it was going to mess up my roster and it was going —
GONZALEZ: — you know what I mean? And now I’m just thinking oh gosh. Okay.
SMALL: I’ve been there. No, no. I understand.
SMALL: I’ve been there. There’s a portion of when you get educated on this and you read up on this and you start to look at the mindset that really is a change in shift, you get mad at yourself, because you can think back at that kid that you gave up on or that you were really hard on because they were just such a prick in your class. You just couldn’t stand — like, you know? And I know this sounds really terrible, but yes, I’m sure every person listening to this right now, you can name that kid that is just, when they show up in your classroom, you’re like, “Oh my God. Oh, you’re here today. Geez.”
SMALL: But you know what? That kid is the kid that’s there every day. You know why that kid is there every day? Because they don’t want to be at home, because something is going terrible in their life. That’s why they’re a pill to you. They’re a pill to you because they are severely hurt and/or damaged, because if they weren’t, they’d be just like every other kid in your class, sitting down, paying attention, listening, following directions, because they have a home when they go to that is a loving environment with people that they want to aspire to show that they can do well and they have people that they care about seeing them doing well. And so they have the mindset of, “I’m going to do my best, and I’m going to do well in school.” Every kid has that when they show up to school except those kids that need our love.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. So I got us off track. So this kid that you’re talking about —
SMALL: That’s fine.
GONZALEZ: — because you were about to tell me some stuff that’s been going on with this kid. He stayed longest at your school. That was the longest period of time that he had been.
SMALL: No, she, she.
GONZALEZ: Oh, okay.
SMALL: Oh yeah. She was a little, yeah, she was getting into the gang life.
SMALL: You know, was one of those things where I think what we do is, when I was getting back to that dehumanization we do, because we look at the kid and the colors and then we judge them. We judge them. We think they’re dangerous. They’re going to do something horrible. We don’t realize that there’s a reason they joined that gang, because we’ve done enough to shame, in our society, crime. We’ve done enough to — like you don’t think that they think they’re a piece of because they’re in a gang? You don’t think that they have some sort of self esteem issue because they’re in a gang? And those kids are some of the brightest most forethought students. They could be your best kid.
SMALL: But they’re not because somewhere down the line, something went terribly wrong, and they thought they can find solace in other kids that had something terribly wrong happen to them. So, you know, it’s that kind of situation we’re talking about. These kids need more love not less, and that’s exactly what we give them.
GONZALEZ: So tell me what else has gone well in your school in terms of are you, I’m assuming that you taught in schools prior to this where it was a more traditional model. So what else are liking about being in a more RJ-oriented school? Is it just you or is it the whole school?
SMALL: Ah, okay. So the school that I’m at in Oakland has been using restorative justice for five years. The school that I left in San Jose had just started.
SMALL: I was part of the group that really wanted to get it started and implemented. And one of the things that I notice at both of those places that I didn’t really notice in traditional settings (was a focus on) mediation. When you start teaching kids that they can talk out their issues rather than fight about them, they stop fighting about them, because they don’t really want to fight.
GONZALEZ: Right, right.
SMALL: Fighting takes a lot of work.
SMALL: Fighting is scary too, I mean you know.
GONZALEZ: Oh yeah.
SMALL: You go into it and someone could hurt you and you can get hurt, so if you can talk it out, and you think that’s a possibility that someone might also want to talk it out with you, then you’re more prone to communicate and talk it out, and I’ve noticed that happening at both schools. When you emphasize mediation and you have kids, because kids are going talk about it, they’re going to talk about it with other kids. They’re going to talk about what the process was like and what it was like to sit down and talk out their issues.
SMALL: And they’re going to be more likely to want to seek that out.
GONZALEZ: Do you offer, is it sort of formal mediation services where it’s almost like advertised and the kids know what they need to do to request a session or a mediation?
SMALL: God, that’s a good question. You know, at the school I’m at now, it’s kind of more of that. At the school that I started, we just sniffed out conflicts. We just, because you could tell. I mean when you’re in high school, it’s not a big surprise who isn’t getting along with someone else. I mean it’s not a very big secret.
GONZALEZ: Right, right.
SMALL: You know, especially in some sparse areas of the country, it’s probably easier than others, because they’re actively doing something conflicting with each other. They’re arguing with one another or they’re yelling at one another or they’re threatening to fight one another or they’re saying something on social media or something. You know, you can find the conflict if you look hard enough.
GONZALEZ: Right. That’s part of being in tune with your kids and that being part of the culture —
GONZALEZ: — having a trusting relationship is that they’re going to reveal a little bit more of that to you.
SMALL: Oh totally. You’re going to know more about your kids. The more that you seek out information about your kids, the more you’re going to learn about your kids, so then you’re going to know exactly who you need to make, who you need to, when you need to be a mandated reporter, you’re going to know when that’s going to happen. You’re probably going to get more opportunities for that. You’re going to know who needs to seek counseling and who needs to see a therapist. It’s going to be obvious. You’re going to know who needs special services and who needs to get special services. Because you’re going to know, you’re going to know. You’re going to be able to, by learning more about the kids and learning more about their motivations and what makes them tick, you know who’s strong, you know who’s not strong, you know who’s trying their dangdest and they need more help. And that’s something that makes our jobs easier to do.
GONZALEZ: So you’re seeing at sort of both these schools you’re seeing a reduction in physical fighting and I’m assuming a reduction in suspensions and expulsions?
SMALL: Oh totally. Oh yeah. Without question. But again, because the kids get along with —
GONZALEZ: They just along better, yeah.
SMALL: Yeah. They just, they get along better, so they fight less. There’s less reason for them to fight, because everyone knows everyone else.
SMALL: You know, it’s not, “Who’s that kid over there? I don’t know anything about him.” It’s, “Ah, man. You know, Tommy yelled at me the other day.” “Well you know what’s going on with Tommy, right?” “Ah, man. I heard about that. Yeah. Okay.” “You should sit down and talk at lunch.” “Yeah, let’s do that.”
SMALL: You know? When you teach them how to fix their problems, they fix their problems. It’s pretty incredible.
Where to Start
GONZALEZ: So let’s spend these last few minutes, let’s talk now to the teachers who are listening. They’re like, “This sounds good. I think our school needs this.” It might be an administrator, it might be a single teacher. So what advice would you give to people who want to start making that shift from traditional discipline practices to an RJ approach?
SMALL: Oh, I got a list for you.
SMALL: Okay. So the first thing, first and foremost, investigate, read more into RJ. The book I always give, I always advise is “The Little Book of Restorative Justice” by Howard Zehr. Because it’s a quick read. It’s like 100 pages.
GONZALEZ: Yes it is. I just read it.
SMALL: Yeah. No, it’s a real quick read too. And keep reading into it, keep reading into it. I’ve read so far four or five books on it. I have a quest and thirst for knowledge, because you know it’s just going to give you more ideas the more you read. Look into getting, there are lesson books for it too. You can always find those on Amazon. They’re out there. And a lot of them are really deep and detailed, and they take a lot of the difficulty away from you. But that’s first and foremost, right? You’ve got to dedicate yourself to identifying your biases and your triggers within your classrooms. You have to work on that. That’s something I had to work on. It’s really painful for us to consider this, but if we walk into our classrooms and we really try to believe that an approach to colorblindness is one that’s effective, we’re really shortchanging our kids’ lives, because if we’re just constantly telling them, “Hey, I don’t see color,” when they leave your classroom, someone’s going to see their color.
SMALL: And someone’s going to act possibly on the fact that they see their color, so we’re not setting them up, we’re setting them up for failure if we don’t do our own investigation of, do I have any biases against any particular type of culture, any particular type of culture activity, any of my students? Do I have any things that trigger certain behavior or fears or anger that they do that they do naturally? Taking a step back and wondering, is it me or is it them? Right?
SMALL: Is what they did really that bad? Or is it me? That work is some tough work to do, but it can only happen if you work on that one.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Boy, I didn’t really, until somebody has actually embraced that idea, because I hear that all the time, the colorblindness claim. I think that is the most difficult shift to make for somebody. Because I think if somebody is going to start looking at their biases, they feel like what that means is admitting that they are a racist —
SMALL: No, no, it’s not.
GONZALEZ: — and they’re making a huge leap from saying they’re colorblind to saying, “I’m a racist,” which is like, no.
GONZALEZ: You have to just realize that we all have biases.
SMALL: Right. We do. We do. So here’s the realistic thing: We’ve grown up in a culture that has this stuff in it.
SMALL: Like let’s think about it. Our cartoons when we grew up, Looney Tunes, there were Looney Tunes that had racially insensitive things in it. Like there are things in our TV today that have racially insensitive things. This is embedded into our culture. You’re no more racist than, well, the culture that you identify to, so being aware of where these thoughts and these issues and these triggers come from doesn’t make you racist.
SMALL: Right? It’s willful ignorance of it that does, if that makes sense.
GONZALEZ: Can you think of an example of a pretty common type of bias that you see a lot of teachers having that end up resulting in sort of discipline issues that if they were to just recognize that thing as a bias it would actually prevent these things from escalating?
SMALL: Well, there is a few. Is it really a big deal that your kid wears a hat? Is it? I mean is it that big of a deal that they wear a hat? I mean I get, maybe they should take it off in class, but is it really a problem for them to wear it on campus? Is there a problem with your kid wearing a do-rag? Really? Is that, that’s not a gang thing. I’ve never seen that be a gang thing. That’s really random. I don’t get that. Is it a problem for kids to wear hijabs? I don’t get that. Is it?
SMALL: Those sort of things, you know?
SMALL: Sometimes we make rules without thinking about the kids that are showing up at our schools.
SMALL: So again, but that goes back into understanding who your kids are.
SMALL: If you know that it’s part of their culture to do that, allow them to do that.
GONZALEZ: Right. Then it’s not defiance.
SMALL: Right. It’s not defiance, because it’s something that they do. It’s accepted in their culture. Why not let them do that? Then you’re fighting a battle, you’re fighting not a battle with the kid, you’re fighting a battle with them, their way of being, their livelihood and their connection to their culture and their family and their friends. I mean aren’t we supposed to be working with that, not against that? Because I know we’re running short, let me make sure I get all this stuff in here. So there’s the bias training. You need to dedicate your classroom to building culture. You’ve got to dedicate to building culture in school. So you have to work on finding ways to include kids in what’s going on, like allowing more student voice, allowing more student opportunities for them to display their culture, act on their culture, be a part of their culture. You need to give them opportunities to learn about people that look like them, that are from their culture, that represent them. You have to give them opportunities to see people that look like them on campus. You’ve got to bring more people on campus, adults, caring adults, on campus. Find ways to bring more caring adults on campus that look like your student body. So I’m going to say this. I’m going to make some people feel uncomfortable, but if 99 percent of your staff is white and 99 percent of your student body is black and Latino, you’re going to need to figure out a way to get more black and Latino staff members in your school.
GONZALEZ: Yep. There’s a lot of ways to do it. Yeah.
GONZALEZ: It doesn’t mean firing your staff, yeah.
SMALL: No, no. It doesn’t mean firing your staff. It means finding ways to give, to bring more of those caring adults on campus. You can find, there are ways to make that happen. You can be intentional about hiring different paras, you can be intentional about hiring aides, you can be intentional about hiring coaches, you can be intentional about hiring mentors and consultants. You can find ways to get more people on your campus that care about kids, that look like your kids, and you should.
SMALL: And if you also then find ways to learn about the neighborhoods, the communities and find ways to bring people from the community and in the neighborhoods into your school, you’re probably, you’re creating a school culture that the students can feel more at home in, like be connected to so that if you so happen to have a situation where you feel that you have to suspend a kid, there are so many resources around you that you can tap into to really create the type of experience that you want out of that and make it into a consequence that actually would be viable. But again, that’s going to take some creativity, and that’s going to depend on the student.
GONZALEZ: I have so many more questions to ask you. Everything you’re saying I want to follow that thread. I hate that we’re out of time.
SMALL: I’m always willing to come back.
GONZALEZ: I know. I also know how much gets, there’s so many of these finer threads that get pulled on in the Voxer chat. You all talk constantly about —
GONZALEZ: — so many. I can’t keep up with it. So much, every day. It’s funny because when I first sort of joined that group and I started listening, I was like, “Huh, I’m not hearing anything about circles or about the stuff that you associate,” because it was a lot more about this relationship-building. I think it’s just really interesting. It really contributed to my understanding of RJ as a much more holistic thing.
SMALL: Yeah, because it is, it is.
SMALL: I think what people want to do, nine times out of 10, in education is they want to take a thing and put their own spin on it, and they want to just make it easy, and this isn’t easy. This has to be intentional. You have to be intentional about the things you’re doing with this, otherwise it’s not going to work, and then you’re — listen. That’s why I started off with, “You have to build the personal relationships.” Because if you’re not, it’s not going to work.
GONZALEZ: Yep. I mean that’s just, that’s not just plug and play.
SMALL: No, no. If you’re not building personal relationships, staff to students, staff to staff, students to students, admin to student staff and teachers and all that, if you’re not building personal relationship connections throughout the school, it’s not going to work.
GONZALEZ: Not going to work.
SMALL: And you have to be intentional about it.
GONZALEZ: Victor, tell us where people can find you online and about the different opportunities for joining up with the RJ community.
SMALL: Oh, well I mean our, I’m blessed that you’d even say that. The RJ community’s so much larger than our little Voxer chats and Twitter chats.
GONZALEZ: I know. But you’re providing such an important window into that. I really feel like it’s a gateway.
SMALL: I like the terminology “gateway.” I’m going to roll with that. I like that one.
GONZALEZ: All right.
SMALL: Okay. So you can find me on Twitter, Voxer, Instagram. My name on them is MrSmall215, the same name for Twitter, Voxer, and Instagram. We’ve got the RJ chat on Twitter every Sunday, and that’s 8 p.m. EST, 7 CST, 6 MST, 5 PST West Coast time.
GONZALEZ: The hashtag for the chat, the Twitter chat, is that #RJLeagueChat?
SMALL: That is #RJLeagueChat. There’s also the Twitter account that’s @RJLeagueChat too that you can follow. That’s helpful too.
GONZALEZ: So it’s the same thing. It’s the at symbol or the hashtag is both, both will get you to that chat?
SMALL: Yeah, yeah.
SMALL: Both will get you there. And then if you want to join the Voxer group it’s a little, you can find it in a couple of different ways if you Google it, but the easiest way is just I tweet the link to the Voxer chat.
GONZALEZ: Oh, there you go.
SMALL: Yeah. You could just go to that.
GONZALEZ: Okay. I can also put a link to it on the blog post that’ll go with this interview too.
SMALL: Oh yeah. By all means.
GONZALEZ: Victor, thank you so much. This has been really, you’re great to talk to. This has been really, really good.
SMALL: Oh well thank you, thank you. I’m happy about that. It’s really cool. Thank you. I appreciate that.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. No problem. I hope this helps some schools make this shift and I hope a lot of people who are, I hope that they get the message that this is not something that they’re going to just start tomorrow and everything’s going to be completely different starting tomorrow, that it’s a slow process.
SMALL: Well, okay. So one thing that I will say is that if you start trying to build personal relationships tomorrow, you’re going to see the effects of it.
SMALL: Like I’m not saying that it’s going to be perfect, but it’s going to be a whole heck of a lot different, definitely.
SMALL: Day One.
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