Yesterday a former student stopped by to visit. In 2017 he was a high school senior in my English class. I'd seen him around town since he graduated and we've exchanged waves, but this time he wanted to tell me something important he said, "And it might sound weird."
We settled in some lawn chairs and he went on to remind me of a day, he said, that changed his life. It was the day he nearly got into a fist fight with another student in my class and instead of sending one or both to the office, I circled the whole class up and announced we were going to have a restorative circle about this conflict, which had been brewing for weeks and had divided the class into two distinct sides.
They immediately pulled their chairs into a circle, like they had done many times before for check-in and community building. It seems they were ready to do something about the tension that had been building and interfering with a class they usually enjoyed. As usual, I asked them to put their two feet on the ground and take some grounding intentional breaths and then asked for a quick round to indicate on a scale from 1-5 how they were feeling about the state of things in the classroom. Next I asked each boy to recount, as objectively as possible, the facts of what had led to the conflict. When they were done, I reflected back a shared narrative of events and asked them both if it was accurate. Then as a connection question I asked the whole class to think of a time when they "flipped their lid" over a seemingly small matter. Most passed, but the quietest student told a story of having his hat flipped off many times as a freshman, until one day he responded by lifting the perpetrator off the ground and shoving him against the wall. Everyone was absolutely quiet as they listened. There was a palpable decrease of tension in the room as everyone, all at once, recognized how capable all of us were of such a response. The next question whether anyone had played an innocent joke on someone that ended up pissing the person off.
We went on to ask the other restorative questions such as what were you thinking at the time? What have you been thinking about since? What has been the hardest thing? What needs to happen to make this right? In the end, the two boys did not become friends, didn't even apologize, but they looked each other in the eye and expressed their respect for each other. The whole process took 40 minutes and the two boys enjoyed a peaceful remaining few months of school.
What isn't recounted in this story are all the elements of a restorative classroom culture, carefully developed over months, that made this possible. It as much a way of being as it is a way of doing things. Central to it is creating a place where people can be wrong, admit mistakes, be human.
The student and I sat in my backyard recounting what had happened and then he told me that he learned more in those 40 minutes than any other time of his school career and he was deeply grateful. He said, it was a turning point where he learned he could stand up for himself and communicate his anger in a way that could be constructive. His eyes were brimming over.
As he left, he apologized for talking so much and taking my time, but he said, "I figure teachers don't get to hear positive feedback from students that much." I said that teacher's careers are made successful by moments like this.
NOTE: This circle appeared to happen spontaneously, without any planning, which is not how restorative circles are run. Normally, there needs to be a lot of planning and preparation of both parties. In this case, I had talked to each boy individually as the tensions had increased in the previous weeks. I had offered them a restorative conference to resolve it but they had declined. I had asked them all the restorative questions and they felt heard. The class was prepared too. They had established the habits of circle all year—taking turns, listening, being respectful. I made the call to hold a circle with some hesitance, but moved forward because of this preparation and the fact that the conflict had spread to the entire class.