By: Robert Danneker, Principal, Hutchinson High School
American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey once wrote, “We do not learn from experience; we learn by reflecting on experience.” This quotation is taped to my assistant principal’s computer screen and is a constant reminder that personal growth is an intentional process.
Personal growth impacts the collective community, as well. We are all familiar with concepts like “paying it forward” or “random acts of kindness.” Similarly, establishing community norms based around empathy and compassion can result in a self-fulfilling environment. But how do we ensure that voices of understanding and mutual concern drown out the negative or unproductive options that abound?
At Hutchinson High School, we are in our first year of introducing a framework for our school community known as “restorative practices.” The International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) defines this work as “an emerging social science that studies how to strengthen relationships between individuals as well as social connections within communities.” Start with individuals, extend to others, then impact the larger social network through this lasting, positive change.
Informally, we began this work at Hutchinson High School over a year ago when our in-school suspension supervisory position became available through attrition. Instead of simply filling this vacancy, we re-imagined how we might better serve our students and our school community. Thus, we hired a Behavioral Interventionist and we ended our practice of in-school suspension. Now, instead of providing a holding pen for students struggling with behaviors and interpersonal relationships, we provide them an opportunity to talk, de-escalate, re-center, and reflect.
This approach is present in our classrooms, as well. Beginning this school year, we are training our teachers and staff on the basics of restorative practices in hopes of learning of, sharing, and refining more tools that might be used to best support our students in their most difficult times. One of these skills is the check-in circle. Sitting in a circle and individually taking turns responding to a prompt, students learn from and with one another, building community, empathy, and shared understanding.
The circle concept is adaptable, as well. For instance, circles can be used to restore relationships after harm (emotional or physical) has occurred. At a school I worked at previously, it was not abnormal for a student to approach a school counselor, social worker, or member of the administrative team to request a circle. “We need to circle up and settle this,” a student might say. In this manner, restorative practices empower students to proactively, and respectfully, resolve their disagreements.
And then there are the five questions. Or, perhaps more accurately, the Five Questions. We use these questions privately with individual students when they are struggling or with students returning to our school community from suspension. We start with, “What happened?”, learning first-hand and from the student’s perspective. “What were you thinking at the time?” allows the student to explore the processes of decision-making, and “What have you thought about since then?” permits the student to evaluate the effectiveness of their choices. “Who has been harmed?” directs the students towards an understanding of empathy and the (sometimes) far-reaching impacts of personal actions. Finally, “What will you do to repair the harm?” challenges the student to develop a plan to fix relationships in the short-term and to build a stronger community in the days ahead.
When the actions or behaviors of a student rise to the level of an out-of-school suspension, the whole school community suffers. Each of our students is an important contributor to who we are and when a single student is missing, we are not whole.
The events we experience certainly have an impact on who we are, but how we interpret and reflect upon those moments that shape our lives dictate who and what we can become: our best selves.