In the five years since the implementation of RPs, all the indicators of school conflict such as ‘yard incidents’ have dropped majorly. Some teachers had previously wanted the Principal’s Office to be a place that students feared, but Phil saw this as inconsistent with the inclusive and respectful stance required – his office is now seen by students as a place to be honest about their misdeeds, and a place where they can rebuild their reputations.
RPs have not been implemented as a ‘stand-alone’ tool (how often have I heard that in successful schools!) but as integrating tightly with a focus on universal values. The values that RSPS uses come from the ‘Virtues Project’ (USA) which I know is being used extensively by some NZ schools. These in turn are interwoven with mandated nationwide expectations upon schools. The end result is a blueprint for the school that can be followed consistently, year after year.
The start of the year is occupied exclusively with a social skills programme for all students. In Phil’s words, unless they have got the capacity to work with others, time spent on curriculum is empty time. If students do harm, there may conceivably be traditional sanctions as part of the total response, but the focus is primarily upon working towards avoiding stigmatising of students. One simple strategy that appears to work well for RSPS is an element of restorative conversation that is termed the ‘virtues sandwich’. It essentially is an affective statement that works on the familiar principle of beginning with a positive remark about the person, goes to a statement about concern of a specific behaviour, and ends with an affirmation of the confidence by the teacher that the student can make the situation better.
So simple, but so effective.
Another procedure captured my imagination – it reminded me of something that Geoff described from Geelong North SC. The Reynella South team pay respect to a vital element of restorative practice (and often overlooked) – that of the ritual of ‘re-engagement’. If a student has to be removed from a class for a particular reason, following some restorative work in the administration area, a senior staff takes the child back to class and takes the class while the teacher and student have some quiet time together to rebuild the relationship. This reintegration of the student back into class is often assumed by management to happen automatically. But it often does not happen – the student slides to the back of the room, with an invisible barrier still standing between the student and the teacher.
Furthermore at RSPS, if the situation requires it, the teacher will abandon what he/she was doing and pull chairs into a circle to give students the chance to talk in a safe way about how the event affected them – it also gives the offending student the chance to explain how he/she came to do the harm, and gives the chance for him/her to make amends/make commitments.
The staff have been “immersed” in RJ training – even relievers are expected to use RPs and as such receive training also. Phil and Keri believes that teachers give the best when they feel valued – so staff wellbeing is given as high priority as student wellbeing. Beside considerable autonomy given to staff in their professional interests, staff are provided with small but significant acknowledgements such as free massage, subsidised ‘Gold Class’ cinema passes, and time to eat together as ‘teams’ outside of school. The opportunity to meet/eat as a group during school time (extended lunch) is also extended to School Service Officers (equiv of Rosehill’s Support Staff).
Keri’s counsellor position at the school is seen by Phil as a key position – it allows the school to work with students and parents in a way that classroom teachers cannot (understandably) manage. One of the school development tools that Reynella South value is the FISH programme – I will follow this up as it sounds promising.
Thanks to Phil and Keri for their hospitality. Best wishes to you Phil for your aviation-inspired travels.
About 10 minutes down the road was Lonsdale Heights Primary School which has also won attention for its innovative and bold initiatives. LHPS is a smaller school than many (about 150 students) and draws upon a community of significant disadvantage. When Denise Lane (Principal) arrived 5 years ago, there were rules but little attention to values. In 2007, there is absolute attention devoted to values – in fact Denise says that they don’t talk about rules at all with the students, just values. RJ is a vital element to the school but the RJ fits around values rather than the values fitting around RJ.
Although based in another position now, Denise had huge support from one of the RJ dynamos in the Adelaide region, Bill Hansberry. Denise and Bill did much reading and research together, Denise travelling widely including to Europe. In 2004 and 2005 Denise and Bill did much staff training and involved key staff in restorative events as much as possible. Denise will still suspend students who disregard the school values but attention is given to the reintegration of the student back into the classroom/school upon return. The ‘re-entry’ meeting involves the student, parent(s) and the teacher.
Denise views the involvement of teachers in these re-entry conferences as vital, giving them the chance to understand better the circumstances surrounding the offending. Although it is difficult to free teachers from normal classroom duties to attend these conferences, Denise prioritises it.
While Denise and I were talking, a lovely moment happened spontaneously with a couple of students outside the Principal’s office. Two boys (10 years old, maybe 11?) had come to Denise unescorted to sort out a conflict that arose from a regular lunchtime soccer game on the field. Dale and Evander were sorting out their issues in this restorative manner because the entire lunchtime soccer routine has a comprehensive restorative process that all the soccer players have agreed upon and observe.
This soccer agreement fascinated me. I will not go into details because the agreement is very elaborate, but basically, the games are refereed by fellow students who can ‘card’ players if there is the perception that there has been disrespectful or unfair conduct. The offending student(s) are only allowed back on the field following a restorative mini-conference facilitated by a staff member. Fights and arguments on the field are now insignificant – a big change from the previous atmosphere.
Moving along, the school maintains a ‘bully audit’ twice a year during which students can anonymously name students who are aggressive in some way. Students whose names are prevalent will meet with his/her parent(s) and Denise in restorative event – and agreements made that are monitored.
I had a really good chat with Matt Richards, a dynamic young teacher who is clearly following in the illustrious footsteps of Bill Hansberry. Matt has been at Lonsdale for 3 years and loves the environment because it fits his philosophy of a focus on relationships, “It creates a positive learning environment so I can teach”. Matt has been overseeing the soccer agreement and also appears to have put much thought and energy into creating a healthy class environment.
Matt’s tools have been a classroom agreement (somewhat in the style of the soccer agreement) that maps the values for the class, as preferred by students. The students (‘intermediate age’ in NZ lingo) have class meetings of 40-45 minutes each week where the week is reviewed and people share their concerns. Students who constantly infringe upon others rights are given support and warnings during these regular meetings – but if they continue their errant ways, the class have the authority to sanction a fellow student from taking part in pre-planned class outings.
Although these class imposed sanctions clearly present an opportunity for young people to penalise students they don’t like, Matt has found that the students take the responsibility very seriously. I had the chance to speak to four of these boys and girls and found a level of social maturity that many 16/17 years olds lack. Two of the more colourful characters admitted that the class meetings and the agreements had changed their view on conflict and that in turn, their behaviours had also changed significantly.
Later in the day I attended an evening ‘Good Practice Forum: Restorative Practices in Schools’, organised by Debbie and Leigh from the RJC (see yesterday). This event was massively over subscribed by school teachers and school management – 160 people or so put their names down but there was space only for 80. The process is to be repeated shortly so that the other 80 people can also attend.
I was kindly given the opportunity to speak – I said some words about the climate of RPs in NZ schools and gave the example of how Rosehill College had responded intelligently to the school tagging problem by using conferencing. I showed a video interview of a couple of Rosehill boys from the ‘taggers group’ which shows that apparently insurmountable problems can be addressed using RPs.
To cap off a great evening a group of us had a tasty meal together.