This week’s Times Magazine has an exhaustive exploration of one principal’s attempt to implement restorative practices in a New York City high school.
Phil Santos, the principal of Leadership and Public Service High School, began the long road to implementation by pushing teachers to build relationships with students and mediate conflict independent of the school’s deans:
Leadership had long been the kind of school where many teachers saw their job solely as teaching; managing discipline was the role of deans, whom they would call to the classroom “for anything more than the crumpling of a paper,” says Sara Mitchell, a music teacher who started at Leadership two years before Santos. Santos’s priority was to shift that habit; he urged teachers to take the time to talk to the student, calmly, outside the classroom, to work on building the relationship — even to take responsibility for possibly inflaming a situation with a harsh tone of voice.
Many teachers decided that the school, under Santos, was not, in fact, for them. Eleven out of 51 left at the end of his first year. Some would have retired or moved anyway, but others were skeptical about his empathy-based approach. (“What are we, going to get in a circle and sing ‘Kumbaya’?” one was heard to mutter during a faculty meeting.) Some worried that Santos wanted to cede too much control to students, while others felt he wanted more work from them on their own time than was reasonable. “I think they felt, Are you saying I am not pushing myself enough already?” says Candace Thomas-Rennie, a guidance counselor at Leadership whom Santos hired in his first year as principal. “That’s insulting for a veteran who has the results to back up their own practice.”
It’s an unfortunate truth that even the best implementation model may “leave some teachers behind” (like the 20 percent who left after Santos’s first year). The question we have to ask is whether the ends justify the means. Personally, I think fluidity in the teacher job market–for example, when teachers move schools because a new leader is bringing in an approach with which they disagree–is okay. Teaching is an unusually rigid job market in which many teachers will not consider leaving their school no matter what. No principal should strong-arm his staff into a new initiative in year one, but if the vision and implementation is solid, I don’t think we should grieve over a high turnover rate.
The author chronicles Santos’s young dean’s slow but steady attempts to get teachers to shift they way they thought and talked about discipline:
She also coached teachers on how to use language that set a welcoming rather than punitive tone. “As opposed to, ‘You’re late, sign this late log,’ it’s, ‘Hey, this class is not complete without you — I need you to be here,’ ” Dunlevy says. But she frequently felt the staff had not yet had enough time to internalize the philosophy. “A teacher would say, ‘I need you to restore this kid,’ ” she says, “as if it was my job to fix this kid, instead of what was supposed to be happening, which was the teacher making an effort to repair the relationship.” She recognized that it takes work for teachers to interrupt a classroom lesson to step outside with a troublesome student, or to ramp up the psychological support they offer. ‘It’s a big ask,” she says. “And they’re working incredibly hard to begin with. I get it.”
Carolina Ibáñez, a Spanish teacher at Leadership, said she always tried to engage with students one on one but acknowledged that if there was a conflict, sometimes she “really did not want to have the conversation.” For her, the challenge of restorative justice entailed internalizing that “being a teacher means addressing more than what’s in the book. To get to the book, you really have to address the child’s emotional state first.” Even more challenging, Dunlevy says, the shift requires teachers to rethink the very concept of justice, rejecting a model of punishment in which most were trained and most likely raised.
It’s great that the Times isn’t interested in a miracle school-discipline turnaround story, and the subjects interviewed willingly concede the difficulties of implementing restorative practices in challenging school environments.
Santos is far from ready to consider his tenure a success; much of his staff still hasn’t been trained. “Sixty-four suspensions, that’s still a lot,” he says. The school still labored under chronic absenteeism rates that were higher than the citywide average and college-readiness rates that lingered below the average. While studies have shown that restorative practices curb suspensions, research on their influence on test scores and grades is inconclusive.
Santos remains committed to restorative practices, though he rarely discussed them without acknowledging how trying they could be. “Let’s say you met with a group of students for an hour, and you think there’s been major progress — but then one of the kids gets on social media and just destroys everything you’ve attempted to do,” he says. “And then you have to circle again. Because what are you going to do, let them fight? Suspend everybody? You need to circle, and keep circling, because what’s the alternative?”
There isn’t all that much in this article that’s new to those who’ve been following the recent debates in school discipline. A school goes all-in on implementing restorative practices; it’s hard, it’s frustrating, and it takes a long time. Ultimately, the school sees progress.
That’s what we’re likely to get from the implementation of restorative practices: something that’s flawed but better than the alternative. What our leaders need to decide is whether that’s worth the trouble. I think it is.