Restorative Practices in schools – a Christian perspective

I would prefer a different title for this essay (“Interpersonal Offence Resolution  in schools – a Christian perspective” ).  The actual title will hopefully attract those with positive views on Restorative Practices.   The content of the essay I hope offers a somewhat different view of some aspects of restorative practices that may interest even those who have concluded against other forms of Restorative Practices, and this difference is reflected in my preferred title.

I have had long professional interest in criminal rehabilitation and a much longer personal interest in the Gospel and personal change.  I have drawn on much reading and reflection in offering the following perspectives about the resolution of interpersonal offences in schools and other communities.

Consider the following fictitious dialogue in a classroom one morning:

Teacher:     Max, can I see your homework please?

Max:            I didn’t do it.

Teacher:     Why not?

Max:            I don’t know… not motivated I guess..

Some other student:   He’s not motivated to do anything…!

Max:            shut up

Teacher:     Mind your own business, Lara.  What do you mean you’re “not motivated”?

Max:            (shrugs)

Teacher:     what do I have to do to get you to do some work, hey?  I told you that if you didn’t do it tonight you’d been staying in half-your lunchtimes until it’s done, didn’t I?

Max:            (nods)

Another student:  (jeering) poor Max!

Max:            shut up.

Teacher:     I’ll see you back here at 12:30 PM, got that?  Who else didn’t do their homework?

There are aspects of this interchange that could be handled much more restoratively and much less oppositionally.  Equally there are some valid disciplinary methods here as well.   I believe that where teachers can discern and distinguish between the negative and the positive aspects of such interchanges, their classrooms will be much friendlier and productive and their students more emotionally secure and positive.

I suggest that the good aspects of the above scenario include that the teacher:

  • is asking for homework and expecting the student to be accountable
  • has set logical consequences for home work not being done
  • is following through on promised consequences.

I suggest that the negative aspects of this scenario are that:

  • other students are making personal attacks on Max
  • the teacher does not see those personal attacks as significant and changeable
  • the teacher is not digging deeper to understand and address Max’s declared lack of motivation
  • the teacher’s words “what do I have to do to get you to do your homework?”  This rhetorical question may stem from the teacher labouring under the assumption that his role is to “make” students work – perhaps even against their will?   Also it perhaps suggests that the teacher is inclined to take some personal offence at the non-completion of homework, perhaps feeling that student non-compliance in regard to homework amounts to a subtle undermining his authority, control and personal efficacy in the performance of his professional duties.

In this essay I am advocating for the greater intentional use of direct dialogue to resolve personal offences.  I am asserting that offences at school occur a lot more often than may be generally recognized, both between teacher and student and between students, and that becoming more sensitive to and intentional about resolving these personal slights can have an enormous, cumulative and positive effect on the mood, harmony and achievement of and between students, teachers, school management and parents.   Such direct interpersonal offence resolution is often referred to as “victim-offender dialogue or conferencing” and forms the heart of a methodology more generally referred to as “restorative practices” or “restorative justice.”

Importantly, I am not advocating that restorative practices or victim-offender dialogue can take the place of logical consequences (including rewards and loss of privileges) where there is no personal offence involved

Understanding restorative practices is made very difficult, I believe, by the fact that it relates closely to the whole concept of justice and because the world as a whole simultaneously holds forth some very contradictory notions of justice.  Hence it is necessary to do some philosophizing, and my chief authority here – and hopefully for all Christian schools – is our Lord Himself…

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