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Restorative Practices Don’t Just Belong in the Classroom. Leaders Should Use Them, Too (Opinion)

Our diversifying high school in northern Colorado is navigating community fractures through the implementation of restorative practices, approaches aimed at building relationships and responding to conflict through dialogue and amends-making.

Restorative practices are predicated in a shared focus on resolving conflict through understanding, increasing mutual respect, and promoting personal accountability for one’s actions.

A transition toward a restorative approach can be challenging. Like many other schools, ours is recalibrating after tending to post-pandemic wounds. Rather than flippantly hurling restorative ideals as a bandage on impacted school culture, our administrative team made a conscious decision to first learn and then enact the philosophy of a restorative community working toward embodiment.

This commitment has profoundly impacted administrators’ personal and professional relationships, increasing our ability to introduce the method with authenticity.

School leadership teams must avoid merely riding the pendulum of education initiatives and instead embody the practices required to be utilized in classrooms to offer a genuine pathway to developing buildingwide initiatives. Restorative philosophies can transform schools and, in turn, communities when administrators acknowledge their interconnectedness with school culture. In short, who we are as administrators influences who we are as a school.

In this humble spirit, I share the following leadership moves we embody to lay the foundation for schoolwide restorative practice.

Commit to talking circles as a foundation for administrative team meetings

Our administrative team gathers twice per week for a total of five hours to clarify logistics around upcoming events, discuss relevant topics, review district initiatives, study school data, and problem-solve. Some may assume allocating time for soft-skills conversations would be minimally prioritized amid the flurry of pressing issues and the difficulty of corralling seven high school administrators in weekly conversation. However, our commitment toward modeling restorative practices leads us to dedicate a portion of our Monday administrative meetings to a three-round talking circle.

The first round engages a simple check-in rating, creating a barometer for the emotional and mental well-being of our team members. The second and third rounds focus on making connections to staff and student experiences. We ask questions like, “How would your high school peers describe you?,” “What is one pedagogical move you saw a teacher make last week that impressed you?,” or “In what areas are you looking forward to serving students and staff this week?” We pass a talking piece during each round with the expectation of listening with no distraction or side work.

For approximately 15 minutes each week, we create a foundation of transparency and trust that informs our interpersonal interaction as teammates and permeates our leadership identities. Our talking circle establishes a tone of calm and intentional listening, allowing us to know one another as people first. This practice reminds us to seek understanding, verbalize gratitude, and consider ourselves and our school community through an empathetic lens.

From a managerial standpoint, by engaging a talking circle each week, we also better understand how circles might fit within the future framework of our school now that we have firsthand experience with the values and challenges of this practice. Simply, if we are going to ask staff to circle up, we must circle up, too.

Resolve conflict through restorative conversation and peace building

Respectful disagreement is a part of refining ideas and challenging practice, and no group of impassioned, intelligent educators can co-exist without moments of tension or frustration. It is not the existence of conflict that is problematic; it is the manner through which it is negotiated that leaves an imprint on collegial relationships.

To create a safe and dignifying environment, adults must model and embody restorative approaches in their interactions with one another. Our administrative team has agreed to rely on restorative conversation aimed at peace building as a key coaching strategy we hope to embody.

First, we model the use of apology. When tempers flare, we take a break and take responsibility. Our hope is that by listening and acknowledging sincerely, our staff will see the value in pausing, apologizing when necessary, and humbly accepting responsibility when needed.

Next, we focus on dialogue and conflict resolution through forums that encourage developing greater understanding. For example, if a dissenting voice is raised during a staff meeting, administrative team members honor the voice publicly for an appropriate amount of time and then encourage follow-up conversations in a private, dignifying environment.

If we notice discord within a particular academic department, we facilitate problem-solving circles and invest in peace-building conversations to address disputes. The cycle of moving from regret to true contrition is as important for adult relationships as it is for student relationships.

Embodied leadership: an insistence on wholeness

As we navigate an increasingly polarized society, school leaders must embrace embodied forms of leadership. This leadership philosophy encourages school leaders to consider how their presence, actions, and words influence those they lead. Describing a holistic approach to leadership, “embodiment” recognizes the inextricable link between thinking, saying, being, and doing.

An administrator’s authenticity, emotional intelligence, and communication techniques will support an empowered school culture, but their absence will decay organizational culture, reinforce negative norms, and generate a ripple effect of staff and student disengagement.

School administrators play a crucial role in modeling restorative practices so these approaches become interwoven into every facet of school culture. With schools serving as essential communal contexts, embodied, restorative leadership creates generative healing spaces for schools and the communities of which they are a part.

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