Want more culturally responsive instruction? Start with restorative practices.

In conversations with folks who are newer to restorative practices (RP), I often hear that they’re familiar with the idea of restorative circles – but that’s it. And while restorative circles are valuable and transformative, the reality is that RP isn’t just about community-building or reforming your school’s approach to discipline. Restorative practices shift teachers’ pedagogical understanding – and foster a culturally responsive, anti-racist approach to scholars, families and communities.   

I’m a middle-school language-arts teacher, and I’m lucky that RP has been a part of my teaching experience for my entire career. I want to share why implementing RP is the most important move administrators could make as instructional leaders – and how RP can play an important role in growing culturally responsive instruction in your school.

Restorative Practices and Culturally Responsive Teaching

Restorative practices and culturally responsive teaching go hand in hand. 

We often assume that our scholars can easily create community together, either because they are the same age or because their class has been moving through school together for years, but that’s not necessarily true. Any time we invite scholars into a new space, we have to set the tone for how they are going to move and exist within that space. And we know scholars learn best in spaces where they feel connected and seen. 

When I prepare a lesson, I always keep this question in mind: “How are scholars’ voices being raised in this moment and in this lesson?” RP is key to building an environment in which scholars feel comfortable sharing and collaborating. 

Culturally responsive teaching begins with understanding that our scholars are entering the classroom already carrying rich knowledge from their lived experiences. In teaching, my role is to leverage that knowledge as I introduce new material, so scholars feel like their identities are honored and see connections between the classroom and everything outside of it. Similarly, restorative practices are about drawing on scholars’ prior knowledge, acknowledging their lived experiences and emotions, and inviting them to bring all of themselves into our classroom community.

Here’s what this connection could look like in a given lesson: I might start with a “temperature check” as a circle question, just to get a sense of how folks are feeling, and start the class off on the right path. Then, I might transition to a circle question with an academic focus, asking scholars to jot down thoughts and then share out. And – bam! – we’re already integrating writing skills and reading skills, and I’m already discovering what knowledge my scholars have that can strengthen the lesson. At that point, we might even stay in the circle as we’re reading the first part of a chapter or exploring key terms.

When I build on restorative practices in my lessons, I notice that scholars are more willing to take risks, more willing to participate in discussion, more comfortable in group work and more likely to show learning in their assignments. 

Restorative Practices And Family Engagement

Restorative practices push us to approach families from a place of inquiry.

So much of the knowledge our scholars bring to the classroom comes from their families and communities. Like many teachers in my school, I was an outsider to Baltimore. I don’t share the racial identity or lived experience of many of my scholars. Approaching families with a restorative-practices framework leads to empathy and understanding, and that feeds my ability to deliver culturally responsive instruction. 

When we use a restorative framework in family interactions, it allows us to approach any interaction from a place of curiosity. Our first goal is always to understand each family’s unique situation – their strengths and their challenges. Restorative practices push us to ask: Are we listening? Are we really understanding what is being communicated?

Families often join us for community circles. They’ve learned that parent conferences are conversations. They’ve experienced restorative circles in which we work to resolve conflict with their scholars, and they’ve felt their own voices elevated in those circles. When families have seen me lead circles in action, they’re much more comfortable with me resolving a conflict involving their child. Instead of encouraging scholars to take matters into their own hands, they will say, “Did you talk to Mr. Oroke first? Did you have a circle?” 

I’m blessed to have amazing, wonderful relationships with families. When I hear about families struggling in relationships with teachers, they often express similar frustrations to those our scholars express in conflict: “That teacher just wasn’t listening to me.” When we’re using restorative practices, our whole approach is about listening. And by listening to families, we learn more about our scholars’ knowledge and background that we can build on in the classroom.

Restorative Practices and Anti-Racism

How can we use restorative practices to become more anti-racist? 

As a staff, we’ve been considering our next stage of our work with RP. We’re asking this question: “As we work to engage with our scholars and community using a restorative lens, what limits are we encountering?” That conversation has led us to questions about race and identity. We’ve realized that, as a staff, we’re not all comfortable having courageous conversations about race yet. The majority of our educators are white. The majority of our scholars are Black. We need to grow in that work. 

Because we have a strong foundation with restorative practices, we’re looking at ways to build on it with our PD around race and identity. We are looking to start with our own knowledge, experiences and emotions – and build from there.

As we see all of our teachers growing in their use of restorative language and restorative frameworks, another goal going forward is to build a team of scholars who are trained in leading restorative practices the same way we were trained. We want them to be able to take these skills with them to high school and into the community at large – and we want them to have the power to lead positive change.