When the bell rings at the start of class, not every student takes heed. Often, many continue their own conversations. But sixth-grade science teacher Christopher Martin has found a way to transition students quickly from sports, music and celebrities to the solar system, electricity and tectonic plates – whatever his “do now” objective focuses on.
Without saying a word, Martin uses positive classroom management techniques. Every day, when students walk into his classroom, they hear four songs, ranging from jazz to modern rock, that help them focus on their daily objectives. The final notes of the last song, rather than a bell or a raised voice, put his class in motion. Other teachers in his building also focus on positive techniques to keep students inside the classroom, instead of using punitive approaches that force them out of school.
“I really don’t think punitive punishment is effective,” Martin said. “Restorative coordinators have done a lot to put the staff on board and train us. … I can do a lot within my classroom, but it’s strengthened by other teachers in the system.”
Martin works at Skinner Middle School in Denver, Colo., where all teachers began using restorative approaches more than five years ago. By focusing on the root of the behavioral issues and avoiding “zero tolerance” practices that remove students from classrooms, often for minor infractions, Skinner’s teachers are helping to the end the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.” The school has seen a decrease in student suspensions and expulsions after adding restorative approaches. Too often, research shows, suspensions and expulsions lead to students falling behind, dropping out, and eventually funneling into the juvenile justice system.
Research also shows that a disproportionate number of students who end up in the pipeline are students of color, students with disabilities, or students who identify as LGBT. And, according to a recent U.S. Education Department study, almost half of the preschoolers suspended more than once are Black students between the ages of 4 and 5. Meanwhile, this fall, for the first time, non-White students are expected to outnumber White students in U.S. public schools.
“With that being said, we need to ramp up our cultural competency so that teachers can understand the students that they serve,” said NEA Executive Committee Member Kevin Gilbert. “We’re working tirelessly with educators to get ahead of this issue to implement restorative practices because it’s the right thing to do.”
This past spring, NEA partnered with the Advancement Project and others to release a toolkit for educators who want to adopt restorative practices and policies. Since then, several of the nation’s school districts have announced their embrace of restorative practices. Among the areas that have recently changed their policies are all schools in Montgomery County, the Broward County School District in Florida, and Los Angeles Unified.
See the Difference
Step inside Georgene Fountain’s music classroom in Montgomery County, Maryland, and notice the signs hanging across her walls – all sport positive statements, used by Fountain to avoid negative thinking.
“I need to hang it up around the classroom, whatever that positive statement is, because I’ve got to change the way that students are spoken to,” said Fountain who teaches at Captain James Daly Elementary School. It’s about building healthy relationships between educators and students, a touch point in restorative practices.
Like Fountain, author and educator Larry Ferlazzo sometimes views a statement that helps him remain positive. A piece of paper, attached to his computer screen, contains a couple sentences, saying:
“My student is not giving me a hard time. My student is having a hard time.”
Hear the Difference
Here’s a common scenario: A student blurts out an objectionable noise while the teacher writes on the chalkboard. The teacher asks who made the noise, but no one says anything. Is there an alternative to punishing the entire class?
When this happens to Ferlazzo – who teaches English, social studies and international Baccalaureate classes at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif. – he calmly tells his class that he doesn’t enjoy being disrespected. He then asks them for a commitment, saying: Don’t do that again. Sometimes, however, students may make the same disruption on a different day.
“[I] ask students to consider the impact their actions have on others, and ask them to try to work out problems among themselves,” Ferlazzo said. “In my teaching career, this has almost always resulted in stopping the inappropriate behavior and, I hope, students gaining some added maturity.”
Maryland’s Fountain approaches a student in the same fashion. Rather than sending them to the principal’s office, she asks: what harm did this cause, and how can you fix it to make it right? These questions are at the heart of restorative justice: They require educators to listen to students, and students to be empathetic to the people around them.
“They just have to stop and think,” she said. “It’s a whole way of changing how they think of themselves and how they act at school and how their behavior affects others.”
Back at Skinner Middle School in Denver, when the music ends, the work begins – and it may not always look the way you would expect. A student might be leading the discussion, not teacher Christopher Martin, who often turns over his classroom and his curricular content to students. It holds them accountable for their own learning and positively impacts their behavior, since they build healthier relationships with one another while also viewing the teacher as an individual.
Ferlazzo includes three kinds of choices in his classrooms – organizational, procedural and cognitive choice. Organizational choice allows students the opportunity to pick their own seats, for instance, and gives them a say in choosing the leader of a small group project. Procedural choices include choosing among homework assignments or projects, say a book versus a poster. Meanwhile, cognitive choice enables students to develop their own ideas for homework assignments, so long as they relate to the topic.
Ferlazzo mentions that, according to educator William Glasser, ninety-five percent of classroom management issues arise as a result of students attempting to acquire power. Naturally, sharing power by giving students more choices will then lead to a more stable and positive classroom environment.
“I was a community organizer for 19 years before I became a teacher,” said Ferlazzo, who notes that building relationships, also a restorative approach, is the most important thing an educator can do when it comes to positive classroom management. “A key lesson I learned was that power isn’t a finite pie. If I share the power I have, that doesn’t mean I’ll have less.”
Teachers are human, too. And like all humans, they make mistakes. “There is no reason why we shouldn’t apologize when we do,” Ferlazzo said.
Martin feels the same: If he makes a mistake, he tells the class what he did. Additionally, he shares things about his personal life and interests, so that he comes off as a real person. In turn, it models the way his students behave, he said.
Like everyone else, teachers go through days that are more challenging than others. Just stay focused, says Ferlazzo.
“No matter how bad your day has gone, if you just go back and do good teaching, it will get better.”