Strengthening relationships to improve school culture

Issue: Volume 95, Number 12

Posted: 4 July 2016
Reference #: 1H9d2b

Concerned at the number of students being stood down and suspended, Tawa College began exploring the use of restorative practice in 2009, and it continues to contribute to an improved culture for both students and staff at the school.

Tawa College principal Murray Lucas credits the use of restorative practice with improving the school’s culture in recent years.

The aim of restorative practice is to increase learning and engagement by improving relationships. It strives to maintain the mana of all parties in a conflict by building strong relationships between teachers and students, and by addressing problem behaviour before it escalates.

Worried about the number of students being stood down and suspended, and the fact that Māori and Pasifika students were overrepresented in this group, the school began looking at how restorative practices could help in late 2009.

The college was already working on strengthening connections with students and whānau, but was also looking at what other schools were finding successful.

When asking about restorative practices, the school was introduced to the Ministry of Education’s Mark Corrigan, who was already working in some secondary schools in the lower North Island helping to implement restorative practice. Mark was a big influence and inspiration in laying the foundations of restorative practice at Tawa College and was able to introduce the college to other experts in the field.

Murray supports Everett M Rogers’ Diffusion Model of Innovation, developed in 1962. Under this model, 20–30% of staff need to be trained, enthusiastic and participating in an innovation such as restorative practice to ensure the concept is then adopted within school culture; this ratio of staff has grown considerably since 2009 and the practice is working well at the college.

Creating a safe environment

It takes time to become an effective restorative practice coach, facilitator, or coordinator, and to build a school restorative practice implementation team. A lot of training is required, but in practice most of the learning comes from experience.

Murray explains that a necessary element in implementing and developing restorative practice is trust – trust between students and teachers, teachers and teachers, teachers and parents – and this sometimes includes the wider community.

A good example of how important trust is came from a restorative practice process called ‘the pointy-end conference’. In an incident five years ago, a girl hit another girl at lunch time.

Previously this would be viewed as gross misconduct and suspension or stand down would follow. Now, first and foremost, it’s about making sure all people are heard. Murray explained that the girl’s pastoral history showed it was completely out of character for her to act this way and investigations indicated that the victim had goaded the girl.

Everyone at the conference was given the opportunity to tell their story and it was discovered that there had been a family disagreement going back many years. The grandmother of one of the girls said she was sorry for being a poor example and shook hands with the other girl’s grandmother, which was the catalyst for the girls to also move on.

Restorative practice creates an environment where people feel safe to discuss their feelings and can apologise. A number of successful, high-end conferences have proved the value of restorative practices to Tawa College at an early stage.

A significant amount of preparation goes into every restorative conference and this is a critical factor in achieving successful outcomes. Time and effort is required to ensure the right people are involved and the situation is understood, as much as it can be, including as much background information as possible on the parties involved.

The role of the facilitator is critical, as an essential element in restorative practice is objectivity. The facilitator must deal only in facts and must absolutely show no bias. In the first few years of restorative practice, the college was running up to seven conferences a term. However, with the improved culture, there are far fewer high-end incidents now and the number of conferences has reduced to a manageable two to three per term.

Keeping it small

Alongside the new approach to high-end incidents, the college has been committed to building the capacity of its staff to ‘keep the small things small’ by dealing with issues early and having all parties involved in the issue as part of the problem-solving and solution.

Teachers have problem-solving conversations with students that focus on the impact of the student’s behaviour on people (including themselves) and a plan for how this can be put right and not happen again. Sometimes this conversation may be mediated by another teacher. Students will now also come for help with inter-student issues where they want a mediated conversation to move things forward.

Restorative practice works well for Māori and Pacific Island students because it involves storytelling, which is an important part of their respective cultures. Murray talks about another school where a Samoan boy had hurt another student because he was angry his father had gone to jail.

At the restorative practice meeting, his mother broke down and told him that she didn’t want him to be like his father, but wanted him to be a role model for his younger siblings. This young man returned to school and became a mentor for young Samoan students.

Not a silver bullet

It doesn’t always work – a very small number of students won’t take part in restorative practice and you can’t force them. But the majority of students are happy to participate because they want the situation they have found themselves in to be resolved.

Murray says restorative practice isn’t a silver bullet and Tawa College still has stand-downs and suspensions. However, by enabling a fair process parents know that the college has done the best it can for their children before moving to more punitive action.

Restorative practice has played a significant role in changing the culture at the school to be more inclusive and respectful and in reducing the number of high-end incidents. This has been recognised by ERO, who reported a very calm atmosphere at the college.

Collective responsibility

The best advice Murray can pass onto other principals considering introducing restorative practice is that the entire leadership team must be on board. They must all make the commitment and ‘walk the talk’.

A restorative conversation is about all parties taking responsibility for their part in the problem. This means that sometimes a teacher or principal may need to apologise to a student. Murray says he has done this himself and rather than lose respect, as some might think, respect is actually increased.

Other Tawa schools have now introduced restorative practice and are working together sharing experiences and learning from each other.

Improving student achievement is the fundamental goal for all schools and Murray believes that restorative practice has provided the climate of trust and teamwork at the college that allows young people to achieve.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 5:40 PM, 4 July 2016

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