Restorative practice: Placing relationships at the heart of teaching

Written by: Mark Finnis | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Every day, in lots of different ways, our students ask: do I matter to you, do you notice me, do I belong here? Mark Finnis looks at why relationships are the most important thing in teaching and offers some tips

Restorative practice describes a way of being, an underpinning ethos, which enables us to build and maintain healthy relationships. It provides a strong framework within which we can promote a whole-school ethos founded on the importance of relationships.

This includes a range of approaches to managing conflict and tensions in a way that repairs harm and mends relationships if and when those relationships do break down.

I am sure that few teachers would disagree that the relationships they have with their students matter, but I know that many feel they do not have the time to invest in them thanks to the stresses of our results-focused system, our crowded classrooms and our overcrowded curriculum.

What is more, relationships are both simple and hard in equal measure, so it is easy to direct our focus onto the more tangible areas of school life – such as results – and, in doing so, fall into the trap of forgetting that not everything we count counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.


Do we hit the target but miss the point?

After all, it is said often enough that the quality of a student’s learning cannot exceed the quality of their teachers. But I suggest that neither the quality of the teaching nor of the learning can exceed the quality of the relationship between the teacher and the learner.

Every day, in lots of different ways, our students ask: do I matter to you, do you notice me, do I belong here? And, if we aren’t careful – because actions speak louder than words – the answer will be seen in the behaviours that play out. It is not always what we say or what we do, but how we do it and how students end up feeling.

Schools that explicitly put a greater focus on proactively building and maintaining relationships will find that there will be fewer occasions when relationships break down and, therefore, less need for them to be repaired.

Getting involved earlier in the life of a problem will also help. For children to feel able to talk, you need adults who are willing to listen. When we have adults who are unwilling to listen, we end up with children who are unwilling to talk.

Such an undertaking needs everyone to act explicitly, across the whole school, with these goals in mind. This entails keeping a close eye on our own behaviours and habitual practices – which speak louder than any list of values on a lanyard, poster or school website and ensure we treat everyone with respect.

We must involve people in decisions that affect them, listen actively to one another, be empathic, and deal with conflicts and tensions in a way that seeks to repair harm and sustain relationships. This is the core of restorative practice.


Not replacing traditional approaches

Restorative practice is not about replacing traditional behaviour management systems in our schools. It is certainly not about being soft or turning a blind eye to poor behaviour, no matter what the Daily Mail might say.

It is about elevating the culture of a school or organisation so that people are pulled in, not pushed out, about fostering a greater sense of community and a communal ownership of control and fear, about encouraging a willingness to act in the right way for the right reasons.

In this way, a restorative school is so much harder to create than a culture of compliance. Compliance is easy, encouraging as it does an abnegation of responsibility by both parties: “Follow the rules or I’ll kick you out,” is easy to say. “Fine, I don’t want to do what you say, so I’ll be kicked out,” is easy to do. But here we miss an opportunity to create something better.

Although its roots are clearly in restorative justice – as a way of repairing the harm done to the community and relationships within it – restorative practice has the bolder ambition of proactively developing the sense of community and seeking to increase the social capital between people and across the school and, from there, into the wider community.


What you do, what you are

Put simply, restorative justice is what you do; restorative practice is what you are. “Without relatedness, no work can occur. Connect before content.” (Block, 2008).

Never underestimate the power of this simple premise. Do you connect with students, their families and colleagues at the outset, before you go anywhere near the content? If so, how?

If we are not careful, we put our focus on the content and forget to simply connect. Our students need connection as well as the important content. The connection creates the space to then be able to explore the content. Connections can happen by themselves, but wouldn’t you want them to happen intentionally?

Remember the old joke about the pub on the moon that shut down because there was no atmosphere? How does your classroom compare? If your office was a coffee shop, would you be a regular? Having people leave your presence feeling better than when they arrived is one thing, but what about helping people feel better just by coming through the door?

The start of the day as students arrive can often be the busiest and most unsettled part of the school day. Getting involved earlier in the life of any problems can often help you have fewer problems later. Be more proactive and less reactive.

I often think that when I am reactive, it is emotional and not thought-through; when I am responsive, it is regulated and thought-through. If I am not regulated with my own emotions, I will never be able to help regulate a student’s.


Temperature check

Greeting students at the school gate with a smile (remember, smiling at students is good for you both), a “Good morning”, or a “How are you?” will give you a quick temperature-check to see how their day might work out.

Most of all, it is important that we start the day on a positive note.

Waiting for students at the classroom door gives us another opportunity to connect, saying their name correctly – that’s the subtle difference – and remembering things about them.

Not only do smiles make us feel good, they have the tendency of getting passed on to others. A simple positive greeting can have an impact on all the things we want to improve: learning, behaviour and, most of all, belonging.


Modelling

If you are not modelling what you are teaching, then you are teaching something different. Modelling is like breathing. You cannot not do it. You are modelling behaviour for your students, whether you mean to or not.

So, if you are not modelling what you are teaching, then you are not really teaching what you think you are. Students see whether you are showing warmth and respect toward them and to the other students and adults in your school. Often, they will model their own behaviour after your behaviour, albeit subconsciously.

Common sense? Sadly, common sense is not always that common.

  • Mark Finnis is an Independent Thinking Associate and one of the UK’s leading exponents of restorative practice. With experience working with schools, local government agencies and social services, he now helps organisations adopt restorative practices. His book Independent Thinking on Restorative Practice (Independent Thinking Press, 2021) is available now priced £9.99: https://bit.ly/3a8dEft


Further information & resources

  • Block: Community: The Structure of Belonging, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008.


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