Connection — a fundamental need that humans desire. As the fourth principal of a school in a year, the ultimate goal was that everyone felt connected to our school, to each other and to the work of meeting the needs of all kids.
We had to stand in conviction of how we were going to communicate, connect, and treat each other. As the leader, those convictions came in my modeling, my interactions, and the systems put in place: systems that supported intentional, authentic connections for the adults in the building, for the students, and for the families and community members.
Leading with a Restorative Practices approach helped to keep the focus on improving and repairing relationships between people and communities. To build healthy communities, increase social capital, decrease undesirable behavior, repair harm and restore relationships.
The first year we focused on adult connection- our experiences, our beliefs, our biases, our unconscious and conscious decisions made daily and how our experiences, beliefs and biases impacted those decisions. As the leader, I felt a moral imperative to intentionally provide space for reflection in order for us to restore positive communication patterns and ultimately connect with each other.
Restorative practices provided a structure for our staff meetings, for our teaming conversations regarding problems of practice, for data conversations, for one on one conversations, providing feedback to each other or just touching base. Our practices put voice equity at the center. There was no status. All voices had the power to influence our school community.
As a teacher working in this type of environment, I was able to support student voice equity and empowerment.
A classroom community is not constructed by a single moment or random event. Instead, it should be viewed as a series of intentionally planned, impactful activities and conversations that create an environment of vulnerability and shared emotional risk. An environment where, ultimately, students are willing and eager to learn with and from one another.
We read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs at the beginning of the year. It was a heavy text. I knew that it could trigger students. I was asking myself and my students to take emotional risks.
I planned an introduction activity where students reflected on a song from their childhood. Once they identified their song, they wrote about the emotions they experienced during the reflection. I had them find a partner in the room, sing the song to their partner, and share the importance of the song and the emotions it evoked. They laughed and smiled. They affirmed each other.
We moved into a circle, and I opened the floor for students to share their songs and stories with the whole class, and to my surprise, my students asked me to share a song from my childhood. A warmth embraced the room, and I could tell that it connected us all.
We needed a moment to be vulnerable with each other without the added risk of academic expectations and the pressure that sometimes comes from talking about difficult topics. Yet, the activity gave way for students to be able to discuss the harsh realities present in Jacob’s text. Active and intentional listening allowed us to push each other when ideas seemed vague, question each other when ideas or comments left an unintended impact, and acknowledge the emotions that some comments forced into the space.
Yes, our song activity helped transform our lessons and reading of the text into a personal and collective journey. I mean, how could it not? Community building, one of Restorative Practices core tenants, is about convincing students to “show up” in a space that they create together, and once they show up and are received, they continue to show up again and again.
There’s nothing more important than having students, staff and families who feel connected and trusted and who want to come to share the space of a school community. The most influential conversations I remember having with students is when tragedy struck their lives, most days they would still come to school. Many of us would say, “We are so glad to see you!” with a hug and smile and then add, “Why are you here?! Do you need time, it’s okay to be with your family at home.” Every response was the same, “This is my family. I want to be here.”
Leaders and teachers, we invite you to consider how you will intentionally create a connected environment where deep trust is built. Students and staff will take risks academically, socially and emotionally beyond what you could ever imagine when they feel safe and connected. That is where growth happens and achievement begins.