When class discipline falls apart, circle up

This blog was originally posted on AFT Voices on May 15th, 2017

It was going to be one of the classes where getting anything done was going to be a challenge. I had a few students whispering, another one whose leg was bouncing 100 beats a minute, and I don’t remember how many were trying to peek at their phones. A fight had just occurred in the hallway between some of their classmates and friends, and annotating an article on gender roles and the media was the last thing on everyone’s minds.

I had a decision to make: either slog through the lesson with, no doubt, constant redirection and disengagement, or scrap it and get to the elephant in the room. My years of teaching helped me decide to stop the lesson.

“Circle up,” I said, and students moved their desks into a large circle as I got our talking and center pieces — objects we use to focus the conversation — from my desk. We spent the next 30 minutes discussing the fight, how we were feeling and larger ideas like why we fight, if anything can be done to stop it, and our triggers and our self-awareness when we are experiencing anger. It was powerful and what we needed so that we could continue learning, both socio-emotionally and content-wise. I even got back to the lesson for the last 20 minutes of class.


By now, most of us in education have heard of restorative justice, or what is called “restorative justice” or “restorative practices.” It’s been a welcome response to the terrible, harmful, racist “zero tolerance” practices that shaped many school districts’ response to student behavior.

Unfortunately, as happens with many ideas and practices embraced by education systems, some districts and/or schools are implementing restorative practices without understanding the philosophy, history and support needed to do it effectively. Here are some of the most common challenges:

The “bandwagon” brush-off

I’ve heard some in education question restorative practice as the next “trend” or “bandwagon” for schools to jump on. However, restorative practices, such as talking circles, have been practiced by indigenous communities across the world for thousands of years.

It takes time

Schools (or at least high schools) aren’t conducive to supporting restorative practices. Talking circles take time. Restorative conversations can take time. I’ve helped facilitate some talking circles that have lasted more than an hour (especially when there are multiple people involved). But restorative justice is important enough to make the time for it. Protecting time for counselors and/or teachers trained in restorative practices is integral.

Going through the process of asking a student to be accountable takes far longer than sending him or her out of the classroom and letting someone else deal with the problem. In some classes, I have held talking circles weekly. While that can feel like it’s taking time away from the curriculum, I’d argue that it adds to it, as students are practicing listening and reflecting skills. As in my anecdote above, I also believe that when we use restorative practices to get at the heart of what is really happening with our students, it can clear up emotional and intellectual space to make room for authentic academic learning.

Restorative Practices challenge us to confront what we believe about our students and power structures.

Do we believe that our students experience trauma and that their behaviors might be a result of it? Have we considered the ways in which we might be upholding structural racism or oppressive policies by turning to “quick fixes” to problems that demand more supportive responses? Do we believe in social justice? The school-to-prison pipeline?

Do we believe that our students experience trauma and that their behaviors might be a result of it?


What do we believe about justice? About various forms of privilege? Do we believe in “libratory” education (the attempt to empower students to critique and challenge unjust social conditions and build towards a just society)? Rarely are teachers encouraged to think about these big-picture issues, but they can be the most important questions in our work with young people, as they shape our practice whether we are conscious of them or not.

I believe in restorative justice because I’ve seen it work so many times. I believe in it as a broadly applied practice, but it’s my students who have taught me the difference it can make in their everyday lives. Stories like these are all the proof I need:

Taking it personally

Theresa came in very late (which had been the case several days in a row) and had created her own version of extra credit, which she expected me to take without question. When I told her we needed to talk about it, she exploded.

In 16 years of teaching, I’m not sure I have ever had a student respond in such a way. Not only did she call me every name in the book, she also spoke about my short comings as a teacher and a person. To add insult to injury, she did this in my room and then all up and down the hallway to anyone and everyone.

Instead of suspending her, we arranged for her to see our school social worker for the rest of the school year.

After security escorted her to the main office, the principal came to my room to ask if I wanted her suspended for the day, for the next day, or what — since I “believed in the restorative justice stuff.” I told him I was too upset that day to discuss it with my student, but that I didn’t want her suspended and preferred to have a restorative discussion facilitated by a co-worker.

During that conversation the next morning, she cried when I shared how it felt to hear her say those things. She was apologetic and acknowledged that she took out her anger on me. Most importantly, we got to the bottom of why she was late and what caused her angry outburst: Her mother had recently gotten a new job, and this young girl had been given more responsibility at home, watching after siblings and making meals for the family. The change was causing tension in her relationship with her mother.

With this understanding, instead of suspending her, we arranged for her to see our school social worker for the rest of the school year to help her work through the challenges at home.

Broken glass

A student who was often disruptive in class broke a vase of mine because he was messing around. He became very agitated and defensive at first when I pulled him into the hallway to discuss it. I asked him how he was going to fix it, and he responded that he was probably going to get suspended for a few days. When I said “no” and repeated the question with the emphasis on you, he asked if he could come in after school for a week and help me clean and tidy my room. I agreed that was a great idea.

I don’t know what would have happened if I had these two students suspended. But I do know that restorative practices kept them in my classroom, where I could continue to teach them and help them make it through to graduation and beyond.

To learn more about restorative practices, read this issue of the AFT’s American Educator.