I didn’t recognize my mother!

My mom and I were never able to be together for more than 15 minutes before we begin to argue. Not too long ago we were having a discussion about her marriage to my father. She said it was a very good marriage. I knew that she had been physically abused by my father and I was outraged, “How can you say that!!?”

I was just about to start arguing with her when I stopped and decided to use the skills I had been learning in the coaching program. I started to listen with the intention of “getting” her experience, not necessarily agreeing, but  fully understanding.

What I heard was very different from what I had been expecting.  My mother explained that when she was married to my father, her mother had told her that as long as the man comes home every night, has a good job, and provides a home and food for the family he is a good man. The phrase “domestic violence” was not even a part of people’s vocabulary. Women were just supposed to “grin and bear it.” So, while my father was earning money for the family, my mother went back to college. She made sure her two children were safe and stayed with my father until I was 16 years old and we were able to take care of ourselves. And she considered this a good marriage.

I could not believe that I could form such a different understanding of my mother who is now 84 years old.  From this conversation I felt more respect and appreciation for my mom. I could see her as a strong and powerful woman who took care of herself and her children in the best way she knew how. I valued the history lesson that she gave me by explaining the traditions and culture of her era.  My grandmother had experienced the same abuse cycle as my mother. It wasn’t until women started uniting as women that we started to get real social change.

Now when I ask her questions I use a restorative approach and she responds kindly. She does not feel that I am prejudging her, making her wrong. There is a whole new world of communication between us. We generally don’t argue any more. And this is especially meaningful to me because now she is showing signs of dementia and I want these last years to be good ones.

Michelle Curtis

Student Life Counselor, SEED Public Charter School

“You’re going to love Circles!”

At the end of each school year I invite my Biology students to write a letter to the incoming students next Fall telling them what to expect from this class, how to succeed, and what they think is memorable about the class.  The number one message they consistently write is “You’re going to love Circles.”

With Circles in the classroom students get to know and care about students they never would have spoken to before. The relationships they develop have significantly increased well-being and success in my classroom. A jock and a “crazy music guy” discover they both have a mom in the hospital and start supporting each other.

Circles make my job easier and more rewarding. I would never want to teach without doing regular Circles. I am grateful that I learned how to keep Circles and got coaching on how to implement them. Jane and my fellow learners were always there to support me over the bumps!

 

Samantha Spiegel

High School Biology Teacher, Garrison Forest School, Baltimore, MD

WHOSE ATTITUDE NEEDED CHANGING?

At the December, 2018 Restorative Coaching training we were asked to focus on a person with whom we would like to improve our relationship. A student I will call Caleb had been particularly bothersome to me and I decided to focus on him. He would arrive late to class, make a lot of noise entering class and speak in disruptive ways that took a lot of attention from me and the other students. I was not liking Caleb’s behavior and I realized that my go-to strategy had become to avoid him.  I thought he was deliberately trying to mess up my class and assumed that this was his way of trying to get attention for himself. I assigned another student to help him when he needed help because I didn’t want to work with him any more than necessary; I assumed that he could do the work if he wanted to. I also noticed that he was beginning to get some negative responses from other students in the class who were annoyed by his disruptions and they, I think, saw the negative way I was treating him as a model for how they should treat him.

Something in the December training led me to question my assumptions about Caleb and consider looking at him through a different lens.  I decided first to determine if he really could do the work or needed more help than I was giving him.  I quickly realized that he did indeed need more academic support and was probably feeling frustrated and hopeless about catching up, maybe thinking he didn’t belong as the others did. I chose to give him some support on the material from me personally during the class. I started to have an “open door” with him, inviting him to get more assistance from me.  I also decided to show some interest in him as a person;  I asked him some questions not directly related to school work and even called his home on his birthday to wish him a happy birthday. I wanted to tear down the wall between us and for him to know that he was a valued member of the class, that he belonged in my class as much as anyone else.

He was very receptive to this change in my behavior and attitude towards him and he and I have a relationship now which I would describe as warm, friendly and co-operative.  He is occasionally late to class but not as often and not so disruptive when he does enter. Yesterday, I chose to re-direct one of his behaviors that was not helpful in the classroom and he accepted the re-direction in a positive way.  This never would have happened two months ago.

I also see that the other students are more accepting and less rejecting of Caleb than they had been and I am glad to serve as a model to them of patience, kindness and acceptance as well as respect for diversity in learning needs and learning styles.

Vanessa Elliott

Middle School Science Teacher, formerly of SEED Public Charter School

Note: This story was co-written by myself, Jane McMahon, and the two participants in the Restorative Circle which I facilitated. It shows the depth of healing and connection that can occur with Restorative Practices. The names are changed for reasons of privacy. Both parties want to see the story shared.

“I didn’t know that an adult could have those feelings!”

Ms. Salzman, a high school math teacher, and Diamond, an 11th grader, had been having conflicts intermittently for seven months, since the start of the school year. A conference was held to talk things out, but both parties still felt tension in the relationship and the teacher believed that a serious altercation could still easily erupt between them.  A Restorative Circle was planned and both Diamond and Ms. Salzman were willing to participate.

After a number of rounds of sharing perspectives and experiences Diamond said that she understood Ms. Salzman’s intentions better now and she would try not to “over-react” in the future.  Ms. Salzman said she welcomed Diamond’s feedback and questions if something Ms. Salzman said or did “triggered” Diamond. If Diamond was unsure of what Ms. Salzman meant in a specific situation, Ms. Salzman was glad to clarify her purpose and intention, which were to support learning, orderliness and co-operation in the classroom.

It looked like we were moving towards an agreement with which both would feel comfortable and that might be helpful for their relationship.

At this point Ms. Salzman said, “But I am not sure that this will really work.  We had a similar agreement in the past, but then Diamond would get upset about something I said and bring up every event from the last seven months that she was unhappy about, showing me that she is not able to leave the past behind.”

I said that when something from the past is brought up again, it means that the past incident is not fully resolved. I invited Diamond to share one incident from the past with Ms. Salzman that was still upsetting to her. She spoke of an incident when she had the belief that Ms. Salzman had called her a “dog” in the midst of a classroom disturbance. I asked Diamond what this meant to her and Diamond shared that it reminded her of how her dad, who abandoned her when she was six years old, used to say mean and hurtful things to her. She said it also brought up memories of videos she has seen about how white people treated black people during slavery.  (Diamond is black, Ms. Salzman is white). “They treated black people like animals and called them animals.”

When I asked Ms. Salzman how she felt hearing about Diamond’s experience of this incident she said she was sad and shocked. I knew from the pre-circle that Ms. Salzman was very clear in her mind that she had never used such a word in class and couldn’t understand why six months later Diamond was still upset about something that Ms. Salzman was sure hadn’t happened. Now Ms. Salzman’s face and body language indicated that she “got” Diamond’s experience.

Then I asked Ms. Salzman to say what was going on with her at the time of this incident. Ms. Salzman shared how hard she has worked to become a skilled science teacher and how much effort she puts into each lesson and figuring out the best way to explain things to the students. She works very long hours because she is passionate about giving the students the best learning experience possible as well as meeting all of the expectations of the school. During the class in question, the students wouldn’t stop talking and refused to listen to what she had to say.  Ms. Salzman felt unappreciated and disrespected as well as hurt and discouraged. Now it was Diamond’s turn to be shocked. “I didn’t know that an adult could have those feelings!  Slowly, Diamond added, “I wonder if that is true of all adults.”

Post-script

Diamond described this circle afterwards as “the best meeting she has ever had” and two months later the difficult interactions between Ms. Salzman and Diamond, which disappeared immediately after the conference, have not re-surfaced.  Diamond greets me happily whenever she sees me and has said she would love to see this process grow in schools.

Ms. Salzman and Diamond Smith

High School Science teacher and student, SEED Public Charter School

How do I empower my student to be the creator of his own life?

 A student who felt that he had worked really hard on developing his character and had been to previous theater festivals was very disappointed that he didn’t get an award. “Can you tell me what I did wrong?”, he asked. Instead of answering as I usually would, and suggesting what he might have done differently, I listened empathetically to his story. He reviewed how he had prepared and then he came up with the idea to talk to students who had won awards to find out what they had done to get ready.  He made mental notes of what they said. Then he decided to speak with the judges to find out how they make their decisions.  He discovered that some things are qualities that are always part of the decision and other things change from year to year. In a day’s time he had both learned a huge amount about how theater happens and, more importantly, that he could be the creator of his own process and find the answers to questions that are important to him. This never would have happened if I had answered his question and told him what to do. I am so glad that I let him have the power of his own story.

Randee Grant

Overnight Manager, SEED Public Charter School

I didn’t realize how much difference my intention to fully connect could make

“I had a conversation with a student that was very different from what I would have done before the coaching program. Instead of multi-tasking and immediately trying to figure out how to fix the student’s problem, I concentrated on being present to what he had to say and understanding his experience without judging it. As a result, I got to know him, his challenges at school and his family concerns in a way that I never had before. He really opened up to me. His body language showed me he really appreciated the connection we made and weeks later I can continue to see the impact of my focused attention on our relationship. He seeks me out before and after class is much more cooperative in class.” 

Danielle Jones

ELA Teacher, formerly at SEED Public Charter School

Inquiring not telling: This stuff is powerful!

A young man from my school is perceived as a bit different from other students. He appears a bit socially awkward and has a difficult time at our school in interactions with his peers. At a recent festival where students from many schools were gathered, he expressed his concerns. I listened, really listened, to him talk about what was bothering him. I asked him open-ended empowering questions to support his discovering what he wanted to do, what his goals were. In responding he just seemed to open up and bloom. He decided that he wasn’t going to worry about other students judging him, teasing him or calling him “nerdy.” He wanted to get to know students from other schools all over the United States and followed through on this intention. Because I approached him as a careful listener and a caring partner, he developed a new sense of who he was and what he wanted to do.  When I read the pages in our binder and practiced the exercises at our Saturday trainings, I didn’t get how important those simple changes could be for the children we work with daily, how quickly change can happen. It’s phenomenal, you don’t have to wait a year, it empowers them in such a profound way.

Randee Grant

Overnight Manager, SEED Public Charter School

How could listening make such a difference?!

Daniel is one of those students whose behavior can really get me going. He is absent a lot and doesn’t do much work assigned in class even when he is there. Yesterday he arrived 40 minutes late and was talking on his cell phone while telling me “You don’t even teach us!” This particular complaint is usually a huge trigger for me and, to be honest, in that moment I felt ready to explode. I would often start yelling back at Daniel pointing out all the things he is doing wrong and dismiss him and his complaint without taking it in.

This time, after 3 sessions of Coach Training I thought to myself, “It’s time to try handling this situation in a different way.”  So I said, “Daniel, are you saying you think I don’t teach you?”  Daniel continued to talk on his phone and said “Get away!” I came closer and I said, “No, I really want to understand you.  You think I don’t teach you.  Is that what you think?” Then he elaborated why he thought that – that he didn’t follow what was going on, and I didn’t try to teach him the material. After some more repetitions and inquiry into why he thought “You don’t teach me” I noticed Daniel was much more subdued and quiet.

At this point, I calmly shared with him my observation that he didn’t have his book out, he didn’t have the relevant assignment on his desk, that he had arrived 40 minutes late and missed the time when I had explained how to do the assignment, and that he was still talking on his cell phone while shouting “You don’t teach me.”

“I really do want to teach you.  I want you and all the students to be successful, and when students don’t do their part, when they don’t give me a chance to explain how to do the problems, how am I supposed to feel about that?” To my surprise, he seemed genuinely to be listening to me now.

After this encounter, I was so proud of myself for seeing him as a student who wanted to learn and not as “my enemy.”  I was so pleased that I didn’t “flip out” in response to his outburst. I was thrilled that I was able to respond to his shouted complaints with compassion and listening, for being able to show in my actions that I did care about him even though his choices made it hard for me to be the teacher I want to be.

The next day, for the first time in a long, long time Daniel came to class on time and continued his work without complaint.

And, regardless of Daniel’s next choices, I am celebrating a breakthrough for myself.  I understand now that I can feel deeply provoked by a student’s behavior and still find a way to draw upon my training and practice that allows me to respond to their anger and frustration with curiosity and openness. I can choose to be a caring presence in their life even when they express their pain and challenges in a way that stimulates anger and frustration in me. I am so excited about this growth in me and can’t wait to see what other skills I will be developing.

Kerwin Greenaway

Department Head and Science Teacher, SEED Public Charter School

Connection and openness make all the difference

Applying what I learned in the program, I was able to be more open and take the initiative in having a ‘difficult’ conversation with someone. The result was a much better connection between us and settling some misunderstandings that we weren’t able to resolve earlier. I have a greater awareness of the importance of openness and initiative and I am very appreciative of this.”  These skills have also made a big difference in my relationship with my parents.  Our conversations are more enjoyable and I am not as quick to leave my parents’ home as I was before taking this training.

Matthew Brown

Student Life Counselor, SEED Public Charter School

“I talk but you just don’t listen.”

Although I have only been able to attend one four-hour workshop and a one-hour group coaching session, those hours with the Restorative Coaching Program have profoundly impacted all of my relationships.  One example that is especially meaningful to me is how I have related to Chris, a friend of 13 years.  Before the training I found our conversations so aversive that I would frequently not answer the phone when he called or else pretend that I was busy and didn’t have time to talk.  We used to have a running joke about how I rarely answer the phone when he calls. And now the conversations which I used to experience as draining, are a pleasure that we both look forward to.

In the past even though Chris is only one year younger than me, and is actually more successful professionally and financially he would say “I look up to you as a big brother” and that I am a source of wisdom for him. I took that “responsibility” seriously.  I figured if I’m the big brother and he wants my wisdom, it must be my responsibility to give him wise advice and tell him what to do.  That seemed to be what he was asking for and yet we frequently ended up in conflict and Chris would say accusingly “I talk but you don’t listen!”

In the Coaching program I learned that most people do not want to be told what to do and the most important role of a coach is to be a really good listener.  I have come to realize that I can’t figure out what is best for Chris because I am not him, I don’t bring his life experience to the situation and I am not the one who has to live with the impact of the choices he makes. I have also come to understand that most people don’t want to be told what to do; they value their autonomy and want support in their figuring out the best decision for them. Now I use active listening instead of advice-giving to help the speaker to figure out what is important to them and how they would like to handle a situation. I am so grateful for the difference this has made for me in all of my relationships.

Thomas Epps

Enrollment Coordinator, SEED Public Charter School

“What I learned from the Restorative Coaching Program has made a tremendous difference in my one-on-one conversations with students whose behavior in the classroom challenges me. I understand them and can relate to them so much better now, and vice versa. These skills have also been a tremendous resource for the improvement of my relationship with my eight-year old daughter. This has helped so much with the quality of family life that my wife, my daughter and I all experience.”

Kerwin Greenaway - short - one-on-one impact

Department Head and Science Teacher, SEED Public Charter School

I no longer dread talking with upset parents!

“Restorative coaching has helped me greatly in talking with parents and guardians who sometimes approach me about disciplinary issues with an angry, aggressive or blaming manner. I have learned how to listen compassionately and with genuine warmth and openness without necessarily agreeing with their perspective.  I am now able to live in accord with the mantra “Understanding someone is not the same as agreeing with them.” I feel much more confident of my ability to de-escalate intense interactions and have even had situations where parents voluntarily apologize for their upset behavior afterwards and thank me for the care I have given their family. They get that I really do care about them and their student even as I explain what we can and cannot do for them.”  And if you don’t believe that this change has really made a difference in all my relationships, just ask my husband!

Rashida Holman-Jones

Director of Family and Community Engagement, SEED Public Charter School School

Expressing what is true and important to me, in ways others can really take in.

Since I have been a part of the Restorative Coaching Program, I have become aware of how frequently I have judgments of people’s behavior. I learned that judging is what our mind automatically does; what matters is what I do with those judgments. When I express them directly as judgments in “raw” unprocessed form I destroy my chances of having the quality of connection I want. What has been so incredibly helpful to me is to learn how to identify and express the more gentle feelings and needs beneath the judgments. This has led to so much more connection and understanding between me and the people I most care about in my life.  This training is so valuable – it has changed my whole trajectory in how I relate to others.

Barbara Owens

Teacher, Pastor

And this is what Barbara’s husband has to say about the changes he has noticed.”

“As a result of the training, Barbara has exhibited an expansion of her already great capacity for empathetic listening.  She is much more aware of not only how the person she is engaging is experiencing the conversation, she is also more in-touch with how she is experiencing the moment as well. The clarifying questions, and “checking-in” techniques have become more than a strategy, but a routine part of daily dialogue.”

Rev. Marvin J. Owens, Jr

National Sr. Director of Economic Programs, NAACP

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