There are eight sixth-grade students, their teacher, and the school principal here in the conflict room with two of us facilitators and two high school student leaders. We’ve come together for a Restorative Circle (RC). I’m celebrating before we’ve even begun, celebrating that the students felt empowered to call this RC, celebrating that the principal and teacher have taken time from their packed schedules to be here, to support a new approach to conflict in the school, one in which the purpose is to seek understanding, accountability, and action, instead of blame and punishment.
I celebrate that this RC is a result of an RC from a week ago in which we facilitators and high school student leaders met with the eight students, without the teacher and principal, to respond restoratively to painful words and painful actions that were exchanged between the students. Part of the action plan that came out of that RC was to ask the principal and teacher to join the students in an RC, the one we’re about to begin, to talk about the students’ collective unhappiness with how the principal had handled their conflict, to find understanding, accountability, and to create an action plan for attending to everyone’s needs.
The RC with the students last week was their first experience with the RC process. As far as I know none of them had even been told about RC’s prior to coming to ours. We did pre-circles with each of them in the morning in which we reviewed how the entire RC process works and gave them the choice to participate or not in the RC process. All chose to take part in the pre-circle and seven out of eight agreed to come to the main circle. We told all of them that, if in the time between their pre-circle and main circle, they changed their minds about coming or not coming to the main circle, that would be fine. Because we wanted the process to be as restorative as possible, we did as much as we could to support their full choice about whether or not to attend.
That afternoon Katherine and I, the two facilitators, went back to their classroom to meet those who still wanted to proceed with the main circle and go with them to the conflict room. As we had worked out with the teacher, those students in the class who had had pre-circles with us that morning joined us in a quiet corner of the room. We invited those who wanted to go ahead with the main circle to follow me to the conflict room and those who didn’t want to go ahead to stay and connect with Katherine about their decision. Katherine would then see if anything could be done to make it safe and supportive enough for those students to attend. If, after connecting with Katherine, they still didn’t want to attend, that would be fine and other high school student leaders would substitute in their place so the RC process could continue, something the students had consented to in the pre-circles. However, this was not necessary because all eight students followed me to the conflict room, another big celebration.
There was much giggling and whispering during the mutual comprehension and self-responsibility rounds of the main circle. With only a quick review of the RC process before beginning (note to self: go into more depth about the role of the facilitators and the questions they’ll be asking in each round), the students seemed to find the main circle process awkward; weird or stupid might be how they’d describe it (in fact one student was heard whispering, “This is stupid,” under her breath). And why wouldn’t they find it stupid? They had had no introduction to or input on the process. This was not their conflict process; this was another thing that adults were telling them to do. Sure, we had done our best to give them as much choice as possible, but how much are grade six students connected to a real sense of choice in a school setting?
Following is an example of some of the awkwardness of the main circle process (real names have been substituted with fictional ones):
Me: “Jenny, what would you like to say about what happened, and who would you like to hear you?”
Jenny: “Um… I’m sorry… (Giggle, giggle.)”
Me: “Who would you like to be heard by Jenny?”
Jenny: “I don’t know… um, Bobby. (Giggle, giggle.)”
Me: “Bobby, what did you hear Jenny say?”
Bobby, with a dubious and embarrassed expression: “She said… she’s sorry? (Giggle, giggle.)”
Me: “Jenny, is that what you wanted Bobby to know?”
Jenny, trying to stem the laughter: “Yes…? (Giggle, giggle, snicker.)”
I am happy to write that I felt fairly relaxed among the students’ awkwardness and puzzlement about what was happening. Not because I have a huge amount of confidence in my skills as a facilitator or mediator. Rather, I’m relaxing a little more each time into the RC process and its underlying principles, relaxing into knowing that I’m not in charge of how things unfold, of sorting out fairness, rightness, wrongness, punishment, reward, or any particular outcome. I’m coming to trust the container of the RC process, including the simple facilitator questions, to support the group to understand and take responsibility for as much as it can, and to move forward how it wants to move forward from that understanding and responsibility. Furthermore, I could relax even more with the knowledge that the high school students leaders, with help from us and the principal, are well on their way to setting up a restorative system for conflict in the school (the school is a kindergarten to grade 12 school). This means that students will have more opportunities to try out RC’s, more sense of choice about partaking in RC’s, more opportunities to give feedback and input on RC’s and the restorative system being set up, and more opportunities to find trust to speak their truth and be heard, to experience a deeper sense of shared p