Once I really learned about Restorative Practices, it did not take much for me to buy in. I already had a restorative mindset. I may have entered education accidentally but every move I’ve made from the time I entered has been intentional. From day one, I immediately saw the need for black male educators, particularly at the elementary level. That is why I made it a point to work exclusively with grades PK-6. To date, one of my proudest moments was being able to implement Restorative Practices as an assistant principal. It allowed me to do right by all kids. So the one thing I keep wondering is why aren't more black educators embracing Restorative Practices
Matthew Lynch, an educational consultant in Virginia, wrote an article for Education Week that was published on August 8, 2016. The article titled, Black Boys in Crisis: The School-to-Prison Pipeline, details how current practices in schools, particularly in regard to how black boys are disciplined, contribute to the school to prison pipeline. The article points out that black students make up 39 percent of students suspended in Florida but black students only account for 23 percent of the public school population in Florida. When you dig deeper, black students make up just 27 percent of the public school population in Orange County but account for 51 percent of the students suspended. This is just an example from one state but when you explore the data from across the country, the numbers are relatively similar.
After I read the article, the first thing that came to mind was not that we have a race problem. Do not get me wrong, race is a major factor but we have to stop looking at the problem from the surface. It is more about the lack of understanding of race, or people from different backgrounds, within our schools. This lack of understanding directly translates into a lack of empathy. If you do not connect with someone, it is very unlikely that you will empathize with them. We have all been on the highway trying to get to work or home from work and there is a car accident in our path. Most people are not really concerned about the people involved in the accident but more about how the accident is impacting them personally, i.e., making them late for work etc. Now as you get closer to the accident and may see it is somebody you know, maybe a family member or friend, your focus will immediately shift to their well being. Accidents happen every day but how much we care is determined by who was directly impacted by the accident.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that educators of the same race or ethnicity as their students will most likely be the most effective. I do not necessarily agree with this. Now I do agree with the fact that being of the same race or ethnicity provides the opening for an immediate connection. However, this is surface level and people are much more complex than just their origin or the color of their skin.
In my opinion, socioeconomic status is one of the biggest problems we have in schools today. Our system has done a poor job of placing students in just two categories: Economically Disadvantaged and Non-Economically Disadvantaged. The problem is that there are so many levels to both statuses. There are different levels of poverty and there are different levels of not being in poverty. But we simply classify all students into one of these two statuses.
Why is this a problem? A black educator that grew up in an upper middle-class family with both parents in the home is expected to be able to connect with a black student that is extremely poor, being raised by just one parent. These people come from two different worlds but are expected to connect simply based on the color of their skin. This mindset sets both the educator and the student up to fail in this situation because it is not fair to either of them.
Going into my senior year of high school, my parents started having marital problems. I knew they were eventually going to get a divorce and I did not want to be around to witness it. So I moved in with my godparents about 20 miles away from the house I grew up in. They were in their 70s and 90s and lived in an old shotgun home which was much different from the close to 3,000 square foot home that I grown up in and left. I went from sleeping in my own bed with a TV with multiple channels and a remote to sleeping on a couch in the living room with a TV that had just one channel. And that was not even the hardest adjustment. I had my own bathroom most of my life to this point. I had started showering around the age of six because I thought it was cool. Like I said before, this was an older house, so they did not have a shower, they just had a bathtub with a somewhat rusted out bottom. But that was also not the hardest part. They had a roach problem. And if you know anything about roaches, they come out at night and like bathrooms. So the entire time I stayed at this home, I never took a bath.
So where did I bathe? At school. Every day at the end of my morning athletic period, I took a shower. Regardless of how strenuous our workout was or wasn’t, no matter what, I was going to take a shower because I knew this would be my only opportunity to do so. While I did not want to be late for my next class, because of the consequence, I cared more about meeting this need. This situation lasted from the beginning of the school year until around late February so it was not that long in the grand scheme of my childhood.
However, this experience shaped my mindset as an educator. Those few months of self-imposed poverty gave me a glimpse of what it is like to live in poverty which impacted the way I saw and educated children from low socioeconomic backgrounds. It forced me to have empathy. So in my first year teaching when a Hispanic student told me they did not do their homework because they did not have power in their home the night before, I believed them. Then I figured out how I could support my students academically as much as possible at school rather than putting them in a position to teach themselves at home. Most of my educational practices for supporting my low socioeconomic students derived from those few months when I somewhat experienced poverty my senior year of high school.
I think it’s important to realize that you and your students can connect with one another even if your backgrounds seem completely different on the surface. You really just have to listen to them, then open your heart and mind to their experiences. And if you share a similar experience with them, maybe you should let them know that. That may give them hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel. From what they see, you turned out all right.
Black educators want the best for all students but understand the importance of education for the black community as a whole. With everything that is happening in our country today, it is still better than it used to be and, overall, a great place to live. Most of us just want the United States to reach its full potential for all people. One way all educators can help our country reach its full potential is by fostering the seeds of empathy and helping prioritize relationships back in our schools. This is what the majority of our at-risk students need. Restorative Practices provides a process for this. The Community Building Circles provide a platform for every classroom to connect and develop a community, essentially, a school family. And for some of our students, your classroom may be the only real family they have.