It’s not hard to find stories about how difficult it is to be an educator right now. News headlines talk about vast numbers of teachers leaving the field, and college students choosing not to enter it in the first place. Violence has increased and seems commonplace. Teachers have had to endure constant change since the beginning of the pandemic, and burnout is real. In the midst of all of these struggles, I began the 2021-22 school year as a part of two cohorts: the RPIA cohort in Philadelphia, and Cohort C, one of my 8th grade social studies classes.
From the very first day of school, I knew this class was going to challenge me in ways I had never been challenged before. It was easy to look at their data and find deficits: many of them had not attended virtual classes in the 2020-21 school year. As a result, they were in this class because they had been identified as students with severe learning loss as a result of the pandemic. Several of them had significant discipline records, and they did not get along with each other. In class, they often refused to work together in favor of working on their own, or, in some cases, not working at all. I knew they were the cohort that I wanted to focus on for my work with RPIA.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly when Cohort C started to transform. I think this is one of the lessons I learned from RPIA: restorative practices are not a magic solution, and real transformational change takes time. Slowly, however, Cohort C began to become a community of learners. At the end of November, several students from this cohort got in a physical fight at the beginning of our class. I was unsure how to respond, but I remember wanting students to hear clearly from me: “This is not who you are and this is not who you can be.” I reached out to two other members of my school’s RPIA cohort and we worked together to address the negativity we were seeing between students. We ran a circle together, and we began giving students time at the end of the day to journal about their days. We also transparently talked with them about the surveys we gave them each month for RPIA, and what we were hoping to see in their answers.
Academically, I focused on helping students develop leadership skills. RPIA helped me co-create a list of guidelines for productive and unproductive group work, and I gave students time to reflect on what they brought to their groups. Slowly, kids started working together. They asked each other questions, they helped each other, and they corrected each other when they were veering off-course. At the end of the year, students took a leadership survey based on an RPIA session, and then identified the role they should play in our end of year mock trial based on their survey results. On the last day of classes, students spontaneously spoke about how they had transformed from one of the worst cohorts in the grade to “a family for real for real.” They delightfully celebrated “Big C” as they called themselves, and one student individually complimented every member of the class for their unique contributions.
This transformation was only possible because of RPIA. RPIA helped me identify and draw out my students’ strengths, when it would have been easy to focus on their deficits. The collaboration from other RPIA teachers at my school helped me believe that this cohort could change and improve. RPIA gave me hope in a year that was full of reasons to be hopeless. And this hope was not naïve or futile: the scores our students gave on the monthly RPIA survey grew each time we administered the survey, and my students’ grades improved from quarter to quarter as well. RPIA’s impact on my students and on me as an educator was profound, and I am so grateful that our entire network will be partnering with RPIA in the 2022-23 school year.