It takes a village to raise a teacher.
This statement never rang truer than this past school year of 2021-2022. After two years of trying to motivate students through black Zoom screens, I had anticipated challenges, but I did not anticipate that this year would wreack emotional havoc on my mindset more than any previous year. It began with one of my ninth grade classes. I remember the first day of school, when one of my students looked around the room and proudly exclaimed, laughing, “Whoa. They put us all together in this class. You know, a teacher quit because they couldn’t handle us. Are you sure you can?” I made a promise at that exact moment to myself that no matter what the challenge was, I would deal with it and go right through the storm with them. And what a bumpy ride it would be. The scariest part of all was that I was completely unaware of how fragile my mindset had become throughout the two years teaching in Covid isolation. I had lost critical faith in my own ability to influence young people into becoming self-advocates who can make positive, healthy choices. Ninth grade appeared to be the new seventh grade in many ways, as those two formative years of learning positive social behaviors at the middle school level seemed to be lost. Clearly, I was out of my league. I quickly realized how vulnerable I was, and that this class would be even more quick to call me out on it. Like other RPIA teachers shared, I knew a turnaround would be no easy task. I was on a mission to survive. I thought , “I WILL fix this. I NEED to fix this.”
I made a good plan sparked by RPIA sessions. I spoke to our EL teachers, to find out ways our classroom community could feel more inclusive. I worked with administration, to try and find restorative ways to address consequences for violating school and classroom rules and norms. I called parents, emailed parents, and called parents again. I went through the caseload of teachers, including our resource teachers, study skills teachers, school counselors and school psychologist in collaboration to help students change their mindset of what it means to be an academic student with strong social and emotional skills. On a good day, I would even send out an email to say, “Thank you. Thank you for being supportive. You have no idea how much this means to me.” I planned lessons that incorporated a lot of the social and emotional concepts I had learned through graduate courses, even teaching some of those SEL graduate courses! I talked to students daily about school, grades, their friends, and things that interested them. We talked ALL the time. I made sure to speak with coaches, to our ISS teacher, to our security guards, even our custodians, and anyone who I could discuss ways to support our students in beneficial ways. I stood out in the hallways and when the bell would ring, I would gather my students from the stairwell and escort them just to come to my class. I utilized other teachers close to my room to help me do the same. Heck, since I was out there, I wrangled other students together to get to their classes too! I also used all the strategies I learned from my RPIA book, Teaching with Love and Logic. I thought to myself, “I’ve got this!”
Then, after a particular lesson one day, I broke down hard. I thought the restorative lesson I planned was going to change students’ mindset for good, and surely it would show them I care. I imagined that this impactful lesson would shift my class that often displayed “challenging behaviors” into socially intelligent, empathetic beings who sought out opportunities for positive voice, integrity, and social justice for themselves and each other. It was a very good lesson, backed by brain-based research, and I was proud and excited to present it. So, the big day came and… it failed. Big time fail. And I cried. To be honest, this wasn’t the first time that year I cried over this group of students. I knew they had so much potential and were so incredibly resistant in showing the powerfully kind leaders I knew they could be for others. Why did they not believe in their self-worth; why did they not believe they had these incredible strengths I saw in them? I cried, no, wailed, after school, directly in front of my administrator and paraprofessional. I mean, I really let it go. My administrator and paraprofessional responded in such a caring, calm way and were very supportive. Thanks to our talk, I was able to get in my car and drive home safely. I survived the day. When I got home, I emailed an instructional coach from our district and begged her to work with me. The next day, this amazing instructional coach suggested a restorative activity called “A-ha, appreciation, or apology” that allowed necessary closure on that lesson for the students and for me. Together with my coach, we analyzed their feedback on one of these three prompts. My students’ feedback on those prompts changed everything.
This was IT. This was the turnaround point. As I read their feedback I realized that it wasn’t them: It was me. I realized that I was operating out of fear just like they were. I was afraid that I couldn’t be the teacher they needed me to be, and they were afraid that they could not meet my expectations. And it showed. Together, that dichotomy made my classroom feel less than the happiest place on Earth. I had a lot of internal work to do. This was an urgent matter.
Reflecting on my RPIA monthly culture plan, I knew I had to shift my approach and that I could make that shift happen in my plan. After speaking with Claire, our RPIA coach, I knew I had to focus on my own wellness: shift the focus onto fixing how I feel, because fixing “the situation” was not working. I became steadfast about meditating each morning, getting up early so I could sit in absolute silence and gratitude for fifteen minutes. I listened in the car to and from school each day about leading with the right headspace and heart-space in every aspect of the day. In short, I restored myself. Then, and only then, I started planning more restorative lessons with my students. I started listening carefully to daily student feedback and noticed more and more students were offering ways to support each other and help each other in positive ways. I used and leaned on their approaches, because why not? This only affirmed that I was on the right path. The restorative practices I studied and tried before were flowing easily and freely now. All my classes were FUN to teach again, and I was learning just as much from them in return! How exhilarating it was to allow students the freedom to choose assignments, projects and even units that were of interest to them.
Students were speaking up and drawing healthy boundaries against negative behaviors, influences, and self-talk. Along with increased attendance and better grades, I was witnessing a remarkable transformation in my classroom: that of increased self-esteem, empowerment, and self-compassion. I didn’t have to look for students that were skipping class anymore, because they were showing up. They were SHOWING UP. My classes became student-centered in the ways I had always envisioned! This positive mindset that I fought so hard for became precious to me, and I wasn’t going to let anyone or anything interfere with my beliefs about myself, my teaching, and my quest for self-improvement. What began as the most challenging class became more relaxed, spontaneous, and fun. I liked them. I really, truly liked them! I can now say I am rather ecstatic about passing these beautiful humans on to the next grade!
Restorative Practices in Action gave me so many gifts this year: the gift of collaboration with brilliant colleagues, the art of listening to and feeling empowered by students as the intelligent beings they are, and, most importantly, the time to reflect on the type of teacher, friend, and human I want to be. This year, out of all of my years in teaching, ended as one of the very best in my career, which began as the most difficult! I am a much better teacher because of the inspiring students that helped raise me. I would be lost without the consistent, loving support of our RPIA cohort, our faculty, administration, and caring Phoenixville community. It truly takes a village to raise a teacher.