by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D
There’s a reason they’re called “hard conversations” (or, courageous conversations if euphemisms are your thing). Recently, several Nashville educators traveled to Chicago to do just that — have hard conversations with other inner-city educators about a growing epidemic: The over suspension and expulsion of African-American males.
Although I serve in a school with a 90% African-American demographic, I couldn’t think of a more fitting setting to discuss the plight of the young men I have sworn to educate and graduate. Both Chicago and its public school system have become synonymous with violence, fear and uncertainty. The city’s once industrial and professional-sports stronghold has slipped into a hotbed of urban warfare, unrelenting gang violence and a school system on its heels. While East Nashville’s poverty and crime rate may only reflect a shade of Chicago’s Southside, our similarities and setbacks are next of kin. Where the Windy City has been one of our Nation’s metropolis hallmarks, Nashville, on the other hand, is on a meteoric rise, exponentially expanding in nearly every worthwhile metric, fueling the Music City-zeitgeist that expects Nashville to surpass Austin, Charlotte, Portland and Denver in overall population over the next 20 years (nashvillempo.org).
Peeling the proverbial onion
Nashville’s growth has not been without its share of growing pains. These pains have understandably impacted our school system but specifically our low socioeconomic schools — schools such as Maplewood High, where I serve. Under the microscope these pains look like truancy, aggression, apathy, fear and so many more behavioral manifestations that are a direct result of a city and its communities struggling to carve out its evolving identity. These growing pains have thus put leadership as a crossroads. Do we (should we, why would we) combat new as well as historic challenges with antiquated, ineffective methods?
Treating the disease
There’s a metanoia taking hold, a spiritual conversion of sorts as educators across the country are beginning to rethink the imperativeness of social-emotional learning (SEL). The cornerstone of this metanoia is a process called Restorative Justice, a counseling-based approach to impacting systemic behavioral change. In a nutshell, restorative justice is tied to authentic relationships and leverages the embedded trust between the counselors and the counseled, the lynchpin being the ability to inspire deeper learning and understanding through hard yet compassionate conversations.
So, an empathy-based process designed to heal instead of hurt — what’s not to love? The ironic reality for many adults is emotion trumps logic. Too many times our unbridled craving for a pound of flesh blinds us from our true purpose: understanding, growing, healing. Thankfully, there’s a growing number of forward-thinking educators who are determined to graduate from the Spanish Inquisition methodology of school discipline and courageous enough to confront ignorance and familiarity in order to park systemic change.
The catalyst for this meaningful change is our willingness to have the hard conversations. Too often the easy alternative is to suspend or expel students, temporarily removing the problem while satisfying our own vengeful bloodlust through instant gratification. Hard conversations are, in fact, much more courageous. During these talks all parties’ paradigms and beliefs get tested. With no Dr. Phil to facilitate a televised Kumbaya, involved parties rely on shaky trust and, for the most part, unproven outcomes. Therefore, the initial heavy-lifting falls on those courageous leaders and trailblazers whose foresight, commitment and unwavering faith propels them further and further into the restorative justice wilderness.
As Nashville Public Schools officially embraces the restorative justice model (and more importantly, mindset), it has taken a handful of courageous change agents at every level, from Central Office to each school tier and their respective support personnel, to beta test this cutting-edge approach. Educators like Tony Majors (@tmajors29), Dr. Ron L. Woodard (@Champion4Chldrn), Dr. Keely Jones-Mason (@DrJonesMason), Dr. Timothy Drinkwine (@Drizzinkwine), Julie Travis (@JrHtravis) and Lindsay Allison (@longhorndonkey) have vested themselves in not only the process but the ideology of changing lives through empathy-based dialogue.
Whether it’s Nashville, Chicago or Washington DC, I have personally experienced the impact of restorative justice in diverse settings to willfully adopt this metanoia-mindset. I have seen the model manipulated into various forms, from peace circles to peer juries, from love and logic to transition task forces; however, the staple throughout is clear: relationships and rapport remain at the heart of education. Our innate need to belong is only heightened in the face of crisis, which reminds me of a poignant lesson I picked-up while learning from educators in Guangzhou, China. See, the Chinese view crisis as danger meets opportunity, a sharp contrast from the American paradigm of batten down the hatches — it’s us versus them. Yet, the truth is we treat juvenile delinquency as mini-crises and too often overlook or outright ignore the prime opportunities placed before us. We are dabbling in Dweck’s Growth Mindset here but the fact remains, when faced with student discipline, approach it as an opportunity to build someone up, cementing a foundation of imperative belonging while simultaneously teaching empathy to students (even adults) who were never taught this humanity-based skill. I know Eric Jensen would agree that not only must empathy be taught but restorative justice serves as the perfect lesson plan.
In deed, restorative justice lends itself to both organizational and behavioral change, the latter admittedly one of the toughest changes to implement, but as educators — frontline synapse warriors — it’s our sworn duty, our life’s work to reach and teach the whole child. I almost hesitate using the aforementioned expression because its liberal use has turned a legitimate decree into a throwaway cliche. Nonetheless, a great educator does just that, taking on the overarching responsibility of developing a well-rounded, future-ready young person.
Now, allow me to have the hard conversation with you. Going forward, as educators, lead learners, catalysts (pick your moniker), can we afford to adhere to mindless, dare I say barbaric approaches to resolving student-centered conflict? Are we merely too simple, or worse, too insensitive to embrace a mindset which would have us focus our energy and efforts on healing instead of hurting, restoring instead of ravaging — loving instead of leaving?