I truly believe the verse, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue”. I have seen how quickly a situation can be escalated and de-escalated based on the words a person uses. As I reflect on my experiences, I know that each day I have a choice between inflicting “harm” or providing “restoration” in any given situation. As an educator, I take this to heart. When working with students and staff, I believe the words I use can have a negative or positive impact on the life of the individual I am interacting with. This has not been an easy road for me. I have a core belief that all students, regardless of their race, gender, socio-economic status, present level of performance, etc. deserves equitable access to high-quality educational experiences. Now we all know there are many who say, “all children can learn”, but that doesn’t mean it comes across in their daily interactions with students. In my quest for equity, there have been times where my words or interactions may have been seen as damaging or harmful to the adult involved. I have had to constantly engage in a self-reflective mode to ensure that my quest for equitable educational opportunities is done in a constructive way while continuing to ensure the needs of all children are met.
As an administrator, it is my job to listen and help our children and adults to see situations from multiple perspectives. In today’s society, people have a tendency to react to situations without giving things much thought. In my experience, I have discovered that it can be challenging for individuals to see the “part” they have played in a situation. People, young and old, are very quick to identify what the other person did. People can sometimes feel they are constantly defending their beliefs and actions. As I work with students and staff, I believe the critical piece missing when resolving conflict and building relationships with students involves ensuring students’ voices are heard. We cannot continue to talk “down” to students. We need to take the time to talk “with” our students. During my interactions with students, I have to ask myself if my words or interactions are cutting open wounds, digging deeper into old wounds, or serving as a healing agent. We must take the time to hear our students. Let me repeat, every student has a voice that needs to be heard! In the hustle and bustle of the school day, that important voice can get lost, or worse, never heard at all.
To give this viewpoint further perspective, I want to share a situation that recently occurred. This situation challenged my thinking and required me to “think outside the box”. I had the choice of suspending quite a few students or to look for an alternative to suspension. The alternative would involve a lot of time on my part, but I felt it was necessary to give the students involved in this situation my undivided attention. You see, our children deserve our best! I could have taken the easy road and pushed them out the door with suspensions. However, I knew that in order to have a positive impact on them, I needed to take the time to process with them and engage them in a self-reflection activity. Don’t get me wrong, there needed to be a consequence, but the impact of the restorative session that took place was unmistakable. To sit down and actually listen to students share their perspectives on what happened, including what they should have done differently was powerful! One student explained that he knew it was wrong and he should have talked with an adult earlier in the day, but he chose not to. As he spoke, his voice cracked with emotion. When I looked over at him, he assured me this would not happen again. He shared with the group what he needed to do to make better choices and to ensure that he was on the right track. It’s important to note, this young man is seen as a leader in our building. His words had an impact on the entire group! As several other students shared, it became clear that we were making positive strides in a way that would help everyone in the room leave “restored” and not “harmed”. I believe the children in the room walked away with a different perspective on how to handle difficult situations in the future.
As I thought back on my time with this group of students, I know there was value in our time together. It was much more than giving them a consequence. This decision was grounded in the beliefs that all students make mistakes, all students need to feel valued, and all students need to leave a situation with their dignity intact. I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, this approach to an alternative to suspension helped to build a stronger relationship with my students as well as with their families. By taking the time to look each student in the eye, give them a chance to speak, and discuss the impact of one’s actions, allowed me to focus on what steps were necessary to restore the situation for all parties involved. The words I chose to speak, along with my actions, reinforced to my students that I have high expectations for them. However, if these expectations are not met, I will work with them to create a plan for success. Ultimately, my goal is to prepare them for adulthood. I cannot use my words to harm. I must use my words to restore and elevate them to the next level.