What WE need
Written by: George Sheppard
A significant number of schools in Newfoundland and Labrador take the form of K-12, with a student population of less than 100. These schools are dotted across our province in areas where the school community often consists of people from three or more small communities. I have had the good fortune to have been an administrator/teacher in this type of environment for more than 20 years. Often, the connections teachers make with students and their families extends beyond the school.
The spirit of community living, either by the sea or inland, requires all who have dedicated their lives to the betterment of the children we educate, to strive to understand the changing societal norms and to make these connections meaningful. I have always considered myself a “student first” educator, thinking the time I invested in extracurricular and community-based activities, gave me an understanding and connection with students that others may not have.
As a principal, I always strive to improve the educational experience for all within our school community - students, teachers, support staff and parents/guardians. Over the past year, I have benefitted a great deal from being exposed to the merits of Restorative Justice in Education. The more I read and listened about the value system that provides greater understanding, expands relationships, and forges meaningful connections, increasingly I
knew that my school needed to move forward in a restorative manner. I was so fortunate to gain insight from two NLESD Safe and Inclusive School itinerants, Richard Churchill and Jessica Webb, exchanged emails and video calls with Michelle Stowe, a restorative justice advocate in Ireland, and engaged in study and sharing with Dr. Dorothy Vaandering, Professor of Education at Memorial University, who, along with Katherine Evans, co-authored “The Little Book of Restorative Justice in Education.”
I felt I had all I needed to make Restorative Justice “happen” in my school. But hold on, something was missing. I knew I had a receptive group of parents/guardians who would support the values and principles of RJE. I felt assured that if I gave a presentation to staff, a passionate commentary as to why fostering more meaningful relationships in the spirit of restorative justice would benefit our school, teachers would eagerly “jump on board”. I had no doubt of the enthusiasm of our students, all students, to feel heard, to resolve conflicts with others, and to participate in circle conversations where “their” ideas could be heard.
So what was missing? All the elements seemed to be in place for a successful launch of RJE at our school. The missing elements came from my own short-sightedness. Clearly, the values of RJE, when it is about what works best for everyone, allowing everyone to value others and feel that value for themselves, could transform a school from a management approach to an engaged philosophy. In my rush to “make this happen”, I allowed myself to become distracted with arriving at the end, without preparing for the actual journey. Had I provided the opportunity for feedback from all players? No. Did I have a core group of teachers who shared my passion for RJE? I wasn’t certain? Had I used the guiding research and tested ideas to form a plan to move forward? Ooops, must have forgotten that. Did I bring in district personnel to lend support and consultation for our school to function as a restorative entity? Hmmmm….. Now you get the picture; there is a pattern.
In my eagerness to implement RJE at our school, I approached it in a one-way manner. Sure, I knew the ideas, the values, and had the passion for others within our school community to embrace RJE. However, without giving all groups of people involved an opportunity to “make it theirs”, I was simply “telling” them what we were going to do. They would try it, even be excited, because I was. But, RJE is not a policy, it is not something to “try on for size”.
To my core, I firmly believe that the central ideas and values of RJE allow for the transformation and connections schools will need in the COVID era education of our students. Now, more than ever, we see the need and yearning for meaningful connections and relationships that stand the tests that challenge our thinking. But in that belief there also has to be a process whereby we do not simply “put it in place”; we need to implement RJE in a way that every stakeholder plays a role, has a voice, and knows the merits of RJE to be what WE need, not just what one or a few are excited about.
In the coming months, we will reconvene in the education of our children. A large part of making the best decisions also means we reflect on where we have been, and collectively where we want the value system of all involved - students, staff and the community as a whole, to lead us. When we see education through a restorative lens, an RJE lens, the goal has to be clearly “what works best for us as a school”, not “look at what I did.”
George Sheppard is currently the principal of Fortune Bay Academy, a K-12 school on the Burin Peninsula. After graduating from MUN in 1988 (BA), and 1991 (B.Ed), he spent 7 years as a Social Studies teacher in Alberta, before returning to NL in 1998. He obtained his M.Ed from University of Aberdeen, Scotland in 2006. He has been an administrator/teacher at Christ The King School, Rushoon (K-12), and currently Fortune Bay Academy.
George has always been active in school and district initiatives, placing great value on student interaction and making connections through co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. He is a passionate advocate for Restorative Justice and the youth criminal justice system.
**Newfoundland Coast Photograph by Spencer Millsap