Without a safety net

Without a Safety NetDownload a printable copy of this article (PDF 511KB)

  • Ensure policy is reflected in practice.
  • Heavily support resistant staff as a first response.
  • Make clear the point at which old models are no longer applicable.
  • Demonstrate strength and commitment to policy.
  • Treat practice change as absolutely as program change.

Leading change from one model of practice to a new model can be challenging, rewarding and fraught with dangers. For example, many school leaders I work with are looking to move from the punitive model of punishment with all of the blame, stagnant results and negativity that comes with it – to the restorative model, where responsibility, action and relationships are the cornerstones.

Asking people to change behaviour and practice is one thing. Most teachers embrace change and are willing to give well-reasoned approaches a go. We are comfortable about changing and adjusting our language and our structures. But when it comes to changing our minds, educators have the reputation for being the world-leading industry for ignoring its own research.

“We shouldn’t turn a safety net into a hammock. It should actually be a safety net.”
– Steve King

Changing our minds about default positions that have developed since we were infants is a frighteningly difficult thing for some people to do. Recently, many school leaders have reported that, while many staff can be supported across a critical thinking threshold, there are a few, ranging from 5-25%, who find it almost impossible.

As a result of this unwilling few, we find ourselves continually answering awkward questions about consequences for behaviour and stamping out staffroom fires about a lack of support due to the absence of punitive deterrents. We ask ourselves about how to answer these questions when the truth is that, as leaders, we shouldn’t be answering them at all. There is no room for arbitrary, angry, blameful punishments within the restorative framework.

Restorative leaders understand that there are two leadership imperatives when working with those who can’t walk willingly into the restorative approach:

  1. Provide immense support to enable them to understand the restorative process and philosophy. This support needs to be significant, ongoing and genuine. If we are guilty of sheep-dipping these staff members with one training day, and then lamenting the lack of gradual change, then we need to remedy that. But our support cannot be, in any form, a compromise of our policy.
  2. Make it abundantly clear that there is no other, older method that can be used by those who won’t use the affective language or run the circles required to foster a restorative school culture. Answer a question with a question. When asked “Where’s the punishment? This restorative stuff is too soft!” we should be answering “How many affective statements did you use yesterday?”, “How many circles have you run in the last fortnight?” and “What are you doing to actively build relationships?”

This may sound harsh. But we need to consider how we would react as leaders if the topic were not behaviour
and practice. Imagine a teacher looking for validation from you to use the curriculum frameworks from the early 80s – it is out of the question. Imagine your response to an ICT teacher deciding they’d rather get the Commodore 64 computers out because they don’t see the point of iPads – it is not an option.

A school’s choice to move from punitive measures to a new culture of respect cannot be diminished by those unwilling to take the first steps. Worse, leaders would be derelict in their duty if they implemented a written policy they did not follow. This is walking a trapeze without a safety net. It only takes one parent or carer with a particular interest in policy, to catch us doling out an inappropriate consequence to a child due to failure to work inaccordance with our stated policy. This can lead to justified hostility.

At this point, there are usually no winners. We’d rather a win-win.

For leaders, strength does not come from defending the indefensible or accommodating the unwilling. It comes from the immense supportive mechanisms we develop to help our colleagues to reform the education experience of our students. This is incredibly motivating. Grass roots reform is something that schools are better placed than ever to achieve – if we can navigate the accountabilities to focus on what really matters.

Build the net: write the policy. Make the leap: implement the policy. Stay strong!

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