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Teaching with restorative values

1.21. 2020 Written By: Michelle Jackett 881 Times read

This is a web-exclusive article on the theme “Education: Restorative justice.” For more stories on this theme, see the January issue of The Mennonite.

I have heard it said that when one teaches, two learn. The more teaching I do, the more I am convinced there is truth in this. However, where I once thought that learning alongside students was a mark of authenticity in teaching, I now understand my own learning—in particular, my own critical reflection on power, identity and trauma—to also be a crucial prerequisite in stepping into the role of educating. While I will never arrive, I have a responsibility to model the discomfort of unpacking power and privilege.

This is especially so because I teach about justice. I have heard pastors quote the verse in James 3 about the dangers in teaching. “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers,” James writes, “because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” I feel a similar weight as I engage students on the topic of restorative justice. My own blind spots and weaknesses can be stumbling blocks to students both in and outside of the classroom. Similarly, embodied knowledge and self-awareness in these areas can transform a classroom into a space for, as bell hooks puts it in Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, “education as the practice of freedom.”

My own journey into restorative justice began when I tasted a small piece of what hooks is describing. In my third year of my undergraduate degree, I took my first course on restorative justice at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario. At first, there was nothing remarkable about the course. The classroom was familiar; the syllabus was set up in a customary way. Yet, as the course went on, an uncomfortable difference emerged: Instead of speaking from his own wealth of experience in the performative lecture format, the instructor played the role of facilitator. Questions were met with more questions, or the floor was opened to other students’ responses before he shared his own. I spent most of that course listening to stories and reflections from my fellow classmates. It did not occur to me until the course was near completion that he was teaching in a way that was consistent with restorative values.

I can see now that this learning environment drew me into the field of restorative justice as much as the framework itself. Our collective way of being in that classroom nourished me, and generated a passion within me for participating in similarly transformative spaces within my community.

One decade later, I am now the lecturer for this same course. This turn of events has been cause for much personal reflection. As I enter the classroom each week as facilitator, I have confirmed what I sensed upon finishing my first restorative justice course 10 years ago: When the teacher plays the role of facilitator, students can play the role of teacher. Their lived experience, embodied knowledge and cultural wisdom becomes crucial course content. Lecture material, while integral, contributes to a larger dialogue and the co-creation of knowledge.

This brings me to my more recent reflection: Facilitating learning is hard work. It requires an intensely active presence and a deep awareness of power, privilege and trauma. Academia brings with it a degree of privilege and, instead of eliminating the need for a critical awareness of power, this reality doubles our need for critical reflection if our work is to have any relevance to the communities we’re embedded within.

I believe the students we want to attract to our programs are expecting this. In June, I taught an intensive one week course at the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The course attracted many restorative justice practitioners from across the United States whose work required they not only reflect on power and privilege but disrupt it. This course brought to light the gaps in my own critical reflection, and it is from the important disruptions of this learning journey that I share these reflections with you.

I am indebted to the Mennonite institutions I studied within for exposing me to educators that embody restorative principles. It is from these colleagues and mentors that I have formed my own teaching ethic. As more diverse voices are shaping the field and entering Mennonite institutions, I find myself grateful to the students I am crossing paths with, who embody restorative principles in ways that are bringing the field back to its roots of community-owned justice. While I strive to create a restorative classroom and center student voices, it is my honor to receive and hear the teachings of my students.

Michelle Jackett is a sessional lecturer at Conrad Grebel University College, an affiliated college of the University of Waterloo, and coordinator of the Kindred Credit Union Centre for Peace Advancement. She has a master’s in conflict transformation from Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

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