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.
Restorative justice in education can be defined as facilitating learning communities that nurture the capacity of people to engage with one another and their environment in a manner that supports and respects the inherent dignity and worth of all. —Little Book of Restorative Justice in Education
As college professors who prepare future teachers, we enthusiastically endorse this vision for schools as presented by Kathy Evans and Dorothy Vaandering. Yet we also understand that nurturing such learning communities is extremely complex.
Restorative justice in education (RJE) takes time to cultivate. The soil requires regular tending. Teachers we know provide inspiring examples by developing meaningful relationships with students and helping students navigate their social worlds. The good news is that restorative approaches—as compared to punitive or traditional ones—are gaining traction in a growing number of elementary and secondary schools.
The principles of RJE share many characteristics with the roots from which Mennonite schools have grown. These roots are evident in Elaine Moyer’s blog post describing how students at Eastern Mennonite Elementary School in Harrisonburg, Va., signed the Peace Pledge this fall. The pledge has been developed by the Institute for Peace and Justice in St. Louis and focuses on respect, communication, listening, forgiving, creative play and courage.
The Peace Pledge reflects many of the themes Mennonite educators name as the central purpose of Mennonite education. Last spring, we reached out to the leaders of Mennonite Schools Council (MSC) schools across the United States and Canada and invited them to participate in a survey of educators employed at their schools. We received responses from nearly 400 preK-12 educators from 24 schools. We found that MSC educators value beliefs that are also central to restorative justice. In particular, they describe the purpose of Mennonite education as teaching peace and pacifism, social justice, love, restorative justice, service and other Anabaptist/Mennonite values. The word cloud on page 20 combines these responses with the reasons educators choose to work at their respective schools, revealing the importance of engaging faith, embracing Christian education and helping others.
As researchers and educators, we recognize that the teachers and staff who took the survey may hold faith beliefs without feeling confident about their ability to put restorative justice into practice. So we next examined the survey results specific to how well educators feel they can integrate faith practices into their teaching, focusing on six faith integration questions that align with RJE.
Overall, teachers were very confident in their ability to integrate these concepts into their classes with at least three-quarters of educators indicating they had a “great deal” or “quite a bit” of ability to do so. We found that elementary teachers were more self-confident in their abilities than teachers at other grade levels. Meanwhile, math and science teachers found it the most difficult to integrate these faith concepts into their classes.
As the graphic demonstrates, the greatest number of teachers reported feeling confident in creating caring classroom communities and showing students they are loved. Teachers also expressed a high level of confidence in their ability to “teach and model peacebuilding, including regularly modeling and practicing a lifestyle of nonviolence, seeking justice and being part of a reconciling faith community.” The responses revealed slightly less confidence in fostering student and staff support for each other and promoting cultural and racial equity.
The survey results provide a larger context for the blog post about Eastern Mennonite Elementary School students signing the Peace Pledge. As Evans and Vaandering state: “A restorative justice culture is a root system—the common belief and understanding of humanity as being worthy and interconnected.” Our results suggest that MSC schools who live into their faith-inspired beliefs can and will be fertile ground where the Peace Pledge and other tangible approaches to RJE can take root. In the process, educators in these schools are planting seeds of faith with the goal of bearing peace and pacifism, social justice, love, restorative justice, service and other Anabaptist/Mennonite values in the next generation.
Paul J. Yoder is an assistant professor of teacher education at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va.
Peter Wiens is an assistant professor of teacher education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.