I'm awake at 3am, thinking about the idea of restoration. And though I generally tell my students that it is boring and cliche to start an essay with a Webster definition search, I’ll admit that I just switched tabs on top of my Safari browser to look up the definition of restore. That meant I abandoned the tab that had a bunch of funny memes about being awake at 3am. When I went back to that tab, a starry mountain scene was dancing on my screen with the words, “my sleeping schedule is fucked” from some blog called “Mommyish.” I can’t endorse mommyish here, because it might be crap, but it appears that they are doing a lot better than this mediocre education blog you are reading right now, confirming Adam’s long held suspicion that we should just abandon writing about education in favor of self-aware posts about breastfeeding, diapers, and youth soccer. Adam says a lot more people would read our blog if we did that. Anyway, mommyish used a great gif, or whatever we are calling this kind of digital image. It sort of reminds me of something that should be on a Drake album cover if he ever does an album about being a mom. That would be an amazing album.
When I searched “gifs about being awake at 3am,” it was 3am and I was trying to numb my brain at the computer. I’d already burned an hour of sleep thinking about the my 11th period class and how I kind of suck at teaching. Or at least I suck this week in 11th period.
We’ll pretend for the sake of my already injured ego that it is the time of day that leads to my rambling and disconnected writing style, and not the very real possibility that I’m just a rambling and disconnected person.
Anyway, restoration is a buzz idea in the education world. We talk about restorative practices when we discuss ways to avoid the disastrous and punitive discipline measures that many of our schools have pursued over the past few decades. But restoration, according to my google search, implies that we are bringing something back to a “good” or “right” state. In other words, for something to require restoration it needs to have been working at one time.
I was sleeping last week, so I need to restore my relationship with 3am.
For restoration in education to work, we need to have a system that worked at one point. It seems obvious to me, especially as I talked with my 11th period yesterday, that there are entire segments of our student population for whom our traditional schooling options have never worked properly. I’ve known this on varying levels since I started teaching, and it is the kind of thing that often has me staring at my bedroom ceiling at 2am.
This realization is painfully evident in January, at the change of the semester, in neighborhood schools that have been abandoned by our current “choice” model in education. Each year at the change of the semester, there is an influx of new or returning students to our schools who have been released by other schools. These students are often coming from credit recovery programs, alternative schools for behavioral interventions, or state-mandated placements for adjudicated youth. In the hustle of a new semester, I always try to take the time to talk to the new students and get to know them.
One of these new students entered my class on the first day of the semester with a smile, his headphones in, and a clear energy. The young man was clearly dynamic, so most of the class watched the way he came in late and gave a few handshakes to students in the class. He recited, or kind of shouted, the lyrics in his headphones while the class was working. I was glad that he was late and class was nearly over. He seemed like a likable person, but he had also spent a few years perfecting his “give zero fucks” persona in school. He wore his disdain comfortably.
I motioned for him to take his headphones out and he obliged with a suspicious smile. I’m cheesy and jump around a lot, so I’m used to suspicious smiles. I felt the eyes of the whole class watching how I handled the minor distraction, so I introduced myself, ignored the headphones, and asked him to talk after class. Having a conversation in public wasn’t going to help anything. We both had images to uphold, and I’m smart enough to see the hills that aren’t worth dying on. At least some of the time.
As class ended and the rest of the students left, I tried to think about restoration and how to help “restore” this student to a “right” relationship to school and classroom learning. After a few quick “get to know you” questions, I asked him a question that I don’t typically ask students.
“When is the last time school worked for you.”
The question shocked him, so he asked a few clarifying questions to understand what I meant.
“I don’t know man. I guess I got decent grades through 4th grade, but then I just stopped caring about school. Or started caring more about other things.”
4th grade. That was 7 years ago. If things haven’t been “working” for him in school for 7 years, we had a significant amount of work to do. It was easy to understand why he projected his image so comfortably. He hadn’t cared in a long time.
“When is the last time you liked school,” I countered.
For this, there was no pause.
In this case, the work was to restore a love for learning in school that has never existed. Our schools have had this student for 12 years, and he has never enjoyed it. The need here is not restoration, but demolition and building something new. We could work for years to try to fit this student into our definition of classroom learning, but that will be challenging and might be impossible. The necessary work might be in changing the definition and approach of the classroom. The goals remain the same, but the failed methods have to be tossed aside.
Restorative practices, and the conversations that surround them, are some of the more important conversations that we are having in education today and I would never suggest that we should stop this work. However, I think this work needs more context. It needs a more nuanced approach that addresses one of the most fundamental problems in education: there are groups of people in our society for whom schooling has never worked. This tragedy is disproportionately impacting students of color. We can look at almost every measure available to tell this story, but systemic bias and racism, low expectations, and bad school models are creating environments in which so many students never enter successfully.
When a marriage falls apart, it makes sense to work to restore a love that was once strong. When a house begins to deteriorate, we should restore the structure and update the style. When my one daughter hits my other daughter, I remind them of all the fun they often have together. When I awake at 2 AM, I should hope to be sleeping at that time the next night. But things that never existed cannot be restored. You don’t renovate a house that hasn’t been built yet. Likewise, you can’t try to restore a student to a classroom that has never worked for them. This is what makes the work of restorative practices even more complicated in some settings. We have to work at grace and restoration, but we must also determine whether restoration is the first process necessary.
It feels like I am often having conversations like the one above. It’s just not always this extreme. So many other students are simply trying to fit into a system that is almost impossible to navigate. They spend 13 years awkwardly trying to make a dysfunctional model work for them and disliking the whole process.
Last night, I slept through the night. Whatever stressors were causing my lack of sleep have subsided a little, or I’ve just become so tired that sleep wins out. Either way, I’ve been restored to a decent night of rest.
Sometimes though, restoration is more complicated.