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A Restorative Approach to the Spring Semester

by Joanne Stirrup, Product Specialist

Schools weren’t kidding when they said these were unprecedented times in every email: when global panic and injustices meet academic stress, there’s not much of a guidebook for how to cope. Although I’m not even sure that anything could have prepared me for college during a pandemic, I know that I never want to experience a semester like that again. So, while we are set up for another grueling few months, they don't have to be a repeat because we — students and instructors— know much more now than we did in August about ourselves, community-building, and resilience.

With these new lessons and the break ahead, we have the tools and the time to heal and then preserve our bodies and minds in the midst of this continuing crisis. Our current paradigm of self-care treats the body as something to restore in the aftermath. While this works in the short-term, this is not compatible with what we know about long-term sustainability. We need a healing that is built into the foundation of our educational systems and practices; for if it is separate, we will only perpetuate this demanding labor cycle, in which we care for our bodies until we feel well enough to return back to the system that is hurting us in the first place.

What does it really mean to introduce a healing framework into education? It sounds abstract and imaginative, and that’s because it is. But there are substantive steps that we can take to bring us from this imagined care into a real, holistic model. It is important to note, however, that this work cannot fall on one individual. As demonstrated by the following principles, this work must be shared by administrators, instructors, and students — this is collective action that is pointed at collective healing with a focus on intersectional justice.

Restorative Education: A Working Draft of Some Principles

1. Examine the myth of independence.

American culture is built on this continual push for independence, and our mental health suffers as a result. When we pretend like we live independent lives, we perpetuate a myth: we ignore the support we get from family and friends, all the healthcare professionals, all the people who make supply chains possible. And as we do so, we vilify interdependence, the very link that keeps us all alive and living in communities. However, once we begin to question the merits of this myth, we can create space for progress.

2. Create space for check-ins.

Our fear of vulnerability also manifests as the stigma that surrounds emotional check-ins; but when we are suffering as an entire world, it’s crucial that we take care of those around us. And this can start with an honest conversation about how we’re doing and what we need to feel better. As we share in these conversations (virtually or safely in-person), we can create community in a time when we need it the most.

3. Take accountability.

We will make mistakes because we are doing our best with what we have and know. Although these educational errors are inevitable, we should still take accountability. Whatever happens in the classroom or in the workplace, we can move beyond it when we take care of those we’ve harmed and know how to do better the next time. If we don’t do so, we contribute to an oppressive culture that stifles healing practices. On this same note, we must also have mercy for those who make mistakes— but more on this in the next principle.

4. Have mercy.

When we meet mistakes with anger and hate, we create harm in a world that needs healing. It helps to remember that we are all learning here. If your professor tells you the wrong due date or you didn’t do your best work on an essay, it’s okay. School and work are not the most important things right now— what is essential, however, is that we are taking care of ourselves and of each other, and mercy is part of this work. So, forgive yourself and forgive your professors, as they should reciprocate and be forgiving of you. Accountability and mercy are two sides of the same coin— our token for healing. We are all living through a crisis, and we need to have much more mercy for each other to get through it. As a note, however, I recognize that forgiveness is complicated and can be a life-long process— this is merely a proposition for having mercy in our educational systems.

5. Understand your privilege, and respect lived experiences.

As we learn about our world together, we inevitably learn more about each other. And with this, comes discussions of privilege, power, and oppression. In order to create safe spaces, we must respect lived experiences, validating each individual’s unique perspective. As we try to understand the intricacies of each other’s histories in relation to our world, we must do the work of anti-racism, -sexism, -homophobia, -classicism, etc. to make sure that this labor does not fall on multi-marginalized people. As a start, we can learn more about intersectional oppression: watch lawyer and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s TedTalk, in which she explains her term “intersectionality.” While we learn about the realities of oppression, we must also reflect on our own actions to unlearn racism, sexism, homophobia etc. in our lives. Understanding and checking our privilege is a key to collective healing, for in doing so, we are creating spaces for marginalized voices to be heard.

6. Honor accommodations and openly discuss them as an option for all students.

Although we are not here yet, we should be far from the discussion of professors/teachers honoring legal accommodations. If a student comes to you with an accommodation request from their disability office, honor it. Not only is it the law; it is necessary for healing. However, we are encouraged to adopt a more progressive accommodations policy. As of now, the responsibility to secure accessibility relies entirely on the student, who must jump through bureaucratic hoops to learn and live. However, if faculty and administrators open their classes with a discussion about accessibility, we can create space for healing in our educational practices. And as a note, this accessibility is not confined to legally-documented disabilities (which not every student is able to secure). From generous attendance policies to the opportunity to utilize Zoom chats as participation, we can create classrooms that have access built into them from the start— not just as an add-on, which some faculty members are hesitant to comply with anyway. We are just asking to learn, and these are the features of access that we need to make it happen— please encourage this discussion to reduce the stigma surrounding disability and accommodations.

7. Encourage transparency.

Transparency helps us trade worry for humanity. When we are all honest about what is happening in our lives and our bandwidth to do certain assignments, we begin to respect each other for our human-ness, not for our ability to achieve in school. There is something so refreshing about transparency— when I see a professor or student expressing vulnerability in this way, I feel much closer to them. And this sense of community is another integral part of healing.

8. A robust commitment to giving students appropriate mental health tools.

If we have these honest discussions about our needs and experiences of mental health but aren’t given any support in managing them, there is not much room for healing. As universities with access to resources, they have a responsibility to the student and their wellness. Mental health resources are not something that can be satisfied without a depth of knowledge and care. So, while it is great to have a new football field, it is even better and urgent that we have robust mental health tools available to all students. There has to be a better balance here— it is a matter of student sustainability and healing.

Again, this is only a working draft to help define some of the contours of what this structure might look like. As we continue to reimagine our educational system together— transforming the abstract into a reality— we can create a system that works for all of us, a system that is imbued with care and a new semester that heals us.


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