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Restorative gestures in higher education

Estimated reading time 3 minutes 45 seconds.

In the weeks since the outcome of the US presidential election, there has been a lot of rhetoric around healing and coming together. We are, as a society and as a campus, certainly reeling from being so disoriented by remote instruction and pandemic living for such a long time. I’ll be watching carefully what happens in these first weeks and months (as I’m sure many of you are) to see what attempts can be made to take action around the rhetoric of healing and coming together. 

I’m bringing a particular lens to that viewing, that of “restorative practices.” I was so lucky to have the chance to participate in a two day professional development event from the International Institute for Restorative Practices in the fall semester of 2020. I set the intention of bringing back some of that information to campus. IIRP has extensive impact in the K-12 setting, and is only beginning to explore what restorative practices in higher education can look like. That being said, the evidence of success of these practices goes beyond the educational context, and is well researched and established in conflict resolution literature

One nugget from that training that I’m coming back to this week is that “repairing harm” is only one of the goals of restorative justice. When I read calls for society to “come together” or “heal” I worry that there is a focus exclusively on repairing material harm. Of course, when we’re confronted with the staggering loss of life this pandemic has produced, we’re all too aware of what cannot be replaced. Restorative practices, as outlined in The Restorative Practices Handbook for Teachers, Disciplinarians, and Administrators (2019), aim to meet the following group of goals: 

Fostering understanding of the impact of the behavior

Repairing the harm that was done to people and relationships

Attending to the needs of victims and others in the school

Avoiding imposing on students intentional pain, embarrassment, and discomfort

Actively involving others as much as possible.


As I said, this particular model anticipates a situation where a student’s behavior has violated a code of conduct, and recommends how the teachers and administrators respond. But I wonder if we took this list, what we would come up with as a campus as strategies to come together and grow into what our campus will be and do in the semesters and years ahead?

  • How can all of us better understand the impact of the pandemic on our students? On our faculty? On our administrators? 
  • What harm has occurred to members of our campus as a result of the pandemic? What relationships have been harmed? Can any of it be repaired by the university, or by it’s members?
  • What do those who were harmed need now? What do our students need in terms of accommodations? What do our teachers need? What does our staff need?
  • How can we meet those needs without imposing intentional discomfort or embarrassment? 
  • How can we involve as many people as possible in generating these ideas? 

In my work as an instructional designer, I focus the most on the choices instructors make to support the learning their students have set out to achieve. My anecdotal impression is that the relationship between teachers and students has been harmed by our distance from one another. The harm is much more minimal than the danger faced by meeting in person in a pandemic, and thus, could not be avoided. But we are still in a space where a relationship stands in need of strengthening, if not repair. I invite you to think with me about where we can learn from each other about the impact of this pandemic on each of us, and how we can work to restore or re-imagine the kind of relationship teachers and students have with one another moving forward. 

This is a conversation that involves a lot of people on campus. I hope there’s an idea above that inspires you to bring up the topic with a trusted colleague or your students. If you’d like to strategize with someone about how to do that, or would like some help facilitating conversations about teacher-student relationships, the Hub is one place you can go. If this reflection resonates with you, shoot me a quick email! I’d love to hear from you.  

Image by Ulrike Leone from Pixabay

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