Restorative practice is important to the classroom for educators to understand the benefits of relationships and community building with their students. Through these trusting relationships, educators and students feel a sense of responsibility to ensure everyone feels they belong to an open and nurturing classroom community. This intentional routine of building teacher-student trust should also extend to educator colleagues as well.
Through the training of restorative practice, the National Center for Urban Education (NCUE) has grown a reputation of exhibiting quality workshops in this area. As a result, faculty on campus reached out to NCUE to facilitate a workshop within their department. There are several applications within restorative practices that can be used to not only build but restore and nurture communities. The specific one used for the Wonsook Kim School of Art was listening circles. Listening circles, which date back to indigenous and African tribes, are an age-old practice known to build, maintain, and heal communities of people.
There are steps taken to prepare for the listening circle prior to the actual date of the session. With the support of NCUE team members Jennifer O’Malley and Dr. Maria Luisa Zamudio, we asked Sarah Smelser, professor and interim director, what she wanted to achieve while having a listening circle with faculty in her college. This goal is normally achieved through several questions answered by participants in the listening circle. Those goals and questions were refined in order to achieve the deepest level of interaction between participants. Once the questions were approved, a date was set at the end of fall 2021 semester. Smelser admitted that she was a little apprehensive going into the listening circle.
“Partly because I didn’t know what to expect,” she said, “but also because I didn’t know how we would fill 90 minutes with the three questions that were prepared.”
Doing listening circles, or a restorative practice circle of any kind, virtually can be challenging. During these times, NCUE has adjusted to ensure that everyone feels heard and respected in this space. To start the session, there is an explanation of what listening circles are and their purpose. Next, the norms for the session are shared and it is open to the group to add anything they feel should be included. The beginning question starts with participants introducing themselves with an icebreaker or low stakes question. Once everyone has answered that question, the next set of questions are asked, delving deeper into the important aspect and purpose of the listening circle. During this time, participants are invited to answer the question for themselves but instructed not to directly respond to each other. It is the goal for all participants to be attentive to each other’s answers and process what is being shared rather than defend or respond to their colleagues’ answers. With each question, participants are welcome to answer, but they can also pass. During this session, all participants felt comfortable answering the questions and truly absorbing what each participant shared. By the end of the session, everyone seemed at ease and more connected to each other.
The listening circle closed with everyone sharing their final thoughts about participating. While many were hesitant to join at first, they all agreed they were pleased with how it went and glad they decided to join. They were able to truly listen to their colleagues’ thoughts and feelings and gain a better understanding about where they were coming from.
When asked what this experience was like for them, a participant responded: “Thank you for this process, it helped me to understand that I am not alone.”
Someone also noticed that the listening circle brought them closer together as a department. Another participant felt it was interesting how everyone was focused on the person who was speaking as a unique method for conversing in this type of context.
In the end, Smelser was also pleased with the process saying that she felt a lot closer to people she’s worked with for years.
“With our busy schedules we don’t often have time to communicate about anything truly meaningful,” she said. “The 90 minutes flew by. It didn’t even seem like enough, given the importance of all that was said.”
Anyone interested in having NCUE facilitate a listening circle should reach out to Dr. Maria Luisa Zamudio, executive director for the National Center for Urban Education.