Circle Time! Really?

Carrying on with my reading of “Hacking School Discipline”, I now present you with the second ‘hack’ in this book – ‘Circle Up’.

The argument presented in this third chapter is that removing a child from the classroom is an easy “out” for anyone who doesn’t want to engage with the learning. The student plays up, the teacher feels obliged to remove them from the class for the sake of the learning of everyone else and the student is given a pass on engaging with the work at that time – obviously impacting their progress and the progress of others as well. The next lesson, they enter without paying any dues toward repairing the harm they caused in the classroom previously.

I’m with you. Happens all the time. The next lesson, we, as teachers, are expected to ‘reset’ and carry on as if nothing happened in the name of giving that person a fresh start, but the problem is that the student hasn’t done anything to earn the fresh start. There’s been no apology; there’s been no reflection of how their behaviour affected the teacher or the other students; there’s been no effort to repair the damage of missed learning time. So what solution is offered here? The class gets into a circle and discusses the impact of the behaviour and collectively decides what must be done by the offending party to repair the damage they caused. Right… I was with you all the way up until “gets into a circle”…

I have no intrinsic objection to the notion of discussing the damage caused by misbehaviour and collectively deciding what that student should do to make up for it. I’m just thinking of how this might play out purely in my own context – and if I’m wrong, I’m more than open to being educated.

So let’s play this out. Student X starts calling out repeatedly in lesson and starts talking with Student Y loudly – talking over the teacher giving instructions and ignoring every demand to be quiet and get on with the work. Neither Student X, nor Y gives a smeg. Teacher says “Circle up!” The students get into a circle and the teacher starts to set expectations of how this is going to work. All the while, the two offending students are still laughing and talking over everything that’s happening and are now commenting on everyone else getting into a circle – something along the lines of, “Ah, here we go. They’re getting into their circle.” As the circle beings, their behaviour is continuing – only this time, they’re interrupting the circle time; the topic of the lesson has stopped and the only ones engaging with the circle were the students that were already engaging with the learning. So in order to effectively engage with this ‘circle time’, the teacher still has to remove the two offenders in order to have the discussion in the first place. So… nothing changed. The students still ended up being removed and the ones involved in the circle discussion weren’t doing anything in the first place. Yes, we can then discuss the collective harm to the class (it’s a good opportunity to reflect on that, no doubt) and decide what those two students would need to do in order to make up for their behaviour, but what if they refuse to do that (which the biggest causes of concern in my own school would definitely do)? What do you do? What actually changed for the two who caused the issue?

Am I looking at this in the wrong way? Someone please educate me on this – and I mean that sincerely, not sarcastically.


One thought on “Circle Time! Really?

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  1. Salam Avais, I hope you are keeping well and set for a wonderful Eid tonight and tomorrow. I see you’re being active on the blog again, exploring different concepts, which is wonderful.

    Is your “traditional” way of disciplining teenagers working? Are the children’s behaviours improving because of it? Is an impending threat of expulsion getting less kids expelled? No? Do you wonder why some schools do have such well-behaved children? (Also no? 😀 ) You get my point, change is needed.

    Reinventing the wheel doesn’t exist. “New” wheels are discovered by us, when our car is so battered that the mechanic forces us to either upgrade or fail the MOT. When we say “new”, we actually mean “different”…. and maybe, possibly, though our egos hate that word, “better”.

    The term “Restorative justice” was coined in 1977 by prison psychologist Albert Eglash, and it is one of 3 pillars of good old, traditional legal justice – restorative, retributive and distributive. It has gained popularity because studies show criminals are least likely to re-offend when they feel valued and included as opposed to rejected and hated – common sense, right? However, restorative practices have always been the tenets of balanced and cohesive societies throughout human history. With restorative justice, you have to utterly consistently show that you have everyone’s best interests at heart, so that they (kids etc) want to do as you ask. Yes, the cult of personality does factor into this, unless all teachers are on the same page, in which case it would become an institutional value… hint back to schools where kids are well-behaved.

    I know it’s a hard task in teaching, to have to provide parental-level discipline, when in most professional environments, it’s not up to the individual. Restorative justice is the mainstay wherever there’s an extensive and well-consulted HR department, which I believe many schools don’t have the same access to as big industry offices. However, it is what it is.

    As “Law enforcer” of your class, you’re essentially getting everyone in the room on the same page, by demonstrating and instilling empathy. You put the kids in your shoes of a teacher, so that they are made to understand and explain – perhaps during circle time – why their behaviour disrupts the class, and why that’s difficult for you. You also have to do your bit by understanding – and verbally explaining that you understand- the process by which that individual lost control. Then you reverse engineer it back to the moment of calm. This allows the whole class to be aware of why some individuals lose control, and to help them out in early stages, so it doesn’t get that far. It’s up to you, at first, to ensure the whole class is involved in supporting each other to behave decently. But eventually you won’t have to. Many schools have peer-to-peer counselling, anti-bullying etc. It started off with a lot of awareness training, and now the teachers can typically leave the kids to maintain each other’s discipline, at all ages. Finally people like you can – yes – just do your job and teach!

    The Prophet Muhammad SAW also had a similar burden on his shoulders of not having a human PR department, but he used restorative justice as an individual, and it worked. He told the 4 Quraish leaders to hold the black stone on the same cloth and replace it in the Kaba, and because he had a reputation for fairness, they wanted to obey him, whereas retributive justice, practiced by those tribespeople, was leading to more and more deaths… (In the less extreme school setting, rejection is the more appropriate term than murder.). The Prophet was able to do what he did because everyone saw him as a person of fairness, cool-headedness and integrity, and they felt he had their best interests at heart. Cult of personality? Well, the Prophet’s ego would never feed into that concept as we know it. However, he was loved by his followers and respected by the enemy.

    For 21st century context, I highly recommend you read “Nonviolent Communication” (NVC) by Marshall Rosenberg. He gives PRACTICAL advice on handling situations by instilling responsibility and empathy, where there is ALREADY disrespect and violence.
    Literature on Conscious Parenting, as well as Waldorf and Montessori paedegogies, which you’ll find in proliferation on Amazon, will also help.

    In that vein, I also encourage you to reread our own Islamic texts, looking at scenarios where people wronged the Prophet on a one-to-one basis, and where he disciplined children. It’s not that patience is a virtue. It’s that he used a particular communication style that neither provoked others, nor allowed him to be emotionally triggered. Warfare was sometimes needed in the wider society, but the Prophet didn’t waste any time playing zero sum games or provoking violence.

    I hope I barely managed to disrupt your Eid with this lecture :):):) … many of us read these books feeling guilty about some of our own practices and wishing that our loved ones had not treated us with vehemence, which initially colours our perspective and makes us feel all kinds of things that we don’t want to admit to. Some people are too cowardly to acknowledge or allow for those emotions, and so they stop. That’s another core part of restorative justice – being honest and clear about our own emotions, so others can’t manipulate us – remember how the Prophet and sahabah would shed tears in public. I felt compelled to reach out, sensing the frustration of your own learning curve here, and I sincerely hope some things are clarified. As I have said, feel free to reach out, and do be sure to read lots of books beyond the one that’s currently in your hands. Never be afraid to give or receive the gift of learning because it is painful, frustrating and confusing. Wassalaam, from an old friend who still has your back.

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