schools

All puffed up

Now forget the back in my day we all wore shorts and t-shirts in the middle of winter and sandals when it was snowing, ate dry bread and rotten milk and were grateful speech. Puffer jackets are warm and toasty little numbers. They are also wind breakers and water proof and pack down so don’t take up space. But they are generally not school uniform. I’m well aware of the tedious and protracted consultation that goes on for schools to agree to a uniform. A part of me is very curious to see just how many schools manage to grasp the concept of gender neutral (shhhhh there is no such thing! Just a version that is not feminine really). But that has nothing to do with conundrums about keeping warm. Are puffer jackets just a fashion statement? Well to some they might be but they are kind of practical if you are living in places that rarely get into double didgits in the winter. I can’t wear puffer jackets – they have the effect of making me look like Mr Stay Puff the marshmallow guy from Ghost Busters (maybe less angry and apocalyptic). I prefer my warmth to come from layers close to my skin, but that is just my preference. Why schools are not willing to roll with more than one or two options for warmth says more about the need for uniformity that is created with uniform, it’s not multiform or unique-form (mufti). So Motueka High and any other school trying to beat down the down. Don’t sweat it – toasty teens are less likely to seek body heat from each other. So if you want to reduce teen pregnancies, let them wear puffer jackets. And if they want to share jackets it needs to be consensual.

Shouting-silence ‘just’ be-cause

I wrote recently about the diversity inquiry group and how humour works to disarm fear and create rupture points in cyclical self-perpetuating dualisms. Yesterday DIVINQ took on the Day Of Silence (DOS) with some curious effects emerging, most unexpectedly media interest. We took an alternative stance of being loud and overt about taking a stance about diversity and fear of difference in connection with bullying of LGBTIQ* young people (*lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, questioning).

The questions we were raising were only made possible because the DOS exists and I respect the initiative and what it stands for. I understand the intention of bringing awareness to issues through public action. But I’ve noticed a bit of a trend in schools hoping to develop social justice consciousness amongst students and I’m not convinced they necessarily create the change or move beyond the immediacy of the action on that day. Typically the gusto and energy swirls around a small number of passionate individuals. There is planning, ribbon cutting, poster making, assemblies, concerts, banner waving, and all other explosions of coming together. It feels good to take part in something powerful and joining the ‘in crowd’ of the moment is easy to do. In fact not it’s a little like Derek Sivers analogy of the first follower – once there is enough momentum you stand out for not joining in.

But what about the day after? And the day after that? What silence and shouting both do is make a statement – it draws attention. The uncomfortable difficult and ongoing work however needs a lot more than spontaneous combustion of injustice and emotive flashpoints such as ‘bullying’ ‘suicide’ ‘depression’. Worse than that, we can end up representing groups only in those terms of ‘victim’ ‘survivor’ ‘marginalised’ and inadvertently trap identity in these ‘cages of causes’.

DIVINQ is an ongoing conversation, not just a day of action so I hope if the media wish to lend a genuine voice to conversations about bullying that they put their own sensational agenda aside and engage in dialogue with schools or communities in a way that fully respects the context and commitment to the work people are doing.

Busting for neutral territory

Animals don’t wear clothes, we are the only animals who have constructed such intense meanings around the coverings we wear. All animals excrete (actually so do plants, not sure about rocks and minerals) and we also have insane rules over who can excrete where and how. I’m a bit perplexed at the responses to the new guidelines around sexuality education and the insistence that unless we have separate bathrooms and gendered uniforms in schools young people will enter the ‘real world’ confused and unable to know how to conform and play by the (gendered) rules of life.

But I’ve been beaten to it by Philip Patston, his blog is well worth reading. The issue for me is when do we say ‘woops let’s leave those assumptions in the past’. I think gender is screaming out for a need to move on, or an extreme make over. Something like the androgynous 80’s but without the shoulder pads! Schools as social institutions have been shaping young minds and bodies, beating any resistance into shape by shoving young people into set uniforms, and other rules designed to identify them clearly for a particular gendered role in society. I’m not going to run through the tired justifications for uniforms particularly the myth that they create some ‘fairness’ or sense of ‘equality’ or ‘school pride’. However schools are more like brands these days – and parents as ‘consumers’ rate brands according to criteria perceived as valuable. Uniforms are part of the branding.

Toilets however are part of life. We have actually divided the world by excretory plumbling specs – mainly how our kidneys expel waste. How weird is that? I love the ridiculous paranoid rantings of the likes of Bob McCoskrie, the hand wringing over students playing for one team one day and another the next because they can’t decide what gender they are is laughable. Actually, it would be a question of reliability and commitment Bob – absolutely it is about picking a team because the wrath of the ditched players due to someones fluid identity would not be worth bringing upon yourself.

Dying for change

I have just read the funniest thing that wasn’t meant to be so hair-leer-ious. Shelley Bridgeman has declared war on non-conformity. Young people it seems have a simple choice of follow the rules or go to another school. I hear you Sally but there is a flaw with your logic about students being able to ‘choose’ another school, because we still have a ‘one size fits all’ model. There is an obvious solution, build more schools to give students choice that offer a truly MODERN learning ENVIRONMENT. Schools that are actually trying to break out of the 19th century prison model of discipline and punishment and live in a world where how we dress, and look does not reflect a ‘lowering’ of standards, but where the quality of the relationships is reflected in how people talk and interact with each other, to allow for individuality to be expressed in colourful ways and genuinely hold people to account on things that matter. Conformity and obedience to authority are far from ‘quaint values’ surely a good history teacher should be able to give you a lesson on that Mrs Bridgeman – make sure you sit down with your arm crossed and don’t ask any questions.

Dancing In The Dark

This is a bit of a part 2 to my recent thrashing of dance as a metaphor to explore restorative practice in schools. My apologies if it’s getting a little overcooked for some but I will stay with it as there are lovely parallels if you dare to take the floor with me.

I mentioned in part 1 that I dabbled in ballroom dancing as a teen, and those who know me personally will probably find that hilarious. I was also seduced by contemporary dance at university for a short period of time and tried my hand at choreography with mixed results. While I enjoyed the classes I often had a tinge of envy for those who had a bit more of a base. Picking up the steps seemed to require far more concentration and effort than some of my peers who looked like they were bored, stoned or possibly both – yet managed to pull out the sequences well ahead of me. I would often ask them for help, and ask them to slow things down and did a lot of repetition – and it helped.

Choreography is fascinating. Studying various styles and techniques developed and feeling how these shifts in energy and the use of the body allowed me to appreciate the skills needed to become and accomplished choreographer and produce works of moving art. Dancers who study for years under a particular style move with those distinct patterns and flourishes that have been worked into an unconscious level. Moving through the steps and movement of restorative praxis follows a similar dynamic. Where those who have studied rigorously at the school of traditional disciplining practices will move in a particular way, their steps will be precise and definite. Much like ballet that has a long history and language with familiar transferable expectations. People can recognise ballet when the see it. Traditional school discipline practices to me seem a lot like ballet – if you get my point (insert cymbal crash).

The role of the choreographer is to design and create – be the architect of the movement sequence. Sometimes they will have an end point in mind a sense of definite outcomes and how things should look. This high level of control and precision leaves little room for error and means the dancers must all be clear about their role and trained appropriately so they can dance the steps expected. In fact a choreographer will choose dancers they know have the expertise and necessary skills to complete the movement and hoped for outcomes.

School leaders are much like choreographers with a selection of skilled dancers among their staff. They might need to see them perform in different contexts before assessing their ability to carry out the restorative steps. But if a team of leaders cannot agree on the steps or style of dance being performed or communicated with the dancers, one being given one set of movement the others a different the sequencing, and flow and energy of the relationships between the dancers will suffer. There will be confusion and concern about who has got it right. Sometimes choreography is done in collaboration with dancers, allowing their expertise and knowledge to enrich the process and foster a sense of ownership so that those performing have a deeper connection to the overall feel of a piece of work.

My hope is that those in schools who assume the role of choreographer of restorative practice have the ability to recognise when they are putting dancers through sequences that do not fit their style. Because even the most accomplished ballet dancer is likely to look like someone having a seizure if they are asked to do hip hop. No amount of hoodies and baggy pants are going to cover that up.

Oh and if you had a certain tune running through your head reading the title – well done – The Boss says now DANCE! Any style will do.

Sequins of events

When I wrote about learning restorative practices being like learning to unicycle the analogy worked for the individual. But I think in terms of systems shifting it is a bit more like ballroom dancing. When you learn the steps and pattern of the foxtrot and understand who will lead there is movement across the floor. There might be the occasional toe step but if both partners understand the sequence falling back into a cohesive flow is relatively easy. If we needed to switch to a quick step we knew what that meant, it was a shared language.

I did ballroom dancing lessons in cow cocky land so occasionally clarification was needed around the meaning of particular words – such as ‘dip’ being largely dairy farmers, I might have been in danger of a drenching. If one of us was trying to waltz while the other some other step it would look like a bunch of 5 year olds playing football, lots of legs and no sight of the ball, plenty of enthusiasm and vigour but more shin kicking and tripping with little direction. Regardless of the skill level and experience the steps would not align, the movements of one will inevitably disrupt the flow of the other. A good lead can often help a weaker dancer by being firm, so long as there is trust and basic understanding of what to do, but two different styles will just be ugly. I love to dance but it’s been a while since I busted out the cha cha, so would definitely go back to basics and I wouldn’t claim to be an expert. I’d happily follow rather than take the lead, I know the limits of my skills, knowledge and experience.

Schools systems are much like dancing, some might say there is plenty of head banging at times. But without a common shared agreement on what steps we are doing and what some like ‘restorative quick step’ or ‘punitive tango’ are – more than toes are at stake. Stopping the movement might need to happen in order to clarify and offer a hand up off the floor if there is a bit of a tumble.

So if you are starting to do the ‘swing’ or you feel your ‘jazz hands’ flying up in self defense, then stop-drop and ‘rock n roll’. Dust off and start again, put your best foot forward.

Tipping The Balance

I am surrounded by amazing creative educators and interesting people talking about ‘modern learning environments’ and what this looks like. I suppose that is where I want to push and provoke some conversations, because we seem to be stuck with ‘look like’ a lot. The focus and emphasis keeps being drawn into changing the shapes of furniture, open learning and staff spaces and increasing use of technology. We rarely get to ‘sound like’ and ‘feel like’ possibly ‘smell like’ which happen to be important relational aspects of learning. One special interest area for me is the realm of discipline. So as usual I have taken to the metaphorical to share some observations, and yes bikes are involved.

If anyone has learned to ride a bike, or swim you might recall the sensations and emotions that come with vulnerability. There is a delicate relationship between being control and feeling the pang of fear. It’s excitement wrapped in caution. As adults we occasionally are asked to learn new things that push us beyond our comfort zone but it is usually by choice and rarely does it mean learning something that puts our professional identities on the line.

But watching the process of restorative practices enter schools has all hallmarks of skinned knees, struggling for breath and feeling ‘out of our depth’ as a profession. Teaching and schools have been moving along just nicely with traditional practices of discipline and punishment for over a century. It’s a machine that everyone recognises and we generally get the mechanics of how it all works.

Learning to Ride a bike is familiar to many people – bit wobbly at the start, usually held by someone to get going, but the freedom gained was well worth it. Once you’ve ridden one you can pretty much jump on any sort of bike, same principles, laws of physics, maybe the shift in gears could be unfamiliar and mountain and road bikes do operate differently. It can feel awkward but you can adjust pretty quickly. I liken this to schools and discipline policies in general, you can move between institutions which claim a ‘unique’ culture but once you are ‘on and pedaling – it rolls pretty much the same. If rules are broken punishment is dished out – we’ve been riding this punitive machine for a while.

Then along comes the restorative contraption. It is more like a unicycle. We don’t generally see unicycles around, they are for clowns and performers, no serious-rational-real person would consider them just as adequate as bikes. They might even say ‘we need unicycles like a fish needs a bike’. Nevertheless teachers are asked to give up their comfortable seat of power, drive chain of consequences and handle bars of truth for what? A one wheeled contraption with no training wheels? And here is the real spanner in the spokes, no amount of experience on a bike will help ride this thing. It is a starting again, a stripping back to a raw relationship with gravity and balance, shame and vulnerability matched with accountability. No amount of watching, reading, analysing will help you ride one. Just getting on requires patience and perseverance, falling off is required, it is the only way to make progress – yet it feels unnatural and letting go of the stability of the wall requires courage and an understanding that without losing balance you cannot move forward. Then finally you let go and try one pedal and it feels like a mile. You start to get a feel for how the unicycle moves with you and go with it, zig zagging all over. Every subtle turn and shift changes the direction, you can even pedal backwards. So it is about giving in to uncertainty with adrenaline surging and mixing this with cautious anticipation for the next attempt.

To those on the outside, it appears unsafe, reckless, even dangerous. They might wonder where is the control? The direction? How do they steer? It looks awkward and clunky and many will turn away and say ‘I’ll stick to the bike thanks – at least I know how that works.’ A small group will persevere and take the risk of leaving the safety and comfort of the wall of familiarity. A few pedal strokes is exhilarating enough to feel like you are getting it. But the next time in might be face in the floor time, it doesn’t mean going backwards, learning is non-linear and with every painful fall there is a sense of progress, the body senses more and more how to move with this strange new (e)motion. Encouragement, support, laughter and shared experience allow those who continue to maintain their momentum. The wobbles will lesson and the flow will come, falling gets easier and less painful, in fact, direction comes through careful adjustments, a growing awareness of what works for you.

There is no skipping a stage, there is no way to short cut…just get back on… hundreds and hundreds of times. Eventually getting going will be less of a struggle and momentum will come naturally. The effortlessness is illusory, it masks the commitment and dedication, change in physiology with a new and unique proprioceptive relationship to rolling friction. But those who have tried to ride will recognise and appreciate the visual confirmation that ‘it can be done’.

Because the usual mechanics of power and privilege that comes with Authoritarian discipline have been stripped back, the time to get going restoratively does mean many will need gentle introductions whilst others will be ready to throw themselves into it. Both are fine, but recognising the kinds of support people need is something schools need to pay particular attention to when introducing restorative processes. Developing effective restorative practices takes time to develop and they only get easier by doing them. If there ever was a place for repetition in learning it would be here and particularly the skill of asking questions. However it is helpful to find creative ways to ask the same thing otherwise you run the risk of wearing your ‘mental tire’ out on starting in the same place all the time. You can get around this by rotating the tire every few weeks on a unicycle, or to get some alternative starting points to conversations.

One of the things I remember from learning to unicycle was how tired I felt, how exposed and vulnerable I felt. Bruised in places I never thought I could be (or should be) including my ego, frustrated, exasperated at times but also quietly satisfied with each tentative meter gained. Even scrapes and bumps are celebrated and cherished.
I am by no means an expert on a unicycle but having watched and taught over one hundred people to ride one I understand it is a process that has as many demands mentally and emotionally as it does physically. Fear is one of the main reasons people ‘get off’ and return to what is safe. This will always be the case. The irony is – the very ‘gravity’ of the situation is what enables these kinds of conversations to take place.

Finally, surround yourself with others wanting to share the same experience, laugh a lot, console, apply ice packs, laugh more. Expect to fall off then just get back on…again and again and again…