Today’s blog post was submitted by Phillip Taylor, a teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento City Unified School District. Mr. Taylor teaches two sections of Restorative Practices Peer Mentoring, where student Peer Mentors are using their social emotional learning skills and restorative justice strategies to support their peers. If you’re interested in implementing this idea at your school, you can view this project in our database.
[Content warning: This post references gun violence in schools and bullying.]
During the course of my work, I found myself listening to one of my mentor students tell me his mentee’s problem: The mentee was trying to buy a gun to use on some kids who were bullying him.
We intervened. The mentor reported that he told the student not to buy the gun, and came to talk to me, since he had no idea what to do next and knew that this situation was beyond his expertise.
We developed an intervention plan, informed administration, and reached out to this student. He was feeling bullied and overwhelmed by life, so we developed a way to address the bullying and the feeling of isolation the student was experiencing. We checked in with the student throughout the year. The student eventually reported that the bullying stopped, and the student’s life got better. The mentor and the student remained in contact for the entire school year and beyond. For us, the team who implemented this mentoring program, this is a win.
We started this mentoring program at Luther Burbank High School in response to what we saw going on every day in the school’s discipline office. Every day, students, often the same students day after day, would be held in a room with no windows waiting their turn to talk to a vice principal. The vice principal would have a brief conversation about what happened, assign a consequence, and return the kid to the room until the period was over. This means that the room was filled all day with a bunch of angry kids complaining about the school, their peers, and their teachers. Meanwhile, the school was working hard to develop ways to have meaningful discussions with students in class about school culture and community. The contradiction between what was happening in classes and what was happening in the discipline office – the complete disconnect – was a call to action.
Since the discipline office was filled with the kids who most needed to be plugged in to these conversations about culture and community, why not bring these conversations and relationships to the discipline office? We met with administration and proposed developing a mentoring class that would also act as the school’s discipline office for one period. We developed a process that would easily work as a substitute for the school’s standard discipline office during the period, and we would elicit positive, productive conversations with students. The class was called Community Restoration Project (CRP).
After only one semester, our school’s administration loved our outcomes so much that the program was expanded. CRP now operates as the school’s discipline office for two periods, and we hope this will be the way our discipline office works all day. The district’s SEL director is exploring the possibility of taking the program to high schools across the district. Just like any discipline office, we still assign consequences, but we do so in collaboration with each student and their peers, and we don’t end the conversation with the consequence. That’s just the beginning of the conversation, really. We use the day in the discipline office as a reason to start a meaningful relationship with a mentor and find out what is really going on.
Once we had permission to try something new and the initial excitement of starting a new program wore off, getting the program going was a lot to manage. Often, it looked like mentees and I reminding one another to follow up with mentees and to stay on track. It was a pile of papers with mentee names and reports on my desk and in the mentors’ backpacks. It was weekly reminders to one another about who to see, how often to see them, and what to talk about while processing daily office referrals. Follow up conversations often resulted in reports that, “they won’t talk to me,” and “they just complain about their third period teacher over and over and don’t listen to my advice.” It was often frustrating. A lot of kids didn’t seem to turn around or make any changes.
So, our mentor student was just doing his routine duty when he found out about the kid trying to buy a gun. The mentor was reaching out to a kid who expressed some frustration with his classes. The whole bullying situation and the kid’s desire to purchase a gun just came out in conversation. I don’t know how or if this student’s situation might have escalated, or what we prevented because a mentor reached out. Without student mentors, however, we wouldn’t have known about this kid nor his dire circumstances. I doubt the troubled student would have felt comfortable talking to anyone else about his problems.
For us, the fact that this student did not pursue his plans highlighted the importance of what we were doing, even if the work was often frustrating. This experience revealed something to me about solutions that respond correctly to the huge problems we face in schools today: the real work of saving lives is often a grind.
While policymakers and the news searches for glamorous, dramatic solutions to problems, the problem isn’t that there are no universal solutions. The problem is that the real solutions, the ones that work, often aren’t very exciting. Real change happens in stages, and it happens over time. It may not be visible right away. It doesn’t start with the straight ‘F’ student getting all ‘C’s’. It starts when the straight ‘F’ student apologizes to his mentor about a mean joke. It starts when the straight ‘F’ student picks up the mess he made in the room for the first time, without being asked. It starts with little things, maybe so little you might not notice them. We celebrate little wins. “Little” wins are often all we get, if we get any “wins” at all. Kids improve, then fall back into old habits. Kids get better, turn things around, then get in trouble again. Sometimes kids change for the better, sometimes they don’t. It takes a lot of patience and persistence.
Despite such discouraging experiences, we’ve also been able to enact change for individuals and even whole classes sometimes. It’s slow, and it’s repetitive, and it’s often frustrating. After a while, we started getting to know the classes that were having consistent problems, and we started reaching out to those teachers to see if we could lend a hand. Usually, these teachers were grateful, and we were able to get into classrooms and develop some creative ways to prevent office referrals instead of just reacting to them. Kids and teachers appreciate these efforts, and one of our ninth grade teachers thinks we may have saved some lives when we were able to put a stop to some really dangerous behavior that some of his students were engaged in.
I don’t know if we really did save any lives, or the extent of what we may have prevented. I do know, however, that if we hadn’t pushed through those discouraging days of student mentoring together, we wouldn’t have discovered this young man nor learned about how troubled he was. But it wasn’t thrilling. It wasn’t exciting. It was just a kid, getting to know another kid.