Restorative Practices as a Framework for Leadership

Over this past year, we’ve been looking at the relationship between power and leadership, including some of the key factors that impact the power dynamics in our schools. I’d like to turn now to some reflections on different ways of doing leadership and how those impact power in our schools. For our first step on this journey, I want to draw from the excellent work of the restorative practices movement. Restorative practices draw from a variety of disciplines and seek to build healthy community, increase social capital, reduce anti-social behavior, and repair harm and relationships.

There is a wealth of rich thought to draw on here, but for the purpose of this blog, we’ll have to limit our focus significantly. I’d like to reflect on the restorative practices graph below.

Note the axes of control (we often refer to it as accountability) and support as central to this conversation. If, as a leader, you give minimal support to your faculty and staff and don’t hold them accountable, you are essentially an irresponsible leader. You are neglectful of your duty to enable your team to work together to fulfill your school’s vision, and you are neglectful of your duty to empower your faculty and staff to grow as professionals and as people. You are NOT leading your school.

If you hold your faculty and staff highly accountable but give no practical support in your expectation for them to achieve a certain level of support, you are essentially exercising an authoritarian style of leadership and responding punitively to your team. You are doing things TO your school community. If you provide a high level of support to your faculty and staff but hold no one accountable—they are able to move wherever the winds blow them—you are exercising a paternalistic style of leadership, like an overly permissive parent who is always compensating for their child. You are doing things for your faculty and staff, and they will never learn to do those things for themselves.

Finally, if you are in the sweet spot, you are setting goals with your staff and faculty, creating accountability structures for them to achieve those goals and providing specific supports to enable them to work toward that achievement. You are authoritative in style and are doing things with your school community.

In my experience, school leaders, and even teachers, in the bottom left quadrant don’t last very long, as things begin to go awry quickly. Faculty and staff pull in all different directions and often hold low commitment to the school, working in a vacuum of direction. I think the risks of working out of this quadrant are straightforward and indefensible.

However, I have also observed leaders in the top left quadrant exercising an extremely high level of control over their faculty and staff. Often these leaders mask this control with inclusive language and can manipulate their team members by playing at collaboration. Giving faculty and staff authentic opportunities for input and deep involvement in goal-setting is much different than giving them the perception of input and involvement. One is true and the other is false. These schools often become leader-centric, and the leader holds the reigns so tightly that the school often begins to be created in the image of the leader. Leadership succession work in these schools is challenging, as so few staff and faculty have been authentically involved in driving the school toward fulfilling its vision. Rarely do these schools have a strategic plan that has been developed with the input of the school community. The goals are often created and pursued at the top, and the credit for achieving them sits there.

More often, I have observed schools (and churches) that sit in the bottom right quadrant. There, under a misguided understanding of what biblical community is, the leadership works super hard to support and encourage the faculty and staff and provide minimal-to-no accountability. This is the school where marginal teachers can have a career. Everyone knows that they put little effort into good assessment, or that their planning is weak, or that they are rude and abrupt with students, but nobody talks with them about it. And in that void, they are left to assume their poor practices are acceptable. I’m just talking about basic teaching practices. The next level is the accountability to the specific goals the school has set to achieve their mission.

Finally, where we all want to be, the top right quadrant.

While we will never perfectly land there, we should be striving to create a growth mindset culture in which the school community sets goals for itself and then works together to achieve those goals. The leadership’s role is to first lead and facilitate (the leadership dance of leading and listening) the dreaming, goal-setting, and planning process, and then to create accountability structures (deadlines, measurables, etc.) and supports (professional time, access to specialists, budget alignment, etc.) that realistically enable faculty and staff to achieve those goals.

Now, a caveat. There will be times in our leadership where a faculty or staff member may perceive that something is being done to them. In my experience, this has happened when poor practice has finally been addressed and the educator lacks the self-awareness to realize the need for improvement. I believe this fits within the paradigm of working with our faculty and staff if we have put the appropriate structures in place and someone has opted out of exercising their professional responsibility to serve the school’s vision and/or improve their practice. I also believe there are seasons when, as leaders, we need to do something for our faculty and staff. This could occur with the whole school in a time of crisis, or it could be with one individual who is walking through significant personal issues. As people of grace, we fully recognize that we are called into seasons of caring for others as well as being cared for by others.

I encourage you to print off this little graph and post it somewhere visible to you in your office as a reminder of how we are called to lead in our communities. I find it a good reminder to listen and care for my faculty and staff, and a good challenge to engage in the difficult conversations connected to accountability.

– David Loewen

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