Real Transformation For K12 Schools (w. AJ Crabill)
On this episode, I’m sharing a conversation I had with AJ Crabill - a student-led restorative practices coach for middle and high school students and a student outcomes-focused governance coach for school boards. He’s also an author, educational advocate, and school board member himself.
We were introduced through the power of the interwebs and I was immediately intrigued by the work he does with school boards. AJ champions the idea that school boards are the key to real transformation in our K12 schools. He believes that the real transformation is in cultivating student-led cultures that enhance student-focused outcomes. In our conversation, he discusses how he determines which school boards to work with and he gives strategies that any educational stakeholder can use to begin effectively engaging school boards whether you’re a teacher, parent, or a community member. We also dive deep into the idea of student-led restorative justice, why it works, and how it plays a major role in creating thriving school communities.
Because, after all, when our schools win, we as a society win too.
As a school system, it’s our job to ready students for the world beyond school. We work hard to instill knowledge, work habits, and other “21st century skills” that are required for life as an adult. AJ challenges that our behavior systems of schools - how behaviors are managed and handled - should also reflect the skills that students need to be cooperative, functioning adults. AJ comments on how our current behavior model in schools mirrors the retributive system of society which encompasses determining who’s guilty, what consequence matches the action, and then applying the consequence as quickly as possible. He shares that, when this model is applied to our schools, there is very little accountability for one’s actions. AJ’s concern is that our current model isn’t holding students accountable for their behaviors and for “righting their wrongs”, whether that be to an individual or a learning environment. Therefore, AJ works with school leaders on instilling restorative practices in schools.
The true power, AJ shares, in the work that he does in supporting schools in embracing restorative justice practices, is that they are grounded in student-centered principles, which - as much as we’d like to believe it’s the case - is not true for many of our school systems. If we really drill down to the base of our school systems, we find that most schools have an adult lead culture and climate. AJ shares that a concern that comes up with his student lead restorative practices is that “students can’t handle it”. He challenges this belief by saying that, “adults can’t handle it either if they are not trained/supported properly”. AJ comments that, with the proper training and support, students can run restorative practices in their school - a powerful skill when you think about the amount of conflict one deal with as an adult.
Now, all of this can’t be said without addressing extreme behaviors. As AJ points out, he is not an absolutist when it comes to restorative practices. He shares that there is a time and a place for retributive practices - such as illegal or unsafe behaviors. However, he believes that the two - retributive and restorative practices - can work together to create a system that truly supports the behavior growth of students.
Are you feeling intrigued by the idea? So, what are you to do if you want to change the systems in your school? What do you do if you feel like your school needs a “bottom-up” approach to get its school leaders on board?
With the work that AJ has done with school boards, he shares that first, you need to understand the role and job of your school board. It’s important to remember that it’s the job of the school board to ensure that the school system matches the communities vision and mission. Therefore, when talking to your school board, you need to speak to them through that lens. You need to come to them sharing how whatever it is that you are proposing will help them continue to uphold and support what they are working towards. AJ shares that, when you do that, you’ll start to see the results that you’re looking for.
There is power in the collective and working together, and when we can create systems and cultures of this in our schools, our students aren’t the only ones who win, but so does our society as a whole.
Resources Mentioned in this Episode
Check out AJ’s book: Great on Their Behalf
Connect with AJ!
AJ is a student-led restorative practices coach for middle and high school students and a student outcomes-focused governance coach for school boards.
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