A seminar of students in a photography class with blurred backs of students in the foreground and an Asian lecturer at the front of the room standing in front of framed photographs, establishing restorative justice principles in his class

Using Restorative Justice in the Classroom to Address Harm

In the middle of my lecture on the gender pay gap in organizations, a student interrupts me to proclaim how the gender pay gap “can’t possibly exist” because his mother is a senior manager in her company and gets paid “more than the men she works with”. Other students visibly bristle around him.

I’m teaching intersectionality theory to my postgraduates for the first time. To get them to reflect on privilege, I ask students which identity traits would they want to reborn with in our society. A white woman announces to the class that she wishes she was half Asian and proceed to fetishize Asian femininity. Mortified at her response, I clumsily skip to a different exercise, but not before I notice an Asian woman crying into her notebook at the back of the room.

As these two examples above concede, I’ve had my fair share of disappointing, triggering, and cringey failures in my efforts to teach intersectional feminism, diversity and inclusion, and social justice in my classrooms.

Microaggressive comments and challenges still unsettle me, but over the years, I’ve gotten better at responding rather than reacting; adopting an intentional approach that focuses on repairing the harm caused by racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist incidences in the classroom.

Drawing on my experiences as a university lecturer, this post offers some guidance for addressing harmful incidences in the classroom. The suggestions I offer in this post draw on principles and practices of restorative justice — an approach that recognizes the inherent worthiness of every person and seeks first and foremost to address harm and restore relationships rather than punish wrongdoers. At the end of the post I’ll recommend a couple of books if you’d like to learn more about the role of restorative justice in education.

Two women of color are studying together on a wooden picnic table in a courtyard, their backpacks are on the table beside them, and they're sharing notes as they learn about restorative justice in the classroom together
Photograph by Charlotte May

Pre-Existing School Culture and Expectations

School Culture and Climate

The first thing to consider before you even introduce topics such as intersectional feminism, diversity and inclusion, and social justice into your classes is the pre-existing culture and climate of your school.

Are you working and educating within a politically conservative institution that has traditionally supported hate speech as ‘free speech’? Is the wider town/city, county, state, and country in which you live overall conservative? Is it homogenous (e.g., white-dominated) and historically resistant to difference and diversity?

If you’re new to your institution, take some time to get a feel for the more tacit values and assumptions of your school culture. Just because your school might outwardly profess progressive values does not mean that those values are embedded in actual practice. Speak to marginalized students, alumni, administrators, and academics about how accommodating they think your school is to diversity and inclusion.

Culture can also vary by faculty or even discipline. I teach management so I’m usually shielded from misogynistic incidences in my classrooms when my students are primarily human resource professionals and managers who are uniquely sensitive to issues of diversity and inclusion. Misogynistic comments and behaviors can be more normalized in other disciplines and faculties that are heavily male-dominated and/or lack sociological awareness.

Put your safety and wellbeing first.

If you suspect your pedagogical content will attract harassment and violence or risk your job (and livelihood), please take care. Consider introducing social justice ideas and principles more cautiously, experimenting with different ways to lay the groundwork and set expectations to dampen the ‘shock’ of these new concepts.

Even if you believe your institution will be supportive, it’s never a bad idea before introducing sensitive content into your subjects to notify your department chair or campus administrator. Their response will also help you understand the culture and climate of your school and give you a hint if you can expect any support from your institution if you try to address microaggressive behaviors in your classroom.

Students’ Expectations

What expectations have you set with your students in your own subject?

Do your students understand the rules of engagement when they enrol and enter in your class?

At the start of semester, have you communicated to them through your syllabus and in-class what behaviors are not acceptable in your classroom and how you’ll respond when there’s been a violation?

After you’ve worked out the approach that you’d like to take if and when there’s a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist incident, come back to your pedagogical groundwork and make sure your response plan is clearly communicated to students at the start of the semester.

A Black woman in a patterned shirt is studying in a contemporary library with her textbooks in front of her, studying restorative justice in the classroom to address harms
Photograph by Retha Ferguson

Responding to a Racist/Sexist/etc. Incident

1. Safety Check

Assess the safety of yourself and your students.

Try to stay calm, yet alert.

Stop, pause, and breathe.

It’s okay to slow down and take the time to respond rather than react.

Call for support if you have any concerns about managing the situation on your own, for example, if the conflict turns physical or anyone requires medical attention.

2. Address the Act

Once you’ve collected your thoughts and emotions, as plainly and calmly as you can, restate to the entire class the ethical principles of your classroom.

Focus on shared values and commitments (e.g., “we agreed at the start of the semester that our classroom will be a principled space where the dignity of others will be respected and where everybody regardless of their identity can feel welcome”) rather than blaming and shaming the act (e.g., “you were being homophobic”).

Then follow the policy you’ve established at the start of the semester. If you said offending students would be asked to leave the classroom, for instance, then you need to follow through to show that you do take your established principles seriously and keep your promises about classroom procedures.

If the incident was more ambiguous and the offending student is confused about why what they said or did was offensive, then you might need to clarify, for example, “the word you used is a homophobic slur and has commonly been used to oppress LGBTQIA+ people. Hearing that word can be upsetting for many people”.

Take a moment to consider the intersectional dynamics of the incident.

Did a migrant student inadvertently use a slur because English isn’t their first language? Did a working-class student say something that caused offence because it didn’t seem ‘respectable’ for polite (middle-class) society? Did a BIPOC man say something misogynistic towards a white woman in reaction to something racist she did?

Use your best judgement about the offending students’ intentions and respond with compassion, affirming if appropriate, “I know you didn’t mean to hurt anyone in your case. Let’s reflect on this incidence together in class so we can all develop a better understanding of [racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, intersectionality, justice, dignity, etc.] and how it relates to [the main topic or context of the subject whether that be culture, society, work, organizations, law, medicine, etc.]

3. Invite Empathy

In the immediate aftermath of an incident, emotions and tensions are likely to be high in the classroom. Some students may be hurt, offended, and angry. The offending student or those who identify with them may feel ashamed, indignant, defensive, or even a little scared about what punishment they might face.

Where possible, diffuse the tension through an anecdote that helps foster empathy for the harm caused by the incident. Take students out of the heat of the moment by sharing a related story of how you or someone you know experienced a parallel incident and describe how it feels to be target of a slur.

The intent here is not to blame or shame individual students but to invite deeper understanding and empathy for the target without putting the target on the spot to explain their hurt.

Using an anecdote of a different situation helps depersonalize the situation while tensions are high. It means you’re not making presumptions about how targeted students feel about the incident, but speaking instead from first-hand experience how incidents like these can hurt people.

When the incident was not a direct attack but the promotion of racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist ideas (such as in my two experiences shared at the start of the post), acknowledge and raise awareness of how these ideas pervade our culture and impact the lives of marginalized people.

4. Reinforce Teaching

Connect empathy for those harmed with how this situation can potentially lead to a better understanding of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism in society.

When the student in my lecture asserted that he didn’t believe the gender pay gap exists because his mother was paid more than men at her workplace, I clarified that the pay gap didn’t mean that all women were paid less than all men.

I then used his belief as an opportunity to teach the wind chill effect — a theory developed by gender scholar Michael Kimmel that explains why individual men may feel under threat even when men collectively hold more power. The metaphor of the ‘wind chill’ suggests that it doesn’t matter what the actual temperature is when individuals are more concerned with what it feels like.

Again, the focus of the teaching isn’t “how could you say something like that, don’t you know that’s wrong and offensive?” but to acknowledge how and why many people may feel similar.

The wind chill effect, for instance, helps explain why so many individual men deny the existence of patriarchy because they themselves may have faced challenges in their lives. At the extreme, the wind chill effect convinces some highly privileged men that they’re actually the victims.

You can also teach concepts like microaggressions, everyday racist language, or intersectionality in response to general discriminatory comments and behaviors.

I appreciate that it’s rare to have a theory tucked up your sleeve that you can whip out in an emotionally tense moment and seamlessly tie into your subject content. Irrespective of whether or not you can tie the incident to a theory, you may feel it’s constructive to facilitate a discussion about the incident.

Rather than focus on what happened, consider how and why it happened.

Adopting a sociological perspective, lead the students to discuss how the school climate and wider culture promotes racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist values. Again, because I teach management, I’d discuss with the students the implications of social injustice in work and organizations.

If appropriate, invite the students to discuss whether or not the policies and rules of the classroom were adequate to identify and address the issue today. How might they be clarified, developed, or strengthened to better address future incidences?

In situations where you’re caught completely off-guard by the incident or you’re unable to address the incident comprehensively in the moment, you can always follow up via email the next day and/or prepare for some time at the start of the next class to more thoughtfully address the incident.

5. Attend to the Target

If possible after class, check-in with the target/s of the derogatory comment or behavior if there are any. Ask them if they’re okay and remind them of your office hours if they’d like to have a one-on-one chat about what happened.

When discussing the incident with the targeted student, the questions you may ask are:

  • What did you think and feel at the time when the incident occurred?
  • What have you thought and felt since?
  • What about this has been the hardest for you?
  • What do you think needs to be done to make things as right as possible?

If it’d feel too confrontational to hold them after class in-person, write a follow-up email ideally within a couple of hours of the incident.

Respect that your standpoint or your actions in class may have impacted the trust between you and the targeted student. You may not be able to make everything right.

Let the student know of any relevant resources on campus like student counseling or any student advocacy groups.

6. Address the Perpetrator

Depending on the nature of the situation and your relationship with them prior to the incident, check-in with the offending student. Invite them to have a one-on-one chat with you during your office hours to discuss the incident.

When discussing the incident with the offending student, the questions you may ask are similar to those you raised with the targeted student:

  • What were you thinking at the time when the incident occurred?
  • What have you thought and felt since?
  • Who has been affected by what happened? How do you think they’ve been affected?
  • What about this has been the hardest for you?
  • What do you think needs to be done to make things as right as possible?

If the situation is more serious and what they said or did violates student misconduct rules of your school, this step may require informing your administrator about what happened, filing a formal report about the incident, and allowing the school to enforce their own policies against hate speech or attacks.

However, most institutional policies and procedures are not grounded in restorative justice and may have deleterious longer-term consequences for both the offending and targeted students.

A Black man sits in a teal sweatshirt listening to music on headphones and studying in a book on his lap while two classmates are sitting behind him and whispering to one another, representing the importance of addressing harms in the classroom through restorative justice
Photograph by Keira Burton

Healing, Not Punishment: A Restorative Justice Approach

The suggestions for handling racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist incidences in the classroom in this post follow the principles of restorative justice.

Restorative justice is a theory and methodology that is rooted in the conviction that everyone is inherently worthy. While honoring the dignities of each participant, restorative justice collaboratively addresses the harm caused by wrongdoing to people, relationships, and community.

Restorative justice encourages the perpetrators to develop genuine empathy and remorse for their wrongdoing and take responsibility for their actions as opposed to punishment.

This video below shows how restorative justice in the classroom can be practiced from as early as elementary/primary school.

In the classroom, traditional punitive justice models focus on the rules that’ve been broken. It singles out the offending student who violated the rules and exacts the punishment they supposedly deserve for their wrongdoing.

While we may not be able to change the wider school climate if it adopts a punitive justice framework, we can choose to respond differently in our own classrooms.

Restorative justice in the classroom stems from these three questions:

  • What happened?
  • Who has been harmed?
  • What do we need to do to make things as right as possible?

You can see these three questions reflected in both the discussion guides for students in steps 5 and 6 of the previous section.

If you’re interested in engaging with restorative justice principles and practices more deeply, I’ve suggested a couple of books in the Learn More section down below.

You may also want to undertake training in restorative justice mediation and facilitation. This gives you the skills to bring students together — the targets of harm and the perpetrators — and work through addressing the incident together. Training is generally available at colleges and specialist institutions.

Within activist communities, it’s worth noting that an emerging model of justice known as transformative justice has the potential to extend beyond both punitive and restorative justice frameworks.

Transformative justice shares some core principles of restorative justice in seeking to prevent violence and harm without creating more violence and harm.

However, it’s explicitly sociological and intersectional, allowing all participants to recognize how violence and harm are enabled by systems of power. It fosters accountability from both perpetrators of harm and the wider community, asking all of us to critically reflect on our role in reproducing oppression and injustice.

The promising, radical principles of transformative justice are powerfully introduced in this video below.

Learn More

Nathan Maynard and Brad Weinstein (2019) Hacking School Discipline: 9 Ways to Create a Culture of Empathy and Responsibility Using Restorative Justice

Katherine Evans and Dorothy Vaandering (2016) The Little Book of Restorative Justice in Education: Fostering Responsibility, Healing, and Hope in Schools

Featured image by 祝鹤槐

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