If you ever needed a perfect example of how the University of New Mexico directly contributes to the community, look no further than the College of Education and Human Sciences (COEHS). 

The new Restorative Practice Partnership between COEHS, the District Teacher Residency Program (DTRP) and Garfield Middle School is creating a fundamental pipeline of restorative practices from children to future teachers to the classroom.

“Our partnership with Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) is underscored by experiences like this for our Teacher Residents,” DTRP Director and COEHS Professor Marjori Krebs said. “By providing opportunities for our future teachers and future principals to learn the power of Restorative Practices from the Garfield Middle School students and teachers provides them with an excellent foundation for leading their own classrooms and schools.” 

Garfield Middle School Restorative Justice Practitioner Erin Chavez and COEHS Special Education Professor Layla Dehaiman have spent years getting this program official. It began when they both met through APS; Chavez was diving deep into the art of restorative practice as an administrator, and Dehaiman was working to get the ball rolling in the district. 

“I was primarily focused on providing support for students that have behavioral challenges and eventually worked my way into finding restorative practices and social-emotional learning,” Dehaiman said. “I worked at APS doing restorative practices, and that's where Erin and I met. This work has been really important to us for over seven years now. When I came over to UNM, it was really important for me to carry on that connection.”

After learning together, the pair began sharing their knowledge with teachers one by one. Educators who had been in their routine for years had to ask: What does restorative justice in practice look like?

“The way I like to define restorative practices, especially within the school setting, is moving away from looking at the rule that was broken and the consequence that should follow and shifting our mindset to the relationship that was harmed and how we repair it,” Chavez said. “It's really about giving people the opportunity to get what they need. What does everyone need to feel safe, to feel comfortable, to feel ready to welcome that person back in? It really focuses on the needs of the whole community, not just on one person:

Restorative practices is an application that has always been exhibited more or less by certain teachers across the decades, but has recently gained traction in schools since the COVID-19 pandemic. Restorative practices in schools, by definition, is a theory that focuses on building relationships and when there is a breakdown in those relationships using mediation and agreement rather than immediate punishment.

“It's about building relationships and then repairing harm when harm is done. That can be harm that we as educators do to our students, or it could be harm between two students. It really is about looking at the larger relational ecology of a school community and seeing relationships, knowing that there are always going to be some breakdowns in those relationships.

Then we have those tools to repair the relationship,” Dehaiman said. 

As Dehaiman transitioned to her role at UNM, she and Chavez were determined to not only maintain their restorative practice efforts but expand them.

“We've stayed in touch the entire time. I thought it was really important for our teacher residents to have access to hearing directly from kids about restorative practices. We connected teacher residents and then just continued it and really made it grow this year as I've moved over to UNM as a faculty member. Other people may understand and have some foundational knowledge of restorative practices, but Erin and I have been deeply entrenched in this work,” Dehaiman said. 

What better to implement restorative practices than in the minds of future teachers at UNM, combined with the foundation of APS to set the example?

“There are still many schools and educators and administrators trying to push for this. It's a lot of work, hard work and with not a lot of resources, so that's what we're hoping to do here at Garfield by sharing what we've done for the past three years, and how positive it can be. We’re hoping that more schools will kind of see the value in it and really push for full implementation,” Chavez said.

Both Chavez and Dehaiman can attest those tools of mediation, patience and conversation were not a priority when they were becoming teachers. 

“I never felt quite prepared enough when I finished my teacher preparation programs to deal with some of the challenges within our schools. That comes from personal lived experience. I was raised by a single mom, and so really seeing some of those diverse needs and challenges in our community and experiencing them myself really made me focus on it,” Dehaiman said.

“As a new teacher going in, you're very unprepared for the things you'll come across. You are not taught how to help kids solve these things, how to talk to kids about them. I think it's really important that we are reaching out before teachers get into classrooms to give them the tools and the time to practice skills under supervision so that they can grow and feel more comfortable going into their own classrooms with them.” – APS Restorative Practice Coordinator Erin Chavez

Restorative practice actions have a strong foundation in communication. How can students or students and teachers talk things out before issues escalate? How can conversations mend continuous problems so they don’t happen again, or cause irreversible damage?

“It is about making teachers aware that it takes a little bit more time to talk, but what we see is a reduction in the time that is spent with behavioral referrals, or the time it takes for students to catch up on their homework,” Dehaiman said. “We're going to provide them with those wraparound supports as soon as they come back in to reflect on what they did and then come back into the school community and be reintegrated with those supports so that it doesn't happen again.”

Layla Dehaiman and Erin Chavez
Layla Dehaiman and Erin Chavez

Chavez, as one of the few dedicated positions to restorative practices in APS has had plenty of opportunities to perfect the craft. One of the ways she does so is with talking pieces to assist in point illustration. From there, things can flourish.

“We have a talking piece, and we have a subject that we talk about. When we start them out, it might be something as simple as if you had a superpower, what would it be? As the year goes on, we get deeper and deeper so that we're building that trust and we're starting to build empathy. When kids start to learn about each other, they have more respect for each other,” Chavez said. 

Still, both Chavez and Dehaiman agree the best way to get started and open the doors for restorative practice is with circles. Circles, historically, have been used in communal settings for eons. They create a sense of belonging, equality and ceremony. 

“Circles are the foundational practice of restorative practices. As the year goes on, we can have different types of circles. We'll do problem-solving circles or harm circles. I also work with teachers in classes to help them implement circles. Every now and then, I'll have teachers bring their classes in, and we'll do circles and other relationship-building activities,” Chavez said.

There are 24 circle keepers at Garfield, who lead the way in these skills. That’s why Dehaiman thought it was so important to have these young circle keepers be the ones to also guide teachers.

“We did some foundational underpinnings of restorative practices and went over some of the basics, but we felt it was really important to make sure that the kids had an opportunity to speak too, because who better to hear it from than the kids that are experiencing this? We do this work for the kids, and so when we're able to do it with them, it’s important to showcase that,” Dehaiman said. 

In addition to events held at Garfield, the middle schoolers get to come on UNM’s campus. 

“As we’re training with the kids, we thought it was really important for the kids to come on campus and be in a college classroom. It was really important for us to have the kids have a say in a classroom and really act as the faculty members,” Dehaiman said. 

This is critical in not just hammering in restorative practices across generations, but reminding kids about the future ahead.

“It's amazing. Some of these kids have never been to UNM, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic, so going onto campus is not a common thing. To be able to walk them all around and show them the dorms and show them different classrooms, the libraries, is amazing,” Chavez said. “A lot of our kids don't know about scholarships, so we're able to tell them there's no reason why they can't do this. To see that excitement, and building their leadership skills is special.” 

It also shows kids that not only is their perspective valued, but their current teachers and future teachers value them as students and future adults.

“When we slow things down and we do that deep work, we are actually really making a change and making efforts to hold kids accountable and make them aware of how their behaviors impact the larger community. I would say restorative practices has high accountability and highest support for our students.” – COEHS Special Education Professor Layla Dehaiman

After all, the role of a teacher is not just a person who hands out quizzes and makes you read U.S. history; it’s someone who is extraordinarily instrumental to the development of a person.

“I really just wanted to be that trusted adult for kids who maybe don't have those supports at home or within their community. What research shows is that if a kid has one trusted adult, it increases their resiliency factors by so much,” Dehaiman said. “It was really important for me to make sure that I pass that on to future teachers. If they get into a classroom where there are challenging behaviors or students that have mental health needs and they don't know how to provide those support, both the teacher and the student are at a loss.”

Through restorative practice, Chavez believes the school-to-prison pipeline can be a thing of the past. 

“I always tell teachers that the school-to-prison pipeline starts in the classroom. Now, teachers are a lot more aware and trying to have restorative conversations with students where they can solve problems together before immediately going to consequences or removing them. It takes a few individuals, so if we can bring the UNM (teachers) out ready, they have the potential to make a huge impact on schools,” she said.

On top of the general impact of missing out on class time, studies have shown time and time again that children who attend schools with high suspension rates are more likely to be arrested and jailed as adults. Black boys, in particular, are suspended and expelled three times more than any other student. 

“It's really important for us and the work that we do to broaden the toolbox for teachers and take that different approach of supporting students rather than punishing them. Really, when we think about it, this is decarceration work; it really is trying to end that school to prison pipeline and really trying to keep kids in school to create those inclusive and safe environments,” Dehaiman said. 

kids in a line doing an activity on grass
APS students doing a restorative justice activity

The biggest misunderstanding about restorative justice–that punishments are entirely thrown out the window.

“One of the largest misconceptions about restorative practices is that we're being soft on kids. I hear from so many educators in the field that we're not holding kids accountable,” Dehaiman said. When we slow things down and do that deep work, we are actually really making a change and making efforts to hold kids accountable and make them aware of how their behaviors impact the larger community.”

The best thing is that it’s not just one school shouting into the void; it has proven effectiveness.

“The difference has been significant. We are in our third full year of implementation and we've definitely seen a huge drop in suspensions. We've also seen a huge drop in those violent behaviors that we were seeing even before the pandemic. It's been an unbelievable change in the way kids are talking to each other and the way teachers are talking to kids,” Chavez said.

Restoring equity and maintaining solid, healthy connections throughout one of the most difficult times in life (middle school) cannot be built in a vacuum. However, through APS and UNM, the change is starting.

“I think it is really important for students to be leaders in this. I think once people participate, they actually realize that it's a much higher level of accountability for the person who causes harm,” Chavez said. “When you have to sit down face to face with someone that you've harmed and hear from them and talk to them and apologize or do what it is you need to do to make it right, to me, that is much more difficult. For us to take that responsibility, admit that we've been wrong or that we've hurt somebody when we're face to face with them, it really has such a higher level of connection with the community.”