All Posts by: Staff Author

Restorative Practices in Education

Relationships—Not Rules, Not Policies, Not Procedures Drive Human Development

Restorative Justice in Education is an invitation to create educational cultures that emphasize social engagement rather than social control. This does not imply that rules, policies, evaluation, telling, and success are irrelevant; it simply means that these serve the needs of people living within the community, not the other way around. Restorative Practices in education hold the possibility for changing learning factories into gardens where seeds are planted and growth is nurtured.

Context, Culture, and Relationships

I want to tell you a story from the book Running on Empty by Jonice Webb Ph.D. A young lady named Sarah came home from school and soon after, got a call that a boy in her class committed suicide. She was overwhelmed by a wave of shock, confusion, and grief, a “whirl of emotions she had not felt before”  (Webb, 2015, 40:53). She raced home hoping to talk with her mother and was a bit surprised to learn that her mom had already heard the news. Sarah was still hoping to talk through the complexity of her new compound emotion. Before she could say anything her mother said, “I heard about Johnny, I’m not surprised, I think the young man was on drugs”, and that was the extent of the conversation. Her mother didn’t ask her how she felt and never brought up the topic again, and as a result, Sarah pivoted emotionally – she masked her emotion and tried not to think about it. She was caught off guard by how easily she cried at odd times or when left alone with her own thoughts. She attended the funeral and focused on her friends, their grief, her school work and simply, moved on. 

To Sarah’s dismay, two more students in her school committed suicide. She attended those funerals as well, focused on her friends, just as she did when John died. Different however from before, in neither of these instances, did she bother to speak to her mother. She also never acknowledged or spoke about how grief-stricken and disturbed she was by the suicides. Eventually, Sarah started to lose her ability to focus in class. Her grades started to slip, she struggled and even began feeling a sense of anger that she could not shake. Her parents became angry and indignant with her asking “what’s wrong with you?” rhetorically, not really looking to engage her because they genuinely didn’t have the emotional awareness to do so. Consequently, Sarah thought the same thing, “what’s wrong with me?” She started to believe that she was weak, stupid, and uncooperative, and she felt this way well into adulthood. She would describe herself as “numb.” She had learned to cut herself off from her emotions so that they would not bother her. She would also feel weak and ashamed any time she felt emotion. Sarah had an amazing childhood, loving parents, but despite all of that, adult Sarah wanted to die.

After listening to the story—just being vulnerable here—I was in tears. I can remember a time when I was a kid, probably 6 years old. I watched the movie Boyz n the Hood with my mom and brother. When I saw Ricky turn and run for his life down that alley only to be gunned down, I lost a sense of safety and security. Questions flooded my mind “Could that happen to me? Why were they so mad that they had to kill him? Why didn’t anyone help him? He didn’t do anything to them, so if someone is mad at me will they just kill me?” This might sound dramatic but something in the 6-year-old me was assaulted during that family time. “Moms” didn’t ask me how the movie impacted me. We just went to bed and moved on with life. In my household, we were not allowed to be afraid or show fear. “Don’t be soft” was a phrase that was often used against any kid who showed a hint of fear. I knew while watching that movie that I couldn’t show that I was terrified by what I saw. So I did what Sarah did, I masked my emotion. As a result, however, I was always anxious, I never felt safe or protected. I also struggled to feel like I could be a “real man”—whatever that means. I never spoke to anyone about that experience until I started therapy some 15 years later.

Child Interpretation + Caregiver Attunement = Healthy Development

Relationships—not rules, not policies, not procedures—drive human development. The quality of those relationships, the adults’ attunement to the child, and the child’s ability to interpret emotions and thoughts from lived experiences, which is facilitated by the quality of their connectedness to their caregiver, either leads to positive and healthy development or negative and unhealthy development. According to Osher et al (2020) human development occurs through reciprocal co-actions between the individual and their contexts and culture, with relationships as the key drivers. Relationships and contexts, along with how children appraise and interpret them, can be risks and assets for healthy learning and development, and their influence can be seen across generations and can produce intra- as well as intergenerational assets and risks. 

What does this have to do with restorative practices in education?

Restorative practices in education

Restorative Practices (RP) in education are primarily about nurturing relational interconnectedness. Here at University Prep Schools we have adopted the Restorative Justice in Education framework as the structure for establishing, cultivating, and sustaining a restorative community. At the heart of the framework are two core beliefs—all people are worthy and relationally connected. 

Osher’s findings essentially justify any “child-serving system,” for adopting and prioritizing a relationship first philosophy because development is driven by the integration of neural malleability and plasticity with the dynamic relational interconnectedness of children and the adults with whom they interact in their social, cultural, and physical contexts. In other words, the quality of a person’s sense of worth is proportional to their sense of connectedness to the primary caregivers in their lives. This matters because just as you read in both Sarah’s and my own story, when children are left to respond to and interpret life events on their own, especially potentially traumatic events, they can be overwhelmed by their thoughts and emotions accompanied by that experience. If the adults or caregivers in their lives are not attuned to the child, attentive to and noticing the impact of such events, dismissing the impact, or chastising the child for responding emotionally the child most likely will begin to think of themselves as “fatally flawed.” This kind of thinking has a direct impact on their learning outcomes. It is my responsibility to add to the foundation that was laid by building our attunement and response skills. The goal is to increase one’s ability to respond to the contextual factors and experiences that influence a student’s behavior and perhaps reach restoration. 

Restorative Practices In Instruction

In addition to proactively establishing relationships through focusing on attunement and responsiveness, another dimension of my role is to develop capacity around intentionally leveraging relationships to support students through moments of academic struggle, the moment when they recognize what they can do on their own and what they cannot do unless supported or guided. This is formally referred to as the zone of proximal development or ZPD. Zaretta Hammond encourages us to cultivate relationships that support dependent learners in taking intellectual risks and stretch into the ZPD. That’s the point of nurturing healthy relationships, supporting dependent learners in avoiding stress and anxiety, and earning the right to push students to be excellent and put forth the effort. She goes on further summarizing that the ultimate goal is to help the dependent learner become active in making decisions about their learning moves. She offers these tools:

  • Kid friendly vocabulary for talking about their learning moves
  • Checklists to help hone their decision making skills during learning and their attention during data analysis
  • Tools for tracking their own progress towards learning targets
  • Easily accessible space to store their data
  • Regular time to process their data
  • Practice engaging in metacognitive conversations
  • A clear process for reflecting on and acting on teacher or peer feedback.

Restoring the U Campaign 

By definition, the word restore means to bring back to its original state or form. This is often thought to be the case in the context of restorative practices, specifically when responding to and repairing harm. Restore the relationship to the pre-conflict status quo. Well, what if the pre-conflict nature of the relationship was less than ideal? What if communication was toxic? Controlling behavior? Threats? Restorative justice does not imply returning to past circumstances especially when there is a history of abuse or trauma or a long pattern of wrongdoing. In this case, the relationship instead needs to be transformed.

In the same way, here at University Prep Schools, we are not interested in overlooking the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the racial injustice, and the tension between community members that feels to be at an all-time high. Incidents at the beginning of the school year mirrored similar behavior of the disruptive chaos that had been reported at major league sporting events. We recognized that these isolated incidents were all the cries of relational brokenness that needed to be intentionally addressed and remedied. Our answer was the Restoring U Campaign. It was important to us that we as a school community found a new way of being and doing with one another that fostered a will to good, a protective concern,  and conviction to restore our community. 

In closing, “Restorative Justice in Education is an invitation to create educational cultures that emphasize social engagement rather than social control. The starting point in ‘how we are when we are together’ is relationships rather than rules, people rather than policies, honoring capacity rather than evaluating ability, creating meaning rather than imposing knowledge, asking rather than telling, and well-being rather than merit-based success. This does not imply that rules, policies, evaluation, telling, and success are irrelevant; it simply means that these serve the needs of people living within the community, not the other way around. Restorative Practices holds the possibility for changing learning factories into gardens where seeds are planted and growth is nurtured.” (Citation: Zehr, Howard. The Little Book of Restorative Justice. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2002.)


Brandon Lane is a Philadelphia native with over 10 years of experience as an educator in the Philadelphia and Detroit public and charter school systems. He is a graduate of Morehouse College and a member of the cohort of Philadelphia Teaching Fellows. Brandon joined the U Prep Community in 2017 as a high school Science teacher, and advanced to the Senior Director of K-12 Science Instruction. He currently serves as the Director of Restorative Practices for the U Prep Schools network. 

Brandon Lane, Director of Restorative Practices, U Prep Schools

COVID Anxiety: Overcoming Back to School Challenges

The Context

Learning communities experienced incredible challenges this year due to COVID-19 and the ever-present social unrest in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. While schools continued to be a place of growth and expansion, they also performed as mental and emotional health centers, basic needs shelters, and places of safety and security in recent years. Indeed, many educators would argue such demands were not new to schools—a trend over the last 40 years. Schools have now become a hub for holistic support for students, families, and the community.

Learning communities, a place where students experience exposure to new ideas, diverse perspectives, material that encourages reflection, dynamic experiences, and opportunities to expand and engage in critical thinking.

The situation was further exacerbated by the pandemic, with increasing pressure for educators and staff to shift to the demands of hybrid and online instruction. We supported the emotional, psychological, and physical safety and well-being of students and families; albeit with limited resources and access to do so well. 

In the face of a global pandemic, schools across the country, the Midwest, and the state of Michigan confronted unprecedented challenges during the previous year (2020) and the confrontation continues. Indeed, the year was a difficult experience for the field of education, educators, students, and families; a fact that cannot be overstated.

Beyond COVID Anxiety to Mental Health Stressors

Direct and vicarious trauma, chronic stress, grief and loss, hypervigilance to protect, overwhelming emotionality, heightened levels of anxiety, and increased depression and suicidal ideation are just a few of the many residual effects of the pandemic.

For educators, feelings of loss (both personally and professionally), uncertainty, anxiety, and moral guilt about the educational experience of students and their ability to cope with the increasing demands were palpable. From hybrid instruction to learning virtual platforms to an additional 4 to 7 hours of work each day, educators and students bore the brunt with resilience. Altogether, these stressors, despite resiliency, can cause significant mental health challenges.

Today’s Challenge

As educators, we now stand in the face of a new challenge—returning to in-person school to create a new normal—amidst the delta variant and other variants recently speculated. We’re in the midst of a continuing national increase in COVID cases. In response to this present challenge, Boards of Education, central office leaders, and educators work tirelessly to prepare to educate students in a safe learning environment while continuing to exercise grace and dynamic flexibility to respond to the moment.

However, the fact is that students and staff are struggling to manage their emotional and psychological health and safety. Students and adults report heightened levels of stress, reduced self-management skills, and increased needs for support in schools, especially emotionally. This point is certainly not unique to schools [we know schools are microcosms of broader society and situated within communities]. Still, educators and school leaders must be mindful of the stress within the bodies of the students [and staff] daily entering the school doors. 

Symptoms of COVID Anxiety

As students and staff return to in-person school, studies show one of the most common reactions is anxiety. 

According to Psycom, “Anxiety can have a constellation of symptoms, and no two people experience anxiety in the same way. Some symptoms you might experience can include:

  1. Sleep problems – Are you having trouble falling or staying asleep?
  2. Restlessness
  3. Difficulty with concentration
  4. Constant worrying or intrusive thoughts
  5. Irritability with no obvious cause
  6. Muscle tension
  7. Recurring stomach upset or headaches
  8. Overwhelming fatigue

But what more can schools do to respond to student and staff needs? This is a question with which many educators and leaders grapple. Our capacity to support, protect, and intervene is challenged, but our moral obligation and heart for students, staff, and community prompt us to act—but with what tools? 

Strategies and Solutions for COVID Anxiety

Anxiety can manifest behaviorally, physically, and emotionally in adults and students. Sometimes, anxiety may manifest in aggressive and hypersensitive behavior. Anxiety is normal and common when we face unknown realities, especially in spaces where we feel vulnerable. Research about anxiety in schools provides several coping skills including deep breathing, stress management techniques, positive self-talk, planning, and creating a routine.

These strategies promote self-awareness and self-regulation, increasing an individual’s ability to effectively engage with others and the material they’re studying in the classroom. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, Emotional Learning (CASEL), a national resource for schools interested in best practices for social-emotional learning (SEL) implementation, provides specific competencies for students. These skills are beneficial to students, but also to staff. 

Understanding COVID Anxiety and Coping Strategies

In collaboration with our team, U Prep has provided the network with a resource to better understand anxiety and identify strategies for self-care and working with students using SEL principles. 

Indeed, this past year has been an exercise in understanding, developing, and implementing coping strategies reflective of social-emotional competencies (i.e., mindset, critical thinking, self-awareness, social awareness, and regulation) and increased awareness of social-emotional health. These skills are important buffers when dealing with increased stressors and will prove useful in this next chapter; this new normal. 

One primary antidote to anxiety [newness] is connectedness. Let’s practice our norms of collaboration and connection to create conditions for teaching and learning that are responsive to the human experience—normalizing the reactions of our colleagues and students and leaning in together to reduce the anxiety we all may feel.

Reaching Out for Help for COVID Anxiety

We encourage you to seek out help if you require support. Please understand that you are not alone and exercise patience with yourself and with your students, but more importantly, be consistent, flexible, and validating.

As a mental health clinician, raising awareness of these tools and strategies has become a strong goal of mine. While most adults think of the end-user for all resources as the students, I tend to think about conditions for teaching and learning, which opens the door for a focus on the people who help the people.

The adults in the schools require an intentional support mechanism that acknowledges their struggles and challenges as human beings and how this might manifest in the workplace. The current trend is wellness, but for people like me, the trend is not what sets the tone. It is the fundamental belief that promoting holistic and well-balanced wellness is a life’s work.

Without wellness, one cannot fully become the best version of themselves. It is with this belief and the alignment between my values and the mission and vision of U Prep that our collaboration makes sense. I am excited to partner with U Prep Schools and the mission and vision of the leadership to create conditions for learning that integrates restorative practices and wellness/SEL to support outcomes for adults and students. 1) Educator wellness, 2) adult competencies, and 3) student outcomes—creating holistic wellness for all.

Let’s get to work! 

Our Author

Dr. Karlin Tichenor, Founder, and CEO of Karlin J & Associates, LLC is the lead consultant for Educator Wellness and Social-Emotional Learning for U Prep Schools. He is an expert clinical scholar and practitioner. He is an adjunct professor at Butler University and Abilene Christian University (Dallas), the Co-Owner and Senior Partner of Family Links, LLC, a statewide social services agency, and a graduate of Denison University and Michigan State University with degrees in Communications and Psychology, Marriage and Family Therapy, and Human Development and Family Studies. He is also the previous Associate Superintendent of School Culture in the Lansing School District (MI).  

COVID and Education at Our Inner-City Schools

As the COVID pandemic unfolded, every family and employer in America suddenly realized how deeply their lives and livelihoods depended on the nation’s education systems. With almost no notice, school buildings shut down. Families and educators suddenly found themselves in the middle of a massive national experiment in new ways of teaching and learning, and new obligations of dividing responsibilities between home, school, and work. 

Remembering the Beginning of COVID and Its Early Impact on Education

Last spring, there was a pivotal moment when I realized that COVID would change the way schools and education systems operated for years to come. I remember I was in Flint, Michigan, serving in the education system on behalf of a community that had already suffered tremendous hardship with the water crisis. While still dealing with the residuals from that tragedy, COVID hit. The pandemic had proven to affect underserved communities substantially, but Flint was not only underserved; they were embroiled in a current health crisis that had already shaken their community to its core. And now this! 

The way the pandemic engulfed our society exposed how deeply inequity shapes the experiences and outcomes of children of color and low-income families who are disproportionately impacted. Like most inner-city school entities, we shut down for a period to restructure. 

We made plans to serve the families and staff best and keep all safe – ensuring all children continued to learn regardless of their access to technology. Remember those thick learning packets? Many inner-city schools ventured this route – then, online learning. Multiple families did not have the resources needed to support their child’s remote education. The passing of the government stimulus packages included funding for devices and internet services for schools and families. Students received their Chromebooks, hot spots, etc. – upgrading their access to 1:1 with technology – bridging the digital divide. 

It was clear that the hard work was ahead – COVID extending learning, preparedness and response plans, meal distribution to families,  and training for educators to facilitate effective and engaging teaching and learning.  There was no quick fix or blueprint. It was uncharted territory – a reckoning, but together, as a unit, we made the best decisions we could, considering the circumstances, and created structures that best fit the needs of our entire community. We adapted, innovated, and transformed our lives and school systems.

A year later, it is clear that the pandemic that abruptly took siege of our lives and devastated our communities has changed education in America in lasting ways. The unprecedented 16-month battle with the pandemic unleashed a wave of innovation – remote learning, discovering new ways to spark students’ creativity, harnessing technology, and providing the services students and schools need to succeed. Correspondingly, the significant negative impact on our health and wellness continues.

What We Know About COVID

On February 11, 2020, the World Health Organization announced an official name for Coronavirus Disease 2019, abbreviated COVID-19. CO stands for corona, VI for virus, and D for disease. The virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, is a coronavirus. The word corona means crown and refers to coronaviruses’ appearance from the spike proteins sticking out of them. 

COVID-19 is a highly contagious and potentially fatal disease discovered in Wuhan, China, in December of 2019. It is caused by a virus that spreads rapidly and did so globally in a very short time. The most common symptoms that the virus causes are respiratory and mirror those similar to a cold, the flu, or pneumonia.

COVID Fast Facts:

  • Most patients who contract COVID-19 suffer from mild symptoms. However, in extreme cases, others become severely ill.
  • The elderly or patients who struggle with specific underlying medical challenges are at an increased risk of falling victim to severe illness from the virus. 
  • The United States has experienced overwhelming loss and fatalities due to complications from this aggressive virus.
  • The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that vaccines against COVID-19 are safe and effective.
  • The broad spread of vaccination is critical to begin the process of putting an end to the pandemic.
  • The CDC now recommends that people whose immune systems are compromised – moderately to severely – receive an additional dose of mRNA COVID-19 vaccine after two initial doses.

COVID and Fatalities in Our Community

As defined by the CDC, health equity is when all members of society enjoy a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible. Public health policies and programs centered around the specific needs of communities can promote health equity. 

The pandemic has hovered a magnifying glass over so many of our country’s issues. Still, the most prominent is the health disparities within the underserved inner-city communities – those where the population is predominantly black and brown. Sadly, poverty and access to quality health care are related in underserved communities, and studies have shown that these factors have a significant negative impact on their health and wellness.

Certainly, COVID has rocked our nation as a whole, and in some cases, even brought us to our knees, collectively. At the same time, the threat of a pandemic only compounds the problem in communities where extreme disparities in education, housing, and access to health care already exist. The reality that black and brown populations are disproportionately represented among essential workers and industries, some experts have suggested, might be contributing to the racial and ethnic health disparities at the forefront of this disease. 

Nevertheless, inner cities always rise like the Phoenix and prove to be resilient, unified, and resourceful. Detroit is that city! We erected COVID testing and, later, vaccination stations across the city for residents to receive quality care and access. Churches, schools, community centers, and nonprofits joined in the fight and offered their buildings as sites for the public to ensure equity for their community. Finally, when schools received clearance to participate in the effort, U Prep was one of the first and continues to act as a resource for its families, staff, and community. 

U Prep’s Heart in the Fight Against COVID

It is an honor to work alongside an incredible group of professionals who lead with courage and a heart-first mentality. Before I became a member of the U Prep Crew, I was first a U Prep Parent, so I have been a long-time member of the U Prep family. As a parent, I believed the school entity cared about my children and their academic success. My appreciation for the overall network increased tremendously through the pandemic. 

Before joining the team, I engaged in the weekly parent surveys that upper management distributed system-wide. To see some of our comments and concerns translate to changes in processes and procedures to ensure the best for my children, specifically, reaffirmed my confidence in and commitment to U Prep Schools. My voice as a parent mattered. 

Upon joining the U Prep Crew this year, as a member of the Senior Leadership Team at Home Office the authenticity, transparency to families and staff, and core values were and continue to be demonstrated at inexplicable levels. 

All of us have had our lives upended by the coronavirus. Yet, we remain passionate about educating our scholars and preparing them for success and a future full of possibilities! Like many other school entities, U Prep Schools is preparing for the return of students to a new school year amid a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the Delta variant and sluggish vaccination rates across Michigan and the United States.

This fall, we welcome our scholars and crew back to the classroom, reuniting with them for in-person learning, which, for some children, will be their first time in the school building since the pandemic. While reopening will undoubtedly look different this year, one thing is clear: sound operational management of the reopening process will be critical to building public confidence and ensuring our student’s and crew’s success.

We learned from COVID and education is that preparedness is crucial. The experience provided an opportunity to introduce new learning modes to reach every student, prepare for emergencies more effectively, and make systems and structures more resilient. I have the privilege of serving as the senior executive director overseeing operations for U Prep Schools. 

I often work behind the scenes, coordinating services and support of multiple operating departments, developing plans, procedures, and protocols for our scholars and crew. Leadership, collaboration, and communications within and across major operational and academic departments have never been more important to ensure a smooth reopening process and to safeguard the welfare of our students and crew upon return to the school buildings and through the school year. 

Although I have worked in this capacity throughout my career, the heart work and lean-in on empathy, culture, relationship building, teamwork, intention, and transparency – at all cost – is restorative and well-aligned with my personal and professional mission to offer the very best services, support, and equity to our community. 

U Prep teachers wearing masks, expressing their enthusiasm for education, even during COVID.
We have had our lives upended by COVID. Yet, we remain passionate about educating our scholars and preparing them for success and a future full of possibilities!

Moreover, as the U Prep’s Operations Department leader, it is our priority to provide easy and quality access to education to our families and those in the community surrounding all of our school campuses. This imperative is the anchor of effective and successful operations, especially this fall when schools are likely to look much different from before. The following are highlights of COVID actions that our education community has taken to ensure the safety and establish a climate of awareness to achieve the best results during the reopening of schools this fall and throughout the school year: 

COVID TESTING & VACCINATION. We initiated an inquiry to establish ourselves as a site for COVID testing and later vaccination administration. Every Wednesday, in partnership with Wayne Health between the hours of 4:00 pm and 8:00 pm, our UPA High School campus continues to serve as an onsite COVID Testing and Vaccination Clinic to U Prep families, staff, and the community at large. Individuals ages 12 and up can receive the vaccine on-site via walk-up or drive-up at no cost. Parents must be present to sign a consent form for minors, and proper identification is required for adults. Qualified health care professionals from Wayne Health administer the vaccine in a safe, secluded area. 

OPENING FACILITIES, SCHOOLS & CLASSROOMS. Our facilities team took early precautions as we began planning for in-person learning for the last quarter of this past school year and enhancement in preparation for our return to entirely in-person in the Fall. Investments in proper PPE equipment and standard sanitizing procedures in line with CDC regulations were established; modifications to our HVAC systems and the installation of refillable water stations, and a myriad of new COVID in education settings protocols and procedures were created for optimal safety of our scholars and staff. 

TECHNOLOGY SUPPORT & RESOURCES. We distributed Chromebooks to all scholars who desired a device, upgrading their access to 1:1 with technology. Security, collaboration tools, and network connectivity become top-of-mind. We ensured adequate security controls in place, including upgrades to multi-factor authentication and email security. Finally, we help educators, scholars, and their families by providing training and clear, easy-to-understand support for a connected, swift, and reliable experience. COVID will not get in the way of our scholars’ education.

COMMUNICATIONS, MESSAGING, AND CHANGE MANAGEMENT. We remained committed to our promise of transparency and inclusion and offered the space for parent and staff voices throughout this journey. Weekly communications to our families and crew were distributed that included updates on positive COVID reports and up-to-date staff vaccination data. We encourage crew, scholars, and their families to participate in and comply with new procedures and practices. The latest update from U Prep Schools’ CEO, Mrs. Danielle Jackson, can be found here.

COVID and the U Prep Education Community

Finally, as we prepare to come back together again, as one school community, we do so with the understanding that we all carry apprehension based on our own life experiences and trauma from the COVID epidemic.  I am confident, however, that we – as the U Prep community – will continue to wrap our (socially distanced) arms around one another with intention and compassion that will result in overall academic excellence for every U Prep scholar. 

Author: Cassandra Washington is the Senior Executive Director of Operations at Home Office for U Prep Schools. She has dedicated her career to providing safe spaces for children to learn, develop and create. She is a graduate of Davenport University, where she earned her EMBA in executive management and leadership and undergraduate degrees in human resource management and school business management. She is one of the newest members of the Home Office Senior Leadership Team, who comes with over 20 years of experience in Human Resource and Operations management. Her greatest reward is being a U Prep parent for eight years and counting

Liberation Through Education: Part III

Culturally Responsive Education: Reflection – Beyond the School Walls

When we incorporate Culturally-Responsive Education (CRE) into our counseling practice, we begin to create counternarratives. A more culturally responsive approach to college counseling and access, that refrains from a deficit viewpoint and considers the contextual needs, cultural knowledge, and assets our students embody, will help them realize their college aspirations and career goals.

Looking Back to Move Forward: Over the last couple of weeks, I have experienced some very proud and exciting moments. As I scrolled through my social media pages, I saw so many of my former students graduating from college. It was exciting because they were all students from my first class as a counselor at University Prep Art & Design (UPAD). For the past six years, I have had the pleasure of supporting the graduating classes at UPAD with developing plans to help them reach their postsecondary goals. As a college coordinator, I have the distinct role of navigating students through the complicated process of filling out college applications, financial aid, scholarships, housing applications, and much more. Above all, however, I believe my biggest responsibility in this role is to help students believe that they can reach their dreams. It is an honor and more than a job to me, it’s my passion. 

As I draw close to the end of my sixth year in this role I reflect back to my first year as a college coordinator. I had the goal of being a hero who would come in and save students by getting them out the hood and into college. I had my checklist of items that I needed each student to do: 

  • College Acceptance Letter: CHECK 
  • FASFA Completed: CHECK 
  • Scholarship: CHECK 
  • Choosing Your College and Orientation Date: CHECK 

It was near the end of my very first year. I was going through my checklist with each student, and came across a student who hadn’t made his official college decision. This was weird to me because we had met several times and decided on a school that matched perfectly to his needs both academically and financially. I angrily called him to my office so that we could discuss his procrastination. I had an entire speech in my head of what I would say to him “YOU ARE GOING TO MISS OUT ON THIS OPPORTUNITY!” “YOU HAVE TO DO BETTER!” and my all time favorite “YOU CAN’T APPROACH THE REAL WORLD LIKE THIS!”

When the student walked into my office I wasted no time in questioning him. “WHY HAVEN’T YOU PAID YOUR DEPOSIT AND SIGNED UP FOR ORIENTATION?!” The student looked at me as if he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. He paused and said, “Mr. Johnson, I… AM… SCARED”. My anger instantly turned into disappointment. Not toward him but disappointment toward myself. In my attempt to be a hero, I never took the time to listen to what he may be going through. In our many meetings over the years, he always came across as confident and sure of himself but today, he was a student who needed someone to listen and validate him. 

He talked and I listened for over two hours and he shared with me that he was the first in his family to go to college, and that he was afraid that he would let his family down if he didn’t make it to graduation, and that he had never been away from home. The part that broke my heart is when he told me, “I don’t know if I am good enough.” My instant reply was, “What if you are good enough, and what if you do make it.” He responded with, “I never looked at it that way.” As we finished our discussion, we signed him up for orientation and I gave him a hug and assured him that he would be alright. 

That conversation was transformational for me because it made me change my entire approach to this work. In the words of Tina Turner “We don’t need another HERO” (I just aged myself ) Our students needed someone who could relate, support and validate their experience.  

Culturally Responsive Education and College Counseling 

When we think about Culturally Responsive Education, we often do so in relation to students’ experience in the classroom. There is not enough conversation surrounding CRE in counseling practices. I can make a case that CRE  is just as important when counseling students. Our students grow up in a world that tells them: 

  • Because they are black, their lives don’t matter 
  • Because they are from Detroit, they are less than 
  • Because they come from low and working-class backgrounds, they can’t achieve. 

When we incorporate CRE into our counseling practice, we begin to create counternarratives to the aforementioned views. I suggest a more culturally responsive approach to college counseling and access that refrains from a deficit viewpoint and considers the contextual needs, cultural knowledge, and assets our students embody to realize their college aspirations and career goals. Too often, when we measure college readiness, we do so based on white middle-class students as the dominant measure for academic and personal standards to determine if a student can succeed in their pursuit of college and life.

However, our students have gained a specific set of skills and resilience that has allowed them to survive and thrive in Detroit when it was at its worst. That same resilience can be translated to their success in college and beyond. Dr. Shaun R. Harper Provost Professor in the Rossier School of Education and Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California discusses this in his presentation “This too is Racist” When we devalue the experience and capabilities of Black students, we are committing to racist behaviors. To overcome this, we have to tell our students that their lived cultural experience matters and is valued. In addition, we also have to help our students unpack the cultural experiences they have and translate them into tools to help them reach their personal and professional goals. 

Taking a New Approach

I decided to transform the approach I would take as a counselor and take a more culturally responsive approach. I had to move away from being a hero and take on more of a restorative approach. I remember Dr. Chris Emdin calls it “ Restoration over Rescue Mission”. With that in mind I decided to approach this in three different ways.  

  1. Listen: Often, our students are told to be “seen and not heard.” I have to create more opportunities for students to express their fears, concerns, and experiences. We can’t help students until we understand them; we can’t understand them till we listen to them.
  1. Student-Centered: Move away from my own personal objectives when meeting with students. Allow them the opportunity to discuss their needs, goals, and plans and respond and support appropriately. Remember that each student is different and requires a unique approach.  Instead of looking at their experiences as setbacks and deficiencies, we must help them understand those experiences are tools that have helped them grow personally and professionally. Help them translate how those experiences can lead to their success in college, career, and beyond. 
  1. Empower: Students should walk away from counseling and coaching sessions empowered to reach their goals. Many students are victims of oppression and racism and may need the motivation to move forward.  Before students leave high school and transition into the next stage of their life,  they should have a positive self-appraisal of themself (self-actualization). They should believe in themselves and know that they can achieve any goal they set for themselves, despite the obstacles and experiences of their past. 
  1. Love: Our students deserve to be loved. I charge every educator to move away from robotic interactions with student and instead approach students with love and their well-being 

What CRE Means to Me

The thing that I had to learn as a counselor is that I had to meet the needs of the students and not my own objective. Access to a college education is not enough. TOO many of my students feel that they won’t make it in college because they feel they are not good enough or because they feel they don’t deserve it. As educators we have to provide students with the tools and self assurance to deal with the pain of fundamentally being disempowered and oppressed.

When we liberate students through education, we create students that transform and do not conform. But we must be careful in our approach because education in the past (in some cases currently) has been used as a tool to oppress communities of color. This is why providing students with a culturally relevant education is paramount. By infusing CRE, we can create conscious and self-empowered individuals who use their educated voice for themselves and their community. He/she uses that educated mind to disrupt and dismantle systems of oppression and inequities to create a better world for us all. 

As I was scrolling through my social media and seeing each of my former students in their college cap and gowns, I ran across the student I mentioned earlier. There he stood with his Cap and Gown on and a caption that said, “I DID IT” I enthusiastically sent him a message that said, “Congratulations, Bro, I’m proud of you. If you need anything, call me.” Within an hour, my phone rang, and it was him. He said, “I don’t need anything. I just had to say thank you for everything, it was a hard journey, but I did it!” With a huge smile, I replied, “it was my pleasure, Brotha!” 

Author: John Johnson is the College Coordinator at University Prep Art & Design. He has over 12 years of experience helping students to and through college working at both the high school and collegiate levels. He graduated from Michigan State University, where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mass Communications. He also has a Masters’s Degree in Education & Training. He is a 2020 Detroit New Leader Council Fellow and currently a 2021 San Diego State University Equity in College Counseling Fellow. In 2020 he was awarded the Influential Educator Award by the Michigan Chronicle, and most recently, the 2021 Fred Martin/Coleman A. Young Educator of the Year. 

John Johnson, College Coordinator at University Prep Art & Design High School
John Johnson, College Coordinator at University Prep Art & Design High School