In the Circle: Trusting the Process, Part 3

Note:  This is the final post in a 3-part series on Trusting the Process. The series describes a four-day training session on restorative circles with a group of around 20 school staff members, some of whom had reservations about the training and the circle process. We hope it will be useful for circle keepers, especially those who are encountering resistance from circle participants. See Part 1 and Part 2.

That night, I wrestled with how to structure the circle the next day.  I wanted to be able to address people's questions and concerns while also allowing for the circle process to move towards a constructive conclusion, if possible.

I felt that participants, on the whole, were positive about the circle experience so far. But the more resistant voices still exerted a strong pull, leaving others wary of embracing the process too willingly. I wanted to empower the majority of folks who, I believe, sensed the power of the circle and saw its benefits. I felt the best way to do this would be to open up a space for them to share their experience of the circle, and that was my goal as I walked into the school that next day.  I wasn't sure what might unfold. I was nervous about it, uncertain, but also interested to see what might happen.

Several people came up to me in the hour leading up to this final day of the training. Some came with suggestions of how to address concerns that had been raised so far, others with words of support.  One woman walked up to me in the hallway, gave me a big hug, and told me good luck before she walked into the room.

The principal joined us for the first part of the session. She provided her vision of circles at the site. The program would start small, and those who were interested could start introducing circles in their ELA classrooms. Circles would also be used during orientation and for problem-solving. 

When she left, I sent the talking piece around, checking in with folks about what the principal had said. Some people shared their relief about the fact that there was no expectation that all staff would keep circles this year.  Others shared their concern that they would be pulled into issues raised in everyone else's circles. There wasn't enough time in the day to do their regular job AND deal with the fallout from circles.  

As the talking piece came back to me, I felt it was time to try to initiate a shift.  I asked, "Without trying to do away with your concerns, do you see any positives in this process?  Is there anything useful you think you'll take away from the time we spent together these past four days?" 

One by one, people started sharing how they'd enjoyed getting closer to their co-workers. They'd worked with some folks for years, but it wasn't till this week that they felt they actually got to know each other. People shared that they liked some of the activities, and the process of the talking piece going around in order. 

One teacher talked about how her co-teacher (who'd been trained over the summer) had been facilitating circles on a weekly basis and that her students were really getting into it.  They liked the talking piece, and one student who rarely spoke had started to open up in these circles. She also mentioned that the circles in her class had not been deep or painful, maybe because the talking piece hadn't gone around as many times, maybe because of the themes introduced, or maybe because not every group of students feels the need to share their deepest, strongest feelings just because they're in a circle. 

Some people talked about the fact that they would take away skills, approaches, and an enhanced understanding of social and emotional learning that would be useful in their teaching. Others built on this, saying that they might have had some negative experiences in this training, but that, despite it all, it had strengthened the relationships within the community.

Others shared that just because our circle experience hadn't been all fun and games, didn't mean it was negative.  In response, some people pointed to the experience of the teacher who had shared her pain around her mother's hospitalization.  The teacher herself passed the first time the talking piece came to her. So some participants continued to interpret her experience as negative.  But this changed the second time the talking piece came to her.  She took the piece and shared what a valuable experience this circle had been for her.  She was in pain, yes, but talking about it had provided her with some relief.  She felt her colleagues were understanding and supportive and she was glad to have been part of the circle. 

It was amazing to listen as the talking piece went around and the positive energy grew.

The experience demonstrated, once again, how the circle can connect people in powerful ways.  How it can hold diverse perspectives and how it can answer or attend to issues raised within it.  But it also reinforced for me how important it is that we as keepers respect the circle process, ensuring that we are giving voice to everyone.

When we encounter resistance, we need to gauge the group, give people a chance to vent, acknowledge concerns, and trust the circle protocol to allow people to find their shared wisdom.