Tuesday 12 November 2019

Building a school community from the inside out

A programme aimed at developing empathy among pupils is gaining traction, writes Katherine Donnelly

Rachel McGrath (centre left), Principal of Griffeen Community College, pictured with Michelle Stowe of Connect RP and pupils from fifth class of Lucan CNS and second year of Griffeen CC during a Restorative Practice meeting. Photo: Frank McGrath
Rachel McGrath (centre left), Principal of Griffeen Community College, pictured with Michelle Stowe of Connect RP and pupils from fifth class of Lucan CNS and second year of Griffeen CC during a Restorative Practice meeting. Photo: Frank McGrath
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

When principal Rachel McGrath faced the challenge of starting up a new second-level school in 2017, she had to factor in not having a home to call their own. Not even a temporary, stand-alone building with its own front door.

Despite the well-flagged need to educate an expanding teen population, the school building programme is lagging far behind.

Two years on, Griffeen Community College (CC) in Lucan continues to function in 'virtual' mode, occupying the third floor of another school, its 140 current pupils in six classrooms on a single corridor.

With no physical infrastructure, the principal turned to different scaffold to create a home for the school community, bolted with a culture of care and respect, not only for, but between pupils.

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Prior to taking up her new role, McGrath had done a course in Restorative Practice (RP) "and I thought this is something I want to bring to a greenfield school".

RP is a philosophy and skill set that focusses on building a sense of community and managing conflict by modelling positive behaviour. It's about listening, developing empathy and generally nurturing emotional literacy skills among participants. In a school, that includes teachers and students.

Chloe Casey (13) with Sophie the giraffe
Chloe Casey (13) with Sophie the giraffe

McGrath acknowledges that Griffeen's very limited space can be hard for pupils. "But they deserve every opportunity. We have to give them the best we can - they have put faith in me and the school.

"With one corridor for 140 children, they live on top of each other, so they have to learn to manage themselves."

She says RP "gives them the language to maintain relationships to serve them and the school community.

"It is very much part of the school since it opened. It has grown organically. All the students have gone through workshops and the teachers are training. We are trying to honour the values of a restorative community," she adds.

RP is about building capacity within individuals to avoid conflict, and also having the skills to work through issues that arise.

Through RP, McGrath says, pupils know that "they are always held accountable, but also that they are part of the decisions that are made".

She cites name-calling as the sort of problem that may be encountered among teenagers, and provides an example of how RP works in such a situation: "When you sit the two individuals down - you have to get agreement from them to sit together - questions are mapped out and they know nothing else is going to be asked. They feel safe, they get to tell their side of the story, while also hearing the other person's perspective."

McGrath trained with RP practitioner Michelle Stowe, who has been championing the practice since being introduced to it as a teacher in St Mark's Community School, Tallaght, Dublin. While RP came into St Mark's through a community initiative, she has been spreading the word through the education system since.

RP was the topic for Stowe's Master's in Education and, now, on the fourth year of a career break from teaching, she has worked with more than 500 schools, Increasingly, demand for her training programme is shifting to the mainstream. Maynooth University has integrated RP as a component of its Postgraduate Master's in Education. The Teaching Council and the Centre for School Leadership are among the organisations that have invited her to deliver training.

Stowe distinguishes RP from restorative justice: while the latter is concerned with conflict resolution and repairing harm, the former is about pro-actively building relationships. "Students are amazing, they get it," she says. When the connection is there, she upskills to conflict resolution.

She says RP allows students "to consciuosly build relationships, respond to conflict in a healthy way and connect us to our best selves and to one another."

Joining her at every workshop is Sophie the giraffe, a soft toy that, when used in a discussion circle, is passed between participants and gives the holder 'speaking rights'. It ensures that everyone is involved and has an equal voice.

Stowe has developed what she calls the Connect RP model, "because it connects the educational dots" such as by facilitating oral language development and touching on aspects of well-being in the curriculum.

Griffeen CC has not only integrated RP into its daily life but, in partnership with the nearby Lucan Community National School (CNS), is involved in a unique project that will take the practice to a new level.

Coincidentally, Lucan CNS had also embraced RP and under Stowe's leadership, the two schools are now working together to provide a continuum of restorative practice while also extending out into their wider communities.

"Both schools were linked with Michelle anyway, so this year we decided to see if we could do something collaboratively to serve our community," says McGrath.

The project will provide educator, student and parent training that will be scaled over a number of years, with the intention of building internal capacity and sustainability as school communities committed to the use of RP.

Already this year, second and third year pupils of Griffeen CC are introducing RP to first years and, with Stowe, will share their restorative skills with fourth and fifth class pupils in Lucan CNS.

This aims to develop leadership skills, build awareness of the restorative approach and create internal capacity to be mentors. Teachers will also build their capacities to become trainers .

Griffeen CC students who train as 'Relationship Keepers' will develop facilitation and public-speaking skills as they guide the primary pupils.

Lucan CNS pupils may become mentors and buddies - 'Friendship Keepers' - in their school community, developing and growing their leadership skills.

McGrath says it is hoped that, in time, the inter-school links "will serve to support the transition of students from primary to post primary whilst honouring the values of a restorative community". And beyond that, to build on the capacity to understand and engage with positive communication at home and support positive relationships between school and home.

Irish Independent

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