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By Angela Hunt

When Dr. Dorothy Vaandering came to Newfoundland and Labrador just over a decade ago, she had no idea of the impact her research would have on the local school system.

With 17 educators from a variety of schools and grades on board, Dr. Vaandering, a member of the Faculty of Education, developed a two-week learning institute focused around restorative justice, a topic she had been exploring for some time.

When the two weeks were up, each of the 17 participants were hungry for more.

‘Worthy and interconnected’

So what is restorative justice exactly?

Dr. Vaandering explains it as “a philosophical framework that encourages us to see the world and everyone in it as worthy and interconnected. It’s a shift away from judging and measuring, and a move toward honouring. It’s putting relationships first.”

And Relationships First is what she’s calling this approach to justice that is being adapted by educators throughout the province.

“I feel happy about circles because the whole class comes together and shares their thoughts.” — Third grader

One of the key identifying factors of a Relationships First classroom is circle dialogue. In circle dialogue, students are invited to sit in a circle, which serves as a space where everyone is encouraged to contribute through sharing and listening on equal grounds.

The result is a classroom where relationships are nurtured, the environment is equitable and just, and harm and conflict is repaired. As one third-grader said, “I feel happy about circles because the whole class comes together and shares their thoughts. We also take turns and we are all equal.”

A Relationships First approach encourages educators to recognize that when a child or adult does something that is harmful, it comes from a need that is not being met or their own experience with harm that has not been addressed.

“We are working to move schools from being rule and consequence-based, to being relationship-based,” said Dr. Vaandering. “It’s about altering our approach and asking ourselves, as educators, how we take responsibility for creating learning spaces where all people know they belong.”

Making waves

This shift in approach is making waves in the school systems.

What started out as a small group of interested educators has grown into an approach to education that is recognized throughout the province by educators, administrators, and directors.

“Our biggest challenge at the moment is that we are oversubscribed in terms of requests – and that’s a great situation to be in.” — Dr. Dorothy Vaandering

Guided by an advisory board and promoted through the work of Newfoundland and Labrador’s English School District’s (NLESD) Safe and Inclusive Schools Itinerants, as well as educators and administrators who have taken extensive workshops or the restorative justice master’s course at the Faculty of Education, schools are demonstrating that it is possible to rethink how we do education.

“The Relationships First approach is a positive addition to the district’s continuing work around restorative justice practices and social emotional learning in our schools,” said Doug Pippy, director of educational programs with the NLESD.

“Relationships are the foundation from which we build a school environment that is welcoming and safe, and conducive to teaching and learning. The Relationships First model is resonating well with students and educators throughout the district and we are looking forward to expanding its implementation.”

Expanding into the future

The impact of Dr. Vaandering’s work will undoubtedly be felt for decades to come.

The NLESD is working to expand Relationships First throughout the school system, and the volume of requests for partnerships from community groups continues to grow.

“My vision with Relationships First was to go from the ground up. I wanted educators to learn about it and want to implement the framework on their own accord,” said Dr. Vaandering. “Our biggest challenge at the moment is that we are oversubscribed in terms of requests – and that’s a great situation to be in.”

To learn more about Relationships First, as well as an upcoming summer institute of workshops, visit online.

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