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Restitutional Teaching: Another Thought On Why We (or at least some of us may) Teach


I have had some wonderful teachers in my life—a solid bunch in my public elementary school and another group in my independent junior high–high school. They shaped and influenced my life in ways I wish I could still tell them about; I’ve managed to get to the survivors, but all of this was long ago.

But I’ve had some serious clinkers, too: a trio of junior high and high school math teachers who killed off what had been a real enthusiasm, and too many senior teachers and a headmaster in high school who contrived to create an overall ethos so redolent of “guilty until proven innocent” that even my goody-goody self was often uncomfortable and unhappy. I confess I’ve also come to resent that my all-boys independent secondary school offered essentially nothing by way of instruction in the arts, presumably because such pursuits were neither suitably manly nor “rigorously academic” in the way the Old Guard there defined the term. I had loved my regular and well taught art and music classes in elementary school and had been encouraged by the teachers to further pursue both.

Which brings me to an observation I’ve been making for years but never fully explored: that there is something that I call “restitutional teaching,” the idea that for some of us a portion of our motivation is to see to it that what was done unto us or our friends as children: the squashing of spirit and passion, the dehydration of subject matter until it was truly arid and meaningless, the petty and often unintentional unfairnesses and humiliations that can scar kids for a lifetime.

 In any event, it’s not so much of a surprise that I’ve spent the last 35 years, after a bit of casting around, in a progressive-founded coed school with multiple thriving and excellent arts programs and an aggressively student-centered culture. It’s perhaps even less of a surprise that my boss, our head, is a graduate of the same high school I attended, where he was perhaps less of a goody-goody (he’ll own that, I think) and must have been uncomfortable even more often than I was. We’ve never discussed this, incidentally, but here we are, working to make sure that our kids aren’t squashed and mistrusted and that the pedagogy and curriculum are engaging and even—shock!—often quite fun. (I should also add with emphasis here that our alma mater has transformed itself into a place where the arts are huge and kids seem to have a great deal of fun while still working, playing, and creating hard. I would happily work or send my own kids there now.)

And over the years I’ve run into way more than a handful of teachers at all levels who acknowledge a restitutional motivation behind their work and choice of schools. Little red dots appear magically under “restitutional” as I type to indicate that it’s not a real word, but it Googles up quite nicely with citations in the context of restorative justice, which I quite like. A fair number of us, I think, have stayed the course because the last few decades have tended to honor ideas like student-centeredness, creativity, and justice as a concept both at large and in classrooms and administrative offices. A few years ago I wrote a book called The Intentional Teacher, and I suppose that few things are more intentional than the idea of staying in the biz to enact the Golden Rule in the special sense of teaching others as you would have been taught, instead of universally as you were taught.

There are other, similar motivations, and in time I’ll try to ponder some of these. A chill is passing through me at the moment as I wonder whether there are other teachers, perhaps more deeply scarred than “restitutionals,” who practice “retributive teaching,” à la Severus Snape or Dolores Umbridge (What must have happened to her as a schoolgirl?). I shall try to let this idea disapparate.

I should stress, incidentally, that I didn’t seethe my way through college and graduate school with a clearly defined restitutional intent. Rather, the notion took form somewhere in my first couple of years at Beaver Country Day School, where I realized that I was somehow “home” in ways that I hadn’t felt at other schools and then began to ponder why that might be. In time the idea coalesced into a pole to which my personal lodestone could point, and there I was. Maybe I give myself too much credit for intentionality; perhaps it was just a shoe that fit when I wore it. 

So if you are among the teachers who occasionally reference the idea that we’ve gotta give kids better experiences than those that we had in school, welcome to the world of restitutional teaching. Perhaps the real intentionality in all this is the understanding that in order to do our best for kids we need to keep thinking and learning about every aspect of our work. Even if restoring karmic balance in our personal educational universe is a fundamental reflex, we can’t just do it on autopilot.