Faith and Experience in Education: Essays from Quaker Perspectives

Edited by Don Rowe and Anne Watson. Trentham Books, 2018. 256 pages. $41.95/paperback or eBook.

As an early childhood teacher, I struggled to balance promoting classroom harmony by encouraging children to follow rules and raising young people with the courage to speak truth to power. Although I ideally value teaching children to master conflict resolution skills, I found myself heavy-handedly refereeing their disputes. The educators who penned the essays in this engaging book wrestled with the same issues I encountered in my preschool class, and they have addressed them with courage and integrity.

Quaker teachers seeking to bring their spiritual values to bear on their work will find inspiration and challenge in this collection of essays that details educators’ contemplating the values underpinning their vocation. Parents and caregivers will discover insight into the promise and shortcomings of public and private schools. Each essayist is a Friend who works with students or teachers, and the collection provides an in-depth view of Quaker perspectives on education. Although the book concerns the British school system, there is much that teachers and caregivers in the United States can apply to their work.

The writers compare school hierarchy, disciplinary practice, and educational access to Quaker testimonies, and they find disconnects that they wish to rectify. One writer decided to homeschool his daughter and involve her in outdoor education after conscientiously contemplating the disharmony between the school discipline system and Quaker values of simplicity and equality. Another essayist considers arts education’s liberating power; another discusses empowering students by teaching them math. A writer argues that embracing metaphorical birth can open teachers’ minds to students’ potential. In light of the equality testimony, another critiques the competition for student places in schools. In the most compelling essays of the volume, several authors express deep hope for the edifying impact of peacemaking and restorative justice on school communities and individual students. The writers explicitly relate school-based restorative approaches to a Quaker concern for peace.

Belinda Hopkins is a former teacher who founded Transforming Conflict, an organization that trains school staff to use the “restorative practice” method of dispute resolution. She points out the shortcomings of authoritarian discipline schemes:

Traditional approaches to gaining compliance are based on rewards and sanctions and these are still what one mostly finds in schools across the UK, even in Quaker schools. This is because most teachers have not received training, either at college or on the job, in developing intrinsic motivation and self-regulation (what I call an “inner moral compass”), nor are they helped much with relationship-building, conflict management and mediation. They often know of no alternative approach, even though they sense that punishment or threats of punishment are very blunt instruments for gaining compliance and addressing difficulties.

Hopkins contrasts the blame-oriented questions punitive teachers tend to ask when students misbehave with the needs-based queries educators with restorative practice training would use. Instead of inquiring into the circumstances of students’ wrongdoing to discover whom to punish, teachers can ask students what unmet needs prompted them to do harm and have them brainstorm about ways to improve relationships and move forward.

Anna Gregory, who works with Peacemakers, a school conflict resolution program of Central England Quaker Charities, discusses circle-based class meetings and teacher in-service sessions as a tool for establishing respectful listening and responding restoratively to harm:

Building healthy relationships is also an investment in building social capital for people. The more heavily a school can invest in banking goodwill, strong relationships and good feeling among its stakeholders, the better the return on the investment of time.

Faith and Experience in Education offers an inspiring starting point to align education with Quaker values. Although several essays included descriptions of restorative practice, it seemed beyond the scope of the volume to provide an in-depth handbook for teachers wishing to adopt non-punitive conflict resolution or discipline practices. Instead, the book whets readers’ appetites for practical guidance in relating more humanely with the young people with whom they work.

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