A Q&A with Rob Mueller-Owens

Rob Mueller-Owens takes an innovative approach...
A Q&A with Rob Mueller-Owens
Rob Mueller-Owens: Interim assistant principal, West High School and former positive behavior support coach, East High School.  

Fresh off an invitation to the White House to strategize best practices for improving school culture, former East High School positive behavior support coach Rob Mueller-Owens now brings his innovative approach to West High School as interim assistant principal.

Tell us about your position with the Madison Metropolitan School District.
As a positive behavior support coach at East High, I was responsible for nurturing a safe and supportive school culture. From a global view, we try to create systems and structures that support students in making good decisions. Last year I made a big push to implement restorative practices as a key element to supporting positive behaviors. This year I’ve taken a new position as interim assistant principal at West High School, where I hope to bring restorative practices to the administrative level.

What are restorative practices, specifically restorative circles?
Ted Wattle, president of the International Institute for Restorative Practices, says the fundamental premise is that people are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes when those in positions of authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them. Basically, this work encompasses a range of approaches, including restorative justice, restorative dialogues, mediation and circles.

Restorative circles allow a community to come together to address an event. The intention is to restore a sense of harmony, grieve, celebrate, heal, mete out justice or problem solve. It involves bringing the person or people who need a circle together with other members of their community, as well as a circle facilitator. The facilitator asks a series of questions called “rounds.” The first few rounds are low-risk to allow participants to learn about each other. Eventually the questions center on the issue the circle was called for, and then we close with a ceremony summarizing the experience.

Can you give an example of both a classroom circle and a community-building circle?
A classroom problem-solving circle is requested by the teacher. Usually, the culture of a classroom is not what it could be. Students might be having social drama, struggles with engagement or academic challenges. I meet with the teacher to discuss what’s been going on and what they would like to see change. Sometimes I meet with a couple of students to do a pre-conference and even ask them to be my assistants during the circle. We follow a typical circle process but focus on learning and teaching, the struggles and the successes. Toward the end, I ask two questions: One, what is it that you need in this classroom to make it the kind of place where you can be an efficient and effective learner? Two, what is it that you are willing to commit to doing to make things happen starting tomorrow? Students write ideas on a board and we take a picture and email it to the teacher.

A community-building circle is different in the sense that we use the process to build trust and share stories. I explain to the participants that when we know each other’s stories, it’s a whole lot easier to be kind and compassionate with one another. And the more we understand each other’s stories, the more we are able to see that each of us struggles and is hungry for authentic friendship. Ideally, these circles happen on a regular basis, perhaps even weekly for a period of time. This past year, I facilitated such circles with AVID classes for five weeks, and students often want to do additional “tune-up” circles as well.

What is your number-one objective when working with students?
Creating opportunities for students to see education as a collaborative effort. It requires a certain degree of trust and responsibility at all levels of the school and community. The students I work with are the most beautiful people in the world. They yearn to belong; they yearn to create meaning; they yearn to listen. They want to acquire the skills necessary to participate in the community and the workplace in meaningful ways. The children of this city motivate me every day. We often focus on the misbehavior of students, but I have to tell you, I see far more acts of kindness and compassion than I do negative or destructive behaviors.

What does the Madison Metropolitan School District and its students need most?
MMSD is most fortunate to be supported by the community as a whole, but what we need most is for state and federal politicians to bolster the mission and funding of our public schools. With the leadership of our administrators and the commitment of our teachers, we are owning our opportunity gaps and taking measurable steps to close the disparities. But honestly, it is difficult to do when we have yearly financial cuts to our mission.

Where is healing still needed most?
Healing happens in relationship, and that is what we often miss. There are incredible demands placed on teachers, and most non-teachers do not understand the emotionally grueling work that every teacher experiences on a daily basis. The real power of restorative practices (which include circles, restorative dialogues and mediation) is that they are all predicated upon restoring meaningful relationships so that common goals can be accomplished. In our setting, that common goal happens to be education.

What are your thoughts on the behavioral education plan?
As a PBS coach, I can understand how some see its implementation as abrupt. More professional development could have been provided to ensure a smoother transition from the former code of conduct, more intentional planning could have been developed to provide effective systems of support, more strategies could have been provided to nurture staff buy-in. On the other hand, I understand the sense of urgency to close the existing opportunity gaps of our schools, as well as the necessity to burst the school to prison pipeline. At East High, the data proved we were reducing suspensions and keeping more students in school; we saw a 49.5 percent reduction in suspensions last year. Of course, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. They don’t speak to the emotionally grueling work that teachers are doing every hour of every day to keep kids engaged. I think we’ve made progress, but the biggest and most powerful shift has been holistic in how I handle disciplinary events involving students.

Can you share an example of that shift?
I had a situation where a student became aggressive after resisting going back into class. I radioed for security assistance, which further aggravated him; he tensed his body, turned his torso and hips and cocked his fist before initiating a move to throw a punch at me–which he withdrew. Of course, I flinched defensively, and his decision escalated the seriousness of the situation; now security and a principal were en route. I was angry at his audacity and attempt to intimidate me through a potentially violent act, but here is the difference from years past: I was also thinking on a metacognitive level that I had to allow this scenario to play out, and that I had to open the opportunity for restoration to happen, even though I was certain it would not.

In the assistant principal’s office, we each told our stories, and of course our experiences were different. The student claimed he hadn’t initiated a punch, but when the principal said there was camera footage–and also told him she’d seen a lot of growth and maturity in him over the past year–he replied, “It ain’t ever gonna go my way. It ain’t ever gonna go our way.” I thought this was a profound statement and took a mental note. The principal asked us to engage in a restorative process, but I didn’t feel ready because of my own hurt. Still, I told the student I heard him saying it was never really gonna go in the way of the Black Man in this school or this community (the student was African American) and I verbally acknowledged the system of oppression that he struggles against every second of every hour of every day. I acknowledged the lack of trust he must feel for people who look like me; I look like the very thing he is fighting against (I am a white male). I told him I was aware of that system and that I’ve devoted my career to fighting against it. That he had good reason not to trust me, but that if he couldn’t, then I needed time before I could engage in the restorative process. I was very honest about my own feelings and frustrations.

To my great surprise, he suddenly said, “I feel you.” Everything turned. The tenor softened and the door toward relationship opened. I don’t mean to sound trite; it was a major shift in the mood of the room. We began to talk about how we needed to tear down the obstacles to his success. He also owned up to the fact that he had a responsibility to be in class. I asked him to imagine the power the two of us could have walking these halls together in solidarity, trying to shift the culture of the school. The meeting ended with us agreeing to look out for each other and support each other. We stood up and I initiated a handshake–but, the most powerful act? He drew me in for a hug.

That is an ideal version of what the [behavioral education plan] has done for me. We need to stay focused. We cannot afford to backtrack on the good work that we’ve done. Yes, perhaps tweaks need to be made, but the heart and soul of this approach should be preserved. We all know that research shows that the first year of the shift from a punitive model to a restorative one might present some struggles. But in the long run, we need to build a culture of trust and collaboration between staff, students and families.