In the Circle: Trusting the Process, Part 1

This is Part 1 of a 3-part blogpost.


The circle process is powerful, transformative at times, but it can also be challenging and time-consuming. For teachers, sharing of themselves in a circle with students can be uncomfortable. Many also worry that the circle process will open up upsetting personal issues students are facing—issues that they as teachers aren't prepared to handle. They aren’t trained therapists, after all (nor am I). 

Yet in my experience, adults who are courageous enough to try the process despite these concerns often discover for themselves why circles are worth the discomfort and time. I’ve facilitated circles for almost a decade, and I’ve learned to trust the circle and the people participating in it to address the worries and concerns that we bring to the process.


Marieke van Woerkom 

This fall I facilitated a four-day training session on restorative circles for staff at an NYC school. These staff had not been able to attend a training session offered over the summer, so administration decided they’d be trained at the start of the school year instead.  Part of the PD would take place after school.  Many came with serious reservations. 

As I opened up the circle and sent the talking piece around, people shared that they were unhappy about being forced to attend a professional development session (PD) that they had no interest in. One person said she’d heard that the summer PD had been a waste of time, and, as the talking piece went around, other complaints were raised as well. But one person also shared that she’d heard the opposite about the summer PD:  It had been inspiring and useful.  She was interested to learn more.  Another teacher backed up that sentiment.

When the talking piece came back to me, I recognized people’s frustrations. I acknowledged that conditions like these weren’t ideal, but said that I hoped the PD would be interesting enough for them to feel it was worth their while in the end.  This, one person shared, allowed her to relax into the training, letting go of some of her frustration. But this wasn’t the case for a vocal minority, who remained annoyed and skeptical.

The goal of the PD was to introduce staff to circles, building their understanding, confidence, skills and comfort level with the process in the hope that they would be interested in keeping circles with their students at different points in the school day. 

So I started building the community as I normally would, hoping that the circle process would be convincing enough in itself, as it almost always has been.  I began with an opening ceremony, then moved to fun icebreakers and team-building activities. I introduced the talking piece and had it go around several times, allowing participants to reflect on the activities and the process as it evolved.

Participants got into the activities and made upbeat comments about the process as the talking piece went around. But a few individuals still weren’t buying in. They threw negative statements and barbs into the circle when their turn came. Or they’d withdraw from sharing verbally, while their non-verbal slouching, rolling of eyes, and side conversations were louder than any statement they could have made.  

Yet, as the process evolved, these participants also contributed legitimate concerns about being responsible circle keepers.  Several said they were concerned that the circle process was therapy and that untrained staff shouldn’t “dabble” in areas they weren’t trained to handle. They explained that their students had gone through a lot. Many had ended up in this alternative program because of disturbing, painful, even harrowing experiences.  Who were we as math, science or ELA teachers to push students to open up about things they’d kept under wraps for very good reasons?

This is an important issue that has come up in circles time and again, especially as we start sharing more personal experiences and talking about our feelings.  Some people in our circle had already opened up about issues that were important to them. One woman had shared her concern about the obstacles facing young men of color in society today, others talked about intimate family issues. One woman’s mother was in the hospital. Every day after school that’s where she went, negotiating with medical staff, making sure her mother was well cared for. 

I acknowledged the teachers’ concerns, but also explained that circles, though they can be therapeutic and can be used in therapy settings, do not need to cross the line into therapy.  Simply allowing people to share of themselves while others in the community listen mindfully and bear witness can be a healing experience, even if it can sometimes also be painful. Connecting with others in times of grief or pain can help us handle our situations better.  Knowing we are not alone can be important as we try to overcome our challenges.  

Circles, I also emphasized, are never about pushing people.  I reminded the group that the talking piece serves as an invitation, not a command. No one is forced to speak, as is sometimes the case in an academic class.  Participants decide how much or how little they share, they decide whether they feel safe or not. And in this way, they are in charge.  

See Part 2 here.