ResEdChat Ep 17: Jake Garner on Restorative Practices in Residential Education

In this episode of Roompact’s ResEdChat, we chat with Jake about what restorative practices are and how they can be used to better engage with residents. If you have a topic idea or want to engage in the community discussion, use the hashtag #ResEdChat.


  • Jake Garner, Assistant Director of Residential Education at Towson University

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Dustin Ramsdell:
So we are here with another one of our episodes featuring our awesome blog contributors for Roompact, this episode focusing on restorative practices in residence education. So we’ll be getting into just sort of giving a companion to … I know you’ve been, Jake, giving a lot of great knowledge in the blogs that you’ve been writing to expand upon all the nuances of restorative practices. But I think we’ll try to be putting all that together into this quick episode for folks to check out on the topic as well. But we will start out, if you want to briefly introduce yourself and kind of give your professional background of how you got to be where you are today.

Jake Garner:
Of course. And thanks for hosting Dustin. Hey all. My name is Jake Garner, he/him pronouns. Currently, I serve as the Assistant Director of Residential Education at Towson University. So I’ve been working in residence life really since the start of my professional work was one of the stories of RA who loved the work, left my engineering major, which was a fun undergrad experience to take and then go into higher education. But went right into higher ed, so did the live-in grad hall director sort of role. From there, went to the RLC community director role, and then from there working at Towson where I work specifically with other curriculum and learning communities.

Dustin Ramsdell:
Perfect. And I think for our topic at hand today, I’m sure a core part of your curricular strategy and sort of philosophy is this restorative practices mindset that you utilize. So if you want to explain briefly, if you have the elevator pitch of what restorative practices are and how they show up in Res Life.

Jake Garner:
Of course, and I think I was probably an unlikely candidate to be speaking on restorative practices with my engineering background because I really am a process-oriented person. Very comfortable with the numbers side of things, but restorative practices is sort of the other side of that, an emerging field and social sciences rooted in this idea that humans need connection. So with that, it’s a philosophy that centers a human connection in all different sorts of settings and different sorts of work. So it could be in education, it’s been really common in K-12, in the workplace, and then some in higher education as well. And I know that folks really tend to think of specific restorative tools when we talk about that. I know circles come to mind, I know restorative justice comes to mind for a lot of folks, but really restorative practices is more about how you’re doing things and what you’re doing. So whether it’s a staff meeting providing feedback, a one-on-one meeting, you can find ways to be restorative by centering those relationships.
And central to that, I think is the fundamental hypothesis of restorative practices, which is that restorative practices ensures that folks are happier, more cooperative, more productive, and more likely to make positive change in behavior when those positions of authorities are doing things with them rather than to them or for them. And I know that’s sort of a long way of saying it, but essentially that people are again, happier, productive and more cooperative and more likely to make change when folks in power are doing things with them. So involving them in those processes rather than just doing things to them or doing things for them. And I know the end is a lot of prepositions, but it’s really about working with people and centering those relationships.

Dustin Ramsdell:
I think there’s so many aspects of life where you interact with a human being and it’s purely transactional. It’s just sort of like, you give me what I want, thanks and goodbye. And even within education, you could have an advisor or something where it’s just “Register me for classes” or “Tell me what I need to do” or those sort of things, you see. I think that kind of status quo has sort of existed for a while. And I know, you noted, I think, one aspect of the restorative justice, which I think as I was thinking about this topic, that I think was the aspect that I was most familiar with coming into this conversation of working in student conduct and not having the interaction with a student being just purely punitive where it’s like you are really trying to help them to reflect and learn on whatever sort of lapse in judgment they may have had.
So it could be obviously even just anything from a noise violation to they messed up a bulletin board or something. Let’s not be like, “I’m going to fine you for doing whatever.” It’s taking more of that restorative approach. So I think within Res Life in particular to keep that as the focus, what are the ways that you have seen restorative practices kind of show up? How is this implemented exactly?

Jake Garner:
Yeah, and I also love that point that you just made, Dustin, because I feel like so often we’re focused on the result. And what I love about restorative practices is like I said, I am a process person and I love efficiency, love that sort of thing. And I think when we take the time to focus on the connection, very often the result is better as well. So by centering that relationship in that conduct, and I think conduct is a great example, not only are we ensuring that we’ve created a connection and that certainly makes people feel good, but the learning from that is more significant. And that’s where I see a lot of the tie-ins for Res Life.
I think the main way that I see this work, and like I said I can work in so many different ways, is through a tool that we call the social discipline window. Also want to note that some folks are calling it the social influence window these days because it’s not just specific to restorative justice in those times when harm has been done. But it’s really a framework that conceptualizes accountability and support separately on two different axes to talk about how are we doing things with people. So if folks have a screen in front of them and pull up the window, it’s a pretty quick way to look at it. But really conceptualizing that if we do things for people, we tend to be supporting them, but not necessarily holding them accountable. If we’re doing things to people, we tend to be holding them accountable without supporting them. And if we do things with people, we’re balancing both. And I think the conduct example you gave is a great one.
Say that I am a student kind of sauntering in/stumbling in late after hours. I see a bulletin board and I rip it down. We talk about a lot of punitive approaches, like you said, that two box where it’s pay a fine or come to this meeting or just be on probation or the four approach for that one might be the RA puts the board back up, says don’t do that again. But there’s really no accountability there. But conduct I think is an easy example of where we can take that restorative approach and that might look like a restorative conference, bringing folks together to actually have the conversation of like, hey, not only Jake as the party doing harm can reflect on this situation, but we can also bring in the harm party, bring in the RA as well to be able to say, this is how I was harmed, this is what I think needs to happen to make things right.
And in doing so, be able to create that connection and mutual understanding as well as probably a better learning experience, both for the student who did the harm and the student who was harmed and how to resolve those situations. So I think conduct is a really common example of those, but that tool of the social discipline window and thinking about operating in the width box, as we say, balancing accountability and support can be applied to so many more aspects of Res Life.
I think supervision is a really easy example because we’ve all had supervisors who fall into these different boxes naturally and we all fall into one naturally. The not box supervisor, someone who’s just not present, not there holding you accountable or supporting. And very often I think those are the folks who might be overwhelmed or overworked.
I think in student affairs we see a lot of four box supervisors because these are folks who get into those helping roles and they want to be there, they want to support, they’re the yes people, but they might not naturally have those accountability conversations, which can feel really good in the moment, but then lead to staffing issues down the line.
And then we have those two box folks. And I admit that I’m a two box person myself, where it really is easy for me to focus on the process and the criticism. But if you do that without building the relationship, folks don’t receive that well. Folks who work with me know that I learned this, that just saying the five things that I saw that was wrong with what someone did is generally not the best way to build a relationship or give feedback. And I think that’s one place where folks can always be thinking about how to be restorative in terms of supervision since so many folks in Res Life supervise.

Dustin Ramsdell:
Yeah. I think it’s just good to get into the tangible example because that’s where my brain was going was the sort of like, yeah, you’re going to have incidents that happened and you want to try to think in that restorative mindset and everything. And then the day to day of, especially working with student staff, there’s just always those kind of learning opportunities and everything where yeah, I think having that self-awareness first as sort of a supervisor of, yeah, what’s that reflex? Where am I going to just naturally go to? Is it doing something for somebody or just delegating, dictating and just being like, “Hey, just do it because I said so or something?”
And it makes me think of if a RA is having a hard time with connecting or dealing with a resident or something, whatever, it could be like, “Let’s do it together. I will do it with you. You could watch me do it or I’ll give you backup, you take point, I’m right there” kind of thing. And that’s sort of scaffolding as this person is trying to grow is so impactful and this kind of having a really precise, I think, kind of framework to anchor around and remind yourself about and those sorts of things. And I think this episode in particular will probably have the most show notes and homework for folks to look up. Because I think I’ve had moments like that just with general things in life that I learned where it’s you get that one term that’s like, oh, that’s what that was that I’ve witnessed my entire life or whatever, and is the key that unlocks it where you can always have that as a grounding.
And it seems like, I guess from what you’re saying, it is an ongoing process. It’s something that it’s not as if you just read the textbook and it’s like, “Cool, got it, mastered it and I’m always going to be doing perfect with it.” So I guess if you want to take a beat here as you’re giving the examples and just saying what it is, the process that you’ve maybe partaken into yourself or witnessed and others of getting into the rhythm and the flow, implementing this stuff into people’s work lives and all of that. How have you seen that sort of shake out? Because it feels like it’s one of those things that can be kind of a puzzle piece kind of falling into place, but it still may take a bit of conscious effort to really consistently utilize.

Jake Garner:
Yeah, and I think that’s really astute point because I think the theory of restorative practices I always joke is not rocket science. I’ve done engineering before. This stuff conceptually is not difficult. But when it comes time to actually practice it, especially when I’m tired not feeling it, there are days when it’s really easy to go back to that two box. I think for me one of the sort of groundbreaking moments was that understanding that is displayed in that window that it’s not a dichotomy where it’s not like, oh, you’re either holding someone accountable or you’re supporting them because sometimes I used to conceptualize, I guess you could have this boss or this person supervising you. And you could have incompetent Mr. Nice Guy or you could have the super competent, I’m looking for a polite word to say, but we could all think of some terms for those folks.
So remembering that stepping out of one box does not mean stepping down to the other. And I think I made that mistake early on in my career as sort of a supervisor. I knew that I was the kind of person that gave really direct process oriented feedback. I know that folks didn’t respond to that well. And in my first few supervising roles, I think what I would then do to correct would then automatically be to step down from that two box to the four box, knowing that folks didn’t necessarily respond as well to the criticism and the accountability if I stepped away from that and leaned into the support, maybe that would work better. And that just led to a difference string a problems. Folks realized they could get away with stuff, they didn’t always get the timely feedback they needed.
And I know that I’ve been in that awkward position where I don’t feel like I’m doing my best work, but my supervisor’s telling me that everything is fine and that’s not a good place to be either, because then when it comes to the uncomfortable conversation of here’s what you could be doing better, you could have been having that conversation for a long while before stepping into that.
So I think for me naturally as a two box person making the priority to make those connections early on, to know that it’s not stepping away from the accountability piece as much as making sure that there is that existing relationship. So with my supervisees, making sure that there is time in the beginning of meetings just to connect. In meetings, sometimes we do it as a large check-in circle to take 10 or 15 minutes just to see how everyone is feeling as a person. And I used to be the kind of person to be like, this is wasting collectively 2 hours of working time with 12 people in this room and 10 minutes of time. But recognizing that that helps build those relationships so then when it does come time for some of those difficult conversations, they know Jake is here, Jake cares. And while I certainly do more to try to incorporate positive feedback as well, they also know that my critical feedback isn’t necessarily meant to be destructive. It’s just a way that I view a process.
I think on the flip side, like I said, a lot of folks in student affairs I think are naturally in that four box. And I think it’s seeing accountability not as this dirty word. It’s just how do we get people to do what’s expected of them and what they say they’re going to do. And often I think that’s being willing to step into some uncomfortable moments in the short term. If no folks can feel like they’re preserving the piece by being like, “Oh, I’m not going to give them this piece of feedback right now, it just doesn’t feel like the right time.” Or “It’s just a little thing, I can do this for them and fix it.” But that’s sort of how you get to that snowballing effect. So being really conscious to lean into some of those more difficult conversations. And I do think that can at times mean if the feedback conversation doesn’t go well, you don’t see improvement, some of those accountability systems in terms of job action are in place for a reason and hopefully we never have to get there.
But knowing that you can still be restorative and implement job action at the same time, as long as you’re being able to have that conversation and say, “This is what needs to happen, this is how we need to see improvement, how can I support you in doing that?” And it can be a fine line to walk, especially when you know these people, you like these people, and you want to support them, but ultimately that accountability, the earlier you can do it, certainly leads to better results down the line and is truly supporting them in a better way.

Dustin Ramsdell:
Yeah, well just got a lot of stuff swirling in my mind with this because a lot of this makes you think of you I have a two and a half year old daughter and there’s sort of the gentle parenting philosophy, whatever. And it’s that idea of always trying to keep yourself honest and utilizing the practices and yeah, if you’re tired as you often are as a parent and those sorts of things, you might falter a little bit, but having at least also the self-awareness to be like, that is not how I want to show up and those sorts of things. And always striving towards that sort of optimal place. But then it just made me think of what are the other connective things? And I think I was reflecting a lot of with parenting that I think traditionally so much has been around power, so it’d be more of that too of like, I’m telling you to do it, you just do it, you listened to me and those sorts of things and trying to get more to doing things with them, you’re getting down their level and those sorts of things.
So just an interesting parallel I guess for any of the other parents out there. But yeah, I mean I think it is a very eyeopening thing where, one of the other recent episodes we did here was around staff attrition and those sorts of things, I think that can often be around where there’s not maybe healthy balance and boundary setting and those sorts of things. And part of that I do think needs to be role modeled and encouraged and supported and all that. But yeah, it’s just an important life skill of having people be held accountable and setting up healthy boundaries and those sorts of things. So it’s not even thinking about it for your own sake day to day or something. Again, it’s just one of those really great learning opportunities if you’re working especially with student staff to bestow upon them and everything. So yeah, I think there’s definitely a lot of great learning opportunities for the individual that is trying to implement this practice. But then when you are doing it, yeah, it’s a gift that you are giving to others, for sure.

Jake Garner:
For sure. And one thing that I really appreciate about that as well is I think we think of this so often with parenting, or K-12, or student staff to be like, “Oh, this is the work that we just do with folks who need to do the learning.” And so often we forget working with adults or your supervisor or someone, they can still benefit from this. Just because folks have had life experience doesn’t always mean that they navigate working with people very well. Some folks are well into their career, stay in the two box, stay in the four box, and we’re all learning together. Like I said, as I do the supervision, I’m learning more about myself. So knowing that I’m learning from the staff that I’m supervising, is particularly powerful. And I think when they see that, that also says something to be like, “Oh, he’s not just preaching this restorative practices thing. When we have feedback conversations, he’s willing to hear it in the same way because we’re all still learning and developing regardless of where we stand in the organization.”

Dustin Ramsdell:
And I think we’ve been kind of exploring this question, but I kind of want to tee up, I guess another thought that I’m having here is what makes this so important in a residential education curriculum and environment and everything? Because I feel what we’ve been talking about is particularly in the example of maybe an incident or just if a team member is struggling with something, if you do just intervene and do it for them or just you’re basically being like, “I don’t know, figure it out, just do it because I’m telling you to do it or something.”
When you are in implementing restorative practices, I think in my mind, you’re getting to the core versus dealing with the symptoms. It’s sort of one of those situations where if it’s cropping up that this student is just not understanding that they’re violating a residence hall policy or something, you could keep just dinging them and writing them up and doing those sorts of things. But if it’s like you’re really trying to get into the core of it, you’re saving yourself a lot of work and the student, whomever, a lot of grief. So just any other things that come to mind of what makes this so important? Any sort of examples, I guess of what you’ve seen as that impact?

Jake Garner:
Yeah, and I like what you said about working with the core, and I think it’s because in those sort of reactive interventions we do, we’re sort of forced to then look at what’s going on with this student, how do we work with them? And I think it is really important to ask this question in terms of curriculum because sometimes I feel like that’s a point when we don’t really look at that person and ask how do we work with them as much as doing things to them. And when I think of how the curricular model for residential education and now more broadly in student affairs came about. It was sort of an answer to this programming model. And I think the programming model was very much us operating in the four box to be like, what do you want students? How can we do something for you? What’s going to engage you? Let’s make that happen for you. Where we didn’t necessarily hold anyone accountable to any learning outcomes or standards, it was just seat time and student satisfaction. What do we want? We’ll do it for you.
Sometimes I think with a way that a very rigid curriculum can be constructed, we sort of did that same thing that I did as a supervisor in terms of the model where we recognize like, “Oh wait, we’re in the four box, got to step up on the accountability.” But then moved right from the support side up to just accountability. Where a really rigid curriculum, it can be a case of us saying something like, “Here are the learning outcomes that we value. We are the experts, here’s how we facilitate it, student, staff, you just do this thing that we’ve written down for you to do. We’re giving instructions to you and you’re giving those instructions to the students.” And that certainly keeps us more accountable toward achieving learning aims because we know exactly what the goals are, we know exactly what the students are doing and we can say X number of students showed up to this strategy or initiative and it prioritized the learning aims in this way.
But I think that can miss the point just as much. Students won’t show up if they don’t feel like it’s relevant to them. I wrote about this in one of my blog posts, but when I was an RA and I like to think that I was an RA who really did care about the work that was happening, I would be the one to modify that facilitation guide because I knew that practically it wouldn’t land the way the folks wrote it thought it would. But I also wasn’t looking at the learning aims in the same way. So I was changing the structure of that in a way that did not honor those learning aims for what I thought were really good reasons. But ultimately what the students were getting was not reflective of those learning aims.
So I think it’s important to take this mindset with us as we’re developing residential education initiatives that are proactive as well to be able to bring students in that room not just as facilitators and not just as an audience, but as folks who are actually collaborating on this. Because if we utilize their expertise to know what’s relevant to them, what sorts of facilitation methods are going to engage them, how can they create agency in their own community and not just have it be, “Here’s the thing that the RA told me to do.” And the RA saying, “Here’s the thing that the pro staff told me to do.” We can continue to prioritize those learning aims, but in a way that’s actually going to land with the students. And hopefully we will see those numbers and hopefully they’ll still be doing that learning.
And that’s a lot harder to do because we can’t just sit and write the guides and hand it. We need to figure out how do we invite students in these spaces? How do we get them prepared to have conversations about what our learning aims and goals are? And that’s certainly harder to do than just saying, “Hey, we’re going to do this for you. Hey, we’re going to do this to you.”

Dustin Ramsdell:
Yeah. Well, given the complexity or kind of intricate nature that this can kind of take, we’ll absolutely share all the blogs that you’ve written on this topic and I think that gives a great sort of framework for this. But if there’s any other resources that you feel like are relevant on this topic that we can include? Because again, I think this is one that’ll probably be helpful for folks to kind of just immerse themselves in to make sure that they think through all of those nuances.

Jake Garner:
For sure. And I think this is one where I wish that I could go into so much more talking about restorative practices and there’s just not time. So I’m glad to share a few resources. One of the primary things that I’ve used and is a really great jumping off point, if you’re just like, what is this restorative practice stuff? What are the tools that I can use? It’s a document from the International Institute for Restorative Practices called Defining Restorative. Again, that’s Defining Restorative. And if you just Google that, it’s nine pages of actual content. There’s three pages of citations, but it’s really heavy in graphics and really digestible explanations. So it’s a really good way to get a brief on some of those major tools that bring up restorative practices in a way that still ties it back to that restorative philosophy.
Because I think one of the issues that we often see is when folks try to take the restorative tools piecemeal and be like, “Oh, now I know how to do a circle.” Or “Now I know how to use an affective statement” but then aren’t actually applying it in a way that’s working with people toward that central philosophy, folks think they’re doing restorative practices, but they’re actually just sitting people in a circle and talking. So that defining restorative tool is really helpful, one for the content itself. But then like I said, there are three pages of citations. So if there’s anything that is of specific interest, there are lots of links in there.
Other pieces that I would say are helpful, and these are really googleable because I find that the resources you get from Google are the ones that are more aimed toward practitioners. Just looking up some circle facilitation tips is really helpful. I think in addition to being able to just facilitate a circle yourself, knowing some of the rationale for why we do those things in circles can be beneficial because we can’t always sit in a circle. Sometimes meetings will be virtual, but you can usually apply some aspects of that to virtual meetings, other sorts of meetings, any existing structure you have.
And then I’m really big, fair process [inaudible 00:26:49], so that’d be another easy one to Google. And that’s largely aimed at the business world. So I think it’s pretty digestible for folks, but that interrogates how we can make sure we’re involving folks in the decisions that impact them.
The other two general resources I give, and unfortunately these ones aren’t free, but if you are sort of a naysayer on restorative practices or you’re like me and really focused on the process piece of that and thinking something like that sounds great, but it just sounds like a lot of feelings, a lot of theory, not necessarily something that yields results. There’s a book called Radical Candor by Kim Scott. I don’t think it ever mentions restorative practices, but if you know restorative practices and you read the book, it very much is restorative practices for the corporate world. So to see it portrayed in a place where the bottom line really is the bottom line, and knowing that she’s not just invested in people or education, but actual corporate results as well was really convincing.
And then the last set of books that I found to be really helpful, and there’s a series called The Little Books of Justice and Peacebuilding, and then they have different topics of The Little Book of X, Y, Z. The Little Book of Restorative Justice for Colleges and Universities was really helpful as an intro to restorative justice and helped me understand specifically the work with harm, but then could also lead into the restorative practices stuff. And then there’s also a little book of restorative teaching tools as well that’s helpful. And the title says those are little books. So even if you’re not a huge reader and don’t want to read something super jargony and intellectual, it really just is really practical tools and takeaways for a practitioner that I’ve really appreciated.

Dustin Ramsdell:
Awesome. I mean, yeah, so much good stuff to check out. And I think that is the idea here where, okay, we’re taking 30 minutes to kind of do a modestly deep dive, but especially with something like this, really the hope is that it can inspire folks to go forth and keep the learning going and do it in whatever way resonates most with them. And you have some people that are going to have different levels of maybe professional development support and different things like that. So I think the various free or low cost resources and stuff is definitely helpful as well. So yeah, I appreciate you curating all those and sharing them out, and we’ll have all those in the show notes for sure.
But with all that, I think we will leave it there. Thank you so much for taking the time out and sharing all your knowledge and yeah, this is really good, important stuff. And I think it’s something that I honestly have learned a lot about just through this conversation and hopefully others have as well and they can go out and do the good work with all this knowledge in hand. So yeah, just thank you for your time.

Jake Garner:
Yeah, thanks so much.

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Roompact’s ResEdChat podcast highlights cool people who do cool things and talk about cool stuff in residence life and college student housing. If you have a topic idea for an episode, let us know!

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