Working to change school culture in Georgia (Europe)

Chris Straker, ex-Board Director of Restorative Practices International (RPI) and current RPI member, has been working with Nino Shatberashvili, to advocate and advance restorative practices in the Georgian education system. In this blog post, Chris interviewed Nino about the work she does.

Chris: What drives you to do the work you do?

Nino: I come from the child welfare sphere and have seen many very unfortunate children and families. My experience also embraces the juvenile justice system. When I came across the stories of some of the ‘guests’ of the justice system I started to think: if schools, community, families could be more supportive, if their problems were noticed in time, and if their potential was captured sooner, if … if … if … their lives might be different. Childhood is a time that will never come back, but feeling ‘childish’ may return from time to time. And this is so, so, so wonderful. Even now as an adult I never feel so careless, so happy as when I am meeting my old classmates – talking about everything and nothing, laughing endlessly, as sometimes we did during our school lessons.

Chris: What do you see as the role of adults who work with children?

Nino: Quite a long time has passed from me being a pupil, but the joys of being at school, as well as the pains, are still with me. Some are forgotten, but for others, their scars are difficult not to notice. This, of course, fits with all that we know about the impact the events in our childhood have on us as adults.  Some children have more joy and less pain, for others it’s the opposite. Some children come from families with myriad problems and complex relationships between their parents, and relevant others. For them, sometimes, the school environment is the only shelter for feeling safe, cared for, and listened to.

Chris: How did you come across the idea of restorative practice (RP)?

Nino: These thoughts about childhood informed my thinking about RP. I met colleagues from elsewhere in Europe who already had such experiences of working with RP in schools.  Some are the creators of such culture in schools themselves. Later I sank myself into material about restorative practice in schools. Soon after I became a member of The Restorative School Working Group, under the umbrella of the European Forum for Restorative Justice. It was then I became determined to try it in Georgia.

Initially when I introduced the idea of launching restorative practices in the pilot schools to my colleagues – psychologists, social workers, and school teachers – some appeared sceptical about whether schools were ready for this in Georgia. But after some time, they have started to ‘harvest the crops’.

Chris: What is the impact of RP in Georgia?

Nino: We started our pilot project in 11 state schools in Georgia. The project was developed based on the whole-school model, but we were also conscious to be responsive to local reality. The educational institutions are under reform in Georgia, but traditionally more emphasis has been on teaching and infrastructure developments rather than relational practice. We have started training teachers about the prevention and impact of violence, and about issues of safety and security. We are also looking to develop healthy relations between children, children and teachers, teachers and parents. We are looking to give them the skills, knowledge and understanding of relational practice that RP develops.

Without helping children develop skills in non-confrontational communication – helping them realize their thoughts, feelings and actions, how to use these skills when something is done inappropriately, how to increase their sense of accountability – it is hardly possible to develop caring, compassionate and accountable citizens.

Relationship building, and enhancement of social competencies of children and of teachers, became even more important during this pandemic. In the middle of the piloting process, we faced the reality that life continued behind the screens of distance learning, that children and parents from various social backgrounds had to reframe their everyday life. We had to reshape our program as well.

We all became even more confident that school has not only an educational, but also a caring function. Children who were invisible became visible. Those who had never been active became more involved. Some children who did not know that they needed support started to talk to, and know their teachers, psychologists, and social workers.  They saw these adults from another perspective. They realized that teachers are not only those who teach, but also those who try to support them in various ways.

Though not much time has passed since we started, we see positive changes. We are so proud that we started. After reports on each impressive case, I envy my colleagues so much that they are the first viewers of the ongoing changes, that sometimes happen at the end of the circle meetings. I share only their successes when they tell me post factum, I miss all the zest of observing transformation.  

Chris: How do you see the future of RP developing in Georgia?

Nino: The whole situation changes with time. Some sceptical teachers have started to ask my colleagues questions, identify problems, share their experiences in class and their admiration for restorative processes. Some have taken time to realize the benefits from the change between how they were reacting to things, and the ways we are proposing. I am sure teachers see the benefits of managing the class better and that this relational approach can also give them greater chances to teach.

These changes take time, and it is not automatic process. We are working to change thinking, perception, and behaviour. These changes take time. But for us, for our teachers, and for all children involves in these processes a whole new world has been discovered.

NB: Currently experts from the UK in this domain – Belinda Hopkins and Chris Straker – are working on the development of the Restorative School concept with the support of UNICEF. The Georgian Education system will consider this in its establishment beyond the pilot discussed in this interview.

Nino Shatberashvili has a PhD in social work and is Associate Professor at Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University, leading the MA program in Social Work at the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences. Nino is a founder and Board Member of the Social Work Club, co-founder and Board Member of the Georgian Association of Social Workers. Nino has diverse professional and working experience in state as well as non-state sectors, local and international organizations. At the given moment she is a deputy head of the Office of Resource Officers of Educational Institutions under the Ministry of Education and Science of Georgia. Nino is a member of European Forum of Restorative Justice Working Group on School Mediation. She is leading the development of restorative school model in the educational system. Nino is a second representative of the International Council on Social Welfare at Council of Europe, member of School Social Workers Association of the US, European Association of Schools of Social Work, Network of Social Work Management, member of the Special Interest Group of the EASSW: Ecosocial Work.

Nino Shatberashvili