Policy Makes Me Sick: A School Administrator Reflects on How We Make Decisions

by MARK SONNEMANN

It makes you sick too — maybe you just don’t realize it yet.

As a child, I used to like to build structures. Whether it was out of Lego, or blankets, or sticks, I loved to make the ideas of my imagination concrete. I would build forts with defensive turrets, and cityscapes of soaring towers, and spaceships with glorious wings, and play in and with them for hours and hours lost in one adventure or another. Unfortunately, engineering and construction have never been strengths of mine, and my structures quickly fell victim to the wind or rain or gravity or my little sister and come crashing down. Not being easily deterred, I would doggedly rebuild what had fallen down with some modifications. Usually this would mean making the walls thicker or using more clothespins or selecting bigger sticks, or adding more string or tape.

What I didn’t understand at the time was that the added material actually made my structures more fragile in some ways — using more blankets for example, added weight that my clothespins couldn’t handle. At a certain point, some sort of catastrophe would occur (usually sister related!) and the building would collapse in on itself beyond my ability to repair.

Every modification also made my structures less like I had imagined them — more bulky, more ungainly, and usually smaller and less usable — less fun!

The structures we build with words are similarly challenged — they can rarely do what we build them to accomplish. This is nothing new, I think. We know that precision in any type of interaction is tenuous at best because it involves interpretation on both the sending and receiving ends and utilizes the slipperiest of tools. Like children building forts, our response to this loss of meaning in transmission is usually to add more ‘stuff’ on top of and around what we have said/written. When we are orally communicating this message, this can mean the use of tone, body language and hand gestures, but when the words have to stand on their own, like in our rules and policies, they struggle to remain ‘structurally sound’ because we are limited to adding or changing the words as written. The danger of this modification is that it, like my early design ‘improvements’ it tends to distort and alter the original intent, and often in unintended ways. In my experience as a school administrator, the field of educational policy seems particularly susceptible to this tendency. There is a belief that policy needs to be pervasive and incredibly comprehensive in all areas of curriculum and school management. This belief, I think, is a part of an effort to be more clear, transparent, and accountable, and so more equitable in public education. In the pursuit of this goal we have drastically increased the volume of rules and policy, and also vastly enlarged and expanded on them — with what effect?

Some of my favourite Chris Cornell/Kim Thayil lyrics — “Hands are for shaking/No, not tying, no, not tying” RIP

I am becoming increasingly worried about the cumulative effect of this growth in planning and policy. There seems to be a real appetite at the moment for concrete written rules to guide decision making at all levels because it is assumed that such policy will somehow make the system more comprehensible and equitable for stakeholders. Unfortunately, to my mind, I think it actually exacerbates inequities, reduces the system’s ability to respond to student needs, and erodes the judgement and professionalism of educators.

Let me give you an example from my own practice. I am fortunate to hold the position of Chair of our local association of principals and vice-principals. In this capacity I have regular contact with administrators who are experiencing challenges in their work — it is my role and that of the rest of the executive to facilitate communication with senior management and support staff to develop responses and solutions.

Currently, there is an issue that we are working through around transfer of students mid-year and across catchment areas. From one perspective, there is little consistency around these moves. The decisions from senior staff seem somewhat arbitrary and lack a discernable pattern. School administrators are frustrated with what they see as a lack of support from the system, and a desire to just make the problem go away by allowing the family to leave their current school. The transitions are often difficult for student and staff because resources for support generally do not flow with the student to the new site, at least in the short-term. For these reasons, there have been calls to generate a policy around student transfer that limits or proscribes what may happen. The argument goes that a policy would clean up the inconsistencies and make movement fair and equitable to students, families, and schools.

Sounds reasonable, right?

But what about the following?

  • a student moves in their grade 8 year and are out of catchment, but would like to stay to finish their elementary school with their friends
  • a family experiences a break-up and is looking for consistency for their children in light of all that is going on
  • a primary aged child is struggling in a French immersion program and the family would like to move them into an English stream
  • a child is receiving outside services from a support agency and transportation is a challenge, and so the family is looking for a school placement to support this work
  • the daycare provider for a family closes and their new provider is in another catchment area

One policy could not account for all of the possibilities I could list here, and there are many, many more that I would likely be leaving out. Policy gives us clarity, certainly, but it also gives us rigidity and fragility. Since it cannot be crafted to respond to every context it must be constantly added to — which only adds to its unwieldiness as an equitable arbiter. Eventually, the policy becomes so big as to be meaningless or so limited as to be functionally useless for its intended purpose. It literally falls under its own weight like my childhood structures.

A reliance on policy, in terms of decision-making, also makes us look cowardly and stupid. If our only response when confronted with student need is to quote a rule or policy and say that there is nothing we can do, then we have objectively failed in our role as educators and leaders in our communities. Policy sickens and weakens us — it prevents us from using our judgement, our compassion, and our understanding of a situation’s context to find a way forward. To put it into the context of the lyric I used at the beginning — it ties our hands rather than creating connections to better understand and help one another.

Policy and rules can, and often are, manipulated by those in charge, as well as by staff and students, which makes them tools that can embed inequities into our system. I often say that rules are only used to deny someone access or agency in some way — I admit this is a somewhat flippant remark — rules related to student safety for example are important. But I do think that there is a kernel of truth in my remark. Last night our TG2Chat (moderated expertly by Aaron Blackwelder and Scott Hazeu) was on the topic of motivation.

Overwhelmingly, the talk was of how we can create communities of learning that do not rely on the ‘carrot and stick’ of extrinsic motivation. What is a rule if not a command for compliance that uses punishment as its extrinsic motivation?

We must also, I think, add that this command comes from a system that is inherently biased and that disproportionately enables or disables those within it based on narrow definitions of intelligence, ethnicity, and socio-economic contexts. For some in the system, rules and policies can be bent, or broken, or ignored completely, and for others, policies are instead used to bend or break them and ignore their needs.

Educators should resist the urge to appeal to authority through rules and policy because it damages or ignores relationships and provides overly simplistic, easy answers to complex challenges. We, I think, damage our credibility with stakeholders when our only response to need is a line of text. Policy, when used at these moments sickens and weakens our professionalism, and makes us more reliant on external decision making.

Policy and rules are something that I deal with on a daily basis, and usually because of conflict/poor student choices. One of the first questions demanded of me when there is a conflict at school is — what will the punishment be? I can understand, and somewhat sympathize with this inquiry. We have been conditioned in our society to accept that when you break a rule or law there is a consequence built in to the system. But I must admit that I am also frustrated and flabbergasted when I hear it. Conditioning through punishment is never something I reach to immediately, as it is almost never effective. The goal, I believe, when we work with people in conflict or who have made poor choices is to get them to learn from their choice and make better decisions in the future — and if we punish instead of teaching we usually just inculcate a fear of getting caught, and a change in the behaviour to make it harder to detect. This reality doesn’t stop people from thinking that there is some sort of crib sheet hidden in my desk that has a chart on it that spells out all of the behaviours and their consequences — using a curse word = 2 recesses off the yard, or some such!

The reality is that conflict is complex, and so are the responses to it. It is also incredibly contextual, and must be dealt with on an individual basis. Fairness, we know, is not sameness, but when it comes to consequences, this common sense flies out the window, it seems. When we assign a consequence based on a rule or policy without taking into account the student’s context, we commit an injustice, and we usually encourage more of the same behaviour.

A reliance on policy to guide decision-making with regard to conflict actually institutionalizes inequity.

But how then to we arrive at decisions? Without policy to guide or inform them are we simply replacing a tyranny of rules with a dictatorship of personality?

I don’t for a second suggest that we should throw out all of the work that has been done, most of it with truly good intent, on creating educational policy. However, I do think we need to reflect on the extent to which we want to elevate words on a page over the judgement of a team of educators.

Policy, on its own, has no inherent nobility. It cannot stand on its own — we cannot rely on the ‘letter of the law’ and expect that the decisions that emerge will reflect who we are and what we want for our students.

If we really, as we say we do, believe that individual student needs are the focus of our work as educators, then our relationship with the student and family should be at the core of our practice, and our policy. It is only through knowing someone that we begin to understand them as a learner, and it is only through this understanding that we can engage effectively irrespective of subject or task. Systemically recognizing this is the start of creating something that is more than just a conglomeration of documents.

This work is hard.

I can’t overstate how important it is to recognize this fact, and to acknowledge the effort and creativity that goes into teaching a class of students. Teachers are professionals, and they do work that is cognitively and emotionally challenging, often in spite of a lack of financial incentive, and in ways that can compromise their own health and well-being.

Policy, standardized assessment, a reliance on a textbook or a piece of software — all of these are a siren song to weary teachers and administrators. They offer certainty in terms of expectations, timelines, accountability, and curriculum paths. But this certainty comes at a price. It weakens our pedagogy and our professionalism like a virus, it systematizes inequity, and it ultimately cannot even effectively do the task it was designed to handle.

So here is a radical suggestion — let’s believe in ourselves. Let’s trust and empower and support our fellow educators in doing this work.

Let’s accept that we aren’t infallible or unbiased or all-knowing, but recognize that we are, together, working on behalf of all kids and families. Let’s choose to work with the child or grown-up in front of us.

Let’s listen, and reflect, and act. And let’s always learn from this process, knowing that there is no final destination on this journey. As one of my guides Monte Syrie says “Do. Reflect. Do Better.”

Finally, let’s make sure that we never let words on a page do the work for us. Let’s make decisions that are based on what people need, as opposed to what a policy demands.

Hands, after all, are for shaking, not tying, no, not tying.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: We welcome Mark Sonnemann as a new and significant contributor to Community Works Journal. His thinking is on the mark, and his writing engaging and clear headed.

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