Years ago, when I was a teacher in New York City, there was a memo that came from Central Office that stated a new policy that made it against policy for teachers and administrators to hug students. I remember my boss’ reaction to it – no one was going to stop her from hugging her students. But you can imagine what happened to create that memo. There was probably a spate of incidents involving teachers being grossly inappropriate with students, and as such, the Central Office sought to solve that problem with a policy that drew a harsh, bright line. The problem is that the policy also outlawed a behavior that thousands of caring educators engaged in every day that made the work of schools a more human and humane and caring endeavor.
This kind of policy move is hardly unique to New York City. It exists in schools and districts all over the country. It is at the root of textbook companies who market products to schools that require almost no imagination or thought on the part of teachers. It is at the root of the filtering software and technology policies in many districts that ensure that the internet that kids experience in school has little to no relevance to the way people interact with technology out of school. And it is generally responsible for restrictive cultures in schools where a bland and uncaring education rules the day over any notion of innovative or passionate learning might take place.
And as an administrator, I can speak to the seductiveness of such thinking. It’s easy to think that with the right policy… the right rule… we can keep our schools safe and productive and neat. But that’s not what learning needs to be. When I was in graduate school, studying for my principal certification, I was lucky enough to study under Tom Sobol who – more succinctly than I am doing now – explained the problem with this line of thinking perfectly:
You can regulate the worst abuses out of a system, but you can never regulate goodness or excellence, because goodness and excellence lie within the hearts and minds of the people within the system.
And that’s it. That idea should be at the heart of our design principles when we think about schools and their systems.
This is at the heart of the idea of designing human systems. There’s no question that we need systems and structures in schools, but we need systems and structures that are aspirational, dynamic and deeply, deeply human. A well-structured human system is one that enables good people of honest intent to learn how to do great work with students more quickly, more powerfully than if the system did not exist.
This doesn’t negate that there are regulations that govern our behavior in schools. Those do exist for a reason – to, as Prof. Sobol said – to prevent the worst abuses. That is why union contracts mandate how many minutes teachers can teach in a row, and that’s why the procurement manuals of most districts are thicker than many textbooks. We have to keep people -kids and adults – safe, and we have to make sure that schools do not have financial abuse. Those are real and serious things.
But we need the other kinds of systems as well – the ones that help us be better together. And it’s something school administrators should think about every time they sit down with leadership teams to create policy:
“Am I doing this because I’m afraid of the worst thing, or am I doing this because I want to make it more possible to create amazing things?”
And we should look to be aspirational in our policies, procedures and systems as often as we can — after all, when the systems and structures that we create are aspirational, then our classrooms and the messages we send to the children inside of them will be aspirational as well.