I have a long-running joke with my wife. On occasion, my beautiful wife will remind me of how something is done properly – usually in contrast to how I am currently approaching the task. Her reminders sometimes have a tone of, “you should already know this Daniel.” These reminders are usually small matters. Appropriate loading of the diaper bag. Correct utensil placement in the dishwasher. Of course, she is right, and I try to be a conscientious husband and father. But sometimes there are just so many rules to remember! So I have to tease my wife. I like to refer to the Allen Operating Manual, Volume 7, Section 12, where you find the details for correct dishwasher loading procedures. It’s one of the larger sections in volume 7.
I sometimes have similar feelings towards rules at work. Every process has a flow chart. And the processes change, so sometimes the version you’ve committed to memory is no longer up to date. Our bargaining agreement with certificated staff is 115 pages long. We have a corpus of board policies and administrative regulations. All of this happens in the context of state and federal education code. All of which, I feel obligated to commit to memory. Which of course I can’t.
On the one hand, I see these “rulebooks” and other operational procedures as foundational texts. Just like a talented musician typically builds his or her mastery of the fundamentals – scales, chords, music theory – a talented administrator calls on a robust familiarity with these key informational texts – policies, processes, and red flags. Creativity and effectiveness as an administrator often flow from a deep familiarity with these sources. Returning to my analogy of standard operating procedures in my marriage – a healthy relationship is based on the fact that most of the time, I actually do know what the best practice is and I do it.
But rules can also be stifling. They can limit our ability to envision the full range of possibilities. They can lock us in to doing things the way they’ve always been done. In some respects, that’s the definition of what a rule is. We’ve got all kinds of cliches that speak to the danger of expecting different results when we continue to take the same regimented actions. Relationships grow stale if they aren’t reinventing themselves.
In my opinion, hard-core rule followers don’t make the best administrators. Too often, following the rules is more about liability and positional protection than it’s about doing what gets results for kids. Our bureaucratic education systems are notorious for attending obsessively to inputs and processes while paying less attention to whether those processes get us the results we desire for students and families. Unfortunately, the gut check usually comes when we are called on the carpet for breaking a rule, not for when student academic performance is lower than it should be.
Nor do indiscriminate rule-breakers find tremendous success in transforming schools. Eventually, breaking the rules catches up with you. Audits produce findings. Arbiters strictly apply legal codes. Soon enough, you may find yourself dealing with the cleanup of hasty decisions, and that slows down the system even more than the old rules and bureaucratic controls.
So, I’m constantly looking for balance. I’m actively trying to deepen my command of the foundational texts and their practical application, while simultaneously keeping a strategic ear to the ground to determine where we can bend the rules, or throw out the current operational procedures altogether.