Principles Over Policy

contributed by Scott Postma, originally posted on his personal blog

It was in the military that I first conceptualized organizational policy and understood its significance.

Standing in formation on the patio deck of our barracks, we all held the same little blue ATO (Airmen Training Order) in front of our faces with our right hands, our left hands placed neatly in the small of our backs, palms out, and our feet shoulder-width apart.

Because passing a written exam was part of the requirement for graduating from Basic Military Training School, we carried the ATO with us everywhere we went. At every interval (e.g. standing in line for chow), we were required to study the regulation manual that guided the conduct and mission of an airman in the USAF.

At first, it was daunting, like learning the tax code, with penalties for violating regulation more ominous than dealing with the IRS.

But soon a helpful pattern emerged.

Every regulation was written to the end that each airman was committed to our country and to the Air Force’s mission and manner of securing its peace and safety.

I quickly realized that regulations were really for those who did not embrace the mission and values of the USAF similar to the way the Ten Commandments are for those who do not love God and his neighbor as he ought.

Later, as a school administrator, I learned firsthand how policies developed.

Clever students would find new ways of skirting clearly established rules and circumventing implied ones.

A new teacher would creatively discover a way to make his work more efficient while inadvertently making his teaching less effective.

Inevitably, a new policy would have to be implemented to enforce one principle or prevent the violation of another.

Of course, implementing policy in a growing school and a changing culture is inevitable, but it’s generally the teachers and students who decide how big their handbook is going to be.

Teachers committed to principles that ensure quality Christian education limit the need for “more policy” in their school.

Following are three simple tips to help teachers achieve that end, and secure maximum liberty to teach in the classroom.

Understand the essence of classical Christian education. In the most general sense, education is the process of passing on to the next generation the parents’ understanding of the nature of their world. Classical Christian education, we might say, is the Christ-centered work of helping students apprehend, appreciate, and approximate their life to what is good, true, and beautiful in the world.

Embrace your school’s values and mission. Each school has a unique DNA, or personality. A sound teacher will pay attention to what gets emphasized, celebrated, and praised. Before offering his own ideas, critiquing what’s already in place, or neglecting what seems to him unnecessary, he will educate himself in, and embrace, the school’s values and mission. Only then will new ideas be helpful.

Shepherd the student’s life and future. For all practical purposes, teachers are an extension of the home—not a usurper of it (Ephesians 6:4). Of course, the relationship between parents and teachers work best when there is a shared value system. But with that assumption under our belt, teachers are most effective when they strive to understand their students’ needs, pray for them regularly, and see their role as teachers of students and not teachers of a curriculum.