The No-Policy Policy

In the span of a day, a principal can see and do many things. Here is an example of one of my Fridays:

  1. Teaching a high school class and helping them start their eportfolios.
  2. A professional growth plan meeting with one of my staff member.
  3. Cleaning up vomit in the front foyer.
  4. Sitting in a Christmas concert done by our K-1 students.
  5. Being pulled out of a Christmas concert to help guide busses out of a packed parking lot in -20 degree Celsius weather.
  6. Running back into the concert to catch the end and engage with parents.
  7. Supervision at the end of the day.

Some of those were planned and some of those obviously weren’t. As an administrator, you have to be extremely flexible and accommodating to best serve your students and staff. No day ever looks the same and I do my best to be quick on my feet. That is why I have trouble implementing policies within our school.

Now don’t get me wrong, there have to be some policies in school. For example, we have a policy for administering medication within our school that is essential for the safety of students and staff. But how many policies do you have in your school that are truly needed? How many policies exist that FORCE you to deal with a rule as opposed to a person. Do these policies take away the need for common sense and restrict what you are doing with students?

Last year, we had a strict policy regarding the use of electronic devices within our school. Now this policy was created before my time and definitely had the best intentions for the time it was created. With the change in our world, there was more of an opportunity for students to use these devices in the classroom, and as teachers found innovative ways to try different things, I noticed something disturbing. Teachers were asking me permission to use them in the classroom and “break” the policy. Right then and there, I decided to do what I thought was best. Get rid of the policy.

Have we had issues with devices in our school since then? I would be lying if I said no, but I could easily count them on one hand in the last two years. Now with these few issues, do we create a school wide policy that affects everyone? Or do we leave room for flexibility in school:

“So don’t scar on the first cut. Don’t create a policy because one person did something wrong once. Policies are only meant for situations that come up over and over again.” Rework by Jason Fried, David Heinemeier Hansson

Just like there is no handbook for parenting, there is none for being a school administrator either. Early in my career, I remember schools having policies than went through the “offense” list, followed by the “consequence”. What this does in our school is paint people in corners where they do not look at the situation, but they look at the action and then have a reaction. We need to look at the person and try to understand the “why” of the situation. Then we have to look at how we can help the student make better choices in the future.

As I started off, having no policies is not realistic. We live in a litigious society and we have to ensure that our students and staff are safe. The reality though is that many of the policies in schools take out the opportunity to deal with our kids. We are in the people business, not the “policy” business.

I challenge you to take a look at the policies and rules in your school. How many are needed and how many put you in a position where you really don’t need to talk to your kids? If it is the second, isn’t it time to rethink if it needs to exist?


  1. Great post! I’ll share this with my Administration Team and review our policies. We’ve already changed our mobile device policy to reflect the times.

    December 28, 2010
    • I am glad…It drives me nuts walking into schools that say “No Cellphones”. Not conducive to the world we live in and hypocritical as most educators take their cell phones everywhere they go.

      December 28, 2010
  2. GingerTPLC said:

    This has been our approach at Turning Point Learning Center from the beginning of the school 4.5 years ago. I still struggle, however, talking with parents who are new to our community when they ask, “What’s your policy on ____?” I find it difficult to explain that no policy or a flexible policy on that subject is what’s best for our kids and community. They’re just not used to this idea that it’s our policy is intentionally NOT black and white for some things.

    How do you answer those types of questions?

    December 28, 2010
  3. Michael Wolf said:

    I am a retired school principal and your post brings me back to those days. If I could get through a day making 2 or 3 of the meetings or working on 2 or 3 of the projects I needed to get done, without interruption from the parking lot, the K-1 assembly or the vomit, it was a good day. (And I confess, I loved it precisely because of the interruptions.) What the post calls to mind, however, is not just that parents kept wanting polcicies, but that teachers did as well. I found it easier to understand the parent need for policies. But at least twice a month a teacher or two would come to me with a problem (undone homework, fighting on the playground, differences in teaching style, etc.) and end the presentation with, “And that’s why we need a policy about X.” For reasons I never really understood, they sincerely believed that if we only had more policies, the problems would be solved. I came to believe that it had to do with reluctance to accept responsibility. They did not want to feel as if they were responsible for the decisions they made in the classroom. They wanted to have the cover of a policy that told them what to do. It didn’t bother them if the policy was stupid or even if they had to ignore it. If a policy was in place, then they could always use it to explain their behavior. It took several years to convince most of them (and not all) that they really didn’t need that “protection.”

    December 28, 2010
  4. Terrific post, George; this really speaks to me and my educational leadership vision.

    Like you and Michael, above, I love the diversity and Renaissance quality of our jobs as principals. In a world of increasingly narrow professions, school-leaders get to do it all, and we are so fortunate for it.

    And like Michael and Ginger, above, I think that one of my biggest surprises upon becoming an administrator was how frequently I felt pressed to generate new policies. Parents, teachers, even students sometimes seek us out and demand of us that we create a policy to correct a practice they don’t like, and somehow they think that our “fiat” will be the way to resolve it. How wrong they are, and how diligently we must practice resisting this approach.

    What I think you leave unstated in your post, (but which I know you practice every-day!) is that we need to pair the practice of reducing “policies” with a practice of increasing vision. Instead of telling people the things that they must and cannot do, we need to share with them the things that others are doing, the things they can do, the things that are are working for student learning. What I love about blogging and social media is the platform provided to do this: to replace policy handbooks with visionary posts!

    Great stuff George! This is a terrific post.

    December 30, 2010
  5. Great points…like the others above, I think I enjoy my days SO much precisely because I am busy busy As the AP at an elementary, my biggest challenge is just this. Stated policies (ie district guidelines) and then the ones that are in place at my campus “because we’ve always done it this way”. Some of the latter are the most confounded out of date things I’ve ever seen. I challenge many of them REGULARLY but mainly b/c i want our staff to be on board with my principals vision. To do whats BEST for every student…sometimes policies don’t always fit the uniqueness of a situation…

    Of course, like Ginger, it’s hard for me when parents want followup and I either have to explain and defend my actions based ON a policy or articulately explain why what I did wasn’t b/c of a policy but….just because. It’s a thin line, 🙂 one i hope to walk more confidently in the future!

    December 31, 2010

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