School Rules and the Law of Love

Article excerpt

Sometimes a rule that should encourage growth becomes a yoke that breaks the backs of students and leaves teachers or administrators hamstrung

One of the most neuralgic issues constantly confronting teachers is the application of school rules. Administrators, deans of discipline and faculty rule-book committees all struggle to create clear and consistent rules and regulations that are responsive to the needs of the institution and those of the students as well. Keen eyes review rules and policies to be sure that they meet the requirements of the law and the Gospel. Then, once the rules appear to be crystal clear, one faculty member ignores a blatant violation of the rule and another enforces it to the nth degree.

The problem of consistency in the application of the rules plagues everyone. Teachers complain about administrators who do not enforce their application of the rule. Administrators despair of faculty who ignore some rules and hyper-enforce others. Guidance counselors complain about the inability of faculty and administrators to see students as individuals. Everyone cries for consistency.

What do we mean by consistency? Surely we don't mean the consistency of "three strikes and you're out" laws that have managed to put some criminals away for life for crimes as minimal as shoplifting. Yet this is precisely what some schools have in mind. They long for the same application of the same rules in every circumstance, regardless of the multiple variables which each unique experience involves. If it were possible to find two circumstances that were exactly alike, including both the infraction and the observer, such a plan might be feasible. But the variables are so great that the likelihood of finding such a circumstance is remarkably small; smaller certainly than a first glance might suggest.

Better to look for the consistency of a baseball umpire. We look to the umpire not for perfect judgment but for fairness and impartiality. The consistency of the umpire does not rest on the perfect application of the rule but on that particular umpire's consistent application of the rule. Ballplayers know that some umpires have high or low strike zones. Others give more play to the inside or outside parts of the plate. But the best compliment a player can give an umpire is the acknowledgment that the umpire is consistent within his or her own strike zone. Notice, however, that strike zones do vary, sometimes significantly, from umpire to umpire.

The broad strike zone of St. Augustine can begin to look appealing. Augustine can comfortably and perhaps rightly reduce the moral law to "love God and do what you want." This is perhaps a bit too eschatological for a school community. If we could depend upon the single-hearted dedication of faculty and students to this ideal we would need to go no further. Indeed, if we could depend upon their adherence to this there might be no need for school or rules at all!

Jean Hills (1982) points to a notion, reminiscent of the umpire metaphor, which might shed some better light on the question. Hills points to a kind of "pattern rationality" by which administrators respond to "a conception of a pattern development on a number of mutually limiting dimensions with respective gains in a given area having implications for other areas" (P. 7).

Put another way, those who create and interpret rules in schools "become suiters, skilled at riding the wave of the pattern as it unfolds. They respond to value patterns when discrete goals are in conflict with each other" (Sergiovanni, 1995, p. 44). We have moved from the world of technology to the world of artistry. The ability to create and maintain clear, coherent consistent patterns of regulation is critical for the life of schools. The challenge to making this happen is to act in reasonable, successful, predictable ways based upon a set of generally accepted patterns of thought.

From Ambiguity to Transformation

Philosopher Kenneth Burke (1969) has remarked that ". …