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Our "our policy" policy
Happy Friday, everyone.
This week I’m resharing a memo about how we think and communicate about our many policies.
When faced with a question about what to do in a specific instance, or a question as to why a course of action is being taken in a particular circumstance—nothing is more natural than to cite a policy.
“Our policy is that Children’s House students need to have already learned toileting.”
“This vaccination schedule is required by our immunization policy.”
“Our policy on refunds is…”
“Our policy on negative PTO is…”
“Our policy on reporting injuries is…”
As natural as it is, in virtually every single case, citing a policy as the rationale for a particular decision is a mistake. Our policy on the phrase “our policy” is to be extremely suspicious of its deployment. More precisely: our “our policy” policy is to never cite a policy as a reason.
This is not because the policies are bad. Policies are good. It’s important to have a default approach, one that covers many cases well and that is itself grounded in good reasons. It’s important to know what our policies are and to understand why they exist: what purposes they serve, why we tend to do things in certain ways. There are real reasons why we want CH students to come in with toileting competence, why we want infants to stick to a vaccination schedule, why we approach refunds and PTO and injuries in various ways. As relevant to one’s role, one should know these policies and understand why they exist, that is, what good things they accomplish and what bad things they prevent from happening.
The problem isn’t with policies per se. The problem is that policies aren’t reasons. Policies themselves aren’t a justification for anything. Policies have no life of their own. They are tools, ideas, heuristics. They are rules of thumb that are meant to achieve certain ends, ends with individual employees and most especially individual families and students. Our policies codify patterns of decision-making and behavior—and reasoning—that usually work.
But they don’t always work. And even when they do work, it’s not the policy that’s at issue. It’s the reason behind the policy.
Think about how it feels to cite “our policy”, to offer a policy as an answer to a question you’re being asked. It usually feels defensive, right? It feels like an attempt to be safe, to shed a burden, to appeal to a higher power for an answer. But this isn’t what we want to be doing. We want to be able to offer real, good reasons, that we ourselves understand, when faced with a challenging situation. The burden we’re looking to shed is precisely our burden to bear.
Conversely, think about how it feels to have a policy cited to you. Generally, it does not feel great. It feels like you’re invisible as an individual, like you’re the victim of a bureaucracy. This is precisely what we don’t want our staff and our families to feel. Our whole approach to education, and our culture as a company, is predicated upon seeing people fully as individuals, to understanding particular situations, to adapting ourselves to human needs and not asking humans to adapt their needs to us.
This is not a small issue, and it’s not a shallow issue. It comes up all the time. A version of it even came up for Montessori, and it became a sticking point for her. Those close to Montessori towards the end of her life recalled a common lament of hers:
“I keep pointing at the child, and they keep looking at my finger.”
Montessori offered a very comprehensive system: an opinionated classroom methodology with many moving and interlocking parts, grounded in a whole philosophy and psychology of human development. Her complaint was that people looked at her approach in a strange, detached way: as something to evaluate as a freestanding system of ideas and practices. She, on the other hand, thought of her system as supporting the development of and offering clarity on the development of particular, individual children.
The object and purpose of her life’s work was not “the Montessori method”. Her method was the form of the work. It was a set of ideas—the rough equivalent of a set of policies. The object and purpose of her work wasn’t these ideas, but of course, the the child.
The error she was lamenting is a very common, very human error. It underlies intellectual rationalism, the veneration of abstract ideas from particulars. It underlies bureaucracies, the creation of operational processes with a nonsensical life of their own. It underlies all sorts of mistakes and prejudices where we become too navel-gazing, where we turn inward, where we detach.
When we have a big idea—a concept, a pattern, a system, a policy—we are at risk of missing the trees for the forest.
The appeal to policy is a version of this mistake. Someone is coming to us and asking why we do something—why we handle moveups a certain way, or PTO a certain way. And instead of looking at the situation, instead of seeing the individual and their needs, instead of understanding and standing by the costs and tradeoffs involved in running our programs—instead of looking at the reality to which our policies point—we “look at the finger”. We don’t just use the policy as a heuristic to guide a search for answers. We appeal directly to the policy as the answer.
Our instinct should be the opposite. We should generally de-emphasize policy and instead look very carefully at the individual situation. Understand the reasons behind policies and call them to mind when needed. But don’t just default to a procedure that might not make sense or, even if it does make sense, won’t feel adequate to the individual on the receiving end.
Policies, again, are great. That’s understating it. Policies are in fact invaluable. We do not and cannot face each individual situation fresh, as though there are no patterns, as though we don’t need to have an aligned, consistent approach. There are patterns, there are common causes, and we do need consistency.
But the ultimate end that policies serve is not some abstract ideal of consistency or fairness, but the flourishing of each individual in our communities. To lose sight of the trees for the forest is to lose sight of people, to drain the policies and even our very mission of meaning, and, worst of all, to give up replace your own precious judgment with an impersonal rule.
Next time you catch yourself tempted to appeal to policy—take a breath. Think about whether you understand the policy. Then think about what really makes sense here. If the policy doesn’t seem to make sense, or if your understanding of policy isn’t solid enough to defend the course of action, consider what further thinking, investigation, or conversations might help you solve that problem.
If you do end up citing a policy to a colleague or a parent (or even a student)—don’t fret. But do note it as something to follow up on later. It’s not a sin to cite a policy. It’s natural. And, again, our policies are good and our policies generally work. But do follow up—assume it will come up again, and that you’ll want a real answer next time. And if it’s a habit, it’s worth reflecting, in the new year, on how to break it.
No matter what your role is, you need to be able to do things for good reasons. And the reason behind our “our policy” policy is that a policy isn’t a reason.
Executive Director, Montessorium