Policy Trouble

August 5, 2009
Colored pencils next to a stack of books.

Does your policy spell t-r-o-u-b-l-e? This discussion came up today in the form of a question from a participant.

I’ve recently had the privilege of training teachers and others who work in the Texas education system here in the Fort Worth area. My client contact has told me that these individuals are a dedicated bunch and have chosen to be here. I always enjoy teaching the Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® course to educators. One reason is that they bring up many good discussion points. Another is that their questions and issues challenge me to explain the concepts in the course so that it makes sense for their world.

One of the participants brought up the fact that her school’s policy is to have all the teachers shake hands with the students as they greet them. I think it also applies to whomever they come across in the workplace. She seemed to have an issue with this and asked for my input. As I always do, I put my reply in the context of the course and how the content would apply to her situation.

On the surface, it seems like a reasonable policy. It encourages teachers and others to reach out to those in their charge. It role models an appropriate Western greeting and perhaps helps to break down some of those walls and fears that students and parents may have. But what if someone doesn’t want to shake hands or have their hand shook? It could be considered an invasion of personal space. For some students, the very act of an adult bringing their hand towards their midsection could be frightening because of cognitive issues or past abuse. What if a teacher is not particularly fond of shaking hands themselves? Some of us are what the world considers “germaphobes” or germaphobic. I put myself in that category. Frankly, I’ve met quite a few individuals in my lifetime that I would sooner prefer giving a verbal greeting to instead of a physical one. I finished by saying that I didn’t think it was necessarily a bad policy, just one that may require more input before it is implemented.

It was a lively discussion and after having offered the aforementioned information and rhetorical questions, I threw the question on the group for their input. Some thought the policy was a good one and didn’t think educators should take it too seriously. I perceived others as thinking that they would not want to be forced to adhere to such a strict policy. One participant offered a compromise saying that it would be fair to let the teacher decide on the greeting. Meaning they could choose how adhere to this policy by way of a high-five or pat on the back or something similar instead of a handshake.

Policies that are too stringent or lacking room for maneuverability can get us into trouble or cause problems for others. Take the example of the zero tolerance policies that were enacted in many educational settings after Columbine. Again, on the surface it seems to make sense that we should not tolerate weapons of any kind in our schools. I don’t want my children going to a school that takes a lackadaisical approach to weapons. However, I read a news story of a student who had helped his grandmother move one weekend. He had put her kitchen wares and utensils into the back of his pickup truck and a butter knife had inadvertently dropped into the bed of his truck. Not realizing this, he drove to school the following week where one of the school faculty found the knife in the back of the truck. The student was expelled despite his explanation and pleas for understanding. Some may suggest that this seems like an example where despite the good intentions of those who created the policy, everybody lost.

Policies and procedures are in place for good reason. Most of the time they work well and are consistent with the culture of our work environment. But policies that are not well thought out, taking into account all the contingencies, can lead to unfair practices, disagreements and harsh consequences. Rules have a purpose. Let’s not lose sight of the outcome of those very rules.

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