Principals: Throw Away Your Teacher Handbook

“The truth is that many [leaders] set rules to keep from making a decision.” Coach K

In his influential book, Good to Great, Jim Collins (2001) writes “to give us a lobotomy on change.” He reveals that great leaders don’t make to-do lists, but rather they make lists of what not to do. As school leaders, the to-do lists have grown exponentially with increased state and federal mandates, leaving many of us with more to do than time to do it in. Let’s start today with our list of not-to-dos for the summer.

For administrators, the summer is the planning block for a great school year. Just like with teaching where the backbone of the learning is the lesson plan, the lifeblood of the school year is the plan that goes into making it a success. Often this means going back to reviewing policies and procedures that we write in our teacher handbooks. The goal is to be clear with our expectations for teacher conduct for things like professional dress code, student management systems, timelines for paperwork, what time to report to work, important dates, etc. Ask yourself if your teacher handbook is achieving its intended purpose.

In School Culture Rewired, Gruenert and Whitaker (2015) remind school leaders that “norms are the unwritten rules that maintain coherence within a group, and they often trump the written rules” (p. 35). The authors explain that written policies are not what drives expectations of behaviors within the culture of the organization. Rather, it’s what the leader tolerates that determines acceptable behaviors, which in turn defines the culture and even the success of initiatives, new ideas, and positivity. A teacher handbook cannot set expectations, influence behavior, or be leveraged by leaders to create a thriving professional environment. The handbook, a set of written policies that may or may not actually represent the norms of the school environment, will never set or reinforce the norms a leader desires for her organization.

In fact, the teacher handbook could communicate a lack of trust and contribute to a toxic environment. It’s a passive approach to leading. It tells educators that their judgment is not valued and that they should consult a set of policies and rules before making decisions. It demonstrates that the leader doesn’t believe that the teachers have the level of professionalism needed for decision-making, and, hence, need to be told what to do. And, worst of all, it’s distribution at the start of the year says that if you don’t do what’s outlined herein, you’ll be in big trouble. That’s not the tone for the start of a great school year.

Try this.

Throw your teacher handbook in the garbage and tell the teachers you did it. Start the school year by telling the teachers that you threw it away and provide your rationale for doing so. Let them know that you don’t need a set of written rules to hold people to high expectations. Take for example coming to work on time. We all know which teachers get to work early, show up right on time, and wander in late. Attacking the issue and confronting your tardy teachers doesn’t happen through the use of a handbook. It happens when you observe a teacher reporting to work late and you address the issue. By the way, as far as culture goes, the other teachers want you to address this. And, they don’t need a handbook to tell them to report to work on time, which means that they also don’t need an AM sign-in book. You can throw that away too.

Instead of developing and revising your teacher handbook this summer, make a list of other things you shouldn’t spend time doing. Remember that Collins says that getting to good gets in the way of getting to great. What are you doing that’s good but that keeps your school from being great?

Let us know, maybe we can help:@tjvari @josephjonessr

Collings, J. (2001). Good to Great. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Gruenert, S. & Whitaker, T. (2015). School culture rewired: How to define, assess, and transform it. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

4 thoughts on “Principals: Throw Away Your Teacher Handbook

Add yours

  1. Every Post so far has been excellent and I have enjoyed each one, so thank you for doing the work to get your message out. When reading this I reflected on a Wilm U grad class that stressed the importance of in place policies and I thought the instructor made a compelling case. But I think your strategy is more proactive and bold.

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    1. Thanks. Joe and I both believe that there’s no power in policy. Clear expectations and established norms within the culture are always better than the written word.

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  2. Recent demands on teachers have done more to take away spontaneity and creativity in teaching. I agree completely that there needs to be rules, standards and measures, but only in balance with the “magic” that is teaching.

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