Balancing Policies and People

Dr. Jeff Keeling
Dr. Jeff Keeling
High School Principal; Ed.D. in Educational Leadership


From the dawning of compulsory public education in the United States in the early to mid-twentieth century to the present, the process of education has been fraught with legislative processes and legal proceedings. Given the litigious nature of public education, adherence to established laws and policies developed at the federal, state, and local levels must always be at the forefront of the thought processes of educational leaders. Naturally, educational leaders must do their best to ensure that students in their charges are provided with equitable access to education within the boundaries and expectations established by education policy and law.

Although adherence to policies is a critical component of effective leadership, school leaders must put forth an intentional effort not to forget a second, yet perhaps more important, component within the educational process, namely, the people. Educational administration leaders are in the business of working with people including not only students and instructional staff members but also school and community stakeholders.

While an educational leadership style centered around simply “throwing the book” at individuals may lead to efficiency in doling out disciplinary consequences and leaving the office at a reasonable time, this approach prevents those in leadership positions from experiencing the richness of leading in a manner that is person-centered and focused upon cultivating relationships.

Policy-Centered vs. Person-Centered Approaches

For example, consider a scenario in which a building principal is confronted with a situation in which a student has been habitually absent from school. From a solely policy-centered perspective, the principal in this case would initiate truancy proceedings in accordance with state and local policies, attempt to meet with the student and a guardian to develop a truancy elimination plan, and then follow through with legal action if the student does not meet the requirements of the agreed-upon plan. While this approach seems timely and fulfills the legal requirements, the end result may be less than effective.

Now, consider the same scenario from the perspective of an instructional leader that employs a person-centered perspective. Through this lens, the principal would reach out to the student and initiate a conversation in which the student would be given an opportunity to explain why he or she had been habitually absent from school. After hearing the student’s explanation, the principal now has obtained critical background information about the student in question and is able to develop a better informed course of action. Perhaps the student in question simply does not like school and is not attending. In this case, the principal should delve deeper into the reasons why the students is avoiding school, which could range from a personality conflict with a teacher or peer, bullying, or potentially a mental health issue among countless other reasons.

Once the reason for the truancy has been ascertained, the principal can the take appropriate action from an informed perspective while also advancing to the legally mandated step of developing a truancy elimination plan in concert with the student and his or her parents and/or guardians. Through this process, the principal who has employed a person-centered approach has fulfilled his or her legal obligations while also completing the critical step of giving the student in question a voice.

At this point, beyond the simple task of creating a truancy elimination plan, the principal can take informed action steps to assist the student in improving his or her attendance such as addressing teacher or peer concerns, bullying issues, or contacting appropriate personnel or agency partners in the event that the student is dealing with a mental health concern.

Person-Centered but Policy-Based

The beauty of the person-centered approach is that it promotes an environment of trust between the educational leader and those with whom he or she interacts, be they children or adults, while maintaining adherence to applicable educational laws. This is not to say that giving a voice to those with whom educational leaders interact excuses anyone from necessary consequences if a problem persists; however, this approach has the potential to yield more effective results than simply doling out consequences or directives without allowing the individuals most affected by their outcomes to share their stories.

This concept is reflected similarly in the instance of working with professional staff members. A dangerous practice that has occurred far too often is that of educational leaders issuing mandates for significant changes without consulting those who must carry out said mandates in order to discover potential strengths and risks to proposed initiatives. An educational leader with a person-centered approach should initiate intentional conversations with those whom proposed changes will impact the most. Not only does this approach serve to expand the educational leader’s view of the situation, but it also leads to improved interpersonal relations and positive rapport.

In the highly stressful world of education, maintaining the perspective that unlike androids who simply carry out their tasks according to a prescribed programming code, people are emotional beings, each with unique personal histories, preferences, and emotions is essential. Through the simple process of listening and truly understanding the viewpoints of others, educational leaders should be able to build positive, trusting relationships between themselves and those with whom they must interact in order to develop a shared vision and develop unity in working toward goals that will benefit everyone from their youngest students to their oldest stakeholders.

Although succumbing to the stressors that naturally accompany leadership in education is easy, those who ascend to leadership positions must remember that by its very nature, education is a balancing act between policies and people, and the sooner leaders implement a person-centered, policy-based approach, the better suited for wholesale systemic success they will be.


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