What are you willing to declare you are responsible for and what does that have to do with policy?

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: February 8th 2012

I was in Starbucks the other day. As I went to grab the milk, I discovered that not only was the first steel jug empty, but so was the second, third and fourth. As I carried the four empty canisters to the counter to ask for more, I thought about why no one had taken the responsibility to simply inform the barista that we were out of milk.

Throughout my career in education, I have often reflected on exactly what people are, or are not, willing to declare that they are responsible for. I was also reminded of this thought recently when forums we are having on poverty have asked the question “would you be willing to declare that you are responsible for a child who is not your own?”

Accepting personal responsibility for many things can be risky and overwhelming. It can also be tremendously rewarding. The overwhelming part is to see the extent of the need and the sometimes chasm of the gap between those who have and those who have not. The reward can be in a smile, a glimmer, a glance, an extended hand from those who truly appreciate what you have given in sometimes such a small way. The risk/reward example reminds me of John Maxwell’s quote “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

In education, every day I see people who have devoted their lives to accepting responsibility for improving the life chances of each child. I am surrounded by them. In many cases, not only have they taken the risk of committing their lives to such a noble pursuit, but they do it knowing that they cannot possibly do it all. However, they do what they can, in the ways that they know how. If they choose to see it, they know that they are making a difference every day.

The flip side of accepting responsibility is the abdication of responsibility. Sometimes, I feel that when we ask large, bureaucratic organizations about how we do things, we are pointed to policy. As a district leader, unless policy is carefully and thoughtfully written, it can actually provide a window for people to abdicate their responsibility for doing what is right. “Well, we don’t do that, there’s a district policy.”

Policy and practice should be about what we can do, and how to do what’s right rather than a set of prescriptions or rules about the boundaries in which we work. Policy is critical, policy is important, but we cannot let policy be driven by worst practice so that we surround ourselves by rules that don’t support our work, communities, employees or students.

As district leaders and as educators, we are responsible. It’s what we signed up for. The work we do, on a daily basis, must be about making a difference in the life chances of each child and whether it’s in our daily interactions with people or in the policies we write, the humanity and common sense of a greater right must come through. We must be can-do organizations.

So the next time you are faced with a difficult task or dilemma, as yourself, “what exactly am I willing to declare that I am responsible for here?” It can be an enlightening moment of reflection and can tell you a lot about who you are and what keeps you going on a day to day basis. And the next time you’re in Starbucks and use all the milk, pass the canister to the barista. After all, it’s the responsible thing to do.

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