How you enforce rules will affect every aspect of your school. Robert Littlejohn shares a cautionary tale.

The dean of students at a Christian college learned that a group of students planned to visit a popular local bar one Friday night. He and his deputy crafted an ingenious plan to address the problem. They left their homes and families rather late in the evening and set up surveillance outside the bar in order to catch the students as they exited. They indeed snared a fair number of these students and, since drinking was a serious offense at this college, the students were expelled.

Some years later, at another Christian college, a different dean of students learned that a group of students planned to visit a local bar one Friday night. Before going home from work, he headed straight for the bar and greeted the surprised students warmly as they arrived (outside, before they could enter). Through conversation, he helped each to realize that going out to a local bar was not such a good idea, considering the school’s policies on drinking. These students remained in school and enjoyed a great relationship with that dean throughout their college years—and the dean got home in time to spend Friday night with his family.

These stories pretty well summarize the whole culture or ethos of these two colleges. To put a label on the difference, one college believed in policing; the other in mentoring. And these worldviews permeated the institutions. Not only were students policed or mentored; faculty were policed or mentored, according to the institution’s bias. I worked longer at the one than I might have hoped, and I could have enjoyed a much longer stay at the other. Both colleges shaped my career path and my way of thinking about guiding students and leading faculty. But at the second college I learned what to do; at the first, what not to do.

There is a curious irony in Christ’s Golden Rule. “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do you evenso to them” isn’t just good advice. It is a law of human nature, a basic psychological principle. People will treat us similarly to the way that we treat others. This doesn’t only mean that Joe will treat me like I treat him (although that is likely to be the case). It means that, in general, people will treat me similarly to how they observe me treating other people. We have that effect on one another.

In my own experience, I find that I behave differently around some people than I do around others. Around a high energy person, my energy level rises; around a lethargic person, my energy level declines; around a positive person, I am positive; around a negative person, I can more easily give way to negativism.

We humans are very powerful beings. We actually create our own culture by how we treat others. In a school setting, we either create a culture of mutual respect and grace, or we create a culture of suspicion and harshness. Generally speaking, if faculty and staff police, they are more likely to be policed. If they mentor, they will likely be mentored.

When it comes to enforcing rules, both approaches can work (as the tale of two colleges illustrates), but mentoring softens the will, while policing stiffens it. The catch is that mentoring is harder. For mentoring to work, we all have to be mentors. We all have to take responsibility. We all have to act. We all have to care. We can’t just leave it to the police.

Every school has police. Great schools are full of mentors.

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