“I don’t ask for permission. I just ask for forgiveness later.”
I can’t recall when I first heard that phrase, but I know it made an impact on me. Buying into that way of doing business requires a person to act with confidence, believe in their mission and accept consequences. The gist is that whatever it is you’re doing, you know in your heart of hearts that it’s the right, correct thing to do. So if your higher-ups take issue after you’ve acted, an apology should calm them down, especially since your actions should have paid off for all parties. If you find yourself uttering the phrase, “I don’t ask for permission. I just ask for forgiveness later,” you have probably just committed a transgression.
Now, when I write about transgressions,I want you to know I’m mainly talking about transgressions of social norms. In this type of transgression, the actor doesn’t believe pain and suffering will result, otherwise, she would not carry it out. I worked with a teacher who transgressed his department’s norm of teaching world history through the singular lens of warfare, and instead framed his world history class around social justice themes spiraling through time. A transgression is different than a weakness or a wrongdoing. A weakness is a negative character trait or lack of a skill and could be overcome or at least compensated for. As a principal, I was weak in analyzing literacy assessment data, so I compensated by delegating that to our literacy coach. A wrongdoing is an action that may result in pain or suffering, but is still committed. Honestly, when you don’t refill the paper tray in the teacher workroom copier…. that’s a wrongdoing leading to untold amounts of suffering! Don't do that.
When you recognize your weaknesses, work on strengthening them; take responsibility for your wrongdoings and face the consequences. But I argue that capitalizing on calculated transgressions of social norms and illegitimate rules, can change our world.
Within a faculty, there are many social norms just ripe for transgression. (And now you know how my brain works!) Talking trash about troubled/annoying students in the faculty lounge? Maybe that’s a norm you should break. Ever notice how support staff gets left out by some teachers? Hopefully that’s not a norm at your school, but if it is, go ahead and transgress that one. Principals: a norm among your administrative colleagues is probably to dress more “business formal" than teachers. Did you ever think about the down sides to that? Maybe it’s not aligned with your egalitarian vision, so you should consider transgressing, even when you’re among other principals or administrators. Maybe there is a social norm at your school to celebrate Christmas. But you and your family do not. That’s definitely a norm that’s appropriate to transgress. And here’s one to actually avoid transgressing: don’t be late to faculty meetings!
But what about transgressing rules or directives that you don’t agree with on moral or philosophical grounds? This is where it gets harder. This is where you’ve got to be sure you’re spiritually grounded, and that you can articulate why you’re transgressing. And then you’ve got to be willing to accept the consequences. Teachers and principals are working within a system, an institution that isn’t set up to meet everyone’s needs, nor is it set up to be flexible or responsive. So when your beliefs and desires for action in your students’ best interest bump up against the system, it just plain sucks. And what about your needs as a human being who happens to be an educator? When your edges scrape the brunt of the institution’s rules and regs, you get that feeling like, “Oh crap. I have to do something about this. This can’t stand!”
What do you do in those situations? My guess is that since you’re a social animal, you ask around, maybe informally form a little coalition of like-minded individuals. Maybe you take your concern to the next person up the chain-of-command. Perhaps you pitch some solutions to the problem. Maybe you get some relief for either you or your students. Or maybe you don’t. And that’s when you have to decide if you’re going to transgress.
You’re going to teach your homeroom, or your high school choir secular songs reflecting the winter season, instead of the typical Christmas carols. You’re going to have to state to the people who inevitably ask why you’re refusing to sing Silent Night, “My class is going to sing a different tune, because not all of my students, nor I, celebrate Christmas. Helping them feel part of this festive time of year is important, but I think our secular heritage is something we all agree on, and can celebrate.” Period.
You’re going to decline to do the mandatory Saturday trainings your superintendent lined up for everyone in your grade level this semester. You’re going to have to say, “I can’t be away from my family on the weekends, and I also don’t have the energy to grow from or contribute to professional development beyond the 50 hours I already work during the week.” And you’ll face some consequences for that. But you have to draw a line somewhere!
You’re going to let your superintendent know that as a principal, you simply cannot be in charge of a new program that your faculty already said they didn’t want to pilot. You’re going to say, “My school is not able to accommodate the new initiative,” and then you’re going to be ready to align your teachers, staff, PTO with best practices in initiative implementation and even legal precedents to keep an unwanted initiative out of your school. Sure it would be easier to just do it half-heartedly, but you want to work and live with integrity, right? You've got to transgress.
On the flip side, you may transgress by doing something additional, like giving your students 25 minutes of meditation time (call it whatever you want!) in the afternoon, or in the first 10 minutes of class. Or, maybe as a principal, you will work to get grad students earning their counseling license into your building to work with students coping with mental health issues, under the radar of central administration who told you not to pursue it because of some kind of paperwork nightmare.
Navigating all of these rules and social norms is what teachers and principals do every single day, and it gets exhausting. But how could you live with yourself if you blindly followed each directive from the state or superintendent? Discernment is healthy and called for in education. You’ve got to be clear about your beliefs, what feeds your spirit, what you believe is in the best interest of your students, and then you’ve got to transgress when necessary. Don't ask permission. Give yourself permission, and ask for forgiveness later.