Rules were Made to be Broken
Bruce Atteberry

Rules were Made to be Broken

Bruce Atteberry
Middle School Principal

I awoke one morning with the thought, “Rules are made to be broken” running through my head.  I have wondered about the origin of the quote and decided to do some “research” into finding the answer. In searching for the quote, I found that it is generally attributed to General Douglas MacArthur who was a famous general during World War II and the Korean Conflict. His exact quote is, “Rules are mostly made to be broken and are too often for the lazy to hide behind.”
Finding the whole quote and in light of my current position as a principal I pondered how I had approached this concept as a teacher, also as a former police officer. The term that comes to mind in all three instances is “empowerment.”  Webster’s Online Dictionary defines empowerment as “to give official authority or legal power to.”  When I was a police officer I was given the official authority or legal power to enforce the laws of the city, state, and, ultimately, the Constitution of the United States of America. Within that official authority, however, was also the understanding that I could not “violate” or “break” any of the rights of a person with whom I came into contact. The empowerment came from my belief that the Chief of Police for that police department trusted me to act properly in the carrying out of my duties.

As a teacher I am “empowered” by the school administration to act in the best educational interests of the students under my tutelage.  I am also “empowered” by the school to make decisions in the classroom in regard to instructional strategies, conflict resolution (between students, between myself and students, also between myself and parents, or between myself and teachers or other administrators). This empowerment in the Christian School becomes even more incumbent on following the guidelines set forth by the school and by scripture. Looking to Jesus as my example, I found that I needed to model my actions as a teacher in light of the actions of “The Teacher.” Luke 6:40 states, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher.”
   This same principle of “empowerment” applies to me­ as an administrator of the middle school. I am empowered by Victory Christian Center, the School Board, and Dr. Demuth to act in the best interest of the school. This allows me the “discretion” to interpret and enforce rules in light not only with the “letter of the law,” but also with the “spirit of the law.” We all know there are some circumstances that are not necessarily “black and white.” The best example I can give of this is when I was young my parents left me at home. We had some grapes that were purchased for the family and I was told “do not eat all the grapes.” Well, I ate all but one. So I did adhere to the letter of the law, but I did not necessarily adhere to the “spirit of the law.” I try to keep this in mind as I come into contact with teachers, students, and parents.
   So, what does ““Rules are mostly made to be broken and are too often for the lazy to hide behind” mean to me and how should I look at this quote as a Christian, more specifically, as a Christian school teacher or administrator. We find rules in every facet of our lives. From speed limits, to driving in the correct lane, to voting, to whatever, rules govern all those things we do. The rules tell us what to do and inform us what we are not to do. Rules are to be guidelines to assist us in living so as not to interfere with the lives of other people. We might say that if rules are mostly made to be broken why should we have rules? As stated before rules guide every area of our lives. Parents have rules. Teachers have classroom rules. Families have rules. We all come under some type of authority. This then seems to beg the question “Is it ever all right to break or bend a rule?” If this particular issue is addressed from the Old Testament point of view we see the results of not following the rules: Adam was sent out of the Garden of Eden, sin brought about Noah’s Flood, in the book of Judges “everyone did what was right in their own eyes,” disobedience caused Israel to be dispersed from the Promised Land God gave them, and God was silent for a period of about 400 years between the book of Malachi and the New Testament as His Plan began to unfold. God does not appear to “bend” the rules. But if we look at the lives of those who are called “patriarchs" there are some areas that cannot be explained by “not breaking the rules.” Abraham lied about Sarah, Jacob took his brother’s birthright, David committed adultery and had the husband killed, Elijah ran from Ahab, and thousands of Israelites were killed in battles just between the tribes of Israel. So it does appear that God upholds the “rules.”
   Referring back to the original quote from General MacArthur, ““Rules are mostly made to be broken and are too often for the lazy to hide behind” we can see that perhaps there is an essence of truth in this statement. Obviously God is not “lazy” and is not hiding behind the rules He originally set in stone. In the Old Testament we see that God provided a sacrifice for Adam to cover his sin. In Noah’s time the world-wide flood occurred and changed the climate of the earth. God, however, then placed a rainbow in the sky as a covenant this would not happen again. God called David “a man after my own heart” even though he committed adultery, had the husband killed, and caused a plague on the Israelites because he chose to number them against God’s will. So if God can break His rules in the best interest of mankind, why can’t we as teachers sometimes “bend” the rules in the best interest of our students? This is not to say that students should not be held accountable, but sometimes we need to look at the “totality” of the circumstances before rendering what may appear to be a “hard and fast” decision based on the rules.
   In the New Testament we find that the Pharisees believed that Jesus “broke” their laws by working on the Sabbath (healing people), the disciples broke the rules by not “washing their hands according to the custom of the Jews,” or walking through the fields on the Sabbath and plucking some heads of grain and husking them to be able to eat the wheat. When Jesus was confronted with the adulterous woman He did not condemn her according to the law. Jesus did uphold the concept of tithing, but in reality tithing was started before the law came into existence (Genesis 14). On the other hand Jesus would fellowship with those who were considered to be “outside” the social order of the Jews of the times.
   So, it appears that Jesus could “bend” or “break” the rules as set forth by the Pharisees (Jewish Legal Council) based upon situations or circumstances that appeared to be in conflict with the “spirit of the law.”  Jesus was confronted about “bending” or “breaking” the man-made rules of the Pharisees on many occasions. The question then becomes, “How can I apply this to my life as a teacher or administrator in a Christian school.” Most of us would agree the end product of our classrooms should be “learning.” The rules we have in our classroom are designed to help keep an orderly process so as not to allow a chaotic environment to disrupt the learning of all students in the classroom. In this regard, rules are important. It has been said “freedom is not free.” When we look at our nation we find our freedoms have been protected by those who have died in service to our country. The same can be extrapolated to the classroom. We can not allow disruptions by students to interfere with the learning process of the rest of the class. In these instances our classroom rules should be clearly posted and already reviewed so students will know the consequences for their actions.
   Along with the implementation of policies and procedures for each class, there could also be those times where “grace and mercy” may be more effective and conducive to learning than the “letter of the law.”  It is much easier to say, “The rule is. . .” than to look at each situation based on its own merits and render a decision. That said, it is understood that rules are not in and of themselves necessarily evil. However, sometimes a “strict” interpretation of the rule can cause a student or parent to view the teacher in a way that is not conducive to partnering with them in the best interest of the student. Jesus was able to discern the motivations of people. Jesus also had “compassion” for people for different issues they were facing. The Syro-Phoenican women’s daughter was healed because she asked Jesus for help. He helped her even though she was not Jewish. He bent the rule.  Perhaps we need to look at our enforcement of rules dealing with assignments. Maybe we need to allow some “bending” of the rules.
   We all know that students or parents can perceive what we say or do in a way that we had not intended at all. These “unintended consequences” can create areas where we have actually done more harm to our relationship with the student and parent when enforcing the “rule” with a seeming attitude. Sometimes we “hide” behind the rule because it is not convenient for us to have to grade that late paper or we are afraid it will “set a precedent” that we do not want. While these things may be true, what are we saying to the student? It may come across like, “I am busy and I don’t have time for you,” or “The assignment is more important than you are or your little problem” or “I need to get this graded because grades are due and I am being pressured to get them entered so don’t bother me with your problem.” This may be perceived as not caring or not having compassion for students or parents. I would hope this is not the case.
   This brings me to a summary of some problems that can be found in the “across the board” “non-negotiable” enforcement of rules. In many cases the issue is not the “rule” but the attitude in the enforcement of the rule. If it is perceived by students or parents that the enforcement of the rule is more important than the relationship problems that may ensue. We should not “hide” behind rules because it is easier than handling individual situations with students. Rules should be the “means to an end” not the end. Results should be measured in resolving conflicts not in creating conflicts.
   This by no means is referring to “throwing out” all rules. We need to use the wisdom God has given us when enforcing them. If you have ever needed “grace or mercy” from something you have done or not done, you need to consider this when dealing with students and parents. Sometimes a listening ear and a “soft answer” can prevent an issue from “making a mountain out of a mole hill.”