How do we define our system boundaries as teachers? What’s our identity?

If you are a teacher, how do you define the “boundaries of your system?” How do you define your aim and purpose within that system?

System Boundaries

When I started teaching, I defined the boundaries of my system as my subject and my classroom. I called myself a “math teacher.” I talked about my “algebra class” and my “pre-algebra class.” Later, when I moved schools, I referred to myself as an “economics teacher,” and I talked about my “5th period econ class,” my “7th period econ class,” etc. More often than not – MUCH MORE often than not – when I hear professional educators introduce themselves, they talk this way, too. They say, “Hi, I’m Martha. I teach U.S. History at Essex Middle School.” And, “Hi, I’m Frank. I teach 5th grade English and language arts.”

Do our self-imposed labels cause us to be competitors within our own schools?

I remember feeling pretty competitive as a teacher, now that I reflect on it. At the time, I didn’t realize I was being so competitive, but I’m realizing it more now. For instance, more than a few times, I can recall a student saying something like, “Mr. Adams, I didn’t do my math homework last night. I had a big English project due today.”

“Oh!” I said. “So you think English is more important than math?” I think I was mostly kidding, and I can remember many of my own teachers saying similar things to me when I was in grade school. I guess I was somewhat trying to continue the teacher joke. But, part of me was definitely not kidding.

Or I can remember another teacher or counselor “pulling out” a student from my class to finish a test or something similar. Thinking back, if I am entirely honest, I can feel some tension in how I viewed that teacher that was taking away from “my time” with that student. They were interfering with my aim to teach that student math.

W. Edwards Deming, Profound Knowledge, and Systems

Two things are critical in applying this part of the system of profound knowledge. First isdefining the boundaries of the system. For example, if you are a motor freight company, does the system include only your suppliers, your customers, and your company or does the system include all motor freight carriers, suppliers, and customers? This distinction is important because, if it includes your competition, then you must work together with your competitors to improve the system.

from here

For a number of years, I’ve been studying “systems thinking.” I’m a long-time groupie of Peter Senge’s. I like to think of myself as a systems thinker. Lately, I’ve been studying W. Edward Deming and his work in Profound Knowledge. As I read and re-read the paragraph above, I cannot help but think about how I defined my system as a teacher. Unfortunately, for too much of my career as a teacher, I was in competition with the other teachers on the faculty. Some of that competition was fairly intentional. A lot of that competition was unintentional. But the competition existed nevertheless.

How might our definition of system boundaries affect our work as system enhancers?

In so many ways, I did not even know what was going on in my fellow teachers’ classrooms. I was a math teacher, or a U.S. history teacher, or an economics teacher. I had “my classes” and “my periods of students.” My aim was to teach math, or history, or economics. I would say that I was “on the faculty,” but most of my time and attention was really just spent in my small system as math teacher, history teacher, or economics teacher. To have a different systems mindset, I would have needed to know more about the other parts of the system. Maybe then, I would have seen the other parts as cooperatives, instead of as “competitors.”

“If [the boundary of your system] includes your competition, then you must work together with your competitors to improve the system.”

About six years into my teaching career, I became a sixth-grade boys “grade chair.” The boundaries of my system changed – because my title and responsibilities changed. Now, my system continued to include my eighth-grade economics classes, but it also included all 85 of the sixth-grade boys in my care. Now, I had formalized reason to see myself as part of a bigger system. I could no longer afford to “compete” with my fellow teachers. I needed to know what happened in sixth-grade math, sixth-grade English, sixth-grade science, etc. Now, I had to talk to parents about the three hours of homework that their son was doing every night – the subjects added up! Before, I could really just lull myself (unintentionally) into thinking that I was only giving 20-30 minutes of econ homework. But now, as a grade chair, I could see the cumulative effect. Probably the best thing I did as grade chair was to shadow a student every year… and to do the homework that night. It was very empathy provoking, as well as system-boundary widening.

Two years later, I became an assistant principal of sorts. We called it “Director of Studies.” Now, I had to know the curriculum and instruction of all 86 faculty and all 560 children. My system was growing. My system boundaries included all of the departments and all of the grade levels, sixth through eighth. I had to see my system as a system of cooperation and collaboration, not as a system of independent contractors and competitors. But I began to wonder if my fellow teachers’ perspectives and points of view remained relatively constricted by closer boundaries on their systems.

Two years later, I became the middle school principal. Now, my system was even bigger in boundaries. But what about the definition of the system for the other teachers and educators? Were we in sync about the boundaries of our system? Or was my perspective only changed because of my formal title and responsibility changes? What if I had never changed roles? Would I have kept my more myopic view of the system?

It was really all about “identity.” 

The system self-organizes around its Identity. That includes its vision, purpose, guiding principles, values, history, theory of success and shared aspirations. A clearly designed, shared identity allows the organization to self-organize in alignment with the identity desired by leadership. All systems are complex adaptive systems which adapt around their identity. The identity may be designed by leadership or it may occur without design, more by accident. If it is allowed to occur accidentally it will lack clear, shared direction. Thus empowerments will not be fully successful.

from here

Hindsight has provided much clarity, but when I became principal, I began to work to affect the identity of the teachers. First, we began peer visits. At least twice a year – once each semester, and once in-department and once out-of-department – we would observe each other’s classes. Of course, these observations could help provide feedback, but they were more about tearing down walls and hypothesizing that such expanded vision might expand the boundaries of our relative systems. We would begin to see more of the overlaps, commonalities, effects of our “competitive” actions. We might identify with each other differently than we had before.

Next, we began to restructure as a professional learning community. We gathered together in teacher groups to become teams – to see our collective roles rather than our competitive roles. To be fair, the other teachers may never have seen themselves as competitors, like I realized that I had been. But maybe, just maybe, my silo experience was not dissimilar from most teachers’ experiences. In teams, though, we could design curriculum and instruction together. We could assess student work together. We could coordinate, cooperate, and collaborate. We could alter the boundaries of our system and reach a greater accord about our shared identity. Now I was a teacher in the PLC, not just an economics teacher. Now, I could see how my practice intersected with the practices of the math and science teachers. Now, we could be teachers of the entire set of children.

Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s business.

from here

If I had to do it all over again, I would have been much more intentional about our collective identity. There’s critical work to do there as a faculty.

Then, transformation could spring from shared understanding and profound collective knowledge.

To be continued…

4 thoughts on “How do we define our system boundaries as teachers? What’s our identity?

  1. GREAT thinking here, Bo – thanks for sharing!

    For me, these same ideas about transformation and collective identity could also be framed in terms of community. I, too, have been thinking about a major shift in thinking about schools from “each learns on his/her own” to more of a socially constructed, collaborative model. And YES! along the way, schools’ fundamental architecture (aka identities or culture) has to change: from specialized, hierarchical, and bureaucratic to community-anchored and personal:

    Community-anchored culture = “I insure success of young people in this school” vs.
    Specialized, hierarchical, bureaucratic culture = “I teach (AP) Government”

    Digging deeper, I’d suggest that we ought to consider three levels of community: 1) an “Inner circle” student to student, student to teacher (the kids); 2) “Middle circle” teacher to teacher, school to parents (the adults); and 3) “Outer circle” school to community (the world).

    We’d see the shift to community-anchored culture happending when we could gather evidence of deeply embedded cultural norms at work in our school: students feel known, cared for, and respected; students feel safe, protected, and secure; everyone feels a sense of ownership; everyone feels empowered to participate and lead; all feel a sense of responsibility for what happens in the school; and folks are recognized for their contributions…

    … thanks again, Bo – I appreciate you for offering a thoughtful post that has been a catalyst for me to pause, reflect, and share!

    • Dave, thanks for your great comment. A person that I used to work with – a dean of students – used to explain that the students don’t just have 7 teachers, but 77 teachers. This language helped shift expectations for our faculty that we were in relationship with ALL of the school community, not just the students on our individual rosters. And the change in the faculty-growth model helped our faculty feel a part of something bigger, too, I believe.

      I like the three circles of community idea. It certainly makes sense in terms of “community geo-location” or something like that. I would want to use language with the students, parents, faculty, admin, wider community, etc. that reinforced that the barriers were just descriptive and totally permeable, not hard or fixed.

      Hope to see you at NAIS.

      Take care,


  2. Bo, Thank you for writing such a thoughtful piece and sharing your reflections on what you felt as a teacher. Though certainly unintentional, there are too many routines and habits we have in schools that lead us to miss out on so many opportunities to collaborate and strengthen not only our own experience, but also (and most importantly) that of our students. I look forward to the continuation!

    • Thanks, Angel. There are many routines and habits to re-examine. I think one of the best things a school can do is commit to figuring out – HOW CAN WE CONNECT PEOPLE RIGHT HERE?!

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