Twenty-two years ago [now 25], while analyzing why so little of what is known to work gets applied in practice, Lisbeth Schorr wrote of “traditions which segregate bodies of information by professional, academic, political, and bureaucratic boundaries” and a world in which “complex intertwined problems are sliced into manageable but trivial parts.” Around the same time, Sid Gardner wrote that “we end up contributing our money, and more important, our political and spiritual energy, to building a fragmented ‘non-system’ of well-meaning, specialized programs.” Sadly, both observations are still true today.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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…