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…

“It’s a system… and so too should be our strategies for change.” Jon Kolko @TheAlpineReview #PedagogicalMasterPlanning

From Jon Kolko in The Alpine Review, No.1

It’s perhaps obvious to point out that the world we live in is interconnected, yet the simple statement is at the crux of our downward digression: our political system is intertwined with economics, intellectual property is connected to technology, design is at the heart of consumption and marketing feeds the beast. It’s a system, and so our critique of it should be systemic, and so too should be our strategies for change.

What if we blueprinted the architecture of the inner workings of a school – of the interconnected elements of the ecosystem – and designed the construction plans for the transformations it is undertaking? Then, we could act on what matters.


Contrarians and rebels in your organization – are you nurturing them or neglecting them?

For schools that aim to innovate and improve, the people who work in such schools will have to grow comfortable with internal opposition. Schools live at an interesting and paradoxical intersection. All at once, schools tend to be excellent at building conformity, while functioning in such a way that breeds sub-system metamorphosis.

Much of the structure of traditional school exists to create conformity. Bells, dress codes, grading systems, faculty induction, etc. – they function to establish standardization and uniformity. However, most schools continue to practice a brand of professional development that breeds “rebels.” We send faculty to conferences, and the faculty return with great excitement to try something new and relatively non-conventional. Just yesterday, I attended an SAIS (Southern Association of Independent Schools) event on flipping the classroom. A few teachers from a smattering of schools attended, and they will return to their hives to disrupt the norm.

How might schools better create honey-production systems for these worker bees that return to the hive with new pollen? How might we grow more accepting and even promoting of internal opposition?

A recent article on Fast Company’s Co-Design,  “How To Nurture Your Company’s Rebels, And Unlock Their Innovative Might” by , offers great insights in this regard.

Similarly, I would argue, the contrarians and rebels, the people on the fringes of organizations who question and deviate from the status quo, which so often leads to inertia and inflexibility, are huge assets for any organization. Those who disagree with the present often see the future more clearly.

How are you nurturing the contrarians and rebels? How are you tapping into the future seers within your organization? Are you feeding their curiosity and factoring in their ideas to your pedagogical master plan, or are you intentionally or unintentionally squashing their experimental energy and enthusiasm?

@GrantLichtman #EdJourney, episode 3: Systems of Innovation – Midwest

How might we understand the parts and the whole of a system?

Mr. Usher asked the Children to measure off a square on the ground that measured six feet on a side and to mark the square with the string they had found in the toolbox. When the yellow strong was measured out and stretched on the ground, and two of the Children had wisely put large stones on the string to keep it in place, Mr. Usher asked the Children to sit around the square on the ground.

“Now, Children,” Mr. Usher began, “we’re going to learn a very important skill today, more important than how to throw a baseball or how to make peanut butter sandwiches, and almost as important as how to read or write or do addition and subtraction. I want you to look at the square we’ve marked out, and I want you to write down everything that’s in the square, or is happening in the square, or is part of the square, or makes something happen in the square. Everything. Work together and come up with a list. Tell me when you’re finished.” And with that, Mr. Usher sat down with his back to a thick young oak tree, pulled his hat down over his eyes, and looked as if he had decided to take a little nap.

This passage comes from Grant Lichtman’s chapter in The Falconer entitled, “Step 3: Understanding the System.” Our schools are systems. How do we understand these systems? How might we understand them better?

Grant’s #EdJourney road trip is in the second week. Grant is studying the systems. What is he finding within the yellow string that he is setting in place with large stones…


Catch up on the whole season…

Denver – @GrantLichtman #EdJourney, episode 2 – 9.13.12

Grant Lichtman’s #EdJourney Videocast, Episode 1

Cut it to your core and concentrate on clarity

Rob Evans spoke of taking things off of our plates before adding more on. Gary Hamel introduced the notion of core competencies. And Greg McKeown gave us the clarity paradox.

“the clarity paradox,” … can be summed up in four predictable phases:

Phase 1: When we really have clarity of purpose, it leads to success. 
Phase 2: When we have success, it leads to more options and opportunities. 
Phase 3: When we have increased options and opportunities, it leads to diffused efforts. 
Phase 4: Diffused efforts undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the first place.

Curiously, and overstating the point in order to make it, success is a catalyst for failure.

– from “The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,” Harvard Business Review, August 8, 2012.

It’s a fundamental principal of design, too. Take away all that is non-essential. Reduce until you cannot reduce any more. Then, the best will remain. When I think of this principal, I think of a sculptor reducing a block of marble to the essential remains – I see something like Michelangelo’s David. In fact, now that I think of it, the content of the statue points strongly to the lesson, as well – a small boy with only a sling defeating an enormous giant.

One way in which a school can achieve systemic unity and cohesive pedagogical architecture – don’t add so much to your plate…know your core competency…maintain your clarity of purpose…strip away the stone to reveal the statue…master the sling and know your creator instead of carrying too many weapons and weighing yourself down with too much proudly worn armor.