President's Corner

Join Me in the River


One of my most memorable experiences in recent years was a white-water rafting trip down the New River in West Virginia. The exhilaration of the Class V rapids, breathtaking views, unexpected wildlife sightings and an imaginative guide all contributed to a great day on the river and an unforgettable adventure.

But I didn’t really gain the perspective I needed to draw lessons from my journey until I returned home and took a closer look at some aerial photographs of the New River area.

Mark BielangMark T. Bielang

A river is dynamic — it goes places. It engages with its environment. It has energy. It re-creates itself. You don’t really notice these things when you’re down on the river, wet, oftentimes wide-eyed and preparing for what’s beyond the next bend.

It’s only when you take a macro look at the complexity of the river basin system that you truly appreciate how it interacts with the Earth and helps keep it alive. It’s then that you see the tributaries that feed the river, the natural and manmade obstacles that alter its flow, how it has re--created itself and how it has changed the surrounding landscape. And it’s certainly much easier to identify its destination than its origin.

When you look at a river, you’re really looking at processes. Within these processes are patterns that we often fail to observe. We fail to study them because we don’t allow ourselves to get far enough away to see the patterns that exist.

The river metaphor illustrates some useful concepts for helping us think about our own organization. AASA is a vital, dynamic resource that helps school system leaders thrive. It’s part of a larger leadership basin that includes feeder organizations, school systems, postsecondary institutions, service agencies, aspiring education leaders, the business community, government and other individuals who contribute to our mission. AASA is the primary stream that connects it all.

Like a river, AASA has a destination, but we must be clear about that destination. The AASA Governing Board has begun the process of revisiting our mission statement, the most recent version of which was approved in 1999. Going through this process is vital to the future of AASA if we expect to grow our organization and keep it relevant. We must be able to articulate our destination, demonstrate what sets us apart from everyone else, and work with our partners, our tributaries, to keep the organization strong and vital.

We are beginning the process by asking some fundamental questions such as this: What positive changes in the world should AASA exist to create? It’s only by answering such questions that we will gain a clear understanding of where we’re headed as an organization and identify the unique benefits and services that members can’t find anywhere else.

Growing our organization will require a grassroots effort at the local and regional levels. This point was driven home for me during the National Conference on Education in Phoenix in February when I spoke with aspiring school system leaders who were attending our conference for the first time.

Clearly, this new generation of education leaders is not motivated to join an organization unless they garner relevance and meaning in exchange for their membership fee. Several of these aspiring leaders were there because an AASA member reached out and convinced them of the benefits of membership and attendance. If we expect these emerging leaders to become the tributaries that contribute to the strength of our current, we must engage them in meaningful ways and ensure we are meeting their needs and the needs of all school district leaders.

Now is the time to redefine our mission and to grow the premier education organization that represents school system leaders. Now is the time to reach out and invite others into the AASA river, to add to its strength and diversity and to help change the landscape of public education.

Mark Bielang is AASA president for 2009-10. E-mail: