President's Corner

Beyond Boundaries

by MARK T. BIELANG

We’ve filled our world with boundaries, both physical and abstract. We divide ourselves into communities, districts, political parties and belief-based groups. As educators, we spend our careers limited by boundaries. Whether it’s the walls of our classrooms, the parameters of labor agreements, our school district borders, or state and federal legislation, these boundaries have, in one way or another, limited our actions.

Mark BielangMark T. Bielang


Do those boundaries separate us, protect us, or shut us in … or out? More importantly, how do our boundaries affect our students? Do they support or hinder our efforts to serve children?

Anyone who has flown across state or country boundaries knows the boundary lines that appear on most maps are invisible from the air. Barring geographical boundaries such as rivers and oceans, transitions from county to county, state to state and even country to country are seamless. Imagine what might happen to public education as we know it if boundaries ceased to exist.

Margaret Wheatley’s perception of boundaries provokes reflection. “Rather than being a self-protective wall, boundaries become the place of meeting and exchange,” Wheatley wrote in her contribution to the 1998 book The Community of the Future. “We usually think of these edges as the means to define separateness, defining what’s inside and what’s outside. But in living systems, boundaries are something quite different. They are the place where new relationships form, an important place of exchange and growth as an individual chooses to respond to another.”

During the past year, I’ve visited schools and spoken with educators in Canada and China. Vast differences may exist among our countries, but we have in common the education of children. I have yet to come across a teacher or administrator anywhere who wasn’t interested in improving student achievement. The hurdles and barriers we must overcome may differ, but the goals we share are remarkably similar.

Imagine how different our conversations might be if we eliminated the boundaries that separate us. Imagine how different our decisions might be if we operated across boundaries in a spirit of cooperation rather than competition. Imagine what opportunities might open up for our students if we could step beyond the artificial boundaries that we have created and give all children an equal opportunity to reach their potential.

In 1987, Ronald Reagan challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the physical boundary that separated East and West. Isn’t it time for us as school system leaders to issue a similar command on behalf of children worldwide? Isn’t it time to eliminate the mental barriers that reside within our own minds? Isn’t it time to cross the boundaries that stand in the way of all children receiving the best possible educational opportunities?

Given the Herculean challenges that public education is facing, we all need to get beyond our respective boundaries. No one needs to remain within the confines of boundaries unless his or her thinking makes it so — and that’s the kind of thinking that has to go.

As educators, our role is to teach students how to thrive in a world without boundaries, to prepare them with confidence and optimism for an unknown future. Our primary goal must be more future-focused than simply enabling students to do well within the boundaries of the schoolhouse. We must help students succeed in the lives they will lead outside school.

If we question the boundaries that affect our mission to prepare our children for the future, we will recognize that no matter what boundaries separate us, we are connected by a common thread — the children we serve.

Mark Bielang is AASA president for 2009-10. E-mail: mtbielan@ppps.org