Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Exploring Boundaries: Fences, Not Walls

alesnick's picture

 David Harris


This paper takes on the idea of boundaries in education, and why they should be viewed as fences rather than walls.


Exploring Boundaries: Fences, Not Walls


                It started primarily with a bunch of questions: where have we drawn the lines of boundary in schooling, why have we drawn them there, should we consider moving them, and, if so, how? These questions had been swirling around in my own head, but it wasn’t really until my field placement at Overbrook Elementary that they took a more concrete and emotionally-charged form.

                It was my first day in the classroom, and I was just starting to get a feel for these young children (aged 3 to 5), their teachers, and how their Montessori classroom functioned.  For the most part, the kids were working on their own, playing independently with blocks, paints, markers, and various other materials.  I went from child to child, asking what they were doing, helping out if they wanted help, and talking to them about whatever happened to be on their mind.  I quickly realized that although they were able to play energetically and joyfully, they also had some serious and confusing concerns that they were grappling with.

                One 5-year-old girl told me, as I was in the middle of reading a story to some of the kids, that her mother was sick.  “But not regular sick, not like most people.  My mommy’s in the hospital.  She says she’s gonna be better soon though.”  I tried as best I could to acknowledge this statement, but I really didn’t exactly know what to tell her.  I obviously knew nothing of her mother’s situation, how dire or benign it was, or how she was explaining it to her young daughter.  Soon after, I was working on a puzzle with a little boy of three, who abruptly stopped his work and turned to me: “I’m sad.”  I asked him why and he continued, “My uncle got in a motorcycle accident and died and my mom’s been crying a lot and it makes me sad.”  Again, I had little idea of what to do with the terrible yet very real news this young boy was sharing with me.  I stumbled through some words of consolation, but again I’d been caught off of my toes being expected to respond to an issue I felt was far beyond my capacity.    Finally, there was another boy, a 5-year-old, who asked me at a few points if I wanted to come to his house after school and play basketball.  I tried to gently suggest that we play at school, which seemed to satisfy him for a few minutes, but then he would ask again.  I had been warned against the damage of making false promises but to have to deny his offer again and again was difficult.  These three episodes connected in my mind with the issue of boundaries in schools and the questions I had been turning over in my head.

                What I realized was that the boundaries these children had in mind were vastly different from those I was used to.  In fact, I got the sense that they didn’t really feel any boundaries whatsoever, which, in a lot of ways, made perfect sense to me.  For these children, it seemed, life was life; and it didn’t matter where they were, they were going to bring up what was going on in their lives.  I realized that they were challenging some of the same boundaries I had personally been questioning in my schooling: why are emotions often shut out of the classroom?  Why do we often sit brooding on “the real issues” of our life while learning and hearing about things that don’t matter as much to us in school?  How many times have I felt that my school and my personal life were completely and rigidly divided?  And I noticed that these children were effortlessly hitting on these very issues, and I was the one who didn’t know what to do with it!

                So I began thinking: grief, sadness, anger, loneliness and confusion are some emotions that every one of us has to deal with throughout our lives.  The way we learn to cope with these emotions, I believe, is critical in determining whether or not we become mentally and emotionally healthy people.  However, I have felt that there has been a boundary in much of my schooling that says that emotions are either not academic enough, too uncomfortable, or simply “not appropriate” for a school setting.  I’ve often wondered why?  And after seeing these children being so open and honest about their feelings and seeing myself feel unable to properly address the issues, it took on an even more personal charge.  It seemed to me that it is critical to recognize and validate feelings in schools, at older ages as much as younger, in order to be educating the whole person and not just a person’s intellect.  If a child’s loved one dies or is sick, I wondered, why is that often pushed to the side as somehow “not relevant” rather than embraced, struggled with, and hopefully worked through?  Where is the acknowledgment of, and support for, the life issues that go on outside of a classroom?  And not just in the sense of giving extensions on papers, for example, but real support.  Why do we seemingly draw an emotional boundary in schools after a certain age?   Why is it that there seems to be this universal, untouchable line we simply cannot cross?  Could it be more liquid?  I began to think about how, in preschools for example, involving the students’ parents more would be very helpful in closing this classroom-home boundary that they seem to so naturally shatter.  In short, I believed that most, if not all, of the lines of boundary between “personal” and “school” or “academic” should be torn down, and that those settings should become more and more similar.

                I gradually moved somewhat from my initial anger about this core boundary issue that I was grappling with, aiding by conversations and reading I did.  One of those readings was from a book called From Teaching to Mentoring by Lee Herman & Alan Mandell.  The title of one of the chapters jumped out at me, promising relevance: “The personal and the academic: Dialogue as cognitive love”.  I saw that the authors had struggled with questions that seemed similar to mine: “What then is the appropriate relationship of the personal to the academic?  What is the appropriate etiquette of this intimacy between mentor and student?  What are the proper boundaries within which we should work?” (117).  The chapter, which includes personal stories of personal-academic boundary conflict, brings up important points on both sides of the argument: it holds that we should not make students believe we can “cure” them of their problems or discontentment.  However, it also maintains that mentors attempt to “touch” the personal in order to enhance students’ reach and connection to issues of association, learning, and meaning (118).  Examples were given of people were erred on the side of allowing the personal to leak in too much as well as not enough, in their academic studies.  In a quote that, to me, sums up their main ideas, the authors state that “we are friendly, but we do not offer friendship.  We are empathetic, but we do not offer psychotherapy” (136).  Although I do not agree completely and plan to continue questioning this assumption, their point caused me to rethink my original adamancy about completely linking the academic and the personal, and I came to realize that a “boundary-less” setting might be just as problematic as a “boundary-filled” one.  It occurred to me that some of the division is likely both intentional and necessary to allowing schools, and teaching more generally, continue to be helpful.

                My thinking therefore shifted to something I already knew but hadn’t connected to this issue of boundaries in schooling: some boundaries are good and necessary to maintaining self-care.  I was reminded of Al-Anon, a fellowship set up to provide support for friends and relatives of alcoholics, which promotes good boundaries as essential to one’s personal sanity and general health.  One Al-Anon idea about the alcoholic presents what are called the three “Cs”: “We didn’t cause it [alcoholism], we can’t change it, and we can’t cure it.”  I felt a strong link between Al-Anon’s claim that one cannot “cure” the alcoholic and Herman & Mandell’s point about not being able to “cure” a student’s problems, home life, and so on.    So, then, how does one relate to people or situations that one cares deeply about but are, at the time same, potentially harmful to one’s own self?  Al-Anon proposes an idea called “Detachment with love” to strike this balance and create a healthy boundary.  A quote exemplifying this ideology states, “When I sense that a situation is dangerous to my physical, mental, or spiritual well-bring, I can put extra distance between myself and the situation…This doesn’t mean I stop loving the person, only that I acknowledge the risks to my own well-being and make choices to take care of myself” (12).  In this way, the person neither denies that they care for the person in question nor allows another’s problem to become one’s own.  It occurred to me that I will probably not be helpful to students if I simply throw myself into their problems, even if my intentions are good, becoming as desperate and discouraged as they might be.  Instead, I wondered, it might be possible to find a healthy distance where I could both keep my feet on the ground and offer a helping hand.

                My thinking then shifted further to an idea that there might be a space in between tearing down boundaries and putting them up, a place of reflection where I could calmly and patiently think before taking any action.  I would consider dwelling in this space an act of self-care, realizing that by waiting and not jumping in too quickly, I might be treating myself better.  *  Lewis Hyde’s book, The Gift, in addition to touching on issues of giving, receiving, and (more implicitly) boundaries (using program as one example[1]), posits a point about the fruitfulness of finding a place of patient reflection in which things develop in their own time.  In his distinction between “labor” and “work”, Hyde writes, “When I speak of a labor, then, I intend to refer to something dictated by the course of life rather than by society, something that is often urgent but that nevertheless has its own interior rhythm…” (51).  This notion of letting things develop in their own time makes sense to me with regards to my feelings about boundaries; that is, I feel as if I will have to wait somewhat and let this process develop rather than working to “fix” a “problem”.  In that sense, I believe that finding proper and healthy boundaries is an ongoing “labor”.  And this process of waiting and realizing that there is only so much one can do or understand at a time is one of my great frustrations as well as a major source of growth I find in continuing to explore education.  With regards to Overbrook and schooling more broadly, I realize that these are issues that many have struggled with and also that I cannot necessarily expect to change anything overnight, so at times I believe the most fruitful thing to do is to reflect and wait.  I no longer feel as much of a need to jump in with solutions and dramatic changes immediately, but rather can sit with the thoughts a little more easily.

                Writing this paper comes at an entirely arbitrary point in my process of exploring the issue of boundaries in education and beyond.  At the moment, though far from any sort of conclusion, I feel like boundaries make more sense as fences than as walls.  That is, boundaries separate us in the sense that they give us the space we require in order to thrive, be healthy, and maintain proper self-care; but, they do not have to be isolating and strictly fixed like walls.  You can see what is on the other side of a fence, and although you might not be able to reach it, it still maintains a certain openness that doesn’t simplistically block out anything and everything.  By looking through the fence at what lies within and beyond my boundaries, I hope to continue to question them.   Therefore, rather than a rigid disconnect which stubbornly excludes the possibility of re-evaluation, I might be able to become willing to adapt to novelty by changing those boundaries over and over again.





Works Cited


Herman, Lee, and Alan Mandell. From Teaching to Mentoring. New York, NY: Routledge, 2004. Print.


Hyde, Lewis. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. New York: Vintage, 1983. Print.


Courage to Change: One Day at a Time in Al-Alon II. Virginia Beach, VA: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, 1992. Print.