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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Stepping Out of Our Comfort Zones

By Peter DeWitt — April 19, 2014 4 min read
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In a sea of a thousand “no’s” we only need one “yes” to move forward.

Some of the best opportunities that happened to us in life are the ones we didn’t see coming. If you’re like me, you plan everything. As a teacher I used to complete my lesson plans two weeks ahead of time. It didn’t mean that I stuck to them, but I certainly used them as a guide, and 9 times out of 10 we completed what was in the book. I wasn’t always methodical in my planning, but I certainly liked to have life mapped out.

Perhaps I have control issues...Ok, I have control issues.

The past few months while I have been on a leave of absence have brought some amazing experiences. Some of those will come to fruition in the coming months, while others are happening at the present time. None of it could have happened without a supportive staff and school district, and although I was taking a leap of faith with a net secured underneath me, I was still leaping. Leaving a strong and supportive school community is not easy, even if you do know that you can go back “home.”

As I take more and more steps outside of my comfort zone, I wonder how much teachers and students feel they can do the same. Perhaps I’m a hypocrite because as a student, I played it safe, and was never much of a risk taker...except for those risks I took outside of school.

Presently, some of my risks are small, like reaching out to people I have long admired to see if they would write guest blogs or be guests on a new show I’m doing with BAM radio. No one likes rejection, even if it’s a simple as a “no” through e-mail. However, sometimes we have to throw things at the wall to see what sticks. After all, in a sea of a thousand “no’s” we only need one “yes” to move forward.

Other risks were large, like taking a leave of absence. Giving up everything you know in order to jump into something that is completely unfamiliar is not easy. Actually, it’s scary and can sometimes result in many sleepless nights.

As educators, we can all understand how frightening recent changes in education have been. And they have required us all to step outside our comfort zones, which education is sadly not always know for doing.

School...the Ultimate Comfort Zone

For many of us, school is the ultimate comfort zone. We know when we need to arrive, understand who are students are, have plans firmly placed in our plan books, and know when our day is done...although for many educators the days are never done. The brick and mortar that surrounds us acts very much as a comfort zone. Our classrooms are our comfort zones.

As the constraints of accountability and mandates bleed into our lives, I float back and forth whether we still have the opportunities to step outside our comfort zones in ways that we want. Change can be both good and bad. Some of the changes forced upon us are not good, while others may not be as bad as they seem.

Fortunately, as I question the changes happening around us, I happened to sign on to Twitter and read a Tweet from my friend Eric Sheninger about his recent experience at ASCD in Los Angeles. In the Tweet was a link to his blog.

Eric, who is a great speaker and author...not to mention principal, wrote a blog about seeing Daniel Pink at the recent ASCD National Conference. Daniel Pink gave a keynote about change. Quoting Pink, Sheninger said, “Social science suggest three core qualities to move people towards change:

  • Attunement - Can you get out of your own head and see a different point of view? We must learn to accept and embrace different perspectives.
  • Buoyancy - If we are facing an ocean of rejection how do we stay afloat?
  • Clarity - How do we make sense of information? We must move from just accessing information to curating information.”

Are these also the three qualities we need to step outside of our comfort zones? Sheninger went on to write,

Instead of having "big, hairy goals" Pink suggests that we should focus on small wins. As we continue to find success through these small wins they will eventually culminate into moving people where we want, and need, them to be. For this to happen we must relinquish a certain amount of power and control. It is important for us to not let power overtake our core values, as it will negatively impact our willingness to be open to the perspectives of others."

Perhaps those small wins are what we should be looking for, and what we should be concentrating on when it comes to our students. We should not focus on what they cannot do, but rather what they are beginning to do well, and build upon that. In order to do that we need to have a school climate that supports stepping outside of our comfort zones.

For teachers, it means having a supportive school administrator who is going to encourage them to take risks, without the concern of failure. In a world driven by data, that is not as easy as it sounds. School leaders feel the pressure to abide by the rules, and care about the data, as much as teachers do. I guess the real lesson is finding the data that matters.

For our students to step out of their comfort zones they will need supportive parents at home and supportive teachers in school. Sure, it’s not always easy to have both, so perhaps they will only have one or the other. They need to be provided with opportunities to take risks, given effective feedback as they go through the experience, and supportive words if they fail the first time. Those supportive words may offer students the buoyancy they need to stay afloat.

In the End

If you’re stuck in your comfort zone, it’s time to break out of it. Look at the opportunities coming your way, even the ones you don’t agree with, with an open mind. It doesn’t mean they will work out to be successful, but at least no one will be able to blame your negative attitude if they don’t.

Approach these opportunities with the suggestions that Daniel Pink, and Eric Sheninger provide, always have attunement, buoyancy and clarity in mind.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.