exiting your comfort zone

Challenge Yourself!

What are the experiences in life that yielded within you maximum growth or that you are most proud of? More than likely such affairs involved exiting your comfort zone and/or experiencing challenge or struggle.

In watching students pass through my classroom I have the opportunity to see how certain approaches yield the most significant results. And this is not about “getting the grade” or “getting that amazing IB score", it’s about personal growth and development. It’s about establishing patterns of hard work. It’s about the desire to learn as much as possible and to be the best that you can be.

This year I had the amazing opportunity of advising two students through extended essays (independent, self-directed research culminating in a 4000-word paper) in Science. I might be biased, but doing an extended essay in Science takes a bit of courage and a lot of work that some of the other disciplines don’t require. Not only do the science students have the same expectations regarding research and the written word, but they are also required to produce an original scientific experiment.

One student chose to research and work on a chemical on which there is hardly any literature available. As a result she had to research and make connections between similarly structured chemicals. Her idea required hours in the lab generating a calibration curve and troubleshooting how she would manipulate the independent variable, before even performing her ultimate experiment.  The final results were that the independent variable did not have an effect on what she was studying, a conclusion that initially came as a crushing blow. However, she picked herself up, learning that this is also part of Science and that such results are valuable. She pressed on to put together a thorough and coherent report despite feeling discouraged and ever so “done” with her project. She shared that she had truly learned the meaning and value of perseverance.

The other student built his own electrophoresis apparatus! He also passed hours in the lab just trying to get his protocol to work. He dedicated an entire week out of his summer coming in every day, all day, to work on his experiment. Then school started and he averaged about 10 hours a week through the first semester. I was getting ready to have the conversation with him that he might want to consider another topic. However, that very morning he was able to visualize genomic DNA in his gel. He announced this breakthrough in homeroom and every single student in the senior class cheered for him as they all knew how hard he’d been working. He went on to perform a most interesting, original, and very involved experiment with his set-up. He told me during the viva voce (the final interview with the advisor) that he “learned the importance of trial and error and to never give up.”

In another area of IB curriculum, a student at our school elected to take the Dutch Language B course of study.  Language B is designed for non-native speakers of a language with 2-3 years of background in the language. This student had one year of Dutch language before the IB DP years. She took a 2-week language course in Belgium to help herself prepare. This experience alone was agonizing as she was the only English speaker at the camp. All other students were native French speakers coming to the camp to learn either Dutch or English and she was compelled to rely exclusively on her “broken Dutch” to communicate. However, she returned with increased language skills and embarked on a committed journey to learn as much Dutch as she could. She ended up earning a “5” out of “7” on the IB exam and now claims that that score means more to her than any other as it represents how far she came.  She accomplished what many assert isn’t possible: to succeed on an IB Language B exam with so little initial exposure to the language. Additionally, she learned of the growth, personal development, sense of achievement, and empowerment that comes from exiting your comfort zone and tackling the impossible.

Another student has been exceedingly dedicated in all of her classes. However, she desperately wanted to bring her math skills up significantly. So, she focused with fervor on practicing her math. Hours and hours were spent on becoming a better math student. And, she demonstrated huge success on her mock exams this past December. She continues to heed the advice of each of her teachers as she prepares for the May exams, not slacking for even a minute. It hasn’t been easy but it’s clear she’s learned the value of sheer hard work.

What makes these examples special is that each student chose paths of challenge. Adversity wasn’t just thrust upon them. They knew they were taking a less traveled path and I think this element of choice makes their journey all the more enriching for them and inspiring to me.

It isn’t too late for the rest of us! We are faced on a regular basis to take an easier route or a more demanding enriching route. This year I took on three new curriculums! Both struggle and joy have enveloped me. I’ve learned and grown as a teacher and as a person as I dealt with very new issues in the classroom. And next year I will be teaching robotics and Computer Automated Design (CAD). I look forward to this experience and anticipate that it will be invigorating, mind stretching, and character building.

My question today is, what new challenge are you ready to embrace?

Helping out colleagues and taking risks

There he sat, smiling graciously at me and pleading with me. “You’ll really help us out”. He wasn’t pushy but he clearly wanted an affirmative response. He coaches my son’s U14 soccer team. He’s a really nice guy. So, how could I refuse him?

Oh, it was the last thing I wanted to do and it was way outside my comfort zone.

Thus I found myself standing in the rain on a cold and dreary Dutch day in Amsterdam on the sidelines of a soccer game.

“Coach,” someone calls out, “here is the key to the changing rooms.” Of course I want to laugh out loud and announce to all present, “I’m not a real coach. I’m a substitute and I have no idea what I’m doing!” I resist the urge and follow the instructions to take my team to prepare for the game.

I inform the hosting coach from Amsterdam that I am a substitute coach and that we are without substitutes (our three strongest players are not here today) , not sure why I felt the urge to do that. However, he scans our scrappy little group and for whatever reason, offers us two of his players as substitutes for our first game. We are very grateful for this generous gesture.

Before I feel ready,  our boys are out on the field in a vigorous match against Luxembourg. The opposing team is hammering us. Thank goodness our boys have the option to request substitution to take a break when they are exhausted. One of the boy’s father is knowledgeable of soccer and gives me some pointers that are very helpful. The boys respond to my “coaching” and try to follow the instructions.  However, as the score ratchets up in favor of our opponents I’m feeling more and more like I have a big neon label announcing “new, clueless coach." Despite playing better, our team remains unable to score a second goal. Before I can dive too deeply into my shame, the torture is over and the players are running out onto the field to shake hands and exclaim, “good game." I watch for a moment, relishing the fact that the game is over, before realizing the coaches are supposed to bring up the rear of the congratulatory line. Hurriedly I join them on the field. It’s over. Just one more game to go.

The hosting school is our next opponent and, of course, the coach wants his players back but he offers us another one who wasn’t scheduled to play that day but has showed up and wants to play. So, we have one substitute and that is a huge help, especially since he is a real asset to the team and clicks with our players. The boys start to play better, the goalie is on fire, and I’m feeling more comfortable in my role. We find ourselves leading 3:0. During quarter breaks my confidence manifests itself in my approach with the team. In the end, we triumph with a 6:4 win over Amsterdam. Our boys are exuberant; after all it’s their first win of the season. I realize, that I have had fun myself. I realize, in a crunch, I’d be happy to help out again.

So, the advice my students receive from me is true, in exiting one’s comfort zone (or in IB terminology, in being a risk taker) we enlarge our circles of experience and become more rounded as human beings. Experiencing a soccer game from a coach’s perspective has been invigorating. Seeing my students in a new situation has been enlightening. And I’ve discovered something new that I enjoy.

Therefore, if someone asks you to help out but you’re unsure because you feel inadequate or unqualified, just go for it. It will probably turn out OK, you’ll learn and grow, and you might discover a new pleasure in life.