“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” ~Albert Einstein
The month of May is always bittersweet for teachers. Over the last eight months, we built lasting bonds with students, developed engaging activities in the classroom, and collaborated with our peers. By May, we are sprinting to the finish line (and waiting to hear that final bell). As I near the end of my own race, May is the month I fear due to SOL and IB exams. I know my students are prepared, but that doesn’t stop the second-guessing in my head on what I can improve for next year. In moments of stress, I gravitate towards podcasts. After listening to the TED Radio Hour episode, “Comfort Zone,” I realized part of this end-of-the-year fear is beneficial because reflection leads to growth. This podcast spoke about how we tend to linger in a “constant practice” zone, which is especially true for teachers. Constant practice refers to the idea people find comfort in repeating the same routines (or in terms of teaching, the same learning strategies or assessments). Our lives as teachers are busy and when we find something that works, why should we keep changing? Our teacher’s toolbox might be differentiated, but is it evolving? As we reflect these final few weeks before summer break, think about where you are today and where you want to be in a year. How do we avoid the epidemic of plateau teaching, where we get comfortable with our “constant practice” and end up in a repeat/rinse cycle for years on end?
In 2013, I fell into this trap. I finished my tenth year of teaching and felt stuck, both personally and professionally. I taught the same subjects for a few years and my days became routine. Then one day I received an email about an opportunity to study in South Korea with a group of history teachers. I immediately ran across the hall to a colleague and proceeded to go through all of the reasons why I shouldn’t apply. Her response: “Do it.” Every little alarm bell went off in my brain. I was scared that my introvert self would have a hard time making new friends. I was nervous about traveling to a country where I didn’t know their language or culture. This fear made me realize how my students must feel sometimes. What are they going through each year walking into eight brand new classes? After putting myself in my students’ shoes, I remembered how I’ve taken other leaps of faith in my life and ended up surviving. I was such a risk-taker when I was younger, but as I’ve fallen into habits and routines as an adult, I forgot what it felt like to take a leap into the unknown. The two weeks I spent in Korea changed my life. I discovered that even though you might feel uncomfortable from time to time, stepping out of your comfort zone is necessary and provides opportunities for growth. On our only free day, I tackled the Seoul subway on my own (Google the map, it makes the NYC metro look like a breeze). I was nervous but eventually made it outside of the city to witness life in a suburb, similar to where I live. When I returned that night to the hotel and told the teachers what I did, I felt more confident to take leaps despite the risks. Even in the midst of all this newness, I found myself drawn to my familiar haunts like Starbucks and Subway while in Seoul. Sometimes all we need to do is set one new, challenging goal. As we begin to reflect on our past school year (and daydream about not setting any more alarms for a few months), it’s time to explore opportunities to step out of our comfort zone. Start small. Kelly Pace said it best in her convocation speech with: “Try to do 1% better each day.”
Use the summer to try something new or explore a personal passion. If you get a day to yourself, maybe even try and conquer a fear or weakness. Think about a subject you struggled with during the school year and find a way to learn more through listening to a podcast, enrolling in a free online course, taking a road trip, or visiting a local museum. Another opportunity for us to jump out of our comfort zone is through various professional development sessions centered around Hanover’s instructional goals for 2017-2018. For the first time, innovation in teaching will be on display in our county’s #HCPSInspire Conference on August 14 with workshops led by creative and inspiring teachers. If you are looking for more ways to support equity in the classroom, Allison Sampson-Jackson will be presenting “Trauma and Resilience Basics” on August 9. We can all do more to provide more relevant experiences for our students. This summer build your teaching toolkit with sessions on YouTube video curation, Infographics, Flipgrid, and many more. Want to make connections with your colleagues while learning? Take a field trip to the National Portrait Gallery, International Spy Museum, VMFA, or James River.
Most importantly, enjoy these last few weeks of school! Sometimes we are so eager to reach the finish line that we fail to acknowledge the process of reaching that point. We might have stumbled out of the starting gate, worried about how to juggle new preps or different personalities. Mid-way through the race we might’ve hoped for a pause (or a small snow storm). As we are rounding that corner towards the finish line, be proud of what you’ve accomplished. Remember though, another race lurks around the corner. Who will you be when that starting gun sounds?