Comfort Zones

We’ve all seen the memes on social media cajoling us to make innovative magic happen by getting out of our teaching comfort zones. But the truth is getting out of your routine as a teacher takes time to tinker, play, and explore creatively so that you feel comfortable infusing new practice into your everyday routine.

Le sigh, “Seriously? Aaaand what teacher has time to play?”

There’s actually a lot of science that explains why it’s so hard to break out of your teaching comfort zone, and its not all about time. However, there is just as much science that tells us that it is imperative to do so. With a little understanding and a few opportunities, it is possible to infuse new creative ideas into everyday practice.

The idea of the comfort zone goes back to a classic experiment in psychology. Back in 1908, psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson explained that a state of relative comfort created a steady level of performance. But really to learn we need to enter into slight state of anxiety. This space is called Optimal Anxiety, in education we call it the Zone of Proximal Development. Whatever you call it, it’s just outside our comfort zone. Too much anxiety and we’re too stressed to be productive, and our performance drops off sharply. We know this as teachers from working with kids daily. In our own practice when things get too busy, too overwhelming, and our stress levels rise, it is our natural tendency to return to an anxiety neutral, comfortable state — the routine of teaching.

Let’s return to that sigh. My point is that teachers must be given the time and opportunity to tinker, create, play, and discover outside of the realm of traditional educational professional development. The slight anxiety of exiting our comfort zones as well as the cross pollination of ideas when playing in new spaces leads to stronger, more diverse teaching practice in the following ways:

  • Teachers model dealing with new and unexpected changes to students (what better way to teach than to learn?)
  • Teachers will find it easier to push boundaries in the future, and allow students to better own the discomfort of exiting their comfort zones
  • Teachers will find it easier to brainstorm and harness personal creativity in designing learning experiences with teams
  • Teachers combat burnout by tapping into the creative self and find greater productivity garnered from the inspiration from self and others

Last weekend, Level 5 hosted a Graffiti and Street Art workshop with Rebecca O’Brien (@nfn888) an educator turned full time artist. I had written about how this workshop could be a jumping point for creativity in maths and language. But rather than focus on the pedagogical applications of infusing Graffiti and Street Art into practice participants spent time in the process and flow of creating. Watch a short 2 min snapshot of the event below:

What we were left with was not only some incredible art, but also some incredible reflections from participants.

As a primary homeroom teacher, I wasn’t sure at first how much relevance this event would have on my practice. I was hoping it would inspire my creativity in and out of the classroom & allow me a chance to brainstorm ideas on how I could collaborate with our art teacher. This workshop did that and SO much more! I didn’t realize just how much I needed this workshop… not only for my growth as an educator but also for my emotional well-being. As an international teacher, I have been focused solely the past few months on resettling my life (literally). I hadn’t really taken a moment for myself doing what I love — expressing myself (in this case, artistically). This workshop allowed me the outlet to do such. It was so gratifying learning a new skill, being creative, imagining / dreaming well beyond just what I thought was possible, applying ideas to the classroom, and working on personal pieces I could take home, bring to the classroom, or just have permanently at the school or surroundings. I can’t express just how refreshing this workshop, and every training I’ve been lucky enough to attend at Level 5, has been for me.

We don’t have enough time as teachers, and we never will. But we have to advocate for the opportunities to explore our creative, innovative selves to bring back creative, innovative practice to our classrooms.

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