“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Most of us have likely experienced this proverb in living color at one point or another in our teaching career. Once when I was teaching German to high schoolers in England, I had the brilliant idea of using a language game that involved setting up roles in a mystery they would have to solve. I had never done anything like that before but was sure that it would be a great way to engage all the students in an activity that was both fun and productive – ah, how fools rush in! I had not yet learned the basic principles needed to undergird such activities that involve a partnership of trust between students and teacher. I had not thought through all the steps the activity required. Predictably, the game fell apart in confusion before it even began because the students were so overwhelmed with the number of things they didn’t understand.
We all have stories of being burnt by activities that seemed promising at the start. After such experiences, it’s tempting to stay in our comfort zones of control. We reason that the best way to maintain order is not to venture off-script but to stay close to the textbook with its clearly outlined rules, guidelines, and practice sheets. Here is where we need to evaluate what is our highest priority as teachers. Does maintaining order supersede challenging students to grow in their depth of learning and connection with others?
Once I started prioritizing growth of learning—both for myself and my students, I found that I could not afford to stay within my “comfort zone” of predictability ensconced behind a desk or podium. I began to re-envision my role in the classroom as an initiator and inviter into risky and rewarding places of engagement. I also noticed how the Master Teacher was always engaging His disciples in strategic one-on-one and small group meetings that allowed Him to relate in a very personal and meaningful way. He often modeled or embodied truth and then invited His disciples to join Him in experiencing it firsthand.
There is a powerful story that describes the Master Teacher startling his disciples by doing what seemed impossible to them—walking on water. He calms His disciples’ fear of the unknown with His presence and identity. What happens next is quite remarkable. One of the disciples volunteers to join the Master on the water! Peter has seen the impossible many times before and is emboldened to step out of his comfort zone and join his Teacher in doing the impossible! It would be a lesson in faith that Peter would never forget.
This is the kind of boldness we want to cultivate in our students—to step out of their comfort zone and into the growth zone where in-class learning becomes personal. Over the years I have learned some principles that have helped me to shift away from being the main speaker and controller in the classroom and re-envision my role as more of a modeler and inviter like the Master Teacher.
1. Building Trust: Engaging with others authentically always requires trust. For students to be willing to step out of their comfort zone there has to be a level of trust that you care about them as a person and about their growth.
2. Establishing Expectations: Encouraging students to step out of their comfort zone requires clear communication of what you are asking them to do. This is where modeling can really help to allay the fears of the students and invite them to join in appropriate ways while still demonstrating their own personal choice and perspective.
3. Explaining Relevance: Enriching students’ experience requires a rationale for what you are asking them to do. If you can clearly communicate why an activity is relevant to stated goals or give them a personal reason to engage in the activity (such as an opportunity for them to share their insights or chart their progress), they will be much more willing to come out of their safe space and risk engaging with you.