Out of Your Comfort Zone

Exploring uncharted areas can be mind-stretching and even painful -- but isn't that how we grow? asks Maria Shine Stewart.

July 15, 2011

If colleagues saw me earlier this summer and noticed shadows under my eyes and a little weight loss, they should not have assumed that was because of my students. I am teaching just one morning class -- plus my Friday afternoon senior citizens’ memoir group -- and they’re doing fine.

I was stressing out a little (well maybe more than just a little) about my afternoon class, and that was the one that I was taking, not teaching. A graduate course in Tests and Measurements is perhaps a piece of cake for those in the social sciences or the sciences. However, my preferred method of information delivery is words or pictures -- not graphics, charts and numbers. Nevertheless, being literate in these forms of communication and data delivery is as crucial to understanding public policy, health research and the goings-on of a state, national or college budget as being able to work with words.

I began the slow route to a second master’s more years ago than I care to admit. I’m not entirely sure that I’ll see the end, but the process has been more important to me than the product. Even before my freshman year of college, I had an interest in human behavior, including motivation, conditions and strategies for peak performance and individual struggles. I have read works by Freud, Jung, Adler, and other eloquent writers and thinkers. I like innovators in the field of psychology, but I admit that I am often a little disappointed when today’s innovation becomes tomorrow’s rote memorization. Many of us have multiple interests -- even as specializing is necessary for depth and competence.

Moving deliberately out of one’s comfort zone can be mind-stretching, and even painful. I’m reminded of two summers back, when I took Research Methods in Education and Counseling, a prerequisite to the course I’m in now. As well as the early morning class time (grueling for a night owl), there was a large body of material to cover in five weeks.

The skillful teacher (an adjunct professor who taught full-time in public schools during the year) was an absolute stickler. His demands were high, and most of the class had anxiety levels even higher. A few spoke out in desperation. He did what he could. As most people know, a little anxiety is helpful to boost performance; too much, and performance may plummet. Struggling myself, I helped form a study group. Where would I get such an idea? From watching my own students.

A few of us were nontraditional students and a few somewhat younger, and the blend of learning styles worked. Without the group to help me, I might have dropped the course. We would move to a room in the library after class to hash out rocky concepts and teach one another. Cheryl had an almost-verbatim memory of what was in the book and a contagious calm. Elizabeth was good with details, and I offered ways to apply them. Others joined in, and the whole was greater than the sum of the parts -- to quote a mathematical impossibility but a human relations reality. We had to run statistical programs in that class and design two research projects, one a survey. Teamwork made all that possible.

One day early on -- when equipment was acting up and the data weren’t falling into place -- I nabbed the teacher. Watching him work creatively to figure out an alternative approach to my problem was a great moment. I witnessed his initial furrow, the gradual smoothing in his face, a light in his eyes and a real “eureka.” If I'd had any misconceptions about math experts being uncreative, they would have flown right out the window. It was as moving as a measure of music well-played. Bravo, Prof. Boyle!

In another term, I took Multicultural Education, thinking I already was adept in understanding other groups through life experience and teaching in diverse settings. Week by week, as we learned about the work of Derald Sue and others, I saw that my scope of knowledge wasn’t nearly as vast as I thought.

It’s good to not be the teacher all the time. The role of learner offers the chance to grow and rediscover humility.

Have you considered pushing past your own comfort zone -- a for-credit class or even an audit? It needs to be something that does not come especially naturally to have the full effect. The experience might build empathy for the struggling students in your life. It might provide a segue to deepened conversations with colleagues. It might support good human relations on your campus. And learning, demonstrably, is good for your brain.

A bilingual colleague of mine, a new friend, is a teacher in an urban school, and she just completed a master’s she designed herself, in multicultural education. She made time in her last semester to take play-writing. Isn’t this the kind of experimentation we urge in undergraduates?

Uncertainty appears on the threshold of learning. And though I may be an anxious student initially, I like to apply new concepts creatively and write about what I learn. Rediscovering my own fear does make a difference when I encounter the occasional student unusually anxious about one of my courses. It undergirds my patience.

Some people, including Bill Gates, talk about the validity of the adage that 10,000 hours of experience is a marker for mastery of a field. I don’t know if there’s a set number of hours for a respectable sideline, but one thing I do know: Tests and Measurements on steamy summer afternoons was a steep learning curve for me. Maybe too steep, given my need to play a little while seeing a son off to college. Or maybe it was that prospect of earning just a “B.” I dropped the class. Yet, I will continue to put in practice everything I learned so far, and do hope to take the class again.

The textbook remains at the foot of my bed, a reminder of what pushes me just a little past my own comfort zone.

And what about yours?


Maria Shine Stewart is an adjunct faculty member on three campuses, works as a contributing editor/writer for a northeast Ohio business publication and facilitates a long-time senior citizens’ writing group. Topic suggestions are welcome. Contact [email protected].


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