Beyond our comfort zone

“A man’s mind stretched to a new idea never returns to its original dimensions.” This quote, attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, illustrates what happens with the learning mind: it will not be the same it had been before the new opportunities to grow. The new ideas may also refer to developing knowledge and/ or skills that are not necessarily directly connected to our area of expertise. As teachers, we aim at helping our learners to broaden their horizons, embrace diversity, experience the world. What better way to change the world than to start by experimenting with our own learning?

Teaching a foreign language gives us opportunities to learn and discuss multiple areas of knowledge (e.g. history) and to use what we observe in the world into the classroom (e.g. films, music). In that sense, it seems axiomatic that ELT professionals will be constantly looking beyond their area. However, it is not always true and many of us end up learning new ideas from the same sources – a group of trusted colleagues, focused conferences and courses, teaching books. Why not face the challenge of studying and learning new concepts, new ways of thinking and approaching the world, new skills that may help us enrich the teaching and learning experience?

Here are some ideas you may want to consider as learning paths and some of their advantages:

  • travelling or walking different paths. New places – just-around-the-corner or faraway locations – put us in situations we have to look things from a different perspective, either because there is a difference in culture or because we need to adjust to what we are looking at. In any case, going to work through a different road or visiting another country adds not only to our cultural repertoire, but also to our emotional one – learning to see the world other people see may teach us how to have more empathy with our learners;
  • studying Maths, Chemistry or Physics. For a language teacher, it is sometimes painful to look at numbers, formulas or subjects which were not necessarily our forte during school years. The initial shock may indeed cause frustration and discomfort. Learning what is behind the numbers may help us look at language and its nature in different ways, helping us consider a variety of approaches to teaching English;
  • learning a skill that scares you. Being afraid is part of the learning process our learners may be facing – whether they fear not being able to learn and the consequences they will have to face, or having to use the language to communicate with people they have never met, fear is an emotion we need to deal with in class. Not many of our students choose to learn English because they are passionate about it, so part of our development could include putting ourselves in their shoes in that sense. You may be brave enough to ask a friend or colleague to challenge you to learn something or you may list things you are afraid of or consider you would be unable to do and give it a go.

For the purpose of leaving our comfort zones, it is important that we do not enrol in a course to observe and analyse how we are taught, but rather how we learn. Observing teachers from different areas will surely help us with our teaching repertoire, with techniques, with approaches to our learners. However, these are still within our comfort zone or area of knowledge. Going beyond sometimes means we need to let go of our teacher-mode, of control and experiment the world and the lessons from a different point of view. We will eventually look at the experiences as teachers, but first we will be growing as human beings, later as professionals.

Here are some other benefits that going beyond our comfort zone may produce:

  • boosting our professional confidence. Learning, achieving goals has a direct impact on motivation and self-esteem. Doing something that may help us feel stronger as professionals may help us perform better in the classroom, with our learners;
  • improving creativity. The more diverse the ideas we opened our minds to, the more we will be able to find solutions to the learning environment and to the diversity of learners we teach;
  • opening our minds to learning difficulties our learners may be facing and how to overcome them. When we put ourselves in challenging situations we either learn to overcome them or we give up trying. I believe we want to encourage our learners to overcome difficulties, and learning to do it ourselves may add to our repertoire of attempts to help them.

In the end, any of the experiences we choose to have may contribute to the learning environment we build. The more we learn, develop and broaden our spectrum of possibilities, the richer our lessons become for our learners. Let me know what you have been trying and how far from your comfort zone you have reached. Shall we share experiences and also challenge each other to new ones?

Marcela Cintra

Marcela Cintra currently works at Beacon School, after a 17-year experience at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo. She has taught English for 20 years, been involved in teacher training and development programmes and presented in ABCI, LABCI, Braz-TESOL, TESOL and IATEFL conferences. A CELTA, ICELT and Delta tutor, she has an MA in TESOL.

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