The Margins of a Comfort Zone: A Professional Learning Experience

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” – Neale Donald Walsch

When I worked on my master’s thesis over a decade ago, I remember being infatuated with the concept of cognitive dissonance. It was like listening to Meghan Trainor for the first time: an immediate imprint on my brain with an inability to stop singing it. I not only wrote about it academically, but I put it into lesson plans, I pulled it out at professional development planning meetings, it showed up in letters of recommendation and I tried to convince my younger brother that he needed some.

In the end, the notion that there must be a “rub” in order for us to learn something, spoke so viscerally to me that I recognized I had ordered my life around experiences that would impose enough cognitive dissonance to compel me to leap.

Even though I seek out these opportunities, they never get easier. It’s the maxim of the comfort zone, isn’t it? We must get uncomfortable in order to grow. You can imagine my simultaneous excitement and cautious curiosity when Carole Wiley from Tulare County Office of Education invited me to their school district with this request: “Teach our students.”

“We know these methods work with your students,” she said, “but we want our teachers to believe they will work with our students, too.” As we began planning, the cognitive dissonance did its work, and it dawned on me that this was a special opportunity to engage in a unique kind of professional learning: I could open up my entire process to a group of teachers.

What you’re going to see in two of the videos we filmed there, Thinking Critically About Practice and Observing for Learning, then, is what we all learned from embracing the edges of our comfort zone.

The Premise

The premise of the day was to engage in a kind of layered professional learning experience in which teachers developed their own inquiry questions and then used the class I taught as a way to investigate that problem of practice and anchor our discussions in that shared classroom experience. From the outset, I assured the teachers that I wasn’t there to teach the perfect lesson; rather, I was there to be as transparent about my planning, teaching and reflecting as possible. I was there to help us probe — not static lesson plans or strategies — but the nuances of instructional moves.

The Logistics

With this premise in mind, here’s how the day played out:

  • Phase I: Initial Discussion with Teachers. In this discussion, we warmed up with some practice of observing for student learning and teacher moves by watching a Teaching Channel video as a group. We also established individual inquiries, guided by problems of practice. Finally, I presented the lesson plan for the upcoming class period as a way to frame my thinking going into the lesson. Here, teachers learn to create their own framework for careful observation.
  • Phase II: Teaching and Observing. Here’s where the teachers really dig into their problems of practice through careful observation of student learning and the instructional moves that impact it. They’re also able to see the ways in which the lesson may be progressing differently than expected from the original plan. Here, teachers learn to focus less on the activities and more on moments of learning as they observe. Watch Observing for Learning for your own primer on observing. I also know from personal experience that Teaching Channel’s Teams platform is a great way to enable and facilitate this kind of observation-based practice.
  • Phase III: Debrief. In this phase of the experience, teachers can pose very precise questions about the instructional decision making during the lesson. Whether that means investigating how it went differently than the plan, asking questions related to their problems of practice, or following up on their observations, teachers aren’t left to wonder “what she was thinking” because she is right there to ask. Here, teachers learn how to use their problems of practice in conjunction with their observations to fuel discussion and transfer them to their own teaching scenarios.
  • REPEAT the process in a fourth grade classroom with new students and new teachers.

The Learning

When you step out of your comfort zone, like we all did this day, there’s bound to be learning that reaffirms practice and stretches pedagogy.

  • We were reminded that students crave and thrive on authentic challenge. They are so ready to wrestle with our toughest questions when the questions are provocative and meet them where they are.
  • We saw that they needed cognitive space in order to think and learn. Thinking takes time. Sometimes most of our time. But it’s where the kind of learning that makes an imprint on your brain lives. It’s why I cut out ⅔ of my lesson plan in the high school classroom; it’s why I held back giving answers in the fourth grade class when it would have been quicker not to.
  • We recognized that teachers need what students need. Their learning has to start with their inquiries (the problems of practice) and we can’t encumber their process with a massive agenda; rather, the focus was on a few solid questions, revisited over and over, so that they could construct their own meaning.
  • We remembered that someone else’s learning is an act of letting go. For all of the strategies teachers acquire, and all of the planning we do, there’s always a moment in great teaching where we must let go, so that others may learn.

Perhaps it’s poetic that our greatest insight from the day was the importance of cognitive space and how it actually gets created. Without the ability to know the lesson plan in advance, see how it transformed throughout the actual teaching of the lesson, and being able to talk openly about it, we wouldn’t have been able to “lean in” the same way. I’m constantly grateful for these opportunities to “leap,” because every time I do, I realize the edge of my comfort zone is where learning, as much as living, resides.

Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher in Johnston, Iowa. She is the 2010 National Teacher of the Year, and is the Teacher Laureate for Teaching Channel. Connect with Sarah on Twitter – @SarahWessling.

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