Updated: Jul 16
Were you ever unlucky enough to be taught by a teacher who had long since departed their growth zone? Someone who had been doing the same things the same way for years from the safe confines of their comfort zone? What feelings or experiences do you associate with those memories? Disengagement or frustration, perhaps? Distractedness? The heavy weight of pointlessness?
Thinking back through our frames as educators, those memories can catch new meaning. Perhaps in some ways we relate to those teachers lost in their comfort zones. We’ve all had dry stretches where we’re just trying to get through the week so we pick up the nearest weapon at hand – last year’s lesson plans – blow the dust off them, and head to class. However, when this move becomes a rhythm repeated too frequently we may build a pillow-soft trap for ourselves. If we’re not careful, we can get stuck there. Once established, it’s hard to get out of those patterns, and even worse, sometimes it’s even harder to want to get out. Easier, perhaps, to deflect by blaming administrators or “kids these days” around the staff workroom.
So what does it take to find our way into our growth zones instead? I would suggest there are two keys to uncorking the energy and purpose needed to restore our practice to its full creative potential – by plugging back into God, and by returning to the basics of what we want.
In his book Teaching for Spiritual Formation: A Patristic Approach to Christian Education in a Convulsed Age, Kyle Hughes offers a good word on where to turn when we run dry:
What if, then, what we need most to become better teachers is not another workshop or another degree but a conscious decision to make space to cultivate our own life with God? What if the best thing we could do for our students is to invest in our own spiritual lives, to become the kinds of spiritually and emotionally healthy people who can give to our students from the overflow of our own intimacy with Christ?1
If the riverbeds in our own souls are dry and cracked, how can we expect to pour into our students? If our professional practices are looking more rigid and rote than they once did, perhaps it’s because we’re operating on sheer exertion and inertia. That might work for a day or two, but it is no way to get through a school year when we’ve got precious souls in our classrooms thirsty for meaning. The book of Jeremiah offers words that teachers might be able to recognize and find comfort in:
Thus says the Lord:
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man
and makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from the Lord.
He is like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see any good come.
He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.”2
Green leaves, well-watered roots, and abundant fruit; here is a vision of flourishing in our work as educators. For teachers who’ve stalled out, step one is to return to our spiritual center, where we can meet our creator who offers us living water.
Another place where we can find a reservoir of energy and improve our plasticity is our own vocational center. The Teaching for Transformation practice of Deep Hope invites teachers to articulate our “why” – our kingdom vision for our courses and what it might mean in our students’ lives. Our Deep Hope, in a sense, is our vocational response to the question Jesus asked to a pair of new disciples who’d begun to follow him – “What do you want?”3
I recently did something unusual for me – I reshuffled the last few units of my US History class in order to fit in one more project. I didn’t need to do this – I was already on track to meet all my curricular requirements, and we were having a very strong year in academic terms. In this case, the prompting that moved me out of my comfort zone and into my growth zone was my own Deep Hope, and the recognition that what I had lined up for the rest of the year was good, but it wasn’t quite what I ultimately wanted for my students. Thus jostled, I rolled up my sleeves and designed a new sort of learning experience for my students that might be a bit more formational and a bit less “same old, same old” (If you’re curious to see more, here’s a video of my invitation for my students into the unit.). Sitting here today, I can’t honestly tell you how it will go (stay tuned to a future CDL blog post for that!). I can assure you, however, that designing and launching this work has pushed me out of my comfort zone and into the great wide open of my growth zone. Honestly, it feels great.
Ultimately, the reason we’re called to leave our comfort zones is not that we might begin scoring one academic triumph after another. No, we’re called out because in our growth zones, we more brightly bear God’s image as creators who seek the flourishing of others. There is a path out of our comfort zones, and our students, colleagues, and communities will be blessed by our pursuing it. To find it, look inward, to your inner spiritual life and energy contained in your Deep Hope, ready to be unleashed.
Also, consider forgiving that old teacher of yours. Our job isn’t easy, after all.
Photo by Max Fischer