Stepping out of your comfort zone

Patrice Palmer profile picture
Patrice Palmer
By Patrice Palmer

The start of a new year is a time when many people reflect on their past achievements and set goals or make resolutions for the upcoming year. I am one of those individuals. Every year I actually sit down and take the time to write down my goals for the year ahead and then review the list before the year ends to see if I accomplished every item on my list.

Most of my goals for 2016 were a combination of personal and professional and a lot of them were related to travelling. It was quite easy to check those travelling goals off my list. For example, I had the opportunity to attend the IATEFL conference in Birmingham, present at a conference in Costa Rica, and take part in an intensive coaching training program in Atlanta, Georgia. One of the travel highlights for me was  a two-week assignment with CESO (a Canadian NGO) in Guyana, South America, where I trained CARICOM staff in report writing and presentation skills. My main professional goal for 2016, however, was to leave my teaching career after 20 years and launch myself as a teacherpreneur, which was definitely outside of my comfort zone. I’m proud to say I managed to achieve that goal. And even though in my new role as a teacherpreneur I had to do many things that terrified me (like blogging, writing e-books, and marketing myself), it felt good and has been exciting. That is why this year I decided to set goals that will force me to go even farther away from my comfort zone.

One of the questions that I ask teacherpreneurs when I interview them for my blog is, “What have you had to do outside of your comfort zone as a teacherpreneur?”  Each one of them has given me at least one or two examples of things that they have had to do that terrified them but they still persevered.  Based on the likelihood that teachers in the live online course Teacher to Teacherpreneur in partnership with would have to do things outside of their comfort zone to move forward in their teacherpreneur journey, I decided to make this part of their weekly assignment. In our online community on Facebook, teachers post one thing that they have had to do outside of their comfort zone and elaborate on what it felt like. The feeling of this kind of accomplishment is so rewarding that I believe it gives one the confidence to try yet another challenge.

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the term comfort zone was first used in 1923 and is defined as (1) the temperature range within which one is comfortable; (2) the level at which one functions with ease and familiarity. Interestingly, the term has also been growing in popularity in the last twenty years or so.

Well, I can say for myself that it certainly feels cozy and comfortable to stay in my comfort zone, so why would I purposely be planning to do things outside of it? Sylvia Duckworth, a very creative educator based in Canada, brilliantly demonstrates why in her Sketchnote that you can see below. It might seem surprising at first to see what may (and will!) happen as you start your journey out of that cozy comfort: increased confidence, a sense of achievement, willingness to try more new things… This Sketchnote is meant to motivate students, however the content can be used to inspire anyone who wants to grow, challenge themselves, and boost their self-confidence.

Image credit

A year ago, when I left classroom teaching in order to make a transition to becoming a full-time teacherpreneur and working for myself, it was not unusual for me to wake up in the middle of the night riddled with doubt and fear. Until a strange thing happened. The more I did something that was scary, like start blogging, the more exciting it became to find a new challenge, like start a podcast and give webinars.

As teachers, we cannot expect our students to try new things, challenge themselves, and become more confident if we don’t know how it feels to truly feel uncomfortable ourselves. Furthermore, we can’t fully appreciate the sense of accomplishment or learning about ourselves if we don’t see the results of discomfort.

So, what is on my list for 2017?

  • A TESOL Conference Presentation in March with a publisher Dorothy Zemach;
  • Another two-week training assignment with CESO in Ethiopia;
  • Publishing a small book;
  • Writing an online course for teacherpreneurs;
  • Being interviewed (instead of interviewing others).

What are you doing in 2017 that is outside of your comfort zone?


If you are curious to assess your comfort zone, try this free, fun survey

From Job to Job: What to Bring, What to Leave

Matthew Turner
Matthew Turner
By Matthew Turner

In April, the beginning of a new academic year in Japan, I will be leaving my current teaching position and moving on to another. I currently work on the program focused on developing learners’ oral fluency skills through topical discussions. Although the teaching context in my next job is similar, and the country and city the same, the transition process will put me into an unfamiliar situation. However, I take comfort in knowing that I have the options and ability to take with me lessons and experiences learnt from my current teaching post and leave behind some less useful things. In this post, I will give a brief summary of a reflective conversation I recently had with some of my fellow peers who are also moving on to pastures green, reflecting on our keepsakes from our current job and items that we wish to leave behind.

Taking Effective Classroom Practices

Unanimously, we all agreed that we would like to take with us elements of effective classroom practice, or at least what we think that to be. Firstly, something that we have all learnt to do in our current teaching positions is keep target language input manageable in each lesson, and make classroom expectations explicit and achievable for all students through a combination of tasks and instructions. Looking back at previous teaching jobs, we thought about the amount of lexical items, language functions and/or grammatical features that we once brought to our learners, as well as our approaches to language use and practice in our classes. We felt that, in moving from one teaching job to another, there are very few reasons why this ethos cannot be continued and maintained, and that we would like to keep favouring quality of learner output over breadth of input.

Taking Elements of Classroom Management 

We also reflected on our institution’s approach to using English as the sole medium of instruction. Although this practice is often contested and debated in the related research literature, my colleagues and I mostly shared the feeling that learning and language development can be successfully achieved through this means. Finally, some of the group reflected on how disciplined they had become in intervening less when communication breakdowns occurred between learners, and instead opted to leave space for negotiation of meaning and understanding between learners themselves before giving any explicit support. We additionally felt that as the years went by in our current teaching position, we all spoke less in class and vastly economised our teacher talking time, which we felt was to the benefit of our learners.

Taking the Ethos of Unity

We will all be leaving a unified program, a program where multiple instructors not only develop and teach the same lesson content to various groups of learners, but work together to ensure a consistent and equitable learning experience. Although this sense of togetherness will be missed and may not be revived in our future teaching roles, we all felt that we would like to continue to strive for unification with our new colleagues, trying to quell any potential disparity in assessing students and reach common agreements on curricula goals.

Leaving Behind Constraints

It was hard for our group to think about what we would like to leave behind as it was a lot easier and much more fun to reflect on what we would like to take forward with us. However, something that was continuously mentioned was the word constraints. Although leaving a unified program will leave us feeling slightly exposed and somewhat directionless, we also agreed that we will also feel less constrained in some respects and be able to operate more autonomously as teachers. In working within a unified curriculum, it is not always possible to teach exactly the way one wants to, deviate a great deal, or make wholesale adaptations. We are therefore looking forward to being potentially re-acquainted with teaching approaches that we have all come unaccustomed to over time, things like working with vocabulary, project work, reading and writing skills. We are prepared to set a variety of homework activities, something we never thought we would find ourselves saying. We are happy to be leaving behind the rigid pacing of our lessons and relative inflexibility of the curriculum. We will no longer feel pressured to complete elements of our lessons within a given timeframe, and instead will look to build in more flexibility with timing where possible and necessary.

Leaving Behind Past Identities and Roles

Finally, we all reflected on our changing roles and identities as educators entering new positions. Some of us are happy to not feel an expectation or burden to conduct research and write articles, while others are looking forward to the greater scope and freedom to such activities. Some of us are happy with shifts in focus, such as moving from being a language teacher to a content-integrated language teacher.

I hope I could show with this post that moving from one job to another gives teachers a chance to reflect on both positive and negative aspects of a teaching position and consider what experiences can be left behind and what can be packed up and taken with. If you and others around you find yourself in a similar position, why not take the time time to come together and talk through this transitional process collectively? Your shared experiences from one job can create a more comfortable bridge into a new stage in your teaching career.

Fit and Feisty in the New Year

Ruthie Iida
Ruthie Iida
By Ruthie Iida

The clever plotting is enjoyable (this year I made a colorful and intricate mind map), but even as I write and sketch, I’m aware that I will not follow through on most of my resolves. And that’s fine. I’m honing the details of my “Ideal Self”, inspired by motivational studies of English language learners. What usually happens at some point during the year is that I make a spontaneous decision that turns out to be highly motivating, realize that I’m onto something good, stick with it, and — propelled by momentum – let the change happen. This year’s spontaneous decision involves a fitness center and I’d like to tell you about it.

I walked into the fitness center on the last day of the old year because 1) it was new and the sign was shiny, hence 2) I was curious, and 3) it was within 7 minutes walking distance from my house. Despite its disturbing location (above a noisy, smelly pachinko parlor), the gym’s interior was as new and shiny as the sign, featuring floor to ceiling windows in front of the treadmills. I realize that this is standard for most chain fitness centers, but it’s always been my dream to walk on a treadmill in front of a big window, watching people on the street below and feeling smug and fit. So I signed up immediately for the “fitness plus yoga” plan. It’s pricey, so I’ve been making myself go every day that it’s open… and guess what? My creative juices are flowing!

It’s all about the treadmill. I realized after the first week that not only was I feeling fit, but that my mind was full of ideas. Not being a fan of Japanese TV anyway, I resolved to NOT turn on the attached mini TV screen or listen to music, but instead to stare blankly at the street below, letting my mind wander. This was part of the good advice I got from Stephen Krashen’s iTDi course two years ago: let your mind wander. It was impossible for me at the time. You see, I am field independent: able to focus on but also constantly distracted by details. You probably would not enjoy traveling with me unless you like progressing at a snail’s pace and taking a million photos along the way. So the beauty of this particular gym is that the view from the windows is literally so dull and gray that even a detail fanatic like myself cannot find anything to be distracted by. I am staring across the street at the “Eyeglass Super” (which does very little business) and there are relatively few people passing by below me. Ho-hum.

This means that my mind really does wander, and since my school is what I’m most passionate about, I find myself dreaming up extra verses for songs, planning the next day’s lessons, thinking up potential solutions for classes where students don’t work well together, classes where the air seems dead, or classes where things are too lively and language learning becomes an afterthought. When I hit on an idea that instinctively seems right, I hold onto it tightly. Then I turn it over and over in my mind, testing it against what I know about SLA theory and projecting how students might react. If it’s a song or a rhyme, I hold on by repeating it over and over in my head as I plod along. Sometimes, alas, I’ve lost part of it by the time I get home to my journal or my MacBook, but I never lose it all. When I get home, my mother-in-law says, “You must be tired,” but I’m not. Best of all, I sleep soundly after I’ve jotted down my ideas, which sometimes reappear in my dreams, transformed but still recognizable.

It’s been three weeks now and I resolve to continue the two-for-one habit of keeping fit while giving my brain a chance to wander. What’s good for me personally is good for my school and my students as well. So Happy New Year to you all! May your minds wander far and return home safely, laden with productive ideas.


And then there are dreams

Kevin Stein
Kevin Stein
By Kevin Stein

Part of my job as an English teacher at a private high school in Japan is to conduct interview tests for the school entry exam during January and February. The students are in their third year in junior high school. They walk into the room, bow, give a formal greeting in Japanese, and then are directed to a seat. I and the other test proctor sit on the other side of the room. All of the students are dressed in their junior high school uniforms. Many of them have grown over the three years they have used these uniforms. Their pants are too short and white socks stand out against the black pant cuffs. Their jacket sleeves are frayed. Sometimes the collar of their shirt is too tight for them to button the top button. Some of them tap their foot nervously and the sound echoes across the sea of flooring separating us from the student. And the students, hesitantly, in words stitched together with great effort, tell me about their dreams, their reasons for wanting to study English intensively in high school, their past successes and sometimes failures as students.

It is a chance for me to not only to meet and learn about my new students, but also to check my own ideas about just what it means to study English. In my three years conducting these interviews, I have never had a student say that they look forward to the long hard work of learning the 2800 words or so of basic vocabulary that they will need to communicate in English. I have never had a student express an interest in learning how to draft and redraft a piece of writing to develop the skills they will need to eventually produce an academic paper. I have never had a student say that they would like to spend a third of their class time working with language they already know so that they can improve their fluency. What I have come to see as the most important aspects of learning a language are rarely if ever the things that have drawn students to English in the first place.

Last week, a young girl told me the following story. She had visited Korea on a class trip when she was 12 years old and had spent two days attending a junior high school in Seoul. While she was there, she made friends with a Korean student and they talked to each other in the only language they shared, English. She learned about the different types of Korean pickled foods, about the latest K-pop bands, about the different ways to greet older and younger people depending on their social position. She looked at me and said, “I can learn about many countries’ cultures with English. It is exciting. So I want to learn English.” I imagined how many times she must have practiced saying these sentences aloud in her room to be able to say them relatively smoothly in that big empty room during an entry exam.

A few years ago, Penny Ur ran a webinar for iTDi, in which she emphasized that the main job of an English teacher is to teach English. And I too, with one hundred percent conviction, believe the same. At the end of my lesson, I need to be able to look back on the 50 minutes or 90 minutes or 120 minutes of my class and be able to say that I taught English. That my students walked out of class with more developed vocabulary, a better concept of a grammatical structure, an ability to produce certain target language more smoothly and accurately. But lately I’m starting to feel that as I grow and develop the skills to teach what I think needs to be taught, I’ve lost some of my openness to the wonder and almost limitless potential that draws students to study English in the first place. I worry that my interactions with students are more about running down a mental checklist of what I know students need to be doing (are you making word cards? are you reading two graded reading texts a week? are you developing skills to identify chunks of language?) and less an exploration of what students are actually learning for themselves.

Last weekend, a fifteen-year-old girl told me about how English had helped her learn about a country and culture that many people in Japan view with a certain level of rivalry and perhaps even distrust. After the interview, she turned at the door, bowed, and gave a formal parting greeting in Japanese. Just before she walked out of the room, she looked me in the eyes, smiled, and gave me a little wave. I can’t help but feel that my small wave back to her was a kind of promise, a promise that I would help her use English to learn about other countries, to build a bridge she could walk across into a wider world. And perhaps it was a promise to myself as well, a promise that in the upcoming year I would not simply teach what students need to learn, but develop the skills to nurture the larger dreams of all my students. In a world that has grown progressively darker, perhaps it is only the light of these dreams, so bright amongst too short pants and fraying sleeves, which allows my students—all of our students—to walk, step by step, into their own futures.