Stepping out of my comfort zone.

One of the things I love (and hate?) about teaching is that I am often forced to step outside my areas of ‘expertise.’   As a GED teacher, I have to cover all five subjects: Math, Writing, Reading, Social Studies and Science.  There’s no way to skip one, to leave the students to figure it out on their own.

Writing, literature, social studies … these are areas where I feel right at home.  With math I have my favorite bits.  But the rest of math?  Actually, I like math.  It’s precision (as compared to writing, for example) appeals to me.  I like that you can use it fairly easily to figure stuff out.  Like knitting patterns.  But you don’t want to know what a trauma geometry was for me in high school.  And science?  It shames me to say that I am so uncomfortable with science.  My aunt was a scientist and a science teacher, after all.

Since becoming an adult ed instructor, I’ve learned that I actually know more math and science than I give myself credit for.  And I’ve found that I’m pretty good in both subjects, even geometry.  But my anxiety-fueled brain freeze when I have to teach either subject persists.

Part of this, I’m sure, is the fact that I had such bad experiences with both in high school.  In math classes, information was thrown at us with no explanation of why things worked the way they did.  We were simply expected to memorize everything and move on.  This isn’t a way that I learn.  I would even argue that this isn’t learning at all.  In high school, however, I didn’t know anything about learning styles, had never heard of project-based learning, would never have thought to challenge teachers’ methods.  I just figured I was bad at math.

Most of my science classes were taught by our various coaches: girls’ volleyball for biology, boys’ JV track for chemistry, boys’ varsity track for physics.  All were probably excellent coaches.  All were definitely nice, funny people.  None of them were really science teachers, however.  I don’t think I actually learned anything about science in all of high school.  Again, I took the blame for that on myself, came away feeling stupid, as if my brain just couldn’t grasp science.

And now, even though I’ve seen again and again that I can learn this stuff, that I even like it, I still freeze when I have to walk into class and be the math teacher, the science teacher.

I think it can be a good thing to be pushed beyond my areas of expertise, pushed out of my comfort zone.  It creates space for me to grow as a teacher.  It’s good for me to learn that the world won’t end if I stumble while facing down one of my fears.  But knowing that doesn’t make this any easier.

Today we started a big science unit.  Even doing the research to prepare for the project we’re going to work on gave me a stomach ache.  Seeing how happy everyone looked when I said we were starting science is real encouragement, though.

_____

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hosted by Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers.

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18 thoughts on “Stepping out of my comfort zone.

  1. Are you a lefty? I am, and was a whiz at math until something just clicked OFF around 15…I dropped all math and science classes, which seriously limited my options in terms of college. It all worked out in the end, but I understand the feeling of panic when approaching a new subject in class. Once I prepped teachers for their licensing exams, and they’d ask me for help with those math problems and the best I could do was teach them strategies for eliminating the wrong multiple choice answers! But a good, caring teacher can teach anything–that’s my belief. And walking into the classroom full of humility, NOT knowing it all–that’s invaluable.

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  2. Tracey

    I’ve found that the best teachers are often the ones who struggled with that material or those skills when they were students themselves. It’s all about the empathy and the ability to perceive what might make the students stumble.

    I’ll bet your unit is a smash.

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  3. OH! I know the feeling. I taught SAT prep classes and that meant I had to teach math. It made a little sick to my stomach but I had the same discovery… that I know more than I think I do! That didn’t make me any less nervous though…

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  4. I can completely relate to your sentence that reads “Actually, I like math. It’s precision (as compared to writing, for example) appeals to me.” I feel the same way. The order, the rules, the “there’s going to be a right answer here, and I’m going to find it” is what I love about math. As a writing teacher, I crave that same precision.

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  5. Your experiences will make you a better teacher–especially if you own up to your fear or shortcomings. You will be able to relate to the students who have the same feelings and meet them where they are at! I love hearing how or why people struggled in school. It gives me a better idea on what kids go through and what they need.

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  6. tracy gomez

    I have found that when we push out of our comfort zone to teach others, we sometimes learn more than we intended to teach!

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  7. Thanks for all the supportive comments! Both of my classes went well today, and the students seemed to enjoy our introductory lesson. We talked a little in my morning class about some of what I wrote in this post, and they were surprised to learn that I didn’t have a completely ‘perfect’ education (whatever that would be!), and maybe a little encouraged to know that, too. One student told me not to worry. “No matter what, Stacie,” she assured me, “you’re going to know more than we do!” Everyone laughed and agreed, but I told them I wasn’t so sure, that there would be some things we’d all be learning together, and they seemed to like that idea.

    I know this is one of the things that makes me better able to be a good teacher for them — letting them see that I don’t know everything (as if!), letting them see that there are things I struggle with as a learner. I just wish I could find a way to get past my anxiety once and for all.

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  8. Hope today went well! Last year I had to teach all subjects to my fifth graders and I was scared to teach math, but what I loved about the way we use it…is we tell the “why.” I enjoyed your slice! Hope today went well!!

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  9. Thanks! One of the things I’ve enjoyed about having to become a math and science teacher for my students is that, with adults, I realized I couldn’t ‘get away with’ not telling the why of things … which means I have to find ways to learn the why myself. My travels to find a reasonable explanation for subtracting signed numbers was quite comical … but I got it in the end, and my students at the time got it, too.

    Hmm … it’s good that I’m reminding myself of these little successes I’ve had in the past in the area. Maybe this will help me see that this science unit isn’t going to get the better of me!

    Thanks, again, everyone!

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  10. You are an amazing teacher because you are so willing to be a student. I have learned from you today!
    ~jane
    p.s. I go through high school geometry on my art skills. My final project was a 5″ thick book of black and white geometric designs for the teacher to use in his subsequent classes. Understand geometry tho’, not so much!

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  11. molly

    We are about 5000 miles apart, and come from different cultures and backgrounds, and teach different subjects, but I felt close to many of the things you said. After 25 years of teaching, I get nervous enough to wake at night when I start a new course. By I know now that being nervous is part of caring about being good.
    Students like the idea that their teacher is also a learner, with them, but only when the teacher is, in their opinion, very competent. The fact that they give you credit for in any case knowing more than they do is a sign that they recognize your commitment to being good. You take on the responsibility of being their teacher, and you are a very good one. Your students are lucky to have you.

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  12. Jane– I would love to have seen that book you made!

    Molly– I really like what you said about the nervousness being part of caring about being good. That makes so much sense. Thanks for that!

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