Having just spent two days watching my students tackle a series of high ropes challenges, I am aware of how much fear keeps us from doing what we want, and how much setting a goal can help. At each part of the course, the students had to climb up into the trees, leaving the safety of the ground and trusting in their peers to keep them safe by paying attention and holding the belay rope tightly. It was an amazing experience to watch them learn and gain confidence over the course of the two days.
Initially those with experience scrambled up and easily headed across the logs and wires that were strung 40 feet in the air (my guess). It looked so easy as we watched them. Then the rest of the students began to try it. Some made it to the top of the ladder but simply couldn’t make it onto the small staples that stuck out of the tree. Some made it onto the staples but froze after two or three. Some made it to the log and could not step away from the tree, unable to walk across it, while still others surprised themselves and completed the task.
The instructor kept challenging them to simply move a step or two outside of their comfort zone, that it wasn’t about completing the challenge so much as pushing themselves into a new space. Each instructor also kept reminding them that while it was scary, they were in fact completely safe. Knowing in their heads, however, that they were safe and actually being able to act on it proved to be two different things, especially the first time that the way down entailed sitting down in the harness, pushing off of the tree and letting their classmates lower them down. One fear replacing another in many cases.
It was fascinating to watch the progression from fear to disappointment in themselves to determination to tackle the next challenge with more courage and focus. Every single student went further the second time up, often not to the top or to the finish, but definitely beyond their former stopping point. It became less about doing what others could do and more about pushing themselves one more step beyond where they were comfortable. They wanted to accomplish a personal goal, one that they were setting for themselves. It was great to watch the change that came over them as they ended the challenge having done what they set out to do, having taken even just one step more.
On the last challenge, one of the students asked me to do it. I laughed and said “No,” for lots of reasons. “Already done it before, arthritic knees that I don’t really trust,” you name it. The instructor encouraged me to try it, but I simply shook my head, and she stopped. I did not want to do it, and as the teacher, I didn’t have to. I didn’t even have to begin the challenge if I decided not to.
It all got me to thinking and as I have thought about the two days, they made me think about my classroom – no big surprise for anyone reading this blog!
First, am I setting up challenges where completion is not the only goal? Can my students make it half way, learn from the experience and try another, similar challenge? School is often not like that. It is about finishing a task, doing it all and being assessed on it. I want to think about building in more levels of success. Avoiding grading each project and having students reflect on their work helps, but the part that I often miss is the repetition of the skills with slightly different challenges. I often move on too quickly, excited to try a new way of learning, rather than practicing a skill through a variety of levels. I know that I need to remember that more often.
The second lesson is that I must continue to try to challenge myself as much as I challenge my students. My areas of fear are different from theirs as is my comfort zone, but if I want them to take steps out into what feels unsafe to them, I must force myself to do the same. I must build on my strengths and look for ways to move beyond them, not just for myself but for the students who spend their days in my classroom. I will guide their challenges better if I remember how hard it is to move away from being comfortable, how debilitating fear can be, and how exhilarating making it just one step further always is! If a day in my classroom could contain those elements, that would be wonderful!