Lean Out a Little Farther

Today’s post is by Sandy King, an innovative master teacher in South Jordan, Utah. 

The climb to the top of the cliff had been exhilarating. I ascended without fear. As long as I looked up, with my site on the goal, I knew that I could make it up to the landing. Going down was another story. I couldn’t go back down that way that I’d climbed. I’d have to rappel. I had my safety gear on, and I had instructors that I trusted. I felt reasonably safe considering that I was standing on a cliff. But walking closer to the edge made my heart pound! I listened intently to my instructor. My safety gear was checked once more and then I walked backward to the ledge. My life flashed before me. “On rappel!” I shouted.

“Lean out!” I heard my instructor say. I looked down with trepidation and leaned out farther. “Lean out a little farther!” he repeated.  I took a deep breath and leaned out a bit more.

I took my first step over the ledge and pulled my right hand up to brake. One step led to another step. It was awkward at first, but I kept going. My confidence grew as I took each successive step down the rock face. Words of encouragement motivated me to keep going. Before I knew it, I was at the bottom being congratulated by others in my group. I was excited by the thrill of this personal victory. I had conquered a fear!

“Lean out! Lean out a little farther!” often echoes in my mind. Take a risk! Challenge yourself! Raise the bar!

But trying something new is scary. Feelings of being vulnerable, inadequate, and incapable are common. You no longer feel safe. The human body responds physically by initiating the “flight or fight response” that causes the heart to beat faster, breathing to quicken, and palms to sweat among other things. Stepping out of your comfort zone is a risk.

The choice isn’t between success and failure; it’s between choosing risk and striving for greatness, or risking nothing and being certain of mediocrity. –Keith Farazzis

In the quiet white space of self-reflection over the years, I’ve asked, “What can I do to improve my practice?” And I’ve heard the words, “Lean out a little farther!”

One of the best pieces of advice that I ever received as a new teacher was to model lifelong learning by consistently acquiring new knowledge, but more specifically, to learn new skills. The difference between gaining knowledge and learning a skill is that learning a skill requires practice.

Name a skill that you’ve started to develop within the past month. Are you learning to play a musical instrument? Paint? Skateboard? Knit? Ski? Speak another language? Maybe you’re finding yourself in an all too familiar state of continually learning new information, but not necessarily new skills. Reading a book, attending a professional development class, conference, or even an edcamp facilitates gaining knowledge, but it doesn’t require practicing new skills. We ask our students to learn multiple skills every day. How long has it been since you have walked in their shoes?

In your mind’s eye, take a moment to envision yourself learning a new skill. How did you choose to learn? (book, video, teacher) Describe your level of success on your first attempt? Do you need to be shown how to do this skill more than once? Twice? What kind of feedback helps you learn best? How often do you need feedback? What motivates you to struggle, learn, practice, and improve? How important is growth mindset? How does “coaching” help you? What would make the learning of this new skill easier for you to learn? Describe the “zone” where you feel challenged but not frustrated.

Reflecting on teaching practices from the perspective of a learner opens the mind to possibilities. It cultivates empathy and compassion. Questions such as, “How will the reflections about my own learning impact or change my instructional practices?” brings metacognitive thinking to the next level. The reflection in the mirror may not be the most flattering. Do you need more patience? A change of tone? An ability to break down a skill into smaller parts? To be more encouraging? To give specific feedback? Being humble and owning what we know we need to improve is sometimes the most difficult. It requires action and accountability.

 The mediocre teacher or administrator will use any number of excuses like lack of time to avoid this step. But excellence takes effort! Great educators rise above the excuses, make an action plan, and have others (such as a PLN) hold them accountable. The status quo is not acceptable. If there’s room for improvement, the great educators welcome the challenge. They embrace the fear of being vulnerable with a positive attitude and courageously move forward.

So, I challenge you to “Lean out a little farther!” Get completely out of your comfort zone! Learn a new skill during the next few weeks. Put yourself in the position of a learner. Start a blog, record video of your attempts, or keep a journal of your progress. Share your mistakes, your learning, and your reflections. Let those that you lead see you as a beginner with all of the mistakes you’re bound to make. Lean into the discomfort.

Are you truly a life long learner? Will you walk the talk? Maslow said, “You will either step forward into growth or back into safety.” Will you accept this challenge as an opportunity to stretch, risk, and grow? You have a choice. Greatness or Mediocrity.

You’re on the edge.
“Lean out a little farther!” 

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