Expanding Your Comfort Zone Through Practice as an Educator

If you haven’t seen it yet, you’re sure to have heard about Free Solo, the Academy Award-winning documentary about Alex Honnold’s quest to climb the daunting, 3,200-foot cliff in Yosemite National Park, El Capitan, without ropes and harnesses and by himself. It’s a breathtaking, terrifying, and anxiety-provoking ride that shines a light on the inner workings and sheer physical strength necessary for a climber taking on such an incomprehensible challenge. 

Merely watching the drama unfold through a methodical narrative, culminating with the final climb, left my palms sweaty and heart racing. My wife, Kara, had to stand up to cope. It is not for the faint of heart.

While physically safer, teaching isn’t for the faint of heart either. Like Honnold, teachers operate mostly on their own in occasionally scary spaces, but teachers do so in front of groups of children watching, listening, and even challenging their moves. No 90-degree granite wall to conquer, but trying to impart knowledge, skills, and strategies onto their students in hopes of providing a path for growth presents its own challenges and delights. 

While Honnold climbed thousands of feet up, he was reduced to a speck in the frame, disappearing within the crags and cracks; the enormity of the task was heightened through scale. His wiry body moved with speed and skill, but he’s human and had to deal with his fear as much as thinking where he’d have to place his next foothold.

Fear can cripple climbers and educators alike. Honnold’s thoughts on fear can help better equip us in the classroom. “When people talk about trying to suppress your fear … I mean, I look at it differently. I try to expand my comfort zone by practicing the moves over and over again. I work through the fear until it’s not scary anymore.” 

This can be evidenced throughout the documentary with Honnold using the safety of his harness to study and scale tricky parts of the climb with friends and then reclimbing them again and again until the safest route can be found, documented in a journal, and replayed over and over in his mind. If constant practice over a course of years is necessary to climb a rock, the same can be said of teaching and leading in schools.

A view of El Capitan (left), Half Dome, and Bridal Veil Falls at Yosemite National Park.
A Metaphor for Teaching Triumphs and Failures

Educators know expertise doesn’t come with a college degree, certificate, or professional development event. But teachers must be given the time, tools, and coaching to perfect their craft for the students they serve. Mental maps can be created with similar repetition along with the space to practice in the presence of leaders, coaches, and colleagues. 

For their part, education leaders can be the safety net necessary for teachers to move past their own fears that stymie innovation or improved pedagogy. In too many cases, it is the “standardized test scores” that drive fear and make teachers doubt themselves. Test scores, in and of themselves, just announce success or failure without providing opportunities to celebrate or recalibrate teaching.

Honnold proves that the highest stakes of all—surviving a harrowing solo climb—requires necessary preparation both individually and with colleagues. It’s time to remove the barriers of fear and present mistake-tolerant learning environments in schools. When teachers fail, hopefully in the presence of coaches and evaluators, carefully retracing the lessons that fall flat for further educator development, learning becomes the means toward an improved end.

El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
Lessons Learned

School leaders should take Honnold’s words to heart and “take something that seems difficult and make it feel safe.” This did not strike the danger from free soloing; it only served to acknowledge a presence that had to be seen, felt, and worked through for the most successful outcome. 

Was doing the impossible incredibly dangerous? Of course it was. It was also important for Honnold to take the leap—a feat he was willing to risk his life to achieve. Leaders must look beyond sporadic evaluations, so teachers are willing to take similar chances to learn, grow, and improve each day of the school year.

Teaching is many things, but usually it is not life threatening. It’s actually life affirming and in desperate need of cultivation in different and exciting ways. Our pursuit in education is much more pluralistic, but we can learn from Honnold’s individual endeavor by: 

  • Providing multiple classroom visits for feedback, mapping improvement outside evaluation for teachers
  • Creating mistake-tolerant schools and classrooms, in which mistakes are subject of study toward mastery
  • Having leaders share their vulnerabilities with staff, and teachers doing the same with their students
  • Striving for challenging goals that drive leaders, teachers, and students while allowing all to face their fears because the goal demands it

Honnold’s climb demanded mastery because his life depended on it. It’s not news to anyone in education that our students’ lives depend on teacher mastery. While teacher missteps won’t immediately doom students, the cumulative effect of poor instruction binds individual fates. In order to form a healthy community, our students need us to face our fears and discover our best teacher and leader selves.  

When asked about the his own fate, Honnold says, “Look, I don’t want to fall off and die either, but there’s satisfaction in challenging yourself and doing something well.” 

Yes, yes there is.

***

You can book a keynote with Anthony Colannino to bring his expertise about instructional excellence and growth mindset to your school or district. You can also view our full list of thought leaders who provide customized presentations on a range of key education issues.