The Familiar Prison

As a high school teacher of Japanese for 14 years, I would begin each new school year with my Japanese 1 class, consisting mostly of of nervous but excited freshman, with several days of activities and discussions that had more to do about “learning” than learning Japanese. I did this because I wanted students to know that my class was first and foremost about learning more than just the Japanese language and culture. It was learning how to think, question, challenge, laugh, have fun, and embracing your “inner dorkdom”, among other things. Learning Japanese is extremely difficult and if the right culture were not in place, learning would be even more difficult.

One of the things we would discuss were comfort zones.  A quote that exemplifies what the comfort zone is all about, for me a least, was a quote I remember from Tom Tewell, the minister at my church growing up that I would share with them.

He once said, “Too many of us would rather settle for a familiar prison, then risk an unfamiliar freedom.” I can’t count how many times that quote pops up in my mind. It has impacted me in both my personal and professional life.  It has stuck with me for over thirty years now and helped shape the culture of my Japanese class as well as how I lead as Supervisor of Educational Technology for a K-8 district in New Jersey.

Am I doing what I am doing because it is comfortable? Am I challenging myself enough to learn, grow, etc.?  Am I living fully in how I connect and interact with those I love and care about?  Do they know that and experience that from me?  The list of questions go on and on when one digs deep.

It’s really easy to be hard on one’s self, and I have learned that over the course of my life for the past twenty years.  Nevertheless, asking one’s self these questions doesn’t mean to judge one’s self. It’s not about being overly hard on one’s self.  Rather it is simply asking for one to step into the unfamiliar, whatever that is for you.  There is great discomfort in the unfamiliar, yet in that unfamiliarity, there is freedom, freedom to grow and learn.  It sounds simple, right? We all do this, right?  To really ask one’s self if they are settling for a familiar prison than risking the unfamiliar freedom is in and of itself an exercise in discomfort, if you are being honest in your self reflection.

I’m not sure what the answer to all this is because the answer is kind of like a Zen koan, no true answer for all, just a deep visceral understanding that is clear to just you when you are honest with your self.  It is a personal thing at times but does it not have relevance for our profession as well?

What is our comfort zone in education?  Is our PLN our comfort zone?  Is our school like a comfortable prison?  Do we create environments that allow students to step out and flourish? What kind of experience do our students have if we remain in our comfort zones as teachers and administrators?  Can they continue to grow and learn when we model comfort?  Isn’t comfort really just about preventing fear?  I think you could go really deep here and I’d love to have that conversation with any of you out there.  But for now, I hope you can see the value in that quote, whether it be your personal or professional life and honestly reflect on it.  It’s a good thing to ask one’s self.  It continues to serve me…every day.

Comfort Zone


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