We might long for the days when life was calm and most of what we faced seemed familiar and predictable. We did not feel constant pressure and the need to learn and adjust. The recollection may be more nostalgia than reality, but it still speaks to an important truth.
We idealize times when we felt in control, when learning and adjusting were not constant pressures, and we knew what to do in most circumstances. Sustained periods of calm, predictability, and drawing on what we already know can seem ideal, but they also carry risks to our vitality and our leadership.
The fact is that humans are built to learn and grow through challenges. Without significant problems and difficulties, we can become complacent, unaware, and disconnected. Interestingly, we can also find ourselves worrying about small things because really important challenges are not occupying our energy and attention. These are not times when we typically experience new learning and develop important new skills.
It is true that we occasionally need to spend time in our Comfort Zone. We may need to recover and reenergize ourselves. We may need to reflect and process what we have experienced. However, this is not a place to spend extended time. As much as we may long for those days now, the unique challenges and novel circumstances within which we find ourselves can be gifts to be treasured.
For most of us, the pandemic and its implications for learning and teaching has challenged much of what we have known and relied on in the past. New challenges to long-standing practices and increasing complexity of problems have led to the development of new skills and broadened our knowledge and understanding of what it means to lead. These are characteristics of our Growing and Learning Zone. Here, we experience pressure and stress that drives us to examine, explore, and learn as we respond to what is happening and what may lie ahead. While the experience may be uncomfortable, it is healthy and growth-evoking.
Nevertheless, at times we may find ourselves overwhelmed, feeling that things are out of control and we are not capable of responding adequately. These feelings may reflect reality or our perceptions of reality. Regardless, the feelings will guide the experience we have and how we will respond. These feelings define what is known as the Panic Zone. When we feel panicked our judgment can be compromised, we are more likely to revert to old ways of reacting rather than responding creatively. When we find ourselves in a panic zone, we need to be careful and avoid staying there for long periods of time. Doing so can threaten our health and our career.
So what strategies should you employ when you find yourself in each of these zones? If you discover that you may be in your comfort zone for too long, look for worthy, purposeful challenges to take on. Consider problems that seem to keep coming back, problems that never seem to go away, or an action that would make an important difference to improve teaching and learning in your school or schools. Identify the new skills and learning you will need to develop and embrace the experience.
If you are in your growth and learning zone, appreciate and value the experience even though it may feel uncomfortable. Know that these are times for which you were built. Accept that at times you may be confused and uncertain. You may even make some mistakes. Remember these are crucial aspects of the learning process. Be patient with yourself. Take time to reflect on what you are learning and how you are growing. Remember: Learning takes time. Tension and pressure can stimulate your creativity and give you reasons to imagine and invent. If you become exhausted, it’s fine to retreat to your comfort zone temporarily, but do not stay too long.
If you find yourself in your panic zone, it is time to step back and gain some perspective on what is happening. Focus on what elements and aspects of the situation you can control. Resist holding yourself accountable for things over which you have no control. Look for learning opportunities. These elements can help you to move back into your growth and learning zone. Avoid allowing guilt and regret to overwhelm your thinking and actions. Use your personal and professional networks to help you sort and make sense of what you are experiencing. Also, don’t be reluctant to tap professional support to help you move forward. Above all, remember that what you are experiencing will pass.