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Venturing Beyond my “Zone of Personal Development” by Natalie Spengler
I have always been someone who has loved school.
Growing up, there was no better feeling than the mix of butterflies and excitement I felt at the beginning of each school year. Nothing could compare to the sight of my brand-new crayons
neatly arranged in colourful rows or the crisp feel of my freshly covered notebooks. As a teacher, this love of order and precision translated into the thrill of decorating a bulletin board to mark the start of a new school year, colour-coordinating pencils in individual containers and striving to outdo myself in terms of classroom decorations. Within my neatly organised comfort zone, I would often feel frustrated when my students didn’t understand new concepts as quickly as I felt they should, or if they were unmotivated to do their work. How could students not be doing their homework when I had spent so much time decorating a cute homework notice board with helpful reminders for them?
A few years ago, I took a surfing lesson in Costa Rica. No matter how hard I tried to follow the instructor, I just couldn’t stand up on my board for more than a few seconds. I tried over and over again without success and fell off my board every time. Cognitively, I understood what I was supposed to do, but I couldn’t put it into practice. As I was tumbling about in the ocean, with salt water and tears of frustration stinging my eyes, it made me wonder how many of my students were stuck inside a similar nightmare of panic with no sense of control over what they were doing. Was I creating unrealistic expectations for my students to follow? After taking various professional development courses, I became more interested in evidence- based strategies to support real learning in the classroom. As a teacher who has worked mainly with English language learners, Vygotsky’s theory of the Zone of Proximal Development (1978) has especially captured my interest. I began to think about how to develop better support structures to engage all learners to allow them to be more active in their learning. At the end of each class, I have learned to think critically about the lesson and ask myself, “what did each student learn today?”.
After nine years of teaching upper primary students in Costa Rica, and taking a year-long break to complete a master’s programme in Education, I am now in my second year of teaching at an international high school in China. During my first few months I was challenged to rethink every single strategy that had worked perfectly in the past. It felt like I was a novice teacher starting from scratch. I forced myself to scale back my expectations and focus on evidence-based practices. I continue to ask myself and my students about their learning gains, and how to make lessons and activities work better for them.
For someone who loves the structure of a day punctuated by school bells, neat handwriting and new pencils, it has been a valuable and humbling lesson to be pushed out of my comfort zone. While everyone’s step out of their comfort zone may look a little bit different, I encourage you to give it a try.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.