"Reconsidering Comfort Zones" by Head of the Upper School Michael Denning
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose… — Ecclesiastes 3.1
Among the many privileges afforded to me at Nobles, none is greater than the opportunity I have to greet students in front of Shattuck when they arrive each morning. Students will sometimes stop for a moment to talk about an assignment, a game, a performance or some other activity or event. Occasionally, one will pause to express some concerns. Most often, however, the experience is punctuated by simple greetings, smiles and well wishes.
At the beginning of each year, my mornings out by the flagpole enable me to get to know new students while welcoming returning students back to what I hope is already their home away from home. However, as autumn gives way to winter, the challenges and setbacks that come with each school year begin to multiply, and this daily ritual becomes a time for me to check in with students and to be one more teacher in this extraordinary community of caring adults offering encouragement. This is rewarding work, and I am lucky to have it.
A powerful idea in schools today is that a student’s education is incomplete unless they are taught to step willingly, regularly and confidently outside of their “comfort zone(s).” I don’t know who first coined the term “comfort zone.” Some credit the psychologist Judith Bardwick and her 1991 work, Danger in the Comfort Zone: From Boardroom to Mailroom, while others trace the idea to earlier pioneers in psychology, in particular Robert Yerkes and John Dodson and their Yerkes-Dodson Law (circa 1908). What I can say for certain is that this idea is deeply embedded in Nobles’ mission and programs as well as my own educational philosophy. I have written and spoken often about appropriate risk taking, in general, and EXCEL, in particular. Yet, as I think about next steps in our academic and co-curricular programs, I find myself considering not only new ways to challenge students to step out of their comfort zones, but also initiatives to further ensure that each of them has genuine zones of comfort from which to step.
For most students, the Nobles experience is replete with new challenges that, by their very nature, are uncomfortable. Here are but a few that students encounter on a daily basis:
new books to read
new problems to tackle
new essays and labs to write
new presentations to make
new ideas with which to struggle
new opponents to play
new performances to learn and present
new people to meet
new situations to navigate
These challenges are endemic to the adolescent secondary-school experience; however, they are intensified by the rigors of our mission and programs, as well as the high standards set by Nobles faculty, staff and students alike. If we agree that the new and the uncomfortable often travel hand-in-hand, then could we also agree that our students spend a lot of time outside zones of comfort?
In the late 1950s, American folk icon Pete Seeger offered us "Turn, Turn, Turn," a musical rendition—made famous by the Byrds—of Solomon’s Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.
...To everything - turn, turn, turn
There is a season - turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven
A time to build up, a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together
Seeger reminds us of Solomon’s wisdom: that every stage of life is filled with new and difficult challenges to overcome, ones that we can and should seek and others that we would neither seek nor for which we can really prepare. Herein lies the rationale for the work we do to build zones of comfort for our students. Through relationship-based pedagogies; daily morning assemblies; advisories; and teaching and mentoring across programs, we remain steadfastly committed to the ideas that: 1) strength, confidence, wisdom and courage come from ritual, routine, friendship, community and other zones of comfort; and 2) it is the strength garnered in zones of comfort that enables each of us to tackle not only those challenges we step outside to face, but also those unwelcome and unexpected ones that pull us out, too.
A warm sun greeted us as we arrived at school last week, offering a harbinger of long summer days right around the corner. For many of us, however, the signs of spring and summer are bittersweet because Mother Nature’s time of renewal brings our community far more endings than beginnings. For all of us, the end of the school year represents leaving important comfort zones at the behest of new challenges and new seasons of life. So as I greet students coming through the door on their way to morning assembly—that comforting place that we all love and where kids regularly take risks—I allow myself a few extra moments to reflect on how much they have grown, accomplished, experienced and overcome over the course of their time at Nobles. And I think about how far outside our comfort zones we have stepped together.