Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone

They say that a change is as good as a rest. That maybe your soul is seeking a spark that sleep just can’t offer. For any educator regardless of position, June holds the promise of rest, relax, breathe, repeat. Like you, I have a list of responsibilities to close the loop on learning for this year. However, while I attend to reflecting and wrapping up the learning for this school year, I find myself gearing up and preparing for my next steps. Perhaps ‘dive’ is a better word.

I face two brand new experiences in the coming season. In July, I join a team of global educators through Limited Resource Teacher Training travelling to Uganda for a month of professional learning with rural Ugandan teachers and students. And in September, I’ll join a team at Bonaventure Meadows as VP with Thames Valley District School Board.


The anticipation of both moves saturates me at once with dread and excitement. I’ve been pondering a graphic for the past few days since @sbruyns shared it via twitter. I find myself waffling across these categories. At 3am, I’m clamouring for comfort zone, paralysed by questions that typically start with ‘what if?’  At 11am, I’m all ‘bring it on’ and ‘I got this.’ I am reminded that if we claim to be lifelong learners, yet never put ourselves in the vulnerable position of truly learning, how can we possibly empathize with our students who navigate these uncharted waters daily? Don’t get me wrong. I want to be competent. But I also want to learn how others think, view and interact to make sense of the world. We can learn at any age, from any age.  Recently I came across a tweet that challenged me:  if you don’t have a millenial mentor, find one!  I intend to.  When I head to Uganda on July 2, I’ll no doubt be the oldest, but I know I’ll be learning alongside brand new teachers I’m serving as well. When you’re in a foreign country, there’s no chance of relying on how you’ve always done it. Instead, you are pushed just beyond your current skill set to innovate, to problem solve, to find another way.

When I join the Bonomagic team, I will be learning from every single person walking those halls…the students, staff, admin, parents and community. Each of them hold a valuable piece of background knowledge that I will need to be responsive to their needs. Whenever you intentionally parachute in to a new community, whether in Kanungu, Uganda or East London, you have an opportunity to expand your view, customize your toolkit, exercise your empathy and grow as you get out of your comfort zone.

So, what’s pushing you out of your comfort zone?

Take a risk. Make a move.


I Remember

Remembrance Day.

As if the date itself remembers its significance as a chill to the bone, grey bands of clouds like smoke roll to the horizon. A hopeful sun brings little warmth to a heavy heart. Wind whips through bush and branch, sweeping up fallen leaves, carrying the message, ‘remember.’

I close my eyes. I remember.

Standing, forever, outside. Shivering.

A parade of footsteps echoing off Exeter town hall until a sergeant barks orders halting

the march.


Silence, but for the wind lifting lapels and hems of coats, pressing skirts against stockinged legs, jingling medals on breast pockets.

Crackling electricity activates the loudspeaker mounted on

a blue Chevrolet.

Prayers, poems and scriptures … mark our place … lest we forget.

The disobedient microphone cuts in and out like snapshots of intermittent memories that flash across veterans’ faces with heads held high.


Standing in silence.

My mom,mom remembrance day 1971

standing tall in her belted trench coat, white gloves and navy legion beret, her rosacea cheeks the only colour on her face.

One of few women in this sea of former soldiers.

She wears no medals.  Only scars, memories, crosses she bears, choices she made.

Moeilijk. Dit leven.

Initial nervous sputtering notes escape a trumpet as the Last Post rings out.

My dad,

confidence building as he plays through his anxiety, his own memories, his own lost brother.

Music his medicine.

A minute of silence.


For the bagpipe drone to wield its mournful tune until

The reveille brings relief, gives permission for all to exhale, relax their shoulders.

A knowing glance shared momentarily between veterans before returning to their lives

since the war.

Nowadays, when my brother, sisters and I observe Remembrance Day, we stand tall, clenching teeth and fists, fingernails in palms, catch in throat. Waiting. To breathe.

I wish to keep a record

I wish to keep a record of my thinking and learning. That’s why I have a writer’s notebook. I (inconsistently) keep a blog to share some of that learning as I am convinced it helps up my game when teaching writing.

My title today comes from a book shared this week on twitter by @ShelfieTalk, two avid readers and educators from NB.

I paused to think of the insights these 19th century women must have shared regarding their world, and was delighted that a) they were compelled to write, and b) their stories were valued and thus, collected and published. It’s important work. Noticing and noting your surroundings requires close attention as you seek to make sense and meaning of your experience.

Since returning from the Dominican Republic last weekend, I know our entire Canadian educator team has reflected on our experience, its successes (team collaboration) and challenges (ant invasion 🐜). Questions linger as well:

  • What did we learn about the Dominican context, its culture? And how did we adapt our plans accordingly?
  • How could we do better in supporting the teachers, in enhancing their practice?
  • Did we connect our teaching to their curriculum in a practical way?
  • How do we build partnerships with the teachers there across the year? How can we empower more of them to co-teach with us?
  • What impact might this experience have on my teaching in a culturally competent way?

My good friend and mentor Sue Bruyns, a trip leader who has participated in Teacher Mentors Abroad many times, requested our reflections in writing in order to hear our voices, but more importantly to feed forward to future trips. Teachers are notoriously reflective practitioners. I’ve barely made it down the hall at school before I’m scrutinizing my moves and what I could have changed to improve that lesson, that conversation.

This week I devoted a good deal of time to carefully consider and record my impressions, and share some of them via this blog: Key to Community: Learn Their Names, Sounds and Sidewalks Signal a Sense of Place, and Sharing Culture, Sharing Food. The process of making myself stop, think through, and then write to wrestle some clarity out of those ideas has proven valuable to me. It would have been so much easier to just swipe through my photos to relive memorable moments. But I committed to exploring community this summer and writing about it.

Writing about your experience extends a memory’s shelf life not only for your own enjoyment but for parsing out the significant learning that comes to the surface when you write. In some small way I believe that writing helps me to bear witness to my interactions with people’s lives. Sewing together those threads of observations, feelings and questions, I come to a better understanding of what happened. Different perspectives may not come to light when you’re walking the journey but instead appear vividly when you’re looking back on a journey. You learn all over again. When you’re in the moment, you can’t connect the dots.

Cultural sensitivity and competency in teaching, and frankly living, is drawing a lot of attention recently with good reason. Having the extraordinary opportunity to teach, however briefly, in another country deepens my resolve to nurture students’ global awareness and empathy. While I might not yet be able to comprehend the dots I’ve connected to my future, I know this experience, and reflecting on it, will infuse my conversations and curriculum.

I wish to keep a record.

Sharing Culture, Sharing Food

As administrators and teachers know, don’t hold a staff meeting or PD day without food. It’s not only a nice gesture to provide, it’s a far more subversive act than simply showing gratitude. Sharing food around a table encourages conversation, democratizes the space, and elevates the spirit. Whatever other ways you’ve chosen to nurture school culture, adding food amplifies the effect, regardless of location. Even in the Dominican Republic last week, I was reminded yet again of the sacred nature of breaking bread in community.

Across the four day conference that was held in Santiago, 200 participants and our team were served lunch everyday. Each class would be summoned to join a line outside where lunch was served.

These are the staples of DR lunch plates: mangú (a mashed plantain), queso frito (fried cheese), yuca (cassava), fresh fruit and the ubiquitous salami. LOVED it all. It was a long time from breakfast and we started teaching at 8am, so lunch was welcomed. And while I enjoyed trying new foods, more importantly, we ate with our participants.

With the unwavering support of our translator, Jesus, we had a chance to learn about folks beyond the classroom. Teachers lead many lives. It’s so rewarding to ask and listen to their stories. Our participants were so open, so forgiving of our attempts at Spanish, so grateful for the opportunity to come and learn despite sometimes travelling two to three hours. Every day. It was moving to imagine their classrooms and challenges.

At the end of the first day, there was a wheelbarrow filled to the brim with mangoes. Each person took one on the way out. We were told it was a symbol of gratitude for coming to the community.

Food connects us, it feeds us, it feeds our souls.

“In her book Eating Together, Alice Julier argues that dining together can radically shift people’s perspectives: It reduces people’s perceptions of inequality, and diners tend to view those of different races, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds as more equal than they would in other social scenarios.” (The Importance of Eating Together, The Atlantic)

We had many opportunities to eat and share with others as our team of 12 were mercifully fed by our hosts, including Juan Pablo and his wife Betty Ann.

Even at our accommodations at Centro Bellarmino, a Catholic retreat, we strengthened our team bonds by doing the dishes together. As the nuns who shared the dining hall were on a silent retreat, we could only communicate in smiles and nods.

Our final night in DR was a true Dominican send off where we shared traditional Sancocho in the intimacy of one of our mentors’ homes. Sancocho, the ultimate Dominican comfort food, is a 7 meat stew that feeds thousands I’m sure. Look at the size of this pot!

Our team, our mentors, translators, children, spouses, and others (I’m not even sure of the connection), all came together to celebrate that manifestation of culture and community: eating a meal together. Conversation, and speeches, were punctuated by music and dancing lessons, both salsa and bachatta. Tight space, tight bonds.

I know I am richer for having experienced the hospitality and community building spirit of the Dominicans. The power of sharing food and conversation around a table there is a reminder of its impact here at home and at school.

Sounds and Sidewalks Signal a Sense of Place

When you first arrive in a new place, you take in all the sights speeding toward you as you try to make sense of your new surroundings. Often you come to a new place via a car, your own or a taxi from the airport. Your first sense of a place relies heavily on sight as you sit in the bubble of an automobile that offers you a narrow lens through the window to this unfamiliar world.

Speed prevents you from catching the best views, or capturing any scenes with your camera. Sure you cover a lot of territory, but you miss pieces and places that are trademarks of a community.

If you want a real sense of place, you need to walk or cycle. It’s exercise but it also exercises your sense of hearing. When I travel, I am desperate to get a lay of the land as soon as I can, by walking to immerse myself in the surroundings. Last week in the Dominican, we scouted out the raucous sounds of parakeets.

We would never have come upon a local hive of live music had some in our company not been walking around the area.

When you walk down a street, you have a chance to act out what these neighbours do, see and hear everyday.  Of course the key to community is conversation, but getting out of your car and into the streets helps to ‘colour in’ your learning and provide a soundtrack to a community’s identity, where even a chicken has a voice😉.

I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that guides much of our social studies questioning: how does where I live determine who I am?

Before I began school at Byron Southwood last fall, I took the opportunity to cycle around its streets to get a lay of the land. I pondered: How far do kids walk to get to school? Do they walk? Are they outside playing? Where are the parks? The variety store? Am I hearing conversations happening in the streets? Where’s the local hangout? The same kinds of questions bubble up regardless of where I am.

Whether faraway or nearby, listening to the sounds on the sidewalks shapes your sense of place and likely nudges you closer to an understanding of that community.

Key to Community: Learn Their Names

Allow me to introduce the students from my class in the Dominican Republic last week. You’ll see Roseanna, the firecracker, and Chiara, the natural leader, but also Jose Rafael whose quiet disposition let others shine. My teaching partner and I faced the challenge of building community ASAP since we had only 4 days to accomplish a great deal. Having some experience with adult professional learning models, I wondered whether to anticipate successes or challenges in trying some strategies in another language, another country.

Here’s what I learned again about building classroom community. I believe:

  1. Learning their names is the first step toward valuing identity.
  2. Who we are as a community is a mosaic of many ‘who I ams.’ We best start there.
  3. You can’t really learn until you love, trust, respect and believe in who you’re learning with and from.
  4. Teachers model that they are lead learners when they adopt an open to learning stance. Every move you make is a response to what you just heard, saw or sensed.

Our entire Canadian educator team began our conference by introducing ourselves and sharing who we were to the crowd …in Spanish!  I can’t help but wonder if this was key to capturing their attention but also respect. When you choose to make yourself vulnerable and push yourself outside your comfort zone, your reach is extended, your impact enhanced.

Our very first day focussed on Tribes learning where we infused energizers and community circle prompts that helped us learn each others’ names.  When we think about building a classroom community, it’s critical to consider the individual identities present. And it starts with name. I wanted to learn and remember each of them so I took a photo with their name tag.  I even shared the story of my name and they too had opportunity to share with others. Listening to them rhyme off 5 names in Spanish is music to my ears! It just sounds more beautiful in Spanish.

Our translator, Jesus (and yes he was my saviour), managed to take our words and gestures together to send a message and ask questions to capitalize on the time together.  He too was learning and I asked if he would share his reflections on the week.

We explored energy as our topic through Google Translated 2 page layouts, we tracked their energy usage, we introduced them to a variety of stories of children making a difference in the world through innovative designs. And we created infographics to demonstrate our learning. More importantly, Beth and I learned about the challenges they face in their classrooms as they desperately asked for us to visit. That would be the best next step for us to truly support their practice.  Imagine.

By our fourth day, I can claim with some confidence that we had built something unique. Something valuable. Hopefully an impact on their own instructional practice.   Before we said goodbye, I shared that I thought we had created a memory here of ways to engage, know and instruct students but also to collaborate and enjoy others’ company. I assured them that someday in my classroom and theirs, we would stop and think back to how they were feeling right now and it would inspire them to re-create the same sense of community. I hope that will come true.


‘Making’ Conversation

Big surprise to no one, I’m not good at small talk. I actually have a slight tremor of dread in anticipation of nail, hair, car appointments or just shopping. Anywhere waiting is guaranteed, I grapple with the expectation of donning a game face to save this predicament we’re all unfortunately caught in. Where did the phrase ‘making’ conversation come from anyhow? I’m too deliberate to make it up. I ponder poking my eye out when my husband invites me to work parties.

But I’m learning.

My admin partner masterfully spins tales that entertain complete strangers, not only staff, with the ultimate goal of putting them at ease. Keeping their mood up. I get the impression he is comfortable in any room. My only saving grace is I’m genuinely curious. I just want people to get to the good stuff right away.

Fuelled by my commitment to learning, seeking and then writing about it, I’m starting to notice and leverage my interactions.

Cue today’s pedicure. (Which I rarely attend as I’m not that interested in the cognitive demands of conversation with someone who’s touching my feet.)

You know it’s coming…she’s going to ask you about the long weekend, your summer plans, and you’ll engage in the awkward first date chit chat. I even brought a book to salve that time in between. But today turned out differently owing to a comment about autocorrect when texting that I almost missed. Once I learned she was originally from South Africa, I just kept pulling the thread that unravelled her story. Escaping one man only to fall in love with another, her future husband. From Capetown to Dubai, Winnipeg to Trenton. And now settled just north of London, Ontario. We talked water in Capetown. We shared hopes for our First Nations in Canada. We laughed at the weather extremes she has endured. I practically asked for her number!

It is so satisfying to be reminded once again about the magnet Canada is for countless immigrants and the gifts they bring that enrich our community. This woman could make home anywhere, but she chose here. And I might have missed an awesome story if I wasn’t looking to learn.