For three weeks one summer I stepped out of my comfort zone and learned a valuable lesson about teaching. Leaving one's comfort zone is not something that happens very often to most adults. Instead of feeling powerful, in control, full of answers, I felt powerless and struggled for answers. It reminded me of when I was a kid and first went to school. It was like being new, different, and forced to learn out of necessity.
In thinking about what happened to me, I've come to feel that there's great benefit in having this experience every so often.
It's not hard to do: just go to a foreign country. I went to Italy and spent three weeks working very hard at using the language of my surroundings, a language I do not know.
I got very good at rapidly thumbing through the English-Italian dictionary, guessing at the meaning of signs or instructions.
In addition, I applied my high school French and those Latin roots from English class. And, of course, I used smiles and other facial expressions to convey perplexity and thanks.
For the first time in years, I was back in the beginner group; a learner again, and one on a steep learning curve.
We had a wonderful trip, but the experience made me think quite a bit about what school must be like for many kids: a foreign country in which survival depends on acquiring an unfamiliar set of skills or responses. People look at you as though you're dumb, just because you can't say what you want, what you think, or what you need.
I had not felt such confusion as a learner since algebra class, back in ninth grade. Algebra was a foreign language to me - which is why I spent two years in first-year algebra! - and it's probably what learning English was like for some of my former students, when I was their English teacher. It was "Greek" to them. As I think back on my teaching, I wonder if I could have been a better "translator."
By my second week in Italy, I could understand far more than I could express. A few language patterns were starting to emerge from the barrage of words and rhythms my ears were taking in.
I had made acquaintances. I could pick up on subtleties in the language, enough to know when one shopkeeper was telling another that I didn't know what I was talking about. But I did! I knew exactly what I wanted to say - I was trying to make a joke - I just couldn't find the right words. Nor could I express the fact that I knew what they were saying.
How many students go to a "foreign country" every day when they step into school, leaving their comfort zone as they encounter demands that are unfamiliar?
At least I knew what to do about my discomfort. My problem was solved with translation, something I could do for myself with that dictionary. I looked up hundreds of words. Before entering a store or ordering lunch, I studied the vocabulary I would need. I dreamed in Italian.
Still, it took courage to attempt to speak those newly acquired words, make mistakes with the pronunciation, and risk embarrassment or failure.
In contrast to my experience, many kids don't even know what steps to take or what questions to ask to begin to solve the problem of translation.
I will not forget Fabbrizio, who ran the local trattoria and alimentari (food store). He encouraged my vocabulary and grammar, and spoke a little English himself. He wasn't a terrific translator, but he was friendly and established a comfort zone in which failure didn't matter. Instead, the attempt to communicate was honored.
In a way, he reminds me of my second-year algebra teacher, who had the tools to translate that foreign mathematical language into something that approached clarity for me.
My experience has helped me look around my school a little differently. Some of my elementary-grade kids look at me as if I'm speaking in Italian. I realize I have to listen harder to the language they're comfortable speaking and learn to translate.
My comfort zone might be their foreign country; their comfort zone, my foreign country. But with the help of a good English-Italian dictionary, it can be sunny and warm. Va bene! (Great!)