Facing the panic zone to achieve major or rapid change

Reading time: 2 minutes. Relevant SSAT publication: Mind the Gap – collected essays on the development of character, non-cognitive skills, mindfulness and well-being 

We need to recognise the inhibiting effects of embarrassment, both in students’ learning and in teachers’ development, in order to reduce or overcome them, writes Sarah Murphy, relationship manager, SSAT

Imagine you are in a room full of your peers. Some you know well, some who you don’t know at all, some you may be scared of (maybe they’ve bullied you in the past). Maybe you even fancy one of them. You are asked to stand up, step forward and say, loudly and proudly, ‘Hello my name is….’

Later, in the same room, walk over to a person at random, look them in the eye and shake them by the hand. Then have a five-minute conversation with them.

On the surface these sound like simple tasks, and demonstrate the basis of essential life skills that we hope our young people will develop. Last term I watched a group of 42 year 10 students performing these acts in a HumanUtopia workshop. In watching them I realised that these simple acts can represent huge barriers, not just to making a connection with the person next to you, but to learning and to life.

I’ve had occasion recently to consider the concept of the comfort zone in my own life. Being in one’s comfort zone isn’t just about doing what is familiar and safe: sticking to jobs you know you are good at, associating with people you know you get on with, maintaining relationships in the status quo rather than addressing what could make them better. It is avoiding things that make you feel afraid, and I’m coming to the conclusion that the biggest fear when it comes to moving out of your comfort zone is fear of embarrassment. You can call it fear of failure, fear of making a fool of yourself, fear of what people may think, fear of getting it wrong, fear of sticking out from the crowd – it all comes down to being embarrassed.

Holding back the potential

And what is embarrassment to hold anyone back from fulfilling their full potential?

These fears present themselves when we are learning something new – whether you are a year 10 student learning quadratic equations for the first time, or a 57-year-old TV presenter performing the Paso Doble in front of millions of TV viewers (reference for all the Strictly fans there).

The only way to learn something new or make a behavioural change, is to come out of your comfort zone, into what is called the stretch zone. Indeed, if you want to make rapid or dramatic change, into what Graham Moore referred to in the HumanUtopia workshop as the ‘panic zone’.

You can talk about growth mindset until you are blue in the face – but if the learner doesn’t feel free from the fear of embarrassment, or in a climate where embarrassment is neutralised by supportive peers, then the growth can never take place.

A quote from a dance teacher has stuck with me all my life: ‘if you commit to it, it’s hot’, perhaps more commonly known as ‘fake it til you make it’. And I think we need to embed this attitude in our young people.

Standing up with your hands in front of your mouth and mumbling your name so no one can hear, and having a handshake like a limp lettuce leaf, are never going to impress a potential employer. But for some students the fear of committing to something new and being seen to be doing something out of their type cast is stronger than the pull of doing something well. And this is true at both ends of the pecking order spectrum: cool kids are afraid of losing their street cred (I’m so down with the kidz lingo) and those quiet ones are just hoping to remain invisible. But when you’ve taken that leap and done it once, each next time will be easier until the behaviour comes naturally.

Creating the environment

So the challenge is: how do we create an environment where embarrassment is not an acceptable excuse for not furthering your learning? I wish I had the answer, but maybe it starts with the small stuff. Like shaking hands at the beginning of a lesson, getting all your students in turn to stand up and pull a silly face, not letting the quiet kids get away with not speaking up, not letting the ‘cool’ kids get away with not saying the correct answer that you know they know.

And of course the same principles apply to us adults. Is the professional development environment in your school free from embarrassment? Are teachers free to try something new without fear of judgement?

There are many barriers to learning that students face, and each student is an individual. But the theme of embarrassment as a barrier to self-improvement strikes me as something that affects us all, in many aspects of life.

We will never be able to eliminate embarrassment, because we cannot control – or totally ignore –what other people think of us, or their unfair judgements of our behaviour. But each of us can control the boundaries of our own comfort zone and embrace the fact that a moment’s embarrassment can sometimes be the gateway to a life full of learning, love and laughter.

A moment’s embarrassment can sometimes be the gateway to a life full of learning, love and laughter

Do you know your SSAT relationship manager? Are you making the most of all of your member benefits? Get in touch with the relationship manager team to drive improvement and unlock your school’s full participation in the SSAT network. Email: RMTeam@ssatuk.co.uk

Read more on the SSAT blog: Character education: big ideas are great, but the hows are harder

Follow Sarah Murphy on Twitter

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