The Importance of Unfamiliar Territory


I recently had the chance to feel, again, what students must feel.
A very kind teacher I work with is also a self proclaimed ludite.  Even though I have occationally caught him checking his email, Paul claims that I shouldn’t ever really expect him to use technology, let alone in his teaching.
Recently, he wandered into my room claiming embarrassment at having to ask for help.  He showed me his cell phone (the old fashioned “just makes calls” type) and told me that he only had a cell phone so that if he ever fell off the face of the earth, he could call for help (if there were cell reception!).  But now he had gotten a call, and possibily a message, from a number he didn’t recognize, but might be related to his reffing basketball, and could I help him see if there were a message and help him play it back.
Of course I would help!  But I was immediately aware that I haven’t used anything other than a smart phone for the last 6 or 8 years, and it wasn’t trivial figuring out which button to press to get to this feature or that.  So I fell back on the tried and true: trial and error.  
We spent a lot of time figuring out what didn’t work.  And at one point, I completely lost the new number, which had been on the screen, and in a panic thought that maybe I had made things worse for Paul, not better!  Eventually, I figured out that the phone could flip up and reveal a keyboard, larger screen and a couple more buttons, and we now had more options to try…
After a few minutes, I did find the way to access the Menu, and from there, discovered the way to get to messages (and that there were none).  Using the Menu, we could now also access the call log and find the number we were looking for, although we couldn’t figure out how to call the number from the log.  We fell back on even older technology and wrote the number down!
Paul and I had a good laugh and he thanked me and he headed off to find out who had called him.
Now this might be a story about how badly designed the old cell phone user interfaces are…
But for me, it was a story about unfamiliar territory…
A lot of people think of me as a technology expert.  That’s why Paul came to see me.  But it had been so long since I had used an old style cell phone that I really had little idea of how to help.  As Paul left the room, I was amazed at all the things that I had felt over the previous few minutes: cluelessness, embarrasment (it was technology; I should know how to do it!), frustration, panic, fear of failure, and then relief that I had finally figured something out that was close to a “right answer.”
And it made me wonder, how often had my own students (whether they were middle school students, high school students, college students, or teachers in workshops) had felt all those things because they too had been overwhelmed by being in unfamiliar territory.
And I realized that through my own comfort with my “familiar territory” (as I’m guessing most teachers feel about what they have taught for years) I had forgotten what my students must feel.  I had become less empathetic.
And I was suddenly greatful that Paul had taken me out of my comfort zone and reminded me what it felt like to be in unfamiliar territory, so that I could be more empathetic to how my students must be feeling.  
Maybe teachers should be required every once in a while to step way outside their comfort zone so they too can remember how their students must feel…
It’s Your Turn:
What experiences have helped you remember how your students must feel?



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