Embracing the terror

Yesterday evening I presented to a group of teachers and kicked off a big STEM project at the school where the collaboration of our local ‘feeder’ primary schools, and specifically their year 6 and 7 teachers, is going to be vital. I am leading this project out, which is not exactly what I thought I was signing up for when I was recruited for it, but is something I am trying to take in stride.

Regardless of that, however, I am not a STEM-trained teacher. I have had a lifelong interest in science, technology, and the natural world, an inculcated skepticism, and a partner who is a Maths teacher, but I have never trained specifically in Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics, and so I have a very real fear that I am out of my depth.

Adding further to this is that nagging fear that I think almost everyone has when they need to present to an unknown audience. So, predictably, I have been fairly anxious and stressed this week about it.

I mentioned this in an email to the senior manager of the project during the week, using the term “terrified”, and, completely genuinely and with the kind of concern that I am glad to see in the leadership of my school, he got me into a meeting and reassured me that all was fine and that my efforts thus far had been great. I wasn’t really looking for this though, and while it was a welcome acknowledgement, I found myself slightly uncomfortable in articulating what I actually expected as a response.

This morning, as I arrived, I had a short conversation with another colleague, someone who knows me and my work style well and who I trust greatly, and we discussed the project. I said I was feeling a little scared about how well the presentation went because it now meant that the hard work would begin and that, not being STEM trained, I felt out of my depth. Her response was similar to the senior leader, but I immediately gained a clearer idea of why this felt strange.

Me expressing that fear, I realised, was not about an unwillingness to proceed, or a cry for validation or even a search for help. Instead it was more about me acknowledging to myself the anxiety that comes naturally when anyone steps beyond their comfort zone. I think what I was looking for is that sense of solidarity; the “I know what you’re going through, and it’s ok to feel that way” response.

My colleague’s response was really interesting: “You’re a lifelong learner.”

What she meant was that, anytime we try to do something new, to push ourselves beyond the comfort zone we live within, there is an element of discomfort that exists. We discussed this a little and moved on, but it is an important point.

Sometimes that discomfort will express itself as fear, as with this presentation. But it is just as likely to be a sense of frustration, or dislocation, or even pain (perhaps when pushing physical boundaries, for example). We don’t learn unless we are pushing through these kinds of boundaries, and being a ‘lifelong learner’, of necessity, means existing within that zone, at least for some periods of time. Without it, the satisfaction of achievement is hollow and meaningless.



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