Don’t Look Down: Fostering Fearless Learning

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Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/6Ldkn2

My husband, John, grew up on the shores of Lake Erie, and the beach was a very short walk from his front door. Shortly after we started dating, he invited me to spend the day there with him.

“It’s not hard to get down there,” he told me. “Just a quick hike down a wooded path and a short climb to the sand. Just don’t look down.”

I was fine with the hike.

“Clarify what you mean by climb though,” I pressed him.

“Well, there’s this sort of cliff that we have to get down,” he explained. “It’s not a big deal.”

“How do we do that?”

“There’s a rope.”

A cliff.

A rope.

My raging fear of heights.

This did not bode well, but I love beaches, and I really loved my future husband, so off we went.

I tried not to think of all that could go wrong as we cut our way through the over grown path that led to the rope, the cliff, and the beach. Once we arrived, I agreed that we didn’t seem too far up. The rope seemed secure. The sand seemed like a soft landing place. John seemed to scale down the side of the rock with relative ease and grace.

And then it was my turn.

I tightened my back pack, wrapped my hands around the rope, and began inching my way down the cliff with cautious certainty. John was cheering me on from below, and I remember turning around to laugh along with him.

And that’s when I looked down.

Who am I to deny them the opportunity to reach the beach?
That’s when I noticed how high I was dangling above the ground, with nothing more than a thin rope securing me to an outcrop of stone that didn’t fall straight to the beach but instead, jutted outward before curving inward, creating a bit of an optical illusion. This made the distance to the ground from above quite deceiving.

My confidence melted in a single moment, and I spent the next fifteen minutes steadying my shaking limbs and uncertain feet.

I managed to get to the bottom without incident, but I spent the day worrying about how I would make the climb to the top at the end of the day. I didn’t enjoy that perfect afternoon as much as I could have—as much as I should have–because I was afraid.

It turned out that the climb up was far easier than I expected it to be. I was capable of more than I thought I was, in the end. All of that fear that ruined my day? It was for nothing. I still feel ripped off when I remember it, but I try to remember this every time I feel afraid now: don’t look down.

When I look down, the distance feels far greater than it is. My brain starts to tell me I’m climbing too high. I start waiting for the air to thin or for some unimaginable force to knock me off the wall. When I look down, the path between where I am and where I hope to land feels insurmountable.

When I look down, I engage my fear. I know this is healthy. It’s intuitive. My fear intends to keep me safe. I teach my kids to listen to their gut—to listen to fear. I try to remember this also. But my fear keeps me too safe, sometimes. It prevents me from experiencing incredible things.

When I look down, my brain focuses on all that could go wrong, everything I assume I’m lacking, the experiences I think I should have gained before putting myself on the ledge with the rope. When I look down, I lower my expectations of what I can be and what I can do.

I make inaccurate assumptions that result in limits and missed opportunities.

So I don’t look down too often anymore, and I’m especially sensitive to the potential for this as I’m crafting lessons and providing feedback to learners of all ages. Who am I to deny them the opportunity to reach the beach?

Instead of assuming what can’t be done and carving narrow paths, I send out invitations, I scale cliffs ahead of others, and I cheer them on as they feel their own fear and do what they want to anyway.

I’m done defining what is developmentally appropriate for others.

It’s presumptuous–even arrogant. It also breeds fear, resistance, and reluctance.

I could kick myself for not nurturing fearless learning sooner.

I’ll bet that some of my former students could too.

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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at Angelastockman.com.

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