How’s Your Appetite for Risk?

The Pacific from the other side – overlooking Stinson Beach CA 2014

The white knuckle experience of driving on a Californian freeway is not something I will quickly forget. Having grown up in a small country town where I learnt to drive on a farm, and now living in a big country town where peak hour finishes when the traffic lights change (sorry, Canberra, but it’s true), this was definitely an ‘out of my comfort zone’ experience. I do have to say, it was a deliberate choice to place myself in that car on that day and I probably need to explain why.

I’ve always played it safe… never applied for a job I didn’t think I’d get, never took a course I feared I’d fail, never took a dare I couldn’t win. The classic high achiever, all my ‘risks’ were calculated and summarily dismissed should there be any chance of me coming out the other side less than perfectly composed. In reality, they weren’t risks at all.

When I decided to travel to San Francisco to visit my sister in January, driving while there was not high on my agenda. When I learned that getting around might be problematic without a car, my mouth overstepped… in a flurry of sisterly affection and excitement, I misspoke.

“No worries,” my mouth enthused, “I’ll just hire a car.” Then my brain caught up.

“You’ll WHAT?! ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?! They drive on the wrong side of the road! Remember the freeways Bugs Bunny drove on in Looney Tunes? You’ll get on and starve to death before you ever find your way off and you’ll NEVER see your family again!”

It was too late.

“Great,” came the equally excited and affectionate voice down the phone, “I’ll go ahead and book.”… and then the ring tone.


In the weeks that followed, the conversations inside my head ranged from deranged to farcical as I tried to wangle my way out of this. In the end, some sane voice spoke from the distant recesses of my left cerebral hemisphere; “Oh for goodness sake! Grow up! You ask kids in your class to do things that make them uncomfortable every day.”

And that was the wakeup call.

I realised that in my teaching when I  nonchalantly declared we would make a film or design an infographic, create a vodcast, enact a play, write a blog, deliver a speech, make a presentation… I rarely thought about the impact this might have on my students. I was in the habit of every day asking my students to take risks with their learning with no consideration of what kinds of internal conversations that creates in their heads. I felt abashed.

At that point I made the decision that I jolly well would drive on a freeway in California and that in fact, every time I felt afraid to take a risk while I was away, I would do the very thing my brain was trying to convince me not to do (now bear in mind, given my personality this would not involve dangerous risk taking of the sky diving kind… oh…gasp again!). I really wanted to feel what it was like to step outside my comfort zone, to get a glimpse of how my students sometimes feel and to understand what they might need in those moments of stress, blind terror or, perhaps, extreme excitement.

Stinson Beach
Stinson Beach CA 2014

So, when my sister suggested a trip to Stinson Beach, I volunteered to drive. After 2 hours of driving through what my brother-in-law described as ‘it doesn’t get any worse than that traffic’ (there was a football game on) and winding down a narrow cliff-side road absent of guard rails on what I considered the wrong side of the road, I was rewarded with a view of the Pacific from the other side. It was a gorgeous winter afternoon and as I waved across at Australia, though exhausted, I felt exhilarated. This was how I wanted my students to feel when they finished something that was really hard and I determined then to be the steady voice guiding them round the hair pin turns, speaking courage into their fears and resisting the temptation to apply the imaginary brake foot.

Mt Diablo Road
The road up Mt Diablo

I took several other risks while away (all of them legal), including driving up Mt Diablo on a road, also without guard rails, that was crumbling away in places. I remember staring out at the Delta from the top and forcing myself to appreciate the view instead of focusing on the dreaded drive back down. It’s amazing how sometimes knowing what lies ahead can be scarier than not knowing and I wondered how often my students feel this too.

Safely back in the Land of Oz, I know this experience is impacting my teaching and the learning of my students in positive ways. Our class lives by the one rule that ours is a room in which it is safe to take a risk with learning. All daring. No put downs. We’re taking the time to appreciate the view – our study of Wordsworth involved a most ridiculous enactment of “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” and a punny game of “What’s a Wordsworth’s word worth?”. When we finish we intend to reflect on the journey and to celebrate our challenges and triumphs. I’m hoping it will be reminiscent of breathing in the Pacific sea air with the afternoon sun on my face and the knowledge in my heart that the risk was worth the taking.