Confession time: I own more pairs of shoes than my wife. Most are colourful – luminous shades of yellow, pink, orange and other sherbert shades- and a good number are eye-wateringly expensive.
My shoes are, I should clarify, running shoes. At least a dozen pairs reside by the back door: trail shoes; track spikes; cross-country spikes; road shoes; racing flats; carbon-fibre-plated-obscenely-expensive marathon shoes; and at least three pairs of “everyday” training shoes. Well prepared for any scenario, I reason…
This term, however, I am swapping my trainers for dance shoes as I prepare to take part as a contestant in the charity event Strictly Shropshire. A very lonely pair of black suede-soled Cuban heels now sits nervously amongst the mud-spattered old favourites at the back door, an incongruous box-fellow to my running shoes. They are no doubt dreading the moment I pick them up and put them on to practise my dance moves.
“A very lonely pair of black suede-soled Cuban heels now sits by the back door.”
It goes without saying that I am an awful dancer. This is no false modesty; I am genuinely dreadful. And that was really the whole point of taking part in Strictly Shropshire.
Having spent my entire career extolling the importance of stepping out of one’s comfort zone and challenging oneself, I firmly believe that you can’t just talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk. Or, in this case, waltz the waltz.
Five years ago I stood in front of an audience of parents and told them that I wanted their sons and daughters to fail. It was a deliberately provocative statement and, as I had hoped, the statement got their attention, for most of them were very keen that their children did the very opposite.
That talk was part of the launch for a whole school “Failure Week” in which we sought to reframe the narrative around the concept of failure – so often seen as terminal or catastrophic – to advocate its positive benefits as a process to enable success. Staff and pupils took part in a variety of Failure Challenges from learning an instrument to performing standup comedy, participating in a “Failure Choir”, getting in a rowing boat for the first time, and countless other activities.
“I’ll never forget the trepidation as I stepped on to a penny farthing…”
For my own part, I’ll never forget the trepidation as I stepped on to a penny farthing and attempted to cycle down the tree-lined avenue of the main school entrance. Nor indeed the terrifying experience of having to perform “Camptown Races” on the trombone to a packed theatre of pupils and staff having only picked up the instrument four weeks before. The resulting performance was not entirely successful, but at least it seemed to entertain the audience, most of whom were in hysterics as I rasped and parped my way through the piece.
As Matthew Syed argues in his book Black Box Thinking, “only by redefining failure will we unleash progress, creativity, and resilience.” That was very much the impetus behind Failure Week, and it is likewise the impetus behind taking part in Strictly Shropshire. In participating in the competition, I am experiencing being a learner once again with all the frustrations, failing and falling that comes with it, but likewise the satisfaction, confidence and joy that is arrived at – as CS Lewis put it – from “failing forward towards success”.
“Most of the audience were in hysterics as I rasped and parped my way through the piece.”
With each lesson I’ve had, the things that initially seemed impossible are now coming more easily, and with each step I’m taking- even the wrong ones – I know that I’m taking steps forward.
Come November 25th when the dreaded “big night” comes, I will perform to a packed audience of over 400 people. The very thought of it is utterly terrifying, but aside from the motivation that comes from raising valuable funds for our local children’s hospice Hope House, I want to model to my pupils that it is not just good to do things that are difficult, it’s a pivotal process in the learning experience. Stepping out of your comfort zone is challenging (and often pretty scary) but the Discomfort Zone is the space where each of us learns most.
As educational leaders we are well used to standing up and delivering speeches, assemblies, talks. We are well used to dealing with difficult situations and scenarios. We are viewed as successful individuals. People look to us, and look up to us. All too often, the temptation is to protect and promote this aura of success, not out of arrogance or ego but because there is strength in stability, and we reason that we need to lead with confidence and reassurance, ensuring that we strive toward success in all that we do.
“I am experiencing being a learner once again with all the frustrations, failing and falling that comes with it.”
There may be merit in this, but I would also argue that it’s important to make ourselves vulnerable from time to time and experience being a learner again. We risk failure, embarrassment, and possibly even some mockery in doing so, but in my experience, people really respect the fact that you’re living out your maxims and stepping out of your own comfort zone whilst encouraging others to do the same.
Whether or not I get through my Strictly routine with any semblance of fluency and style remains highly doubtful, but I can tell you with all honesty that I’ve had a lot of fun in the process, and learned a great deal, too, not least that being a learner again is challenging, invigorating and hugely rewarding.
You can support the work of Hope House hospice by sponsoring Peter and his dancing escapades in Strictly Shropshire here.