Being Okay With Discomfort
By Leigh Hall, Guest blogger
Leigh Hall is an associate professor at UNC, where she teaches literacy courses in the Elementary Education program, the M.Ed. for Experienced Teachers program, and for students preparing to be scholars in the field of literacy. She blogs about education generally, blogging in the classroom, literacy education, and yoga. Like her stuff? Follow her on Twitter.
Over on my yoga blog, I recently discussed how I went to a class that was very different from what I was used to doing. As a result, I experienced plenty of moments where I was uncomfortable. This discomfort was never anything bad or painful. It was mostly me being confused about what was happening around me and how to be a full participant. The yoga class I experienced had different ways of doing things than the one I normally take.
As I was taking this class, I became aware of my confusion and general discomfort, but I also became aware of the fact that I was OK with it. I might have been confused about how to get in/out of a posture, but I was ok with that. I was ok if I never fully got in a posture or had to sit out an watch for a bit. I was ok with trying to figure out how to participate, and I was ok with exploring the boundaries of what I could contribute to the class.
And as I was experiencing all this, I realized something – my being ok with discomfort has some implications for how we think about our teaching.
I do things in my classes that push on students’ comfort level all the time. Sometimes I know to expect this, and others times I am surprised when it happens. I ask students to do more than sit for a lecture, write a paper, look for “right” answers, and pass the class. I expect them to contribute – even have input on how the class is shaped – and sometimes I give very loose directions for assignments on purpose (see the Explore Project as an example).
I don’t set up assignments/experiences for students with the sole intent of making them be uncomfortable. I just recognize that some of what I do may come across as non-traditional to them (I really don’t think it’s that out there) and as a result make them uncomfortable.
Students at all levels are pretty much used to school being a passive experience. From what I can tell, they are pretty comfortable with it being passive. We have all moved through a system where we were rewarded for being passive and following the rules. If someone expects you to do something slightly left of center it can be a bit unnerving. I’ve seen students try to take an assignment and restructure it to fit in their comfortable box. Sometimes they work very hard to make it fit that box. If they meet the requirements, I let them do it. I don’t force them to engage with the discomfort, but I think it says a lot about their experiences, how they interpret them, and how they respond if something different is offered up.
On the flip side, faculty are not necessarily any better. I’ve had people say no to ideas I’ve presented that were intended to improve programs with the sole argument being they didn’t want to have to learn anything new. I’m not saying my idea would have worked – that’s not the point. But I have been waved off to do whatever I want within the confines of my own class because people were not ready/did not want to learn/were comfortable with how they did things (we’ve always done it like X!). Go do it with your own students and leave me alone is not an uncommon message to my ears.
So we all get stuck. Sometimes getting unstuck requires you to engage in a certain level of discomfort. I’ve been lucky in that my yoga practice has forced me to learn how to engage with discomfort. Well, no it didn’t. It presented me with the opportunity and at some point I started to engage with it. I’m sure I ignored it for awhile because it’s not fun. Engaging with discomfort is all kinds of not fun, but it’s how we learn. It’s how we grow.
In my teaching, I look for ways to push myself. This means that I am constantly putting myself in situations where I have no idea how things will go and yes, I am uncomfortable. As a result, my students might experience some discomfort. I can’t make them engage in it. But I hope they know that doing so is a powerful way to grow.