• Cassie Smith

Comfort is Overrated

In my previous blog post, I recounted a situation involving a colleague. During class, this colleague tried to navigate a situation in which her students attempted to shut down the conversation using a series of ‘alternative facts.’

The students succeeded. My colleague capitulated to their perspectives; she accepted that the connection she was trying to make between the Founding Fathers and today’s political landscape was lost.

Every teacher I know, me included, has been there and done that in terms of missing the mark with a lesson plan. In our conversation, my colleague wanted to know what she could have done differently in this case. Rather than answer her question, I asked, “What is your teaching goal? What do you want your teaching to do for your students?”

Without hesitation, she answered, “I want my teaching to make them think.”

“Even when the teaching makes them uncomfortable?”

I explained to her what I meant with the term uncomfortable: a feeling of dis-ease or stress. My understanding of comfort and classroom spaces is indebted to Aisha Wilks, who discusses this in detail in a webinar “Where Do You Know From? Antiracist Pedagogies.”

“Yes, even when it makes them uncomfortable” my colleague said, but not with the same degree of certainty. Then she hedged, “I want my students to be comfortable in the classroom. How can they learn when they aren’t comfortable?”

I pointed out that we learn all the time when we are uncomfortable. When we take a car out onto a busy interstate for the first time and maybe every time afterwards. When we’re lying awake at night in a camping tent and hear the howls of coyotes off in the distance. When we move away from home to go to college. First dates. Oh my how uncomfortable are first dates! And travel abroad, when we are thrust into a new environment to experience a way of life foreign to our own. All of these examples evoke a stress response in us (fear, anxiety, depression, inadequacy). We feel uneasy.

Many times we move forward in the face of what makes us uncomfortable because we know that there is great potential for reward on the other side of that discomfort. We gain a sense of freedom once we master the interstate; we enjoy a commune with Nature after we master outdoor survival skills. First dates introduce us to our soul mates. College brings us closer in touch with our social and intellectual selves; we develop independence, not to mention job skills. When we travel abroad, we learn just how small the world is; it seems a less scary place, and we are better able to find our place in it.

Those situations that make us uncomfortable oftentimes yield the most profound learning experiences. Tense moments in the classroom can work the same way if we make it clear to students from the outset that there is great reward awaiting on the other side if they are willing to lean into the discomfort.

Consider the stakes. If we back off right at the moment when students are confronted with an opportunity for deeper engagement, they miss out on profound learning experiences. We do, too.

Bottom line: Comfort is over-rated. Especially when the cost is critical thinking.

So, sometimes knowing what to say is a matter of being willing to move forward in the face of what makes us uncomfortable.

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