Being OK With Discomfort

For many, many years now I have had a regular yoga practice. Having a yoga practice has had a tremendous impact on my life and helped me to understand myself in nearly every facet. Recently, 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 and 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.

comfort zoneStudents 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 my self 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.

Comments 6

  • This idea of discomfort is both wonderful and terrifying. The older I get, the more I notice both sides of the same coin.

    Jumping off a cliff into the river this summer I thought, “This is so exciting,” and at the same time my brain was screaming, “You are SO stupid.” After I came up from the water, I was proud of myself for trying. When I jumped the second time, the voices lowered their volume and it felt like I was getting comfortable.

    As an elementary school teacher, I often notice students’ voices in their behavior. It shows up when they are not doing the work, afraid to try, worried about something, or not really interested in the activity. I am not sure they have the language to articulate their discomfort.

    I am curious about this idea of discomfort because it influences all learning. How do we recognize our own discomfort? How do we help other’s recognize their discomfort? How do we support student discomfort? How do we manage our own discomfort? In schools, I see that teachers are often scared and worried and really afraid to be in discomfort. I think finding the answer to these questions could help our schools grow.

    • For me, I think I have been able to recognize my own discomfort through meditation and yoga. It was through those practices that I learned to pay attention to myself and acknowledge what was going on within. But it took me years to get to that point.

      In class, I like to make it explicit that you might hit points of discomfort and that this is normal and to be expected. As a teacher, I can generally tell if it’s a good idea to give you a nudge or if it’s best to leave you alone to sort things out based on how you respond to me or an experience within a given moment. Sometimes, when students say, “But I can’t do that!” it’s not because they literally cannot do the thing. It’s more of an internal response – they feel confused, uncomfortable, overwhelmed. So if I can, I will respond with, “That’s ok. You don’t have to do that,” and show them an option or ask them to tell me what they think they can do. Sometimes we just baby step it. As a teacher, I know that when students experience discomfort and express it in my general direction it’s never personal. I think it helps to know that.

      • I’ve been able to identify what’s going on inside me for a long time. The problem is that the outside world says, “You shouldn’t feel that way.”

        As I get older I am becoming more brave. I am saying, “You don’t get to tell me how I should feel.” Still people do it.

        Teachers face judgement all the time from many sources. When I can shut out the noise, it helps. When I can’t, I struggle. I see so many teachers doing the same things. So many teachers that fall into two general camps. 1. They run around panicked trying to please everyone. 2. They don’t care what anyone thinks and just keep doing the same things over and over. Living in the area between the two camps is the best place, but it ain’t always easy.

  • Well, people will probably always try to tell each other how to be in one way or another. Can’t control that. We can only control our response.Teachers DO face judgement all the time in ways that I don’t think are productive or helpful. If you fall between those two camps, what does that space look like for you?

  • […] what do you do when your students express this kind of discomfort? Well, if you’re me, you feel pretty ok about it. However, I recognize that it’s an unpleasant position to be in as a learner. But […]