April 2, 2023: What is Wrong with Discomfort?
Here in Florida lately, there has been a lot of focus on discomfort. Our state legislature has crafted a law that essentially says that schools are not allowed to teach anything that makes a student uncomfortable.
Yes, let me say that again… as classroom teachers, we must not make students feel uncomfortable.
Teachers come into the classroom with training in content, learning theory, child development, and educational psychology. As professional educators, we embrace ongoing professional development that keeps us informed of the latest research and pedagogy, so that we are always seeking ways to improve our practice, and support our students as they grow.
While teachers do not purposefully set out to make students feel uncomfortable, I have to break the news to these legislators- anything difficult is inevitably uncomfortable. At least for a while. The entire process of learning, has discomfort built into it.
Kindergarteners learning to read have to work at it, and some may struggle, and that is uncomfortable. Fourth Graders learning long division are uncomfortable. It is hard work. Memorizing chemistry symbols, science vocabulary, or state capitals can all be uncomfortable until mastered. Running laps at physical education, and learning to read music, all potentially create discomfort. When the teacher returns an essay and asks for a rewrite to correct for proper grammar, that will absolutely cause discomfort to the student.
So I am a little confused about what I can teach, without causing anyone discomfort. The supporters of this legislation will inevitably say that they do not want schools and teachers to stop teaching reading, multiplication, or geography.
They say the law is about complex topics that have differing perspectives. Topics like slavery or colonialism. I agree. These are complex topics. And when teachers teach them, they present facts, historical documents, primary sources, and authoritative texts to help students better understand these deep and complex topics.
`Is it uncomfortable to learn about past injustices? Of course. Is it uncomfortable to feel empathy or anger when studying some historical events? Absolutely. Is it uncomfortable to learn new details that may cause us to shift our thinking? Yes. That is what education is all about.
Looking at the impact this law has already had, we can cite a college history professor who had to cancel a lecture on the Civil Rights Movement; a book about Rosa Parks that removed the word segregation; a principal who was fired because the 6th graders studying art history were exposed to a picture of Michelangelo’s David; and countless books that have been banned from classroom library shelves.
No one has been told to stop teaching reading because the struggling readers are uncomfortable. No one has been told to remove complex math concepts from their curriculum, in spite of student discomfort. Requiring students to take multiple state standardized assessments, even though this clearly causes discomfort, has not been done away with.
Perhaps then, this law is not really about discomfort as much as it is about removing anything from our public education systems that do not support the White Supremacist, Christian-Nationalist, patriarchal view of the world. Perhaps this is more about silencing voices.
Do some topics create discomfort when we are learning about them? Absolutely. Wouldn’t teaching students how to handle discomfort, rather than avoid it, be a better approach?
Teaching students how to discuss differing perspectives in a respectful way. Acknowledging the discomfort built into digging into such topics. Teaching them how to fact-check and confirm data, so that they can then analyze claims. Allowing them time, space, and support as they work to understand complex events and time periods. Providing a classroom where they can engage in meaningful and positive discussions.
As the adults in the room, it is time our legislators accept discomfort as a natural part of life and learning.