Making my Students Uncomfortable

There is that fine line we walk in my liberal arts college. We want to challenge our often-sheltered students to see the world in a new way, to explore their own privilege and prejudices, and to do things that make them feel uncomfortable. But, and I speak for myself here although others must experience the same thing, I don’t want to push them so far that I alienate them. As a pre-tenure faculty member at a teaching institution, alienating students would not end well for me. And it just seems like a bad idea to push away students when my real goal is to draw them in, draw them in to conversations, to ideas, and to self-reflection.

In my first-year language classes, we come back frequently to the idea that race and class are socially constructed and rooted in structural and historical issues. We use our limited language skills to name and describe the categories, structures, and historical events that unite and divide us. I think Paulo Freire would be pleased.

This week, while talking about skin color specifically, I sensed very deeply that a couple of kids in the class were uncomfortable. Lots of staring at the shoes. No eye contact. Not what I intended.

While I think for the most part my students do a good job tackling difficult topics, I am actively looking for the best ways to make my students feel uncomfortable without pushing them so far that they disengage. So, here is some weekend reading for me as I mull over my dilemma: Critical Pedagogies and Language Learning

So, my question is, ultimately, how uncomfortable should my students feel? And how do I accurately gauge what they are experiencing?


5 thoughts on “Making my Students Uncomfortable

  1. I realize that this post is over a year old, but I think it’s a perennial issue. Working with high schoolers, I walk a fine line in my classroom between complacence and too much discomfort as well. Finding the right point where students are being pushed beyond their comfort zones, but not so far that they disengage, is such a difficult and important part of teaching world cultures! I feel very lucky when students tell me how they are feeling, but I know that many students are too shy to tell us directly how they feel about different issues we discuss. What have you found helps students feel safe to talk about how they feel? How have you gauged how far to push your students beyond their comfort zones?

  2. Dear Stacey,

    Hi, this is Naomi, the student teacher you met at the MIWLA. I know this is an older post, but I think it’s a perennial issue. As a high school teacher, I also walk a fine line between condoning complacence and pushing my students so far outside their comfort zone that they disengage. I feel lucky when my students tell me how they feel, but I sometimes realize that I may have leaned too far in one direction or the other after the fact. I especially want to be careful because my students are minors, yet I don’t want to encourage lazy thinking. What have you found keeps you on that fine line? What should I be wary of as a beginning teacher?

    Thanks for the inspiration! Take care,


    1. Sorry for the repeat – I didn’t realize my post from yesterday was awaiting moderation, and I thought it had just failed to get posted.

  3. Hi Naomi! Sorry for the delay in responding as well! Things have been so busy on the writing front since MIWLA, I’ve been trying to keep up with my publisher’s deadlines instead of writing here. I wish I had more time!

    In any case, yes, we talked about this in the session too. You have to know your population well, know how much support you have from administration, and I would also suggest that you work with another teacher to develop materials. Doing critical pedagogy can be a minefield, so having someone else to work with and bounce ideas off of is essential! Also, giving yourself and your students a lot of grace to make mistakes and learn from them!

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