On the Power of Discomfort at Schools


I’ve been thinking a great deal about discomfort lately. Specifically, I’ve been pondering the changes we make at schools that cause discomfort in the majority of the school community. If a change is made that causes discomfort in the majority of students, parents, and teachers, is it a change that is worth making?

My answer is yes… if that change is based on sound ethical principles. And those principles are centered around human rights, dignity, and what’s best for our children. But this is exactly where things get murky for some.

Take the integration of transgender students at our schools as an example. If we follow our principles, we should acknowledge that these students may not want to be constrained by their birth name and gender. They may want to dress and be addressed in ways more suited to their preferred identity. And they may want to use the bathrooms and change rooms of their choice. (And not necessarily a ‘special’ room allocated just for them.) Depending on the school, this can cause a great deal of consternation inside the school and in the wider school community. What about the discomfort of the majority of students and teachers and parents at these kids using the ‘wrong’ bathrooms? Or being called by the ‘wrong’ gender-assigned names and pronouns? Or wearing the ‘wrong’ uniform? The comfort of the many, some argue, trumps the comfort of the few.

Not so, say I. The discomfort brought about by ethically based changes are only ever temporary. This is so because this unease is rooted in traditional and entrenched ways of doing things. A few years on, and we become comfortable again. What was ‘wrong’ is now right. Society progresses. And just because the majority may be against a ‘controversial’ change, if it is based on sound principles, this should never be a reason not to make it.

Schools must be microcosms of the world we want to see. They must be hotbeds of social change. We do not only prepare our children to find their place in the world, but to make it better. Children should not simply inherit our biases and traditions, they should challenge them, and in so doing, they should become active participants in the world, rather being than victims of it. And part of this process is modeling being kinder, more tolerant, and more accepting of diversity. Growth and change are often uncomfortable, but this is how we progress – not just as individuals, but as societies.

The history of education is infused with these discomfort-inducing, principle-based revolutions. Think about how ‘uncomfortable’ racial integration was in many countries. And what about how uncomfortable so many societies have been about having girls in the same schools as boys (and still are in many countries and segments of the populace). And it is only recently that schools have started acknowledging and appreciating openly gay students – although this is still a huge issue in many schools around the world. As is openly atheist or agnostic students.

woman holding we don t have time signage
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And there are more changes to come. If schools do their jobs right, young people are and always should be at the forefront of social revolutions.

Already students around the world are starting to agitate against uniforms and dress codes (especially those that discriminate against hairstyles and individual expression through clothing), against outmoded syllabi and institutional symbols, against environmental despoliation, against the culture of violence and intimidation in society, and against inequality in whatever form.

The struggle will continue. And so will the discomfort. There are more revolutions coming. But the discomfort will pass. And we will grow because of it. And the world will be a better place.

people in parade with multicolored placard
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