Some Learning is Uncomfortable
Written by Jim Knight.

Life is, or should be, a struggle: Comfort should make us uncomfortable; contentment should make us discontented” –George Sheehan

A few months back, Jenny and I had a conversation about how we are raising our kids. We were direct and honest about our strengths and weaknesses, so the conversation was pretty raw. Jenny and I rarely argue, but when we talked about parenting, I was on the edge of my chair because I felt like the conversation could break down at any moment. When you talk about how you parent, you really get to the heart of who you are, and it is personal. Criticize the way I parent, and you criticize who I am as a person.

The conversation felt scary, and I have to admit I would have been happy to skip it. I didn’t like the way I felt when I really looked honestly at what I do as a parent. Yet, the conversation was important. I learned some things about myself that I needed to learn, and Jenny and I are more together about parenting now thanks to our talk. Something else I learned is that I had to feel uncomfortable if I was going to learn. I wouldn’t have changed a thing if I hadn’t talked truthfully about my own current reality.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that conversation since then, and I wonder how much my experience applies to professional learning in schools. Teaching, of course, is almost as personal as parenting. As Parker Palmer wrote in The Courage to Teach, “teaching is a daily act in vulnerability… The things I teach are things I care about, and what I care about helps define my selfhood.” And because teaching “defines my selfhood,” I sometimes avoid the uncomfortable conversations even though the uncomfortable conversations are probably most important.

This doesn’t mean that principals and coaches should make it their goal to always make others uncomfortable by boldly saying whatever is on their mind. If Jenny had just listed all the things I need to fix, I wouldn’t have learned anything about parenting. I would have just been mad and not listened at all. What counts is that we build real trust with others so that the uncomfortable conversations can happen naturally.

Building trust is hard work, but without trust, we never get down to talking about what really matters. And talking about what really matters is what will help our students.


  1. Daniel T. Pollitt

    Glad to have you back, Jim. Good stuff.

  2. Tara Waudby

    What a great analogy between parenting and teaching. Yes, both are intensely personal, and yes, learning is hard. We just ran our last faculty meeting on the notion of cognitive dissonance and how we want to move from congenial relationships (based on politeness and agreement) to collegial relationships (based on growth, which may require respectful disagreement). We had small group discussions along the way and some people learned things that they previously hadn’t understood (and therefore judged). Thanks for this analogy. We will use it as we continue our discussions as a faculty.

    • Jim Knight

      Thanks Tara. Please keep me posted. I’m wondering if one way to have these discussions is to work on detachment. I’m going to play around with that idea.

      • Tara Waudby

        Hi Jim. The recipe for difficult conversations seems to be dispassionate disengagement. Perhaps the same would work here.

  3. Jim Knight

    Thanks Dan. I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea. I’m really wondering how often we miss the chance to learn just because we don’t want to feel uncomfortable.

  4. Karen

    Teaching, like parenting, is very personal. Yet, if we do not get out of our comfort zone; if we don’t challenge ourselves as professionals, then not only do we become stagnant, so does our teaching. In turn, the learning of our students suffers. In a relationship of trust (teacher-coach), the environment is such that allows for safely getting out of our comfort zone and reflecting on what we do as educators to better enhance student learning. As we grow to a point where we can say “what so I ttruly believe and how can I make a difference in teaching?” our students will thrive because of our willingness to reflect and be open to change. Thanks for a thought provoking post, Jim!

  5. Tina

    All learning is uncomfortable and personal. You are forcing yourself to enter new and undefined territory. Such a journey always requires trust – one of the most overlooked keys to a successful student/teacher relationship. Thanks for putting it into easy to relate to terms. Now to put it into play in every American classroom…

  6. Jim Knight

    I like your idea Tina. I think we can do it one classroom at a time.


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