I first heard the phrase, “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” in church. A pastor used it to describe the responsibilities of church pastors. I thought it a fitting description of pastoral duties.
More recently, I learned the phrase probably originated with early 20th century humorist Finley Peter Dunne in a half-joking description of the role of a journalist. I think the phrase could be applied beneficially in education as well.
After all, when dealing with systems and programs as large and unwieldy as education in California, how we frame the conversation can have an impact on experience and outcomes. Used in reference to education, the phrase “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable” combines the desire for each student’s highest potential with the concern for the physical and emotional health of both students and teachers.
To be clear, I use “afflicted” here in as broad a sense as possible, to mean everything from lifelong physical disability to temporary and normal emotional ups and downs. In relation to students, “afflicted” could refer to the student who struggles with a new math concept, the students with low test scores in multiple subjects year after year or the 13-year-old who just had an argument with her mother and can’t think straight.
Similarly, “comfortable” in this broad sense could refer to a novice teacher who doesn’t realize his approach to teaching a math concept isn’t working or to the veteran teacher determined to teach a concept in the way she always has, despite the failing test scores of large numbers of her students.
A principal might do well to “afflict” either such teacher with the services of a mentor, who through collaboration and lesson modeling might be able to transform affliction into the comfort that comes from seeing student success.
The idea of comforting the afflicted does have its drawbacks. Before academic proficiency standards took hold and all schools were required to show academic growth, students with families of low socio-economic status or limited English skills were sometimes left too long in English language learner classes or “non-college track” classes. They were not assumed to be “college-going material.”
Similarly, special-needs children were historically isolated in classes with little hope or expectation of yearly measurable progress that could enable them to gain independence and employment as adults.
Standards helped educators and parents realize that the higher future comfort of a student’s eventual success requires the affliction of higher expectations and harder work for both students and teachers.
In reality, comfort and affliction must often be wielded together and tailored to individual needs. One student’s comfort is another’s affliction. One student might need the challenge and stimulation of a college class, while another may be suffering with one too many Advanced Placement courses. A student who’s lauded as the first in his family to go to college might need extra support when he gets there.
Fostering student success is about finding the balance between challenging students and knowing when to give them a little extra time and space.
But finding the balance to achieve success is hard. It’s hard on students and teachers, and it isn’t cheap either. Knowing and addressing individual needs takes more time than our teachers and counselors are given, more people than our school budgets currently provide.
But even short of a budgetary infusion into staffing, just the idea of education as both comfort and affliction might ameliorate the worry of some that the push to academic standards equates to standardizing students.
We’re all different and we know it. All our students are sometimes in need of comfort, sometimes a push. It’s the ongoing challenge of educators and parents, alike.
--JOYLENE WAGNER is a former member of the Glendale Unified School Board. Email her at email@example.com.