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Commentary: Educating requires balance of comforting and afflicting

March 04, 2014|By Joylene Wagner | By Joylene Wagner

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 effect 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 students and teachers.

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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 socioeconomic status or limited English skills were sometimes left too long in English language learner classes or non-college track classes. They were assumed to be not 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.

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