Dear Internships & Student Affairs Office of the Faculty of Education,
I just experienced my personal hell, and we need to talk about it.
Before I tell you my story, I want you to know that I love teaching. I have always wanted to be a teacher; in fact, I was overjoyed when I found out at which school I would be completing my third student teaching practicum. I was so excited to learn with my students, to meet the staff, and to engage with the school community. This excitement, however, was also accompanied by anxiety. Student teachers can be placed in vulnerable situations while on their field experiences; there is a strong, uneven power dynamic between the student teacher and the cooperating teacher (CT) that they work under, and this can sometimes lead to harmful, sticky situations.
I was placed in a classroom where I felt unsafe and was always on edge. I was paired with a CT – in a school that I will not name – who had a very different approach than I did, to put it lightly. Over the span of the semester, I witnessed inappropriate conduct toward students, hateful conversations about students and student teachers, and experienced racism. As a person of colour, I felt extremely vulnerable, helpless, and isolated. Ultimately, I felt that there was an absence of empathy and a lack of understanding from McGill staff in my program – people that I wanted to trust and people that I was told would support me.
Over the course of 15 weeks, I heard my CT refer to her students as “fuck face” and mimic their voices in an insulting and demeaning manner. I heard this teacher scream and yell at her students in a voice louder than I could ever have imagined. When students would cry in front of this teacher, she would look at me and say, “I am not dealing with this,” with her legs and arms crossed as she sat at her desk, rolling her eyes. Looking at her students, she’d say, “I don’t care if you cry – it’s not my problem.”
I was told that talking about it with others would make it worse, and that there was nothing I could do.
I felt my students become increasingly anxious and scared of this teacher. And I was too. At lunchtime, my CT would complain to me about her past student teachers; in fact, one day, she looked up some of these past student teachers on Facebook and started making fun of their profile pictures with other staff members. I was swept with rage. However, I told myself to deal with these frustrating emotions quietly and discreetly in the interest of keeping my placement at the school.
When I tried to speak to my supervisor from McGill about my concerns, I was cut off and told that this CT was “dynamic” and I was “quiet,” and that if I wanted to do well, I needed to be less quiet and try harder to be louder. My concerns about my CT’s conduct with regard to her students and student teachers were ignored and not taken seriously by my supervisor, so I then decided to try speaking to the professors teaching other courses in which I was enrolled while on my placement. I was quickly told that I needed to keep quiet and “just get through it.” I was told that talking about it with others would make it worse, and that there was nothing I could do. I felt defeated. I tried to take this advice and brush it off, telling myself that the best I could do was to count down the days until my student teaching placement was over.
However, during the last day of my student teaching placement, I experienced a conversation that made me absolutely livid. My CT asked me – while the students were in the classroom – “which students will you not miss when you leave?” When I answered honestly, “I have never thought of that before. I am going to miss all of my students,” she ignored me and began to write furiously on a piece of paper. After a few minutes, she showed me her paper and said, “This is my list. Are any of these kids on yours?”
I felt like there was no one like me – a person of colour – who could listen and support me through my student teaching placement.
I immediately noticed one thing about her list: every single person on it was just like me. They were all: a) female and b) people of colour.
This was not a coincidence.
When the students were out for recess, my CT started listing past students she had taught who also were on this list. And, much to my disgust, she noted which of these students were immigrants. Thinking of this makes me nauseous. It is revolting that an educator, someone who should have the interest and well-being of her students at heart, would speak about these students in such a hateful and prejudiced way.
Now, before you say anything, let me be very clear: yes, I should have said something. This is not okay and this teacher obviously should not be teaching.
But I didn’t say anything, and I didn’t do anything.
I didn’t act because I feared I would not be believed. Because I didn’t think people would understand what I was going through. Because there was no witness in the room and my CT’s words had more power than mine. Because I was afraid that my CT would accuse me of lying and fail me on my placement. Because I felt like there was no one like me – a person of colour – who could listen and support me through my student teaching placement.
The fears that led to this hesitation were not baseless; my previous concerns about my CT had been ignored. Why would I expect a different reaction to these new concerns? So, I did not even bother speaking to my supervisor or my professors about the racism. I kept quiet about my concerns as I did not want someone to tell me that I was “making a big deal” out of something that “is not a problem,” and that “it’s just better to keep quiet about this.”
This needs to change. It is no exaggeration when I say that there is an urgent need for professors in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education to be equipped with the resources and tools to support students of colour in the program. This begins with honouring – not dismissing – our stories and sitting through the discomfort with us. This means that our supervisors and professors must listen to our concerns and not brush them off – even if these concerns may seem insignificant to them – so that if we are in situations where we feel discriminated against or unsafe, we know that we can trust our supervisors and professors to help us. We must have staff in the department who understand and acknowledge the vulnerabilities student teachers face in their field experiences and who are willing to work through the ugly and the difficult sides of these experiences with us. Because I do not want to do this alone. I cannot do this alone.
The situation as it stands is just not good enough. The circumstances I experienced while student teaching are not acceptable.
I hope that no one is ever put in a situation similar to the one that I experienced. I hope that you can use my experience as a catalyst for serious change in the department and work with staff so that all students feel supported, represented, and safe.
A student of colour who hopes for change