Commentary  Disability Discrimination

Faculty of Education Fosters an Unsafe Environment

After insomnia wrought havoc on my studies, resulting in me taking a year off from school, I decided to enroll in the Faculty of Education in 2018. I had some misgivings about my program choice because I lacked the volunteering experience that many people in the faculty have. Despite my struggles with social interactions, I planned on trudging through my major because I viewed this degree as a means of teaching abroad in a German-speaking country or the United States. Unfortunately, the time I spent in the Faculty of Education was fraught with challenges and I could not accomplish what I set out to do.

Initially, I enjoyed the time I spent in the Faculty of Education. However, as the semester progressed, I had to deal with a bevy of group projects, which made me feel isolated. I had a hard time finding anyone who wanted to work with me. Most students in my education classes would sit with their cliques and they would establish groups therefrom. Although this made group projects more difficult for me, I figured that this obstacle would not be insurmountable since most assignments were done individually.

By the midway point of my first semester, I began to question whether I had the capacity to become a teacher. Two of my education classes contributed to the fostering of such a belief. In one of my classes that touched upon the psychology of teaching, the professor of this class used the term “mental retardation” to speak about students with severe learning disabilities. Students in this class were often rowdy and would speak among themselves during the lecture; however, when he uttered “retardation,” you could have heard a pin drop. This remark caught me by surprise as I found it very unbecoming of an institution such as McGill, which I assumed would not stand for such archaic terminology. Although I am typically not a stickler for words, this term deeply hurt me. As someone who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, (a disorder often characterized as a form of autism) I found it deeply offensive that a representative of the Faculty of Education referred to students with mental and physical disabilities as “mentally retarded.” Although Asperger’s may not be as debilitating as other disabilities, it did not stop administrators and teachers from making my scholastic experience difficult by reproaching me for my body language, social skills, and shyness. The professor’s choice of words dredged up these memories and reinforced an archaic view of mental health. As a result, my deep distrust toward the Faculty of Education festered. I erroneously assumed, however, that my condition would not hinder me much in the Faculty of Education.

A few weeks after the aforementioned incident, I decided to speak up in one of my other education classes despite the fact that I often find class participation to be uncomfortable. When I did so, the professor told me that if I wanted to become a teacher, I would have to learn how to project my voice. I assured her that I would find a way to make it all work out even if speaking aloud is not my strong suit. She was unsatisfied with my response, and consequently made me stand in front of the class to read out my answer, arguing that no one heard me when I initially answered. The first time this occurred, I brushed it off, figuring it was a one-off. However, the next time I raised my hand and answered, the professor made me stand in front of the class once again. After I finished reading out my answer, my peers who were sitting at the back of the classroom began to laugh and snicker at me. It was incredibly uncomfortable. I was the only student in the class who was called out for not projecting their voice. Whenever I finished speaking, my peers just stared at me blankly and I had to make an awkward trek back to my desk as they eyed me. Although the professor’s actions may have been well-intentioned, they left me feeling isolated and alone. By the end of my classes in November, I had become completely disillusioned with the Faculty of Education. I had a couple of days before the field experience began to come to an end and I could forget about these unfortunate experiences that I had.

A red boot stomps over a file labeled education studies, several pages fall out.
Daisy Sprenger

Leading up to my field experience, I had to fill out forms and provide them to my coordinating teacher (CT) and supervisor. The form asked for the typical information that one would expect of such a document. It also included a question concerning what we would like to accomplish during the field experience. I mentioned how I wanted to assess whether teaching would be the appropriate profession for me. Regrettably, members of the Faculty of Education would later wield this very response against me in justifying some of the actions they would take against me.

The goal of the first field experience is to sit in the back of the classroom to observe the teaching methods that our CT uses and the ways in which students respond thereto. Our CT wanted us to eventually go around the class and ask the students if they needed help. I did as instructed and asked them if they required additional assistance. Most students rejected my offers of help and opened themselves up to the other two student teachers that were present in the classroom. Moreover, the students, who were (for the most part) in grade 11, already had their minds set on trade school and showed little interest in using class time to complete the assignment. From what I gathered, many students had already finished the assignment and were merely granted additional time if they needed it. Thus, I decided to step back since badgering students about their assignments would not accomplish anything.

I was the only student in the class who was called out for not projecting their voice.

That very same week, my supervisor pulled me out of class and told me that my CT complained about my seemingly flippant attitude and my body language. Earlier, I informed my supervisor that I had misgivings about the faculty and the teaching profession. My supervisor vowed to make contact with the Internship and Student Affairs Office (ISA), which, among other things, oversees conflicts that arise during field experiences. By the end of the week, she informed me that the Internship Office told her to fail me because it seemed likely that I intend on changing faculties. With two weeks remaining, I already knew that I was going to fail the class no matter what I did. The Internship Office made a concession by exempting my field experience grade from my GPA. Nevertheless, I still had to trudge through two more weeks of my field experience.

The three weeks that I spent at that high school were horrendous. My depression symptoms worsened, I could not get a good night’s rest, and I lost any motivation I had. I found it disappointing that I was called out for my body language. I made every effort to show up on time and be attentive; yet, it was not sufficient for the Faculty of Education. The complaint about my body language frustrated me because it is one of the most common difficulties that people with Asperger’s face. I did not feel comfortable revealing my condition to my supervisor based on the faculty’s stigma surrounding mental health and the supervisor’s advice of ‘’thinking happy and getting a good night’s sleep’’ as the keys to success. I did not have any doctor’s note at the time. As many know, it is epecially hard to schedule an appointment in Quebec with a doctor on short notice since clinics have to deal with a backlog of patients. I could not see my doctor in that time frame because the Internship Office maintains a strict policy on field experience attendance. In addition to this, my CT became sick midway through and did not have time to evaluate my teaching ability. Thus, I felt that the evaluation process used in my situation did not accurately gauge my skills.

Near the end of my field experience, a representative from the ISA reached out to me and let me know that the director of the undergraduate program wanted to speak to me to discuss my future in the program and clarify any doubts I had about teaching. Before I met with the director, I held out hope that I could somehow have my grade reversed. Although I wanted to change faculties, much uncertainty still lingered. My meeting with the director was brief, lasting around a minute or two. The director asked me about my thoughts on the faculty, and mentioned that if I wanted to remain in the Faculty of Education, I would have to speak to her again. The next thing I knew, the meeting concluded and the director handed me off to my academic advisor.

Instead of providing a safe and caring environment, my supervisor ostracized me and the Internship Office dealt with me as if I was some troublemaker wreaking havoc.

The Winter 2019 semester frustrated me because I received a message from the Internship and Student Affairs Office, which warned me of being placed under academic probation. In my interactions with my field experience supervisor and the undergraduate director, I was not made aware that “failing a field experience” would lead to academic probation. This angered me greatly because I had a 4.0 GPA at that point and I was being punished by the Faculty for a field experience grade that I believed to be unwarranted. I felt slighted by the Faculty of Education because all the hard work I put into my Education classes appeared to be for naught. A year later, I am still unable to sign up for a full course load even though the Arts Faculty, on their end, did not carry over the probationary status.

A hand is coming out of a book, dangling a diploma. Six different hands reach out to try to grab it. A pile of books with eyes watches the scene.
Daisy Sprenger

By the time the Fall 2019 semester rolled around, I managed to successfully transfer to the Faculty of Arts. I had an unfortunate encounter with a representative of the Faculty of Arts who suggested that I should drop out of McGill if I do not enjoy it. Consequently, I went to the Internships Office to set up an appointment with an education career advisor, whereupon I was informed that the faculty no longer has one. After perusing the Faculty of Education’s website, I decided to launch an appeal in regard to the field experience grade. By the time the appeal deadline came around, I still did not have the proper medical documentation to prove my diagnosis and my first appointment with the OSD happened after the deadline. When I first met with the OSD, I was not granted any accommodations because they argued that I did not need accommodations based on the grades I received. I would only receive my accommodations in October of 2019, 7 months after the appeal deadline. If I wanted to be readmitted into the Faculty of Education, it seemed like the only course of action was to meet with the director of the undergraduate program. I approached the ISA twice about meeting with the director and on the second occasion I did so, the receptionist became annoyed at me, asking “What do you want now?’’ as soon as I approached the ISA desk.

My run-ins with administrators from the Faculty of Education illustrate a general apathy toward students with disabilities. It appears that many representatives of the Faculty of Education just do not understand what mental health disorders entail. Instead of providing a safe and caring environment, my supervisor ostracized me and the Internship Office dealt with me as if I was some troublemaker wreaking havoc on the Faculty of Education. When I interacted with the director, she brushed off my concerns about the faculty. She was more eager to make jokes about the pile of paperwork on her desk than to listen to my concerns. If the director is so callous toward students, she should delegate her responsibilities to someone who can empathize with students’ struggles.

Although Asperger’s may not be as debilitating as other disabilities, it did not stop administrators and teachers from making my scholastic experience difficult by reproaching me for my body language, social skills, and shyness.

When I was in the Faculty of Education, it seemed like their priority was to heavily advertise their newly created Pédagogie de l’Immersion Français, with some teachers going as far as to name drop it in the middle of lectures. Trying to increase enrollment in a new program is fine and dandy, but how about addressing some of the issues that plague the faculty as a whole? The creation of a Local Wellness Advisor for Education students is a welcome addition, but by the time of its implementation, I already had one foot out the door. When I was struggling in the faculty, I had no one to speak to. I am not calling for the teachers with whom I had negative experiences to lose their jobs, because I empathize with the struggle of losing one’s livelihood. However, I do believe that both the teachers and supervisors in the faculty should undergo some type of sensitivity training and perhaps the Local Wellness Advisor could help therewith.

My run-ins with administrators from the Faculty of Education illustrate a general apathy toward students with disabilities.

For those who are unaware, the Faculty of Education has a restrictive readmission policy, which stipulates that any student who fails a field experience must be removed from the faculty. To gain readmission, the student must convince the undergraduate program director to be allowed back in the faculty. Considering my interactions with the Internships and Student Affairs Office, I do not feel comfortable belonging to such a faculty if such insensitive administrators are at the helm of the undergraduate program. What is stopping another supervisor from singling me out again? What types of measures can a student take if a supervisor or CT discriminates based on one’s mental health? I can no longer trust the Faculty of Education’s judgment after their egregious mishandling of my situation.

The aim of my article is to beget drastic changes in regard to how the Faculty of Education deals with students with mental health disorders. I shared my experience with a professor of mine and she told me that she knows of other students who have felt mistreated by the Faculty of Education on the grounds of their mental health conditions. This shows me that the Faculty of Education promotes a culture based on a great misunderstanding of mental health. It is likely that other students from the Faculty of Education have experienced discrimination based on their mental health and have not shared their experiences because they feel that their concerns are not acknowledged by the administration. I encourage students who have suffered through similar situations in the Faculty of Education to share their experiences. This, I believe, is the first step in tackling the despicable behavior that those with mental health disorders are subjected to in the Faculty of Education.

 

To the Faculty of Education and the Internship and Student Affairs Office,

I always felt isolated and unwelcome in the Faculty of Education. When I was struggling through my first semester, I had no one to confide in because there was no one I could trust. It speaks poorly of your faculty that a professor felt emboldened to openly use terms such as “mental retardation.” Moreover, it was disappointing that I was often pulled from class during the field experience as if I were some mischiefmaker because a coordinating teacher misinterpreted my body language. People with Asperger’s struggle with body language and social interactions, but this does not infringe on their ability to teach effectively. I think that administrators, professors, and field experience supervisors of the Faculty of Education should undergo sensitivity training to address their prejudices against mental health conditions. Representatives of the Faculty of Education should be held accountable for their words and actions. especially if it leads to a mischaracterization of mental health. The Faculty of Education should not excuse the actions of the professors I mention in this article because of their tenure or past experience as Dean. You cannot feign ignorance when it comes to mental health because it invalidates your goal of providing an inclusive environment for all students of the Faculty of Education.