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Using shame as a teaching method isn’t going to fly anymore

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Last week, my professor shamed our class for twenty minutes straight as he went through our midterm. Most of us had done very poorly or failed. His tone was rude, disapproving, and condescending. I could feel his spite; I could see the lack of respect he had for us in his eyes. He even scoffed at students as he plopped their marked tests down on the desk and called individuals out in front of the class for not having studied certain sections.

I, like many others, had bombed that midterm. No, I didn’t study enough, and yes, I should have known the material. But I’ve also been sick this semester, and I could accept the failure as part and parcel of being a student with a mental illness. Sometimes, you don’t do your best, for one reason or another. But I have concerns about my professor’s scornful response.

In 2016, the National College Health Association surveyed Canadian post-secondary students about their mental health experiences and reported that, in the past 12 months, 44 per cent of respondants had felt so depressed that it was difficult to function, 2.1 per cent had attempted suicide, and a further 13 per cent reported contemplating suicide. Earlier this month, a student at the University of Toronto committed suicide the third person to do so at the university since last June.

With statistics like this, it makes sense to address the issue of mental health.

Most universities have increased mental health support services and encourage awareness of mental health. Some professors have become more aware as well. UFV has been taking steps towards making the campus mental health friendly. Bell Let’s Talk Day is always hyped up and we have a resident therapy dog, along with a Mental Health Awareness Club. These are all really great things, but there needs to be a deeper change in how we operate and treat people, not just mental health friendliness.

We live in a society that is constantly telling us we are not good enough and that we need to do more. Nowhere is this more apparent than at universities. Part of mental health awareness should include training professors and staff at universities on how to respond to and help students who are struggling with it. Universities are breeding grounds for mental illness and suicide. Many students are away from home, struggling with money, jobs, relationships, major career decisions, and more.

This is why it’s a problem when professors use shame to “encourage” their students to do better. The effectiveness of shame as a motivation tactic and its negative consequences on human development have been debated in the business, psychology,and teaching community over the years. Some say that shame can motivate people to better themselves others say that shame can be internalized and result in avoidance tactics, withdrawal, and psychological problems. With this in mind, having staff that are trained to recognize mental health issues and teach with mental illness in mind is important in fostering a healthy learning environment.

According to The Mental Health Commission of Canada, “The highest rate of mental health problems and illnesses is among young adults ages 20 to 29, a time when young people are generally beginning post-secondary education and careers.”

As a PSA to professors out there: The Mental Health Commision of Canada reported that 1,200,000 people in Canada between the ages of 20-29 were suffering from mental health issues in 2011. So, it is safe to assume that a significant portion of your class probably suffers from a mental illness, whether they’ve told you or not. If a student seems like they’re falling asleep or gazing off into dreamland, it could be indicative of something else they’re struggling with. Students fail tests and don’t hand stuff in; you don’t have to praise them anyway or ignore the failure, or even be overly accommodating, just don’t be rude or condescending about it by singling out and insulting students or acting offended by poor performance. Students don’t need that.

As for students, don’t be afraid to take time for your mental health. If you fail an assignment, it’s okay. You are still worthy and valuable. Your GPA can take a hit and bounce back, but it’s a lot harder to bounce back from a serious bought with mental illness. Take care of your mind and self.

If you’re really struggling, don’t feel that it is illegitimate. Register with UFV’s Centre for Accessibility and they will ensure that you’re accommodated and will even communicate with your professors for you. Don’t be afraid to reach out to Student Services for counselling, make an appointment, or tell them that it’s an emergency situation. Crisis hotlines are numerous: check out the Fraser Valley Crisis Line, 1-877-820-7444; the Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433); or for the Crisis Text Line, just text HOME to 686868 and a responder will reply and continue texting with you until you are calm.

Image: Kayt Hine/The Cascade

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