In my experience as a student, I have never met a course instructor who is as committed as Dr. Lee Airton to creating a safe and inviting classroom community. Each of our sessions started with a "highlight" and a "lowlight", where we spent the first bits of class just talking about our week. I admit that it felt odd at first, but then I came to appreciate this part of the course. It was a great way to get to know my classmates and to feel (positively) vulnerable in an academic space. Ultimately, this approach set the tone for discussions in the class that were non-judgmental yet critical. Dr. Lee Airton is incredibly intelligent, and puts so much passion and engagement into what they teach. More importantly, they make the effort to get to know their students not just as researchers, but as individuals. The course content felt purposeful as a result! If you are in the Faculty of Education as a graduate student, I highly recommend taking a class with Dr. Airton.
For me, mental health is not only an aspect of each individual’s health - it is a practice. This is not the same as saying that a person just needs to do things for their own mental health. In fact, I think that this kind of individualized mental health messaging is often unhelpful and contributes to stigma. I think of mental health instead as a collective practice: something that communities or groups of people who share space, including classrooms, do together (or not).
When I started teaching grad courses at Queen’s in July 2017, I began a practice of inviting each person (up to twenty including me) to share a highlight or lowlight of the time since we were last together. I fought with myself each week about how much time this should take. For the first few years, I planned for fifteen minutes as I was eager to get into the material. This was never enough time, and when we went over it each class I would well up with anxiety. But I felt the great benefit particularly of students sharing the lowlights of being a graduate student, and seeing that they are not alone in experiencing some negative impacts of grad school and its customary demands to put academic career preparation above everything else: caring for family, spending time with family and friends; practicing spirituality; being outside, etc. These messages come from everyone, everywhere at different times, regardless of our best intentions, and add up to a culture that is conducive to ill-being. I now plan for a full half hour such that 1/6 of my grad course time is dedicated to the collective practice of mental health: to making visible the ways in which things are hard, and affirming that this is deeply shared, understood, and expected for all of us sometimes (myself included). I do this, I hope, by sharing lowlights of my own, and explicitly calling for lowlights when we begin each time, reaffirming that they are as welcome and as supportive of others as sharing a highlight. By contrast, if a check-in only invited happy stories—whether by design or because of implicit instructor messaging—I would see this as enacting mental health stigma, not collectively practicing mental health.
While my undergrad courses are too large to do what I described above, I carry themes of the highlight/lowlight practice into my larger courses. Namely, I endeavour to support student mental health by first and foremost being honest about who is expected here, in the university, and who the university is still working to expect. Education degree programs, in particular, have long struggled to diversify applicant pools and graduates, as well as set graduates from historically marginalized groups on a path to a long and successful career in education.
As a teacher educator who sees mental health as a collective practice, I do not delimit my sphere of ethical responsibility to what happens in my classes. I believe people in my role are directly implicated in the retention, well-being and success of students who are people of colour, Indigenous, non-heterosexual, gender non-conforming, transgender, immigrants, speakers of languages other than English, parents, first generation and working class backgrounds, and/or who have disabilities, chronic illnesses or mental health issues, regardless of official university recognition. I enact this commitment, to the maximum extent possible based on my own always-changing capacities, by building rapport with my students; immediately learning, correctly pronouncing and seamlessly using everyone’s name; naming and validating students’ experiences of microaggression – inside and outside of the university – including as sources of expertise for social justice teaching practice; de-stigmatizing the common sore spots and hard times of learning to teach; affirming doubts about whether one wants to be a classroom teacher as okay and welcome; naming each student as the expert of what they need; and having authentic conversations about teacher education, including professionalism discourses and power dynamics that disproportionately affect students under-represented in the profession. In other words, I endeavour to practice mental health by affirming to students that this is hard, and not because you are the problem; rather, this is hard because society and the university have more work to do.
--- Dr. Lee Airton