It may surprise you to learn that I've never "come out" in any of my classes, and certainly not at the beginning of a new school term.
But yesterday, the first day of school, I did. I've never done it before. Here's what happened.
My class began at 8 a.m. It's a double-period class. I arrived at the Newnham campus of Seneca College more than an hour early, at about 6:55 a.m. I knew had a tiny class – with only nine students registered. If I was lucky, maybe six would show up.
8 a.m. classes are loathed and shunned by students. They're never awake at 8 a.m. If they take an 8 a.m. class, usually it's because they need it and it's the only one that fits into their timetables.
Naturally, I was nervous. I always am on the first day – and tomorrow, I'll have another "first day" at another campus. So I'm nervous again, right now.
Yesterday, I was wondering exactly what I going to do with such a tiny group. I was anxious, too. I wanted to make a good first impression. So, I was up until close to 1 a.m. on Monday morning preparing and twigging my lesson plan. Then the alarm went off at 5 a.m. yesterday morning. I was running on raw energy. No gas.
My husband teaches at Humber and was dropping me off en route to his Lakeshore Campus a full 50 kilometres from where we live.
Was I tired? Not until the class ended. I was too excited at the prospect of meeting the students who will be my top priority for the next 13 weeks. I treat my classroom as a community and my job is to do everything I can to ensure the members of this community are successful and leave my course with invaluable Leadership skills and an understanding of the process of leadership -- grounded in communication, teamwork, self-awareness. If all goes well, this course can be life-changing through the Community Service they are required to complete over the term.
I teach an elective, a Gen Ed in the School of English and Liberal Studies. It can be a little precarious at the beginning of term. Students often shop around during the first two weeks of classes before deciding which course they want to commit to. It's a bit of a popularity contest, though I've learned not to take it personally. Yesterday, with only nine students registered, I was especially worried. I didn't want to lose them especially because my class is action-oriented, filled with activities. The more students, the better.
The course I teach is called "Leadership in Society" -- subtitled "for college students who want to make a difference."
Leadership is a process. Leaders are not born, they're made. Leadership is all about relationships. I didn't want to lose any of the few students I had. (At Markham Campus, where I also teach this course, I have about 31 students registered. I'm over the moon – but who knows how many will stay with me.)
I was asked to develop this course which combines leadership training through community service and experiential learning because of my lifelong history of volunteer work in the community and my mental health advocacy. It's a tall order, but since I started to develop it during the Fall of 2007, it's been an extraordinary and steep learning curve for me.
Towards the end of the class, we were sitting around in a sharing circle, and I asked the seven students who made it to class why they decided to enroll in this course. "If you took it because it fit into your timetable, that's okay. You can tell us," I said. "You can be honest."
I explained that "Leadership is all about relationships and honesty is vital. Along with integrity and ethics, both part of the Relational Model of Leadership we're going to learn along with the Social Change Model."
Surprisingly, for the first time in three terms, after teaching six different classes of this course, no one took it because it fit their schedules, they said. These are amazing students. Several of them already do community service on a regular basis. Others want to learn leadership for the right reasons – not so they can boss people around. That has been a motivating reason in the past. This term, my students want to take a more active role in their communities through leadership training.
I was over the moon. Teaching a Gen Ed course means you draw students from the entire college, so in this class I have students studying Accounting, Accounting and Finance, International Transportation and Customs, Human Resources and Early Childhood Education. They're also from all over the world, multicultural, delightfully diverse. You have no idea how fascinating this is for all of us because throughout the term we learn to understand each other's cultures. It's such a rich learning experience. At the same time, you never know how these cultures traditionally view people with mental health difficulties, like me.
We were sitting in close together. It was very intimate. Finally, at the end, when my turn came, I explained how this course came into being. I said I developed it because I'm a mental health advocate – that's part of my community service. I told them I have a mental health difficulty and speaking out is the best way for people to learn, understand and be more enlightened about people, like me, with mental health issues. More accepting. More empathetic. (I always show my students my coloured hearing aids, too. A little hearing loss advocacy never hurts, especially because so many young people are permanently damaging their hearing by listening to loud music.)
They listened intensely. Several nodded their heads in agreement. No one seemed shocked or upset. No one ran screaming from the room.
Telling them had felt like a natural thing for me to do. I told them briefly about my life since attending Seneca in 1969 and graduating in 1971 with The Seneca Cup, my education at Queen's University and at Ryerson, my 30 years at The Toronto Sun and coming back to Seneca – full-circle. I mentioned my work as a member of Seneca's Alumni Board. I explained that when they graduated, they would automatically be Alumni. Then, I told them about this blog, Coming Out Crazy at The Star.
I couldn't believe how receptive they were.
And guess what? I just checked my class list. They're all still with me and I now have 15 students registered instead of nine.
Will I disclose in the same way tomorrow, with 31 students in my class? I don't know. It all depends on how I feel and how receptive they seem. Every class has its own culture.
But if someone asks me why I teach this course, I'll be as honest as I feel I can be.