Langarans Exploring Pedagogy – Melissa’s Mea Culpa

Langarans Reflect on Pedagogy

In Langara’s Advanced Teaching Seminar, Langara instructors write a fictional story in the first person, highlighting, “some kind of ‘problem’, or challenge, or dilemma, or puzzlement” they have experienced in their teaching practice. The “story will, at some level, be a partial description of the landscape of good teaching (even if the teaching in the story itself isn’t – on the face of it – seen as ‘good’). A story is a snapshot of what good-and-improving teachers sometimes experience in their practice.” Woven informally into each story are the concepts and phrases pulled from various assigned course readings (see references).

For more information about the Advanced Teaching Seminar or to inquire about registering, e-mail Carolyn Wing, Educational Development Coordinator at TCDC (

               Melissa’s Mea Culpa

In the summer of 2017 I was given the opportunity to return to SFU and teach one of my most favourite classes – CRIM 315: Restorative Justice. First, a bit of history. This course was taught to me in my undergrad by an amazing professor who gave me the opportunity to connect my head to my heart, to explore intellectual honesty, exemplified “walking her talk”, and who was teaching about being vulnerable (CoP Document) before Brene Brown made it famous. The late Dr. Elizabeth (Liz) Elliott taught with her full heart and through her story-telling (Course Description), created a safe space for students to explore the intricacies of an incredibly complex justice system.

I then moved on to graduate school and under Liz’s supervision, became one of the teaching assistants for restorative justice. On two separate occasions, . . .

I stepped in to teach for Liz when she was diagnosed (and then re-diagnosed) with cancer. Both times I was filled with fear of being able to live up to Liz’s reputation and hoped that my passion and excitement for the material would outshine my relative inexperience in teaching. This was most certainly a steep learning curve, but a valuable one.

Fast-forward to the May 2017. I have the chance to teach CRIM 315 back at SFU, in the same lecture theatre that I took the same class from Liz waaaaay back in my undergrad. The giant lecture theatre of 100 students concerned me with regard to my ability to connect with the students in a meaningful way, after teaching for several years in classrooms of 40 students at Langara. What worried me most is that my connection to the course (and Liz) is very emotional and I was struggling to find a way share this in my lecture while still having a clear sense of purpose (Brookfield Excerpts) and an organizing vision of where [I was] going and why [I was] going there (Brookfield Excerpts). I wanted the students to FEEL the material and the importance of reconnecting to people through our shared humanity (something that is lost in our systems of justice in most places around the world). Through my personal experiences and stories, Liz’s examples, and the participation of students willing to tell their stories, we as a group, created a safe place for sharing and for learning (CoP Document). I’d like to say this was all part of a master plan and that I created this space with intention, but it largely grew out of a massive error in judgement on my part.

In the first few weeks of the course, we tackle the history of the western justice process and we spend time discussing what “we” can learn from traditional societies (defined as societies that existed prior to the imposition of centralized government and justice), and Indigenous peoples throughout history and in modern times. We then shift our focus to the damage done by colonization and how different notions of justice (and more generally, how we defined acceptable or “proper” Canadians) effectively destroyed generations of indigenous peoples, their communities, languages, and cultures. As part of this discussion, I showed the film “We were Children” to the class. For those who have not seen it, the film tells the story of residential schools from the perspective of two survivors. I told the students before showing the film what the film was about and we watched the film. Afterward the film ended and I turned the lights back on in the lecture theatre, I looked up at the students and knew that something was very wrong. I guess this is what it feels like when my teaching fails (Bain Excerpts). I looked into their eyes and at their faces and saw horror, sadness, and anger. It was one of the first times in my teaching experiences that I knew the looks on their faces was my fault. As someone who, in restorative justice, teaches that justice processes should do no further harm and I had done the complete opposite in this situation. Teachers [should not] do their students (or anyone else) any harm in the process (Bain Excerpts). I opened a discussion with the class. I could see no one wanted or felt comfortable engaging, so I ended class.

As I walked from the lecture theatre to the classroom where my tutorial was held, I reflected upon what had happened and that for one of the first times, I felt that I failed my students. My tutorial consisted of 16 students from the larger lecture, giving us an opportunity to talk in a smaller group. This group had bonded fairly quickly and as we sat in circle that day my students began to talk about what had happened in class. They felt unprepared to see and hear the stories of the two residential school survivors. They felt uneducated. Although they had learned about residential schools, the horrific experiences of the children became real in seeing this film. It wasn’t just an account of history in a textbook anymore. It was the power of the circle, like sitting around the campfire (Telos Document), that allowed me to realize that I took for granted that everyone had the same level of education and understanding about residential schools. It was also the place where I was humbled by my students’ willingness to be open about their feelings and be honest about what was working and what wasn’t.

I felt it was important to address the remainder of the students and I wasn’t willing to leave these conversations in other tutorials to my teaching assistants. In our next week’s class, I stood in front of all of the students, feeling very vulnerable, and began with a heartfelt apology explaining that I felt that I had did not adequately prepare them for the film. This was a deeply emotional process (Brookfield Excerpts). I then opened the room up to a discussion through what I call the opening round. We passed around a talking piece and everyone was given the space to say what they needed to say or pass if they felt they needed to pass. And with 100 students, this took most of the class. The organized, stickler-to-the-schedule teacher in me began to panic that I would be a week behind, but I knew this time was needed. In the weeks that followed, I heard from numerous students that our discussion in the week after the film was one of the most honest that they’d experienced in university.

The semester ticked along and it ended up being an amazing class. The learning that came out of this incident was monumental. I learned not to assume that everyone comes to class with the same knowledge, experience, and understanding. Most of all, throughout this, I thought what would Liz have done? I’m sure she made her fair share of mistakes in her teaching career, but I never saw them. But I knew what she would say to me. I could hear her voice. She would say, “Melissa, no one is perfect. Not you, not me. We all make mistakes, but it’s how we rise after we fall. Dust yourself off and get back at it.” Made me think about the gladiator in the arena from Roosevelt’s Arena.

~This story was written by Melissa Roberts, Department Chair and Instructor in Langara’s Criminal Justice Department


  • The Skillful Teacher( Brookfield, 1990)
  • The Courage to Teach (Palmer,1998)
  • What the Best College Teachers Do (Bain, 2004)
  • Excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech “Citizenship In A Republic” delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France on 23 April, 1910
  • Action Theory: Increasing Professional Effectiveness in College Teaching (Musson,2015)
  • A Community of Practice And Your Professional Development (Musson, 2015)
  • Of Telos, Teaching, and Great Things (Musson, 2015, 2017)