Is Picketing a Teachable Moment?

Posted January 13, 2020
By Danielle S. McLaughlin

You may have noticed your kids sleeping in on school days a bit more this academic year. Or maybe you haven’t noticed because they are up and out the door, marching on a picket line in front of their local school.

If you live in Ontario, or other jurisdictions where education has become a tinderbox issue, you will have seen teachers, school administrators, support staff and others protesting and picketing, perhaps in front of your local school. Did you see students and their families on those picket lines? If you did, have you asked who informed the students about the protests? If you didn’t, have you asked why the students weren’t there?

Even though there have been a number of Charter cases where teachers’ right to political expression within schools has been upheld, teachers are still frequently warned to maintain a “neutral position” on political issues. Whether or not they are likely to win, not many people, especially teachers who are asked to uphold a high standard of fairness and impartiality, would risk the discipline that could lead to a court case.

Imagine a classroom where there is a sudden influx of additional students. There are not enough desks to go around. Or worse, a school library closes, or a student’s favourite subject, perhaps music, or astronomy, or Latin, is withdrawn because there are no longer funds to pay for specialized instruction. What is the neutral position for teachers to take when their students feel they have been treated unfairly?

Can teachers say nothing when their unions or associations are striking to protest these very issues? Should they explain how teachers are using their democratic rights to express their own anger at the situation that is affecting them and their students? What if they invite their classes to join them on the picket lines?

If teachers choose to express these views or make the invitation, should they be subject to discipline? If teachers remain silent on such vital issues which directly affect their classes, are they failing to engage their students in the habits of democracy? Seeing teachers fear discipline for political engagement can create a chilling effect on the political participation of the entire community. But having teachers assign class time to create picket signs that reflect only their own views could be problematic on many other levels. 

As anyone can see, there are no easy nor uncomplicated answers to any of these questions.

In general, elementary teachers tend to be less politically minded than secondary teachers. Some people believe that this is sensible because elementary teachers need to focus on basic education and not complicate their classrooms, or their lives, with politics. Yet others see this as a missed opportunity. If early-years teachers don’t teach their students to think critically about the events in their lives, will those students be less able to grapple with political or controversial issues when they are older?

Adults, and even kids themselves, often say that politics does not affect children. They give this as a rationale for keeping the voting age at 18, or higher in many jurisdictions. This rationale is also used to limit or exclude youth representation on school and police boards, in community organizations, and other elected or appointed bodies.

We create a conundrum for our young people. Our education policies and curricula  are all about informed citizenship, critical thinking, and media literacy. These are usually considered to be essential to becoming a participating member of a democratic society. And yet, when teachers want to engage their students in discussions about the very policies that affect the society in which we live, they are threatened with discipline, or at the very least advised to avoid bringing controversial issues into their classrooms. Does this mean that teachers must only engage their classes in theoretical discussions? Learning to be an engaged citizen of any kind surely involves an understanding of what activism looks like in practice.

How can this work?

As soon as kids see teachers on picket lines, they know that something is different. As soon as they experience cutbacks to their programs or increased class sizes, they know something has changed. What are teachers supposed to do if their students want to know the reasons for these changes? Do they say, “Oh, that’s just politics – it is of no interest to you.”

Or can teachers explain the policies that have brought about the changes – including the actions taken by their unions and associations? Do they say, “No school next Wednesday.” Or do they say, “Your teachers are going to be joining other members of their association to protest the decisions the government has made which have resulted in the changes you are experiencing. Please feel free to join us on the picket line. And bring your adults.”

In my view, failing to invite students and their families to join the protest is missing an opportunity to show the next generation what lawful and peaceful political activism looks like. The young people and their families are free to refuse the invitation, but if they don’t know about it, they can’t learn from it.