Do Canadian Teachers Truly Have the Freedom to Teach?

03/08/2013 06:05 EST | Updated 05/08/2013 05:12 EDT

While the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not specifically protect a freedom to teach, many understand freedom of expression to be a two-ended right. In other words, it is impossible to censor the expression of only one person. If I do not hear what you want to tell me, I have no opportunity to form an opinion about your expression. I can neither agree nor disagree. I cannot celebrate your brilliance, nor can I stand outside your door to protest the nasty things you say.

Recently, I have learned about two teachers who, in different circumstances, have been restricted from teaching material they would like to teach. I do not think these two teachers are the same in their approaches. I do not think their students have had similar experiences. I understand that the outcomes are very different, but I feel uncomfortable about both.

Both teachers have taught high school-aged students for many years. Both teachers are committed to and well-liked by their students. Both teachers believe they have the best interests of their students at heart.

The first teacher, who has been fired from his job in a public high school, reportedly circulated a collection of off-colour, racist and sexist jokes to students in his drama class. It appears that the students were assigned to create skits based on these jokes. I have neither seen the jokes nor spoken with anyone involved in the case, but I spend a lot of time with high school-aged people. And many of the young people I know have heard a lot of off-colour, sexist and racist jokes. My young friends can be very articulate in explaining why they find some of these jokes to be funny and others to be deeply offensive. These students are learning to make distinctions and to use their own speech to combat the expression they find the most distasteful.

But is it different when a teacher introduces such material to his students as part of an assignment? What was the context in which these jokes were distributed? And does this even matter? We ask teachers to act in a professional manner and to avoid inappropriate behaviour. Should this teacher have known better than to even contemplate such an assignment? Or does his firing mean that some students will have missed an opportunity to develop the skills and resources they need to fight against the ugly expression they will undoubtedly encounter as they grow up?

The other teacher I learned about has been told by her school administration that she may not teach about certain issues or introduce certain materials to her students, even though these issues and materials are standard parts of the syllabus and curriculum in other schools. The school in question is housed in a secure youth detention centre. The principal is concerned that there could be a safety problem if students learn about current protest movements. The teacher knows her students and sees no such concern.

Is it dangerous for young people involved in the criminal justice system to learn about non-violent protest? Could this information create a danger to them or to others? The principal had no issue with teaching about the Winnipeg General Strike, where people died. Is there a difference in teaching about something that happened long ago and something that may be a current event? Do students in the secure facility still retain a right to an education? If so, should their curriculum be the same as that which other students in the same course study outside of the facility? If not, on what basis should these alterations be made and who should decide?

We ask teachers to be creative, informative, and to engage their students in thinking critically about the world around them. What message do we send when we limit what they teach? Where should we draw the line?