01/14/2013 12:37 EST | Updated 03/16/2013 05:12 EDT

Teachers: The Classroom Is Not Your Pulpit


In Ontario, our children know that something is happening to make teachers and parents unhappy. Some children are unsure, on certain days, whether they will be attending classes as usual. They may have seen teachers walking a picket line, and if their families tune into the news, they are listening and watching, too.

But, what should children know about the labour unrest, and who should be telling them? Recently, the Toronto Star reported that a Grade 7 art teacher had assigned his students the task of creating protest posters. The students had a choice of slogans, all of which supported the union's side of the dispute. Reportedly, numbers of parents were distressed when they learned of the class assignment -- and rightly so.

There is a distinction -- and it can be a difficult one to make -- between teaching about something and indoctrinating students to believe in something. We want our students to learn about the world around them and to be well-enough informed to think critically. However, we are doing them a great disservice if we determine that there is only one acceptable opinion. Well-informed citizens form their own opinions based on knowledge and reflection. They can understand, if not appreciate, points of view that differ from their own. And most teachers get that. In fact, most teachers work very hard to help their students explore the diversity of views and values that exist in our communities.

In a democracy we cannot ask our citizens, be they teachers or anyone else, to desist from forming views and opinions. The Charter guarantees of freedom of association, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression apply to us all. We know, for example, that some teachers are very religious people. However, our expectation is that teachers in public schools will not proselytize nor attempt to indoctrinate their students into any particular faith. Our curricula, and even our courts, have decided that it is important for students to learn that religions exist, that there are different ways in which people experience faith, and that our friends and neighbours may see the world through a lens that is very different from our own. And the vast majority of religious teachers have no difficulty teaching with this in mind. We do not ask these teachers to cease believing in their faiths, we ask them to be teachers.

We ask this of political teachers, too. There is nothing to prevent teachers from having strong political beliefs or views, from joining political parties, or from putting election posters in front of their homes. And it is consistent with the curriculum that teachers provide information about the variety of political views that exist both historically and currently in our country. We should, however, draw the line at teachers using the classroom to campaign for their own parties or candidates. This would not be consistent with the duties we expect teachers to perform.

If students want to organize their own political parties or peaceful protests, their views should also be respected. So long as the students are not disrupting the functioning of the school nor the capacity of others to express their own views, there is no reason to impede the exercise of their Charter rights.

We should, however expect that teachers understand that if they are using the classroom as a pulpit, be it for political or religious reasons, they are contravening one of the purposes of education. They are no longer teaching for democratic engagement. Such teachers are failing their students.

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