School Politics

Participation Inequality 90 9 1

Image courtesy of Christopher Allen on Flickr.

It is a common sentiment that schools ought be apolitical spaces, despite the fact that in policy, curriculum, and objectives they cannot help but exist in political reality. In the resultant power dynamic that confronts us as professionals, even reluctant teachers engage in a struggle for agency and voice in working for what we believe are the best interests of our students. As union members and public employees, our contract negotiations, and evolving role in society is regularly part of the broader political dialogue that surrounds schools, whether in our neighbourhoods, newspapers, broadcast media or holiday dinners.

Our efforts to work alongside our colleagues and cultivate the spaces of public education take on political dimensions in other ways beyond the classroom, as well. As the Canadian Multicultural Act puts forth, our pluralist democracy is only realized through “the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society.”

However, even while we are each ensured this right as citizens of Canada (a right reinforced by the collective bargaining power to resist provided with our union membership), the structural inequalities present in society manifest themselves in our classrooms, and are similarly recreated among school and district staffs.  Intersectional privileges and marginalization lead to working environments which have largely been established (and continue to be maintained and administrated) by those who have been the beneficiaries of the system as it exists.

Administrators and trustees, board office employees and superintendents, department heads, increasingly essential Parent Advisory Council leadership, union representatives and other decision-making committees in a school or district tend to skew toward those who share a collection of unearned privileges: they are disproportionally male, often white, and possess a particular confidence and conversational / social capital. Among those who are not male, or caucasian, there is often a shared economic class (even among teachers, who share a pay scale but emerge from relatively diverse economic backgrounds), or level of education. Recent immigrants are at a disadvantage in acquiring these attributes (which can be acquired), and can be delayed in attaining positions of influence or power; as in all aspects of social life, those who are not comfortable or confident vocal participants in larger groups are underrepresented in the collected culture.

At this disempowered end of this spectrum of influence we generally see an over-representation of the young, new Canadians, visible minorities, members of the LGBTQ community, people with more challenging social-economic backgrounds, and women.

And yet, the Multicultural Act promises not only a national aspiration toward “the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society,” but demands that Canada “assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation.” We are not merely assured this right as citizens and educators in Canada, but also challenged to continually strive to expand the circle of participants in our emergent national narrative.

It may be easy to see that this ought be our intention as teachers orienting our schools and classrooms toward citizenship, and providing a democratic education; however it is important to consider the role we each play in cultivating the public school space as one which seeks to eradicate the inequalities which prevent “all participants” from contributing to “all aspects” of community life and identity.

Fortunately, there are many avenues and opportunities for these inclusive dialogues to take place, and which ought be embraced by those looking to work toward social justice in our schools, for our colleagues as much as our students: professional development, collaborative decision making, departmental, committees, union volunteerism, and social planning groups offer official channels for discussion and dialogue that includes the possibility of all voices. Beyond these our hallways and staff rooms, intramural pitches of competition and picket lines offer an informal space of interaction that can foster collegiality and consensus that enables our capacity to collaborate as professionals.

Across these settings there are inevitably those whose voices are heard above the rest, and we needn’t take anything away from those possessing the ability to influence; but we are not practicing democracy if we do not work to correct a system of interaction in which many are disproportionally voiceless.

An Open Letter to BC Education Minister Peter Fassbender

Minister Fassbender visits the TALONS Classroom, October 2013

May 31st, 2014

Greetings, Minister Fassbender,

As a social studies teacher in the Coquitlam School District’s T.A.L.O.N.S. Program, my teaching partners and I work to support the learning outcomes of our course curricula by cultivating an experiential, interdisciplinary learning environment. In designing a program which meets the social and emotional needs of gifted learners, T.A.L.O.N.S. teachers strive to align the explicit purposes of schooling – to educate the younger generation in the concepts, skills and competencies required to construct their individual and collective futures – with the implicit messages about our shared democratic values as Canadians – that each voice in our society is valued within the system of laws and government we are handing down to young people.

As you may realize it is important to teach courses on the foundations and traditions of our democratic history within a context that is true to these ideals. To this end T.A.L.O.N.S. students are provided with opportunities to exercise agency and voice in the creation of their own learning, as my colleagues and I believe that teaching students about the principles of the Enlightenment in a classroom that does not honour collective expression and democratic principles would negate the lesson at hand before the bell had even rung. As Gert Biesta and other educationists have noted, “Young people learn at least as much about democracy and citizenship – including their own citizenship – through their participation in a range of different practices that make up their lives, as they learn from that which is officially prescribed and formally taught.”

As such the context in which the learning occurs communicates a great deal about the meaning that is created in the democratic classroom. And I raise these foundations of the T.A.L.O.N.S. program to your attention in part to refresh your memory that you’ve actually visited us in action. Along with our local MLAs, Coquitlam Superintendent Tom Grant, and other educational dignitaries, you were brought to see a few of our district’s exemplary classrooms at Gleneagle Secondary last fall. You were only with us for a few minutes, enough time to tout your government’s dedication to providing more education in line with how our students introduced the program’s philosophy, but I feel it appropriate at this time to highlight how incongruous your handling of the British Columbia Education file has been with public education’s democratic ideals in the time since.

Your government has been found twice to have violated BC teachers’ Charter rights to collectively bargain. Additionally, the Supreme Court found the Liberal Government to have bargained in bad faith to provoke a strike that would allow you further infringements of the province’s public servants. In the ten years that this affront to justice has been allowed to continue – in duplicated legislation and dubious appeals – the children of the province have seen their futures stolen out from under them with unstaffed libraries, under-supplied learning centers, closed language labs and counseling offices ill-suited to address today’s (significant) student needs.  The defense your government has raised when judged categorically by the Supreme Court to have broken the law (twice) is that adhering to the law as written would be “too expensive” at this stage in the game.

You can be forgiven for your lack of history education. But as someone charged by the government to teach young people about our democracy, I find it difficult to reconcile the lessons in my prescribed government curriculum with the context created by your Liberal government’s disrespect for the country’s highest law. After being told in 2011 that Premier Clark’s own Bills 27/28  were unconstitutional, the Liberals did not appeal the decision and proposed nearly identical legislation that was rejected by the Supreme Court yet again in 2014. Rather than take this judgment at face value, or even oppose it on the merits of the case, your government has instead hired a private trial lawyer at taxpayer expense to argue before the Court of Appeal not that the ruling was flawed, or that your government did not in fact violate teachers’ Charter rights, but that obeying the law would be too expensive.

As a private citizen you might be entitled to such unique interpretations of the country’s laws. In fact, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was conceived so that individuals would not be so vulnerable to the lumbering power of the State. But as a representative of an elected government, your continued disregard for the law of the land, taken together with the subversion of its very intent by using the Court of Appeal to further abuse educators and students is fundamentally opposed to the spirit of Canadian democracy as it is taught in the province’s schools. It is a shame that when you visited our classroom you weren’t given the opportunity to explain why it is you and your government feel it is that you are above the law.

Our public school classrooms are intended to reflect democracy as an ideal, a point beyond the horizon toward which humanity is forever striving. And this ideal holds that each individual’s voice is granted respect and protection by a mutual agreement that no one is above the law, or able to exert their will upon the group by sheer force or inherent power.  In attempting to design a classroom where these lessons are taught on the pages of our textbooks and in the activities we undertake as a class, the T.A.L.O.N.S. teachers’ intentions are to provide learners with lived lessons in democratic functioning.

What have your actions, and those of your government, sought to teach young people in British Columbia about democracy? About the rule of law? About our collective responsibility to one another?

When you visited us, and in the press releases I have seen in the time since, your words have often seemed directly in line with the values at the heart of the public education system. But your actions have consistently negated whatever weight these words might have carried, and such incongruence demands either an explanation or a change of course.

I would be heartily pleased to see either of these, though your past actions haven’t made me hopeful.

Regards,

Bryan Jackson T.A.L.O.N.S. Program Teacher SD43