Students teaching adults a lesson about engagement

Well, I have to admit that if I were a teacher in Ontario right now, I would be pretty darned proud of my students.

Heck I am a teacher in Nova Scotia and I am pretty darned proud of Ontario students.

Last week, thousands of young people (tens of thousands by some estimates) “walked off the job” as it were, to protest the Doug Ford Progressive Conservative Government decision to scrap the Provinces Health and Physical Education Curriculum and replace it, albeit temporarily, with a curriculum from 1998. Apparently, Doug Ford heard a tremendous amount of concern expressed by Ontarioites while on the campaign trail about the curriculum, particularly the part of that deals with “Human Health and Sexual Relationships”, otherwise known as “Sex-ed”.

For those of you have not been following along, once Ford’s announcement was made, it was met with scorn and derision from a wide variety of opponents, which included everyone from health professionals to LGBTQ2+ advocacy groups to the Ontario Teachers Federation. As is often the case in such instances, the ruling government took particular exception to their employees displaying any sort of backbone, and immediately announced that any teacher who dared to teach the new (now essentially outlawed) curriculum would be disciplined. They even took the extraordinary step of announcing they would be setting up a “snitch line” which could be used to “rat out” any teacher who taught anything about sex-ed that was not firmly grounded in twenty year old theory.

Now, before I find myself being burned in effigy by those members of the public who do not believe that issues such as gender identity and sexual orientation should be taught in school, a momentary nod in their direction. The new curriculum (which was brought in in 2015) was also not without controversy.  When then Premier Kathleen Wynne announced the new, updated document, there were, again, wide spread protests, this time mostly from parent groups. The concern expressed at that time centered around the extent to which Wynne had engaged in authentic consultation before launching the guide. One group in particular, The Well Informed Parent, expressed tremendous concern, particularly around the right of parents to raise their children as they saw fit, and around the risks of “prematurely giving children heavily sexualized content”. The group was also very quick to point out the influence of Dr. Ben Levin on the document. Levin, a former Deputy Minister of Education pleaded guilty to child pornography charges in 2015. Having someone with such a dysfunctional moral compass involved in determining what would be taught to school children about sex led critics to conclude that the entire endeavour was tainted.

It would be fair to state that I am definitively and rather firmly on the left side of this debate, having arrived at that position after about twenty five years as a public educator. I have seen the transition of our school hallways from places of abject intolerance to places where acceptance, if perhaps not completely present, is at least promoted. It is difficult for me to conclude that the past two decades of social awareness and change that have permeated our buildings has not had a positive impact. As well, for parents who may conclude that such topics as gender identity and sexual orientation should not be part of the curriculum, I would argue that teaching about these issues does not equate promotion, any more than teaching about WWII equates to promoting world domination. I would finally put forth that, although I may not agree with their views, if parents wish to educate their own children with some sort of counter narrative, that is still a fairly fundamental personal right.

However, in the name of objectivity, I must allow that not everyone shares my view on this. There are, quite obviously, a rather significant number of people who believe that I am completely, and rather fundamentally, wrong on this one.

It is this dichotomy that brings me rather nicely around to my point. Education systems are a pretty pivotal part of our society, to be sure, but one thing that has been brought resoundingly to the forefront by the debate in Ontario is the extent to which what is taught in schools is a product of politics rather than of good practice. I am sure that to those folks who established “The Well Informed Parent”, I probably appear as some sort of left-wing-nut-job. And, of course, my sentiments towards that group are somewhat reciprocal, albeit in a politically reversed direction. However, I must believe that there would be those on both sides of the debate who would be of the mind that determining educational direction based on nothing more than who shows up at the polls is a practice of questionable, and I might argue, unsustainable, value.

Doug Ford, much like Donald Trump, was elected on a particularly populist platform. Regardless of how I may feel about either leader, it is hard to deny that they did appeal to a fairly large number of people. And as much as that may frighten me to the very depths of my left-winged-nut-job soul, it is the reality in which we live. However, by all appearances, the students in Ontario are not taking a stand to advance a particular political agenda. They are taking a stand for what they believe is right. For them, it seems, this is not an issue of morality, or of politics, but rather, simply a matter of some fairly significant common sense.

When it comes to educating our children about the facts of life, the very lives of these self same children may depend upon the accuracy of those facts.

If our collective definition of “fact” continues to be dependent on the whatever party happens to be in power, it may be time for those of us on both sides of these debates to take our cue from this younger generation.

Perhaps it is time that we, as a Nation, seriously considered separating our politics, and our politicians, from our publicly funded classrooms.

(Originally Published in The Chronicle Herald, Saturday, September 29th, 2018)

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Filed under Education Policy, Educational commentary, Public education, Uncategorized

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