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Teaching the Election

In the world of education, it is often thought that when teachers take on political and other controversial issues that we  portray a front of objectivity and neutrality to our students. We often celebrate the teachers whose politics are hidden from the classroom so they are able to just give their students the "facts" about their subject and refrain from pushing students to any one political side. At best, this is naive thinking of what is really happening in our classrooms.

Teachers are political and it is often impossible to keep our values and politics out of the classroom, no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves that we're being "objective and neutral". Human beings are not robots without feelings, emotions, bias, faults and political why do we expect teachers to exhibit this behaviour? In fact, I would argue we do more harm as teachers when we don't share with our students the things that we are most passionate about in our world. And no, when you tell your students that you are an ally to LGBTQI folks (and other social causes), you are not "brainwashing" them as the folks at Maclean's magazine would have you think.

To go even further, choosing to be neutral or objective about the worlds issues is a political decision in itself. Our classrooms are filled with issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, colonialism, etc. If we choose to ignore them through our "neutrality" are we really doing our jobs as educators?

As a teacher, when you commit to teaching students about critical thinking, academic rigour, and thinking for themselves you are helping students identify how to see the world in a more purposeful way. And because of this foundation, when you share with your students your values and political beliefs, you can actually open a dialogue where students can question why you think the way you do. In truly democratic classrooms it is essential that not only is student voice paramount, but students should be encouraged and able to challenge the authority of the teacher on all issues. An open and free dialogue should be at the heart of teacher/student relationships. I haven't hidden my politics from the classroom in many years and I've had many students challenge me on it. But through dialogue both students and myself have challenged each other's beliefs to come to common ground and understanding.....even if we vote for different political parties.

With that being said, how do you teach an election? If you're not reading this within Canada, you should know that we have a federal election coming up on October 19th. It's been a highly contentious and extremely long campaign so far with current Prime Minister Stephan Harper, Thomas Mulcair, Justin Trudeau and Elizabeth May all running for the job.

Any election coverage in a classroom should include the latest campaign news, analysis and understanding of party platforms, as well as learning about and critiquing our electoral and government systems. An election is a great opportunity to discuss the level of democracy in a country with students. If we believe in the values of democracy then we have to scrutinize the actions and policy of governments to see if they are strengthening or decreasing citizenship participation in our society. The great "voting age" debate is always a great conversation starter to get students thinking about their ability to participate in a democratic society. Along these lines, we should also be discussing voter turnout with our students and whether voting is or can be an effective way to create change.

But beyond these foundational elements to help students understand our democratic processes, what happens when students inevitably ask you "who are you going to vote for"? My answer this year will be this:

"I believe in doing my part to create a more fair, just and equitable Canada. I want to live in a country that respects the rights and freedoms of all citizens. I want my government to honour it's treaty responsibilities with First Nations and treat climate change like the threat it is. I would like to see our communities strengthened by tackling poverty and housing issues. Amongst many other issues, I want to see Canada become a country committed to social justice, environmental responsibility and democracy. This Canada does not exist under Stephen Harper and the Conservatives. In this election I'll be voting for the NDP. However, we must always remember that it is the people of a country that has the true power. That is why it is essential that we organize in our communities to push politicians into creating the policy and government that we can all be proud of."

I know there will be many teachers who disagree with my approach, but I believe too strongly in social and environmental justice to leave my values out of the classroom. And as I said, it's impossible for me to do this. My belief in social justice is what makes me who I am as an educator. If I don't bring those values into the classroom and voting booth, than who am I?

Stephen Harper has to go. He has the worst economic record of any Prime Minister post WWII, is undemocratic, and does not respect or honour the treaties that Canada has signed with its Indigenous people. It's time to take a step in the direction of a government that will value all people.

Now, even though I will be voting NDP it does not mean they get to escape criticism. I have been extremely unhappy with Thomas Mulcair's approach to vetting out potential candidates who are supportive of the Palestinian people. This, among other issues, are all fair game within the confines of the classroom to discuss with students for my decision. I'm looking forward to tackling the election within my classroom and hope to get it right by teaching my students the foundations of Canadian democracy, evaluating the candidates, and encouraging them to question everything.

But to be truly honest, I often have my students guess who'd I'd vote for when they ask. They almost always guess correctly due to my passion for teaching social justice in the classroom. In the end, my students wont make me happy by voting for the same party as me (And that should never be the goal of any educator). They'll make me happy if they become active democratic citizens who work for a positive life for themselves, their community and the rest of the world.

And if you're still thinking about voting for Harper, here's some more reading for you:

Is Harper the worst PM Ever? Part 1
Is Harper the worst PM Ever? Part 2
The Closing of the Canadian Mind