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Connecting the Classroom and the Campaign Trail: Why Political Involvement Matters

Vivian McCaffrey

Early in 2011, the five members of ETFO’s Political Action Committee (PAC) are focused on a test that is still several months away. These classroom teachers are thinking not about EQAO, but about the outcome of the next provincial election. They are weighing what needs to be done to ensure the best possible result for public education and for the social justice concerns they are committed to. They know that a positive election outcome will depend on the extent to which ETFO members get involved.

The benefits 

Dorothy Ramsay, a grade 3/4 teacher, says being active politically gives educators the opportunity to influence public policy because they “can provide valuable insights and criticism regarding the effectiveness of current policies and legislation.” As an active member of a political party, she views herself as a lobbyist in the grassroots development of her party’s policies and election platform.

Jane Roberts, a grade 2 teacher, believes that being politically informed and engaged gives educators the information to asses the impact of government policies and to voice concerns when necessary. “We are on the front line and know better than anyone how policies affect students and teachers. People listen to teachers.” Her political awareness, particularly of the critique of standardized testing, helps Roberts to avoid being pressured into the “trap” of focusing her teaching on EQAO tests.

The classroom connection 

Amanda Hardy says it’s part of her job to prepare her grade 8 students for their future role as citizens: “By modelling political activism and awareness, we give students an understanding of the importance of their own future political involvement.”

Members say the civics lessons can start in the early grades. In her grade 3/4 class, Ramsay reports, “I encourage students to develop and share opinions, vote on the classroom rules, and elect team leaders for learning activities.” During the 2010 municipal election, “we had a mock city council meeting to debate an issue the students chose – whether Barrie could use more skateboard parks.”

Hardy’s grade 8 students have participated in Student Vote during municipal, provincial, and federal elections. Before the 2007 provincial election, her students studied the mixed member proportional representation system. “Some students didn’t understand why adults didn’t vote for a system that, to them, seemed fairer than the first-past-the-post system we have now,” Hardy says.

Pierre Martin, a grade 7/8 extended French teacher, also shares his interest in electoral reform with his students. “When students saw that the Green Party, for example, received nearly a million votes in one election but got no representation in the House of Commons, they were shocked,” he reports.

ETFO members have what it takes 

Primary teacher Tim Snoddon says educators’ understanding of human complexities – things “that cannot be limited to one equation of numbers” – arms them against simplistic policies and solutions to problems. Roberts agrees: “Perhaps most importantly, we’re used to not having instant gratification. It can take a long time for classroom work to become evident in a child’s development.”

A seasoned campaign worker, Ramsay knows that educators are highly valued by party candidates. “In addition to being well-organized taskmasters, we are accomplished communicators. We have the skills that help a politician get out the message during a campaign,” she states.

Committee members emphasize that there is strength in numbers. Ramsay says she “has learned how active membership at the grassroots and leadership level can shape the direction a party or politician takes. The more educators that get involved, the better our needs and concerns will be heard and addressed.”

ETFO support 

The PAC members value the support they have received from the federation at both the provincial and the local levels. Ramsay, for example, appreciates the financial support that ETFO makes available to members to attend political conventions. Hardy is inspired by her current participation in ETFO’s Leaders for Tomorrow program

These members have all been active in their local PACs and have taken advantage of ETFO’s various political action and leadership training opportunities. This has given them the confidence to speak publicly about issues and to participate more extensively in elections, social justice campaigns, the broader union movement, and community organizations.

What’s at stake for public education? 

The PAC members have grave concerns about the outcome of the October election. Martin believes that “the economic climate has created a situation where people tend to look inward and focus on their own lives.” He fears that the public may resent groups like teachers who have good public sector jobs, and that this could undermine support for more investment in public education. Hardy agrees and worries that “social justice issues will likely not be a key element in party platforms.” Snoddon believes that there may be attacks on recent gains in education and on unions. Merit pay is an idea receiving considerable media attention, he points out, and has been touted in previous Tory election platforms.

Engaging colleagues 

PAC members want to see more ETFO members understand the importance of the political process and of taking part in it. Martin believes that providing people with choices is key when encouraging people to become more politically involved. “They will gravitate to the option they feel most comfortable with,” he says. “Some will simply want to give money. Others will be willing to make phone calls and speak with voters. It’s important to understand that getting involved in politics can take many forms.”

The question the PAC members put to their ETFO colleagues is: “What are you prepared to do to make a difference in the upcoming election and beyond?”