The recent student walk-outs are one more step down the dark path of negotiating via a public relations war involving the teachers’ union, their employer and the provincial government. The opportunity to stage a peaceful protest is a cornerstone of democracy, but protest needs to be the last resort in a thoughtful effort to address fundamental wrongs.
Step one is we must educate ourselves. We need to thoroughly research the issues so we can tease apart facts from rhetoric and understand the long history of this entrenched conflict. If there was a simple, right answer, then the issues would have been resolved long ago. A committed effort is required to sort through it all and reach an informed perspective.
We also need to learn how our democratic institutions work. This is essential for step two: we have a responsibility to first work within the system to realize positive change that will support the greater common good. Our individual objectives may not always be met, but if all parties engage in thoughtful dialogue, demonstrate maturity in distinguishing our needs from wants, and are willing to be creative and flexible in how we proceed, then we often find that our key objectives are shared by others and can be acted on.
Many of us are frustrated by the slow pace of change, but we often fail to foresee the full ramifications of our actions — for ourselves and certainly for others. Our public institutions are supposed to include checks and balances that ensure we look at the bigger picture and implications for the longer-term. This doesn’t always work, which leads us to step three: our responsibility to work collaboratively to evolve and improve our public institutions and the processes we use to resolve disputes.
The bargaining process for determining wages and benefits for teachers is fatally flawed. The relationships between those needing to be partners in education (including parents) have been severely damaged. We all need to commit to resolving these major structural problems.
Our last resort is to protest. Change frequently results, but often not the change that organizers were seeking. Hence, the responsibilities for initiating and participating in protests are huge because we can end up with a situation that is worse than where we started from.
Real protest is effective when individuals make personal sacrifices — loss of income, risk of being jailed, risk of injury or death — in pursuit of well-designed changes that are needed to address significant injustices and oppression of the disadvantaged. To protest over something less or to take it too lightly is disrespectful of those who have, and are engaging in real protest in the face of fundamental wrongs.
Our response to the student walk-outs needs to be that all adults — parents, teachers, administrators and politicians — commit to thoughtful collaboration so we can demonstrate to our youth what is required to be a citizen within a healthy democracy. Thus far, we have all earned failing grades and, unfortunately, they are following our lead.
Cathy Scott May