Teachers: democracy needs you
Last summer I spoke at the Alberta Teachers’ Association’s Summer Conference, an event that was pervaded by politics, as it was attended by PC leadership candidate Thomas Lukaszuk and all the opposition party education critics.
At the time, my closing comments drew inspiration from a Martin Luther King, Jr. speech entitled Where Do We Go From Here, written in a Birmingham jail cell. The speech was about power and love. King, Jr. said that power without love is reckless and abusive, whereas love without power is sentimental and anemic. King, Jr.’s conclusion was that we need power and love, not power or love. At the time, I said I believed that teachers are uniquely skilled and positioned to help us achieve that aspiration.
Now, months later, my beliefs about teachers are as strong as ever as the politics of power and love continue to permeate daily life in Alberta.
First let’s consider power. Since the summer, there has been a lot of political power at play. The ruling PCs selected a new leader, with significantly lower levels of citizen engagement than was experienced during previous leadership selections, even though the winner would be premier. There were internal power play accusations of ethical lapses by the winning candidate over giving away free party memberships. Then there was a serious controversy over online balloting that may have excluded and suppressed many from voting.
The new leader selected a cabinet that included unelected ministers in the key portfolios of health and education. This example of political power caused two additional unnecessary byelections.
Conflict-of-interest complaints were formally filed against the appointed minister of education accusing him of using his yet-to-be-elected ministerial power for private benefit during his election campaign. As minister of education he announced two new modular classrooms for a school in the Calgary Elbow constituency where he was a candidate.
Allegedly, illegal robocall tactics came into the Alberta byelections. This time, anonymous robocalls targeted Wildrose supporters in all four byelections. Their messages belittled the Wildrose party leader for pursuing moderate policies on sexual preference issues. The Wildrose Party has formally complained to the CRTC. In politics, as we can see, power is often applied in ways that are reckless and abusive.
Now let’s consider love.
When it comes to the empathy values of many in the caring professions, including educators, the love they have for their work and the people they serve is often embraced as a personal calling. They are frequently ineffectual in getting what they require for themselves and for those in their charge. They tend to back off and make do with what they have, as opposed to what they need to make a difference and to make it right. Some even become, in Reverend King, Jr.’s words, “sentimental and anemic.”
I see that many educators feel repugnance when it comes to power politics. This distaste, coupled with a genuine love of their work — their calling — often results in educators being badly treated by the dynamic forces of power politics. They tend to get neglected or mistreated because of the adversarial political nature of public policy development.
Being a professional in a publicly funded education system puts some legitimate limits on one’s citizen-based advocacy activities. But citizenship and professionalism are both a strong basis for legitimate individual and collective action.
My advice to teachers is to stay loving as professionals in the work they do and in the service of their students. I also implore them to start exerting their personal power as citizens. Adding the power of personal citizenship to a professional passion will mean that teachers must become better informed and more engaged. Then they must become more active so they can have a meaningful, positive impact on issues that matter to them.
Teachers, acting as citizens, have a lot to offer our diminishing democracy. They have training and skills that can help them and others better understand and interpret complex political processes and policy information. They have analytical abilities and high degrees of literacy that can help marginalized groups access and engage in their own citizenship. This expands and extends citizenship capacity to others who do not feel included or informed enough to participate in our democracy.
Part of my citizenship engagement plea for teachers is to join a political party or at least volunteer some time to a candidate in an election. Political party membership is an effective means to learn about politics and have a direct and active influence on decision makers. It is not necessary to subsume individual values to party ideology as a member, but it is important to research party values before joining. Great parties encourage and enable active dialogue on policy and applied values, because good political parties recognize political decisions are values trade-offs. Policy design and political priorities are, at their essence, power applied as moral and ethical choices.
Democracy thrives through dynamic diverse dialogue with engaged and informed citizens. I believe that, with more teachers engaged in the dialogue, we could co-create a progressive society that is empathetic, responsible, protective and empowering. Reflecting on such a progressive values-based society, it occurred to me that I have also described the values of some very good schools.
Teachers, as citizens, have myriad skills, talents and qualities as well as professional and personal experiences that can help us realize the potential of King, Jr.’s plea for both power and love in our political culture. Our society contributed to your education and expects you to be great teachers. Our democracy needs you to become active and effective citizens. ❚
Ken Chapman is an Edmonton-based political observer, commentator and blogger.