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Punishing Ontario students to make a point will backfire

Protesters numbered in the thousands show their support at a rally for public education and democracy organized by The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario at Queens Park in Toronto on Tuesday August 28, 2012.

Aaron Vincent Elkaim/THE CANADIAN PRESS

"Teachers are our heroes." That was a central message of the Ontario Royal Commission on Learning in its report For the Love of Learning. I was co-chair of that Commission and I recommended that statement to my colleagues, which they enthusiastically accepted.

I was convinced then and remain convinced now that no school can operate successfully without good teachers and no student can learn properly unless he or she has a good teacher. Most teachers are good teachers. They more than deserve fair compensation for their invaluable work, and as a lifelong trade union backer, I applaud the success of teachers unions in winning such compensation over the years. No teacher lives in the lap of luxury. But they've managed to win a modestly secure lifestyle in return for the indispensable work they do. Yet we've seen that those who have failed to achieve comparable success foolishly resent teachers instead of demanding a better deal from their own employers.

Teachers are properly baffled by this irrational resentment they feel against them. But I fear it's going to get much worse as teacher unions in Ontario direct their members to withdraw the many voluntary services they provide in their schools. I well understand the frustration that led to this decision. They've had all other means of fighting back arbitrarily removed by the McGuinty government and feel this is the only weapon available to them. So they're going to make their students the scapegoats for their justifiable anger at the Liberals.

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This may be understandable, but I'm afraid it won't work. I have little doubt it will simply amp up anti-teacher feelings to new levels, and this time it won't be irrational. Parents are bound to wonder why their kids are paying for the Ontario government's bully-boy tactics. How can public support be garnered by inconveniencing, not to say infuriating, their students and their students' parents?

Frankly, I simply don't grasp this strategy. I just don't see how anyone can possibly think that punishing students to get back at the government can bring teachers anything but discredit. Both strategically and ethically I think this approach is a big mistake, and I'm pretty sure that most everyone but teachers will think so too.

I'm concerned that this proposed fight-back – using students to get at Mr. McGuinty – will not only lose teachers support, it will also justify characterizing them as just another greedy interest group, with no right to expect public backing.

How can punishing students for Dalton McGuinty's transgressions hurt Dalton McGuinty? Who do teachers think will be blamed for such behaviour? Will a single family in the province curse the government if their kid's teacher stops supervising school clubs or coaching sports teams? Will a single parent root for teachers who fail to stay after school to help kids? Will parents thank teachers for not participating in school meetings on "McGuinty Mondays" or for not supervising extracurricular activities? (I wanted to put these questions to the heads of Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation and the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, but we failed to connect.)

Surely teachers, not the government, will take the brunt of the criticism. Take even me, a teacher and union booster. I have a granddaughter in public school. I'm angry at Dalton McGuinty, but if she's punished for his sins, I'm sorry but I know who I'll blame.

I fear furious union leaders are so enraged, so sure of the righteousness of their cause that they aren't seeing things with detachment. They seem to have convinced themselves that everyone must see the situation as they do. But they're wrong, and they need to stand back and get a better perspective. Otherwise, strategic disaster is all but inevitable as Dalton McGuinty and Tim Hudak unite to portray teachers as a self-indulgent, over-privileged group.

Look, everyone knows that teachers have already given Mr. McGuinty a big black eye by helping the NDP win the Kitchener-Waterloo by-election. This deprived the Liberals of the majority government they so desperately wanted and made the Premier look both like an opportunist and a loser by opening up the seat in the first place. What more can they possibly achieve by scapegoating their students? This government will not reverse its harsh legislation under any circumstances. It my not be entirely satisfying, but the only sensible recourse for teachers is to mobilize for the forthcoming provincial election.

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I appeal to teachers not to withhold any of their services from their students. I appeal to the leaders of the teacher unions to disavow their directives to their members. I urge them to assure the public they will never use students as pawns in their legitimate struggles with the government. I urge both leaders and members to remind the public why classroom teachers remain our heroes.

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