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An empty schoolyardJoel Blit/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The argument by a lawyer representing the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO) that it does no harm to students when teachers refuse to take part in extracurricular activities is a baffling and troubling statement. The ETFO has a right to argue that withdrawing voluntary work does not constitute an illegal strike, but it should refrain from pretending it isn't hurting anyone in the process.

The ETFO is currently before the Ontario Labour Relations Board arguing that its directive ordering teachers to withdraw all voluntary extracurriculars, such as coaching, running clubs, sitting on committees and the like, does not amount to an illegal strike. Two small school boards are arguing that it is indeed a strike, that the withdrawal of extracurriculars is hurting students' education, and that the union is crassly using students as a political pawn.

The union's lawyer told the Labour Board on Wednesday that the union "categorically rejects" the school boards' allegation that "students' safety, student engagement and achievement have been impacted." There are many studies showing that extracurriculars help reduce absenteeism, teach children teamwork and time management, bolster their confidence and better prepare them for life. But one does not need to turn to academic research to find counter-arguments to the union's position; the ETFO's own website provides more-than-adequate ammunition.

Among the statements one finds there is that "voluntary extracurricular activities benefit students." Or this, in a resource guide for ETFO teachers called The Heart and Art of Teaching and Learning: "It is difficult to expect our students to be excited and passionate about their learning if we're not." The same guide celebrates the importance of mentoring students, and the value of getting along with the students' parents.

In other words, according to the ETFO, everything about withdrawing extracurriculars is negative, but, on the other hand, nothing about it is negative.

Perhaps the most galling thing about the union's attempt to play down the harmful impact of withdrawing extracurriculars is this: It is true that most extracurriculars involve voluntary work outside of the contractual obligations of public-school teachers. It is a mark of teachers' dedication that they add this extra burden to their work day; it no doubt makes their jobs more demanding. So, if it is of no benefit to the students, why do they bother? The ETFO has managed to insult its own members.