Over the past few months there has been increasing tension between teachers' unions and the province. As we start the New Year, public elementary and high school students across the province remain without extracurriculars. This may seem unimportant to you. It is massively important to students.
Extracurriculars aren't just extras: Some of the best learning happens outside of the classroom.
For graduating students, they make the difference between getting a scholarship that can make further education affordable, or even possible.
For younger students, they make the difference between parents being forced to come home early from work or paying for daycare, both of which directly affect families' bottom line.
For the most disadvantaged students, extracurriculars can make the difference between coming to school, or not. Football teams and school plays can – and sometimes do – make the difference between a student graduating or choosing to drop out.
What makes schools great are the parts where you get to choose what you are passionate about and follow that to wherever it leads. For me, soccer, volleyball and Reach for the Top taught me things that I could never have learned in the classroom. The list will be different for other students but the core story remains the same: Extracurriculars are what is exciting about school and they engage students in a way nothing else can.
The societal benefits cannot be ignored. Students need somewhere to go when the final bell rings. For some, that will mean home. For those with the means to afford it, it will mean comparable activities at a community centre. For most though, those extra hours will not be spent learning how to work as a team or engaging their minds with after-hours learning. In the case of the most disadvantaged students, not having after school activities may lead to crime or joining gangs.
Extracurriculars are the great equalizer. There is a place for everyone on a team or with a club. Starting a new one provides valuable skills in real world leadership.
The relationships developed between coaches and students are immeasurable. And the learning that happens outside the classroom is just as valuable as what happens in the classroom – if not more.
We know these things to be true, not only intuitively in the smiles on children's faces when discussing after-school activities, but also empirically. Last year, the Ontario Student Survey found that 97 per cent of students and 90 per cent of parents think teachers who coach/supervise extra-curricular activities should be recognized for their contribution.
Students, and their parents are grateful for the incredible work that teachers do outside of the classroom. The issue is not with individual teachers, who work every day to make Ontario better by investing their time, and their love, into students.
The issue is with a process. A process where Education Minister Laurel Broten and union leaders Sam Hammond and Ken Coran all say they are putting the interests of students first, and blame the other side any negative effects on students.
The OSSTF has run a series of advertisements claiming, "Bill 115 is the only thing standing between Ontario public high school students and their extracurricular activities." Similarly, Premier Dalton McGuinty has said "We have a difference of opinion so why don't we leave this matter to court then. Why do we have to involve our students in this?". The government also named Bill 115 the Putting Students First Act.
The attempt by both sides to discuss the bill in such stark terms obfuscates a complex issue, placing the harm caused to students squarely on the shoulders of the other party. This is not a black and white issue though and, unfortunately, every day this goes on more students and more families are hurt.
So for the government, and for the teachers' unions, I hope you take this message to heart.
Students are not pawns to be used to score political points. It is time to end the bickering and sit down and negotiate.
It is time to stop pretending that complex problems can be summed up in sound bites, and that the other side is the only obstacle to a compromise. Every day that there is uncertainty detracts from the quality of education students receive. All sides should be concerned about the cost to students, and families, of not having extracurricular activities.
Zane Schwartz is one of Canada's Top 20 Under 20. He served as President, Public Board, of the Ontario Student Trustees' Association from 2010 to 2011