I’ve always believed I shouldn’t ask someone to do something I wouldn’t do myself. This generally works very well. If employees see the boss picking up garbage, for example, they’re more likely to do it themselves.
This principle also applies to teaching. I can’t ask my students to treat each other with respect if I’m not willing to treat them with respect as well. I can’t ask them to learn if I’m not committed to being a learner.
If I want to teach my students to live principled lives, the most important thing for me to do is to live these principles to the best of my ability. I don’t have to be perfect, but I must have integrity.
Recently I wrote a column on a human rights issue that’s very important to me. A reader responded, “It is profoundly disappointing to see anyone, particularly a high school teacher like Chidiac, promote this ‘protest’ movement.”
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As I reflected on the comment, I realized the reader didn’t seem to understand my philosophy of education. I embrace the fact that I teach social studies in a country that cherishes academic freedom, freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Canada is a country that celebrates its diversity. I encourage my students to not only understand the issues that surround us but to express disagreement with others in a respectful manner.
I also understand that as an educator, I’m in an influential position. I walk a line between teaching my students how to be informed and be active citizens, and being an informed and active citizen myself. I teach students how to vote and how to evaluate the candidates and the political parties according to their standards, but I never tell them whom I support. If I feel strongly about an issue that’s in any way controversial, I generally avoid bringing it up in class.
At the same time, I can’t tell my students that their opinions matter and that they’re a vital part of a working democracy if I’m not actively engaged in that democracy. Each of us has our gifts to share. Some run for political office, others are party organizers, others write letters, many are part of organizations that support the common good, some engage in public protest and others donate money.
One of my gifts is writing. I believe in promoting respectful public discourse by publishing thought-provoking and well-researched opinion editorials. If I didn’t do so, I would feel I was being negligent of my obligation to the democracy I hold so dear.
Is it “profoundly disappointing” that a high school teacher would engage in such an activity? The more important question is: What would I expect one of my students to do?
Whether readers of my columns agree with me is inconsequential. I want them to do their research and respectfully express their informed opinions as they see fit. Some may write letters to the editor; others may debate with their families and friends. Honest dialogue is what we need to keep our democracy viable. As a teacher, I strive for this sort of discourse in my classroom.
If I’m not willing to embark on the never-ending quest for truth, to risk being questioned and to even risk being wrong, then I have no business calling myself a teacher. If I’m not willing to embrace the responsibilities of a citizen in a democracy, then telling my students to do so would make me a hypocrite.
Teaching and learning can be nothing less than an authentic quest for truth. If that makes me “profoundly disappointing” as an educator, then so be it.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and works with at-risk students. For interview requests, click here.
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