Walk in the Park
“Liberty is the possibility of doubting, of making a mistake,… of searching and experimenting,… of saying No to any authority – literary, artistic, philosophical, religious, social, and even political.” ~Ignazio Silone~
This is a photo I took today by the big tree in the playground of our school; the location that our grade 7 and 8 students chose for the demonstation they wanted to hold. Those among you who live in Ontario will know that we are currently in the midst of a protracted conflict between our provincial government and two of the unions that represent teachers in our public schools. No need to go into details here, they can be easily found online. The point of this post is to keep a promise I made to these kids as we shivered together by the big old tree.
Like I always do, I stood out front yesterday chatting with students and parents and making sure the busses got loaded up when a few students came by to give me a heads up that they were thinking of holding a protest after lunch the next day. Additionally, a few parents were kind enough to tip me off with a quick email to let me know that this topic had been part of their dinner conversations. I appreciated that; knowing about the emerging issue allowed me to think about how I could ensure our students had the chance to express themselves in a manner that was safe, respectful and appropriate.
We all met in the library during the morning recess to talk about the what, the when, the where and the how. I wanted the students to know that they would have to make the decision about whether or not to protest and that I would make sure that they were safe, respectful and reasonable (as you can see from the top photo, I think we achieved that). When I asked why they wanted to protest the students articulated a few reasons; to express their frustration at the loss of extra-curricular activities, to show support for their teachers and to have their voices heard.
They were eager to know if I would forbid the protest. I told them that I believe that in a democracy we all had the right to express our opinions and feelings through protest; provided we did so safely, respectfully and appropriately. I also told them that my job was to make sure they were safe, respectful and appropriate and I would not decide for them. I think some would have been happy to have me ban the protest.
They debated whether they should protest outside, or have a sit in out in the hallways; some pointed out that it was a rather cold day and it might be more comfortable inside. They wondered if they go inside for attendance first, or just stay outside; they brainstormed possible locations for the protest and clandestinely made protest signs on looseleaf paper. A lot of them asked me if they would get in ‘trouble’ for protesting or tried to get me to say that the protest was okay. I pointed out to one group of articulate girls that it appeared they were asking me to plan their protest for them; something I was not prepared to do. I’m glad they saw the humour and the irony in that. To each question and prompt I replied, you have to decide and I will make sure that you are safe, respectful and appropriate.
We have about 90 grade 7 and 8 students and about 45 of them made the choice to walk out of class; after attendance was taken. Two of our school Child & Youth Workers supported me outside and our teachers were supportive and respectful towards them as they walked out; quietly in a line to gather at the big tree. After a few moments of chanting I asked them to pose for the photo and we talked. They shared how they felt like they had no voice and that they were worried about the things they might miss. They talked about the things they had learned through the media, that they didn’t like some of the things that were being said about their teachers and expressed their frustrations that there was little they could do about the current situation. I promised them I would share their perspectives and voices, and I am.
After about 20 minutes most of us were pretty cold and ready to move inside so we did; a few were hoping the protest would last all afternoon but decided to go with the flow and head back to class. I know a few were working on a letter that they hoped to share with me later this week, I’m looking forward to reading it.
I tell people that my job as principal really comes down to two things; making sure that everyone is safe and every one is learning. I think I did my job today and I’m proud to work with a great group of students and staff.