My political beliefs have been forged across the Atlantic Ocean. In December 2018, I proudly became a British citizen after nearly ten years in the country. I moved here from Canada in August 2009, to take up a job as a teacher at a brilliant school in Kent.
I’d spent my formative years in Ottawa, Canada’s beautiful capital city. Working for the New Democratic Party (NPD) in the Canadian parliament, I had the immense privilege of meeting some of the party’s brightest people. I found mentors and role models across all parties: politicians and political operatives who defied the stereotypes (regrettably common to the United Kingdom and Canada) that Members of Parliament are entitled, lazy, or dishonest.
I got to know the Leader of the NDP, a truly formidable woman named Alexa McDonough, and I watched in youthful awe as she ultimately stepped down as leader and graciously handed the baton to a man named Jack Layton, now a Canadian political icon to whom I will refer again later.
From these people, I learned to value honesty, the subtlety of debate, and the genius of collaboration. I learned to appreciate that while politics is full of cynicism, it is also full of hope. Hope that needs to be nurtured and cherished, knowing that the more people hope lives within, the stronger that hope is.
Every child deserves education
So, now as a teacher, I put hope at the centre of my political thinking. I hope for a country that values fairness above inequity, and I pursue that in my career. I fundamentally believe that every child, regardless of their background or personal circumstances, deserves the best education available. I believe that in one of the world’s wealthiest and most prosperous countries, education is not only possible but also affordable. I have joined strike action and marches championing those ideals, and I have become a better teacher because of it.
It is impossible to avoid the question of whether politics comes into my classroom, because of course it does. The belief alone that all children deserve an education is a political one. What I don’t bring into my classroom is any evangelism for my own political beliefs.
I try and represent my values of honesty, collaboration and debate, and I allow my students the space to discuss issues when they come up (and, believe me, issues come up). I correct factual inaccuracies where they arise (and they do), and I do my best to be an impartial moderator rather than a soap-box presenter. Students do ask for my personal opinions on the issues and personalities of the day, and I like to think that I’m fairly adept at working around the question rather than dominating the conversation – though I do tell them that I do, certainly, have deeply-held personal beliefs but that my classroom is not the place to hear them.
Our current political situation is not, on the surface, one that would appear to engender hope over cynicism. The level of debate around exiting the European Union has been lacking. My students, who are far more likely to read the comment section of an article rather than the article itself, have come to understand political discourse as an extended exchange of personal insults, often hurled anonymously across the Internet.
I am constantly asking myself how I can get young people as interested in the hopefulness of politics as I am, when the standard for discussion has been set so low.
World’s greatest peace project in action
A few years ago, my school hosted and took part in a Comenius exchange. For those who aren’t aware, the Comenius programme is a European Union project, focusing on school-level education, with the aim of providing meaningful collaboration for three million people before the year 2020. This was an exchange absolutely unlike any other, considering both its scale and its impact. For the first time in many of my students’ lives, they met someone from the farthest corners of our continent. They learned about the challenges faced by some schools, and they were invested with a sense of optimism from their new friends.
This was a fundamental aspect of my own political education, and outside of my classroom I am a fierce advocate for remaining in the European Union, because I have seen first-hand the human-scale, transformative power that it has. I have watched the world’s greatest-ever peace project in action, as friendships were formed across countries, cultures, and language barriers. My hope, central to my political thinking, was strengthened and deepened throughout that experience.
I mentioned one of my political heroes, Jack Layton, earlier. Tragically, Jack Layton died far too early, in 2011, after a long illness. It was especially difficult because he had, for the first time in Canadian history, led his party to become the Official Opposition. Ever the pragmatist, Jack penned an open letter to all Canadians shortly before his death.
He closed his final letter to us with these words:
“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”
Jack’s invocation for us to remain loving and hopeful, rather than fearful and hateful, still sits at the forefront of my politics.