This is a legacy provincial website of the ATA. Visit our new website here.

Editorial: Student protests are about student agency … and that can be scary

May 14, 2019 Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief

As 10 o’clock came, I sat nervously at my desk, still unsure as to whether I would go through with it or not. It was unknown how my teacher would react.

The day before this, 3,000 students had walked out of Calgary classrooms and gathered at the MacDougall Centre to protest planned education funding cuts. The rumour running through my school (McNally) was that Edmonton’s turn was next.

So there I sat, in Social 10 on the morning of Oct. 28, 1993, waiting for something to break the tension — to offer the impetus to stand up and walk out.

Then it came. A sound of commotion from down the hall, then the movement of bodies outside the classroom. Then one student stood, followed by others.

“Sorry, Ms. D,” one student said on the way out. “We’ve got to do this.”

Others joined as we walked out the door and off to the bus stop. We stepped onto LRT trains already teeming with students. At Grandin Station, another train arrived full of kids. Eventually the teenagers took off running through the pedway toward the legislature.

Nearly 1,000 students showed up that day to share their voice and express themselves to the government.

My experience that day had a lasting, profound impact on me. The feeling of taking control, of finding your voice, of active citizenship is unmistakable.

That feeling was so remarkable because the choice was mine. I had full agency at that time — and as a 14-year-old that was rare. I did not need any adults to push me to do it and nothing any adults would have said or done would likely have stopped me.

Critics have tried to undermine these students by making up false narratives about teacher control.

I’ve also been a teacher when students walked out of class for a protest. I was pragmatic and professional about it. Students asked me what I would do, and I told them I would mark them absent. I told them that their priority should be learning, but I was quietly proud of them. I knew that they would learn something more important that day about democracy and citizenship than I could ever teach them.

I cannot help but be proud of the thousands of students who briefly walked out of class on May 3 this year to protest proposed changes to GSA legislation.

Some are suggesting that the students did not walk out on their own; that the protests were organised by teachers or the Association. That notion is not just absurd, it is also insulting to the students who organised and participated.

Many of those who level this criticism at teachers and the Association know full well that it is not true. Instead, they use this as an opportunity to pre-emptively undermine the professionalism of teachers and the credibility of the ATA.

But, actually, this critique is less about us (teachers) than it is about the students and those who want to control them.

The argument that students couldn’t possibly organize these types of events on their own suggests they lack the agency and the capacity to do so, yet those of us who work with students and see them using social media know full well that many possess such skills to a high degree.

And that is what this whole story is actually about — student agency, freedom of expression and freedom of association.

It’s at the heart of what the students are protesting. To put it simply, the student protestors are asking for the ability to start a club in their own school, to call it what they want to call it, to be supported by the school instead of opposed, and to have the ability to attend that club without requiring parental notification. And these students are using their agency and their freedom to effect change.

That is what is truly powerful — yet dangerous to some — about these protests, which is why critics have tried to undermine these students by making up false narratives about teacher control.

Because if I am not able to control my kids and the teachers are not either, then that means the young people are in control. For some, that is too scary to think about. ❚

I welcome your comments—contact me at

Also In This Issue