The job of teacher, as we know, is not just to transmit information, but of course to develop lifelong skills, engage students’ interest and build their capacity to be responsible citizens.
I maintain that the challenge for the law teacher is a little bit more difficult than in other subject areas. Students in a law or civics class ask questions about the law, not necessarily because they are trying to get the jump on law school, but because they want to know about their rights and responsibilities right now. Based on what they learn in grade 11 or 12 law, they will make serious decision about their interactions with police, their employers, their schools and their landlords. Even more immediate, that young person’s understanding of the law from a high school class may be the only legal information their whole household gets, especially in newcomer families. Their parents might be using this information to decide how to deal with discrimination, a family law disputes or criminal and civil law matters. I think this puts an additional responsibility on the law teacher – the responsibility to get the law right! Or at a minimum to not get it wrong.
If we take this logic too far however, law teachers end up simply avoiding the interesting topics and suppressing students’ curiosity, based on a fear of legal inaccuracy.
So, short of going to law school, how can a law teacher with no formal education in law do this?
The first step is to find out or admit to what you don’t know. Many of us are reluctant to admit that we don’t know an answer, especially when we are at the front of the classroom. However, hearing that a question has stumped a teacher or a lawyer can be very empowering for a student, especially if the next step involves working together to find the answer.
The second step is to know how to find accurate information. There are many reliable online summaries of legal concepts, rights or specific cases. Before relying on something you find online, make sure that you are looking at a site that applies to Ontario, that it is update and that it addresses the issue in a balanced manner. A good place to start is www.yourlegalrights.on.ca
Finding a summary or description of an area of law may not be sufficient. Every legal situation depends on the context. A lawyer or a paralegal will apply the law to the facts. There may be details or events that dramatically change the outcome that the student might not have mentioned. A high school teacher should not try to apply the law, but rather try to connect the student or family to appropriate legal services. In the legal community, we call this a warm referral.
Perhaps the teacher simply follows the link on a website, dials an info line with the student present or helps to set up an appointment through the lawyer referral service. Many people are nervous about taking the first step and it is helpful to connect them with a professional. There are many starting points of free or cheap assistance. From there, students and their families can pursue their legal issues on their own.
This doesn’t always mean that the process will necessarily be free, but at least they will start by talking to someone who is knowledgeable in the right area, will avoid unnecessary frustration and will have taken the first step.
High school law teachers who take their educational responsibilities very seriously may not always realize that the questions being raised are immediate and critical. The law teacher may be the only person with any connection to the legal system that the student knows how to contact. Making a warm referral is an easy way to make a connection that protects the teacher from becoming the legal problem solver and avoids the student making legal decision based on information that the teacher thought was just a class assignment.
Watch for future blog posts on common classroom mistakes and strategies to avoid them.
By Sarah McCoubrey