Alberta Teachers Stand Up for Catholic Education, Human Rights and Teacher Professionalism

Mark Ramsankar, ATA President

Over the Victoria Day weekend at the Alberta Teachers’ Association 100th Annual Representative Assembly (ARA), 446 teacher delegates from across Alberta passed resolutions that affirmed their support for the province’s Roman Catholic separate school system, for human rights and also for teachers’ right to exercise their professional judgement.

As a teacher and president of the ATA, a practicing Roman Catholic, the husband of the principal of a Catholic junior high school, and the father of two children attending Catholic schools, I could not be more proud.

About one-third of the membership of the Association teaches in Roman Catholic separate schools, and at a time when the legitimacy of that system seems to be challenged daily, it was important that the profession came together to support Catholic teachers and schools.

In the debate, delegates noted that Catholic education preceded the establishment of the province and that the creation of Catholic separate schools in Alberta and elsewhere in Canada is the product of a historical compromise that made Canada’s formation possible. As well, unlike private schools, Catholic schools are governed by democratically elected and accountable school boards that reflect the interests of the larger school and faith community, and are required to accept all students who profess to be Catholic, regardless of what special accommodations they might require or of their families’ capacity to pay. Finally, teachers in Catholic schools are full members of the Association and are subject to the Code of Professional Conduct and Practice Review that ensure that teachers’ conduct and teaching practice meet the high standards that Albertans rightly expect.

Even as they were affirming their support for Roman Catholic separate schools within the larger public education system, delegates signaled their concern with the policies and practices of certain Catholic school boards that create conflict and that undermine public support. Led by Catholic delegates, the Assembly, while recognizing that Catholic school boards enjoy special status under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, called upon those boards to abide by human rights legislation and also to treat all teachers equitably relative to their employment.

I was pleased to hear from many Catholic teachers that this was already the practice of their employers and did not diminish in any respect their schools’ Catholicity or pastoral mission; it was disturbing, however, to hear from others that this was not their experience. Ultimately Catholic boards that choose to run roughshod over the rights and sensitivities of their students and teachers are undermining their own support in their community and playing into the hands of those who would seek the demise of separate Catholic education.

Finally, teachers expressed their overwhelming support for the right and obligation of teachers in Catholic schools to exercise their individual professional judgment regarding religious instruction and the permeation of religion in the planning and teaching of lessons, evaluation of students, selection of learning resources and professional development.

Some who have scant understanding of teaching, and even less respect for teachers, have taken this to mean that teachers in Roman Catholic separate schools can teach whatever they want and even contradict fundamental tenets of the Catholic faith. This is nonsense. Whatever subject they are teaching, teachers exercising their professional judgement do so within the curriculum, respecting the subject discipline and epistemology, and with an awareness of the context in which they are teaching. Math teachers are not free to teach that 2+2=5, nor are teachers of science free to assert that the earth was created in 4004 BC. So the notion that Catholic religion teachers in Catholic schools are going to start ignoring Catholic religious teachings is absurd.

Teachers do expect that in religious studies, just as much as in other subject areas, they will be supported by their school boards in the exercise of their good judgement as professionals, and that they will be afforded the freedom and ability to make choices that will enable them to instruct their students in the most effective way possible. That is a requirement of Alberta’s Teaching Quality Standard, and a prerequisite for effective teaching.

Last weekend, teacher leaders from Catholic, francophone and public systems came together to set out policy that will help build a stronger Catholic education system for the benefit of all Albertans. Catholic trustees would do well to pay attention.