From the Archives: Teacher professionalism rises from years of struggle

January 30, 2018
Maggie Shane, ATA Archivist

Leading up to its official 100th anniversary in June 2018, the Alberta Teachers’ Association is celebrating its history through a number of initiatives, one of which is this column. Curated by archivist Maggie Shane and appearing in each issue of the ATA News this year, this column will feature significant moments and individuals in the Association’s history, as well as interesting artifacts and documents from the Association’s archives.

In 1917, there were teachers but no teaching profession. The struggle to establish teacher professionalism, with all the concomitant rights and responsibilities, was the vision to which the fledgling Alberta Teachers’ Alliance dedicated itself. Professional status and recognition was the foundation upon which teachers could raise a collective voice in support of students, public education, better working conditions and salaries, ongoing professional learning and adequate funding. Professionalism referred to pedagogical practice rather than employment, every aspect of which could be dictated and circumscribed by a school board.

Alliance efforts to secure professional status was the first order of business beginning in 1918. At the first annual
general meeting (today’s Annual Representative Assembly), delegates adopted a code of honour that established professional standards of ethical conduct. Although the Alliance did not wield enforcement powers as we understand discipline today, early members understood the code to be of primary importance in gaining the public trust and support for teacher professional status.

By 1926, the School Act had been amended to establish a board of reference to “serve as a board of conciliation or as a board of arbitration” of three members appointed by the lieutenant- governor-in-council: one teacher, one trustee and one public member. The Board of Reference shifted general dispute resolution away from teacher/board dynamics to an independent and informed tribunal. Although it wielded investigative powers to compel documents and call witnesses, the tribunal was essentially toothless, as the first Board of Reference was not granted the power to enforce its decisions.

As the Alliance executive continued to drive towards full professional status, members continued to debate and refine expectations of professional conduct. Delegates to the 1932 annual general meeting revisited the old Code of Honour of 1918 and gave their support to an expanded Code of Ethics. In 1935, after 17 years of relentless effort by the Alliance, the United Farmers of Alberta government under Premier Richard Gavin Reid passed the first iteration of the Teaching Profession Act.

Early drafts of the bill had given teeth to the Board of Reference and required mandatory ATA membership for publicly paid teachers, as suggested by the Alliance. However, the act was passed without these advancements in teacher professionalism. The Teaching Profession Act retired the Alliance to establish the Alberta Teachers’ Association — a profession was born.

Professional status and recognition was the foundation upon which teachers could raise a collective voice in support of students, public education, better working conditions and salaries, ongoing professional learning and adequate funding.  

 

The fall of 1935 witnessed a change of government and the election of former high school principal William Aberhart as the Social Credit Party’s premier and minister of education. In Aberhart’s first legislative session in April 1936, the Teaching Profession Act was amended to include mandatory membership. It was amended again in 1937 to grant enforcement powers to the Board of Reference. With the stroke of a pen, Aberhart had secured permanent membership and funding for the ATA, provided statutory professional status for teachers and established a robust and effective Board of Reference.

The years of the Second World War were disruptive and painful. Nevertheless, the Association continued to work to strengthen the profession. In 1945, Alberta become the first province to grant universities the exclusive responsibility for teacher education. Two years of university training was the minimum requirement to obtain certification. In that year, the board of teacher education and certification was established with representation from the ATA.

Teacher professionalism endured a challenge in the mid-1950s. As the baby-boom generation approached school age, a teacher shortage prompted the ministry to relax teacher certification requirements through the Emergency Teacher Training Act, which remained in effect from 1954 to 1958.

While acknowledging the emergency,  the Association fought hard to maintain professional standards. Part of the Association’s response was to organize and implement a formal professional induction program for new teachers, take over the Teacher Qualifications Service, appoint representatives to the Teacher Salary Qualification Board, increase the minimum university program to three years and adopt competency bylaws between 1960 and 1972.

The pillars of contemporary professional status that support modern pedagogy were hard won during the Association’s first 50 years.