IN FOCUS—ATA Discipline process protects the profession and the public

October 24, 2017
Laura Harris, ATA News Staff
The ATA’s discipline process is initiated when a complaint is filed with the executive secretary. All complaints are investigated to determine whether the matter is to be referred to a hearing committee.

Welcome to In Focus, an ongoing series that shines a spotlight on the operation and programs of the Alberta Teachers’ Association. This second instalment focuses on the ATA’s teacher discipline process.

In 2016, four teachers had their Alberta teaching certificates cancelled for reasons of unprofessional conduct. They represented less than .01 per cent of Alberta’s classroom teachers. Still, the findings made during their respective discipline hearings were detrimental enough to the profession and the public that members of the Association’s Professional Conduct Committee recommended penalties that ended their careers.

“The Association and the members selected to serve on our discipline committees take very seriously the responsibility of safeguarding the teaching profession,” said Member Services Co-ordinator Robert Mazzotta, who handles discipline process inquiries from members and the public.

“We have the authority to investigate and discipline our members, but also encourage anyone who has a concern about the conduct of a teacher to first attempt to communicate with the teacher, the school or, if necessary, the school board to resolve it. The discipline process works, but isn’t always the appropriate initial measure to take.”

The discipline process is one of the Association’s professional regulatory functions and is legislated through the Teaching Profession Act. It is initiated when a complaint about the conduct of a teacher is filed with the ATA’s executive secretary. Complaints can be filed by anyone — a parent, superintendent, a school administrator, even a colleague or a student.

All complaints are investigated by an Association executive staff officer to determine whether the matter is to be referred to a hearing committee. Over the last 10 years, the Association has averaged 75 investigations and 14 hearings annually. There is a difference between the number of investigations and hearings because some investigations are resolved, some are terminated due to withdrawal of the complaint and some are dismissed due to insufficient evidence or because the subject matter of the complaint is frivolous, vexatious or without merit.

Know the code

What constitutes unprofessional conduct is outlined in the Teaching Profession Act. It is any conduct of a teacher that, in the opinion of a hearing committee, is detrimental to the best interests of students, the public or the teaching profession, or harms the standing of teachers generally. The minimum standards of professional conduct for Alberta teachers are contained in the Association’s Code of Professional Conduct.

Initially proposed as the Code of Honour in 1918, when the Association was in its fledgling state as the Alberta Teachers’ Alliance, the code is heading into its 100th year of existence. Mazzotta suggests the long-standing set of guidelines is something with which teachers should become very familiar and take into consideration at all times, especially in this age of texting and social media.

“A text or social media post, whether words or pictures, can have the same effect as an announcement over a loud speaker in a room filled with a million people — it can be amplified that fast and to that many people,” Mazzotta said. “Unprofessional conduct, whether that is disrespecting your colleagues or overstepping boundaries of behaviour with students, is the same in the digital world as it is when it takes place face to face. Teachers are teachers 24/7, 365 days a year and they have a responsibility to understand and follow the code at all times.”

The process works

A teacher found guilty of unprofessional conduct, depending on the severity of the offence, faces penalties ranging from a verbal reprimand to the cancellation of his or her Alberta teaching certificate. The last verbal reprimand was issued in 2011. Just last year a teacher received the most severe penalty in Association history when he received a $10,000 fine, was declared permanently ineligible for ATA membership and had a recommendation made to Alberta Education for the cancellation of his teaching certificate.

As executive secretary, Dr. Gordon Thomas has overseen the Association’s discipline process for 15 years. Hundreds of investigation reports containing issues from the frivolous to the criminal have crossed his desk, all requiring his decision as to whether they warranted a discipline hearing. Reflecting on his experience with the discipline process, he said teachers need to remember that they are always teachers first.

“In fulfilling your obligations as a parent or a community member, a teacher is always a teacher,” Thomas said. “The Code of Professional Conduct is never switched off. The interests of the public and the profession are always paramount.” ❚

 

Five things to know about the ATA discipline process

  1. It’s exclusive to ATA members.
    With the exception of superintendents and a small number of central office teachers, all certificated teachers employed by Alberta’s public, separate and francophone school jurisdictions, as legislated by the Teaching Profession Act, are active members of the Alberta Teachers’ Association and are subject to its discipline process.

    The discipline of teachers in charter and private schools, some central office teachers and superintendents, is the responsibility of the minister of education. Complaints are managed by the registrar of  Alberta Education.

  2. There are no investigations without complaints.
    The Association conducts investigations of all unprofessional conduct allegations but doesn’t initiate them. A written complaint to the Association’s executive secretary is required to start the process.

  3. The public is represented.
    Each of the Association’s three discipline committees has at least one public member named by the lieutenant-governor. It is mandatory for a public member to be on any hearing committee dealing with a complaint relating to a teacher charged with an indictable offence.

  4. Membership does have its privileges.
    Teachers who have had their ATA membership suspended, or have been declared ineligible for ATA membership by a hearing committee, cannot teach in any Alberta public, separate or francophone school. Suspended members must apply for reinstatement in order to be eligible once again for membership.

    A teacher whose teaching certificate is suspended or cancelled by the minister of education cannot teach in any Alberta school.

  5. Hearings are public.
    Discipline hearings are public unless closed by the hearing committee.

    Open hearings provide transparency and assist in protecting the public interest and the interest of the profession.

    Closed hearings can take place when, in the opinion of the hearing committee, there exist circumstances detrimental to the interests of anyone other than the investigated teacher (e.g., a child witness) if the hearing is not held in private.

 

Code of conduct
The Code of Professional Conduct and details of the discipline process can be viewed online at teachers.ab.ca. Pitfalls and Precautions, a column highlighting professional conduct issues, appears regularly in the online and print versions of the ATA News.