Question: The minister of education recently rejected an ATA recommendation to suspend a teacher’s certificate on the grounds of unprofessional conduct, choosing instead to cancel his certificate. Is the Alberta Teachers’ Association being soft on teachers who violate the Code of Professional Conduct?
Answer: Not at all. In this instance the Association investigated a complaint based on events that transpired years in the past, successfully prosecuted the teacher responsible for misconduct and ensured that he was removed from his job and would not be eligible to teach in Alberta’s public education system.
The management of this case demonstrates how the Association upholds very high standards of professional conduct through a process set out in legislation and bylaws. Understanding how that process works will assist fair-minded people to better understand the context for recent media reports and misleading social-media commentary.
There are fundamental differences between the Association’s suspension/cancellation of membership and the minister’s suspension/cancellation of certification. First of all, the Association’s authority extends only to the membership of a teacher in the ATA. The Association has no power over the certification of a teacher, as this responsibility resides entirely with the minister. The Association can recommend that a teacher’s certification be suspended or cancelled, and the minister is free to accept or to reject the recommendation; this is simply part of the process.
The ATA’s suspension of membership differs from suspension of certification by the minister. Both will result in the suspended member being unemployable in a public, separate or francophone school in Alberta. A suspension by the minister, however, will preclude a teacher from being employed in accredited private or charter schools where ATA membership is not a condition of employment.
As well, reinstatement of ATA membership following suspension is not automatic; the teacher has to demonstrate to a very high standard of proof that they are worthy of being re-admitted into the ATA. In the history of the Association, we are aware of only two instances where a suspended member has successfully met the criteria for reinstatement. In contrast, when the minister suspends a teacher’s certificate, it is typically for a set period of time, after which the certificate is automatically restored.
Hearings concerning allegations of unprofessional conduct are conducted by a Professional Conduct Committee consisting of three volunteer teachers drawn from the field, or in cases with a broader public interest, two teachers and a third member of the public appointed by the minister.
Furthermore, the Association’s process for prosecuting and sanctioning teachers who have engaged in unprofessional conduct is not subject to political direction by staff or elected leadership of the ATA. Hearings concerning allegations of unprofessional conduct are conducted by a Professional Conduct Committee consisting of three individuals, two of whom are volunteer teachers drawn from the field and a third who is a member of the public appointed by the minister. The Association’s role in a discipline case is to prosecute the member, bring forward evidence and propose penalties. The accused member is personally responsible for arranging their own representation, presenting evidence and making arguments. The Association does not assist accused members with respect to the discipline process.
The Professional Conduct Committee determines the teacher’s culpability after hearings that may extend for days or even weeks and, if it finds the teacher guilty of unprofessional conduct, it imposes penalties (typically informed by precedents) that may range from verbal reprimands, to fines, to suspension or cancellation of membership. Hearing outcomes are reported to Provincial Executive Council which, in accordance with provisions of administrative law, must give due deference to the original hearing committee and can justify an appeal only if it determines that the decision of that committee was patently unreasonable. An appeal by Council or by a teacher is heard by a separate and independent committee, whose decision is final.
The ATA enforces its Code of Professional Conduct through an exacting, quasijudicial administrative process that is designed to provide procedural fairness while ensuring that high standards of professional conduct are upheld. It is also very transparent. Unlike the minister’s own process for dealing with unprofessional conduct by teachers in private and charter schools, and superintendents and certificated system administrators who are not ATA members, Association hearings are, by default, open to the public. The reports of hearing committees form part of the public record. Association hearing reports are available upon request to any person and to the media — ministry reports are not. Finally, Association processes are not open to political intervention and are subject to formal review processes; the minister the minister is subject to none of these constraints and need not justify her decisions. ❚
Questions for consideration in this column are welcome. Please address them to Dennis Theobald at Barnett House (firstname.lastname@example.org).