Pitfalls and Precautions is a series that aims to educate teachers on professional conduct issues by highlighting situations addressed by the ATA Professional Conduct Committee.
Teachers as parents. Parents as teachers. Many of us have taken calls on representation files from teachers who are also parents. In fact, this is most teachers. Often we hear passionate stories of how teachers view their role as parents to their own children as the most important role that they have. They’re right. However, their role as teacher is pretty important, too. While no one will ever say that their role as teacher is more important than their role as a parent, there are still rules that govern this juxtaposition.
One such example came before a professional conduct committee hearing recently. The committee heard the case of a very experienced teacher who questioned some of the approaches and methods being implemented by their child’s teacher in a different school. The teacher/parent in question chose to send emails to various people outlining the concerns. The list of recipients of these emails included the principal of the school that the child attended, and a series of district learning coaches. All of these communications occurred without the teacher/parent ever voicing or articulating their concern directly to their child’s teacher.
In accordance with the Code of Professional Conduct, teachers are expected to criticize colleagues only in good faith, to the individual or in confidence to proper officials, and in a respectful manner after the teacher has been informed of the criticism. Teachers need to be able to defend themselves when they are accused of something related to their professional competence. Advance notice of a critical report ensures that matters are dealt with in a fair manner. In this case, there were two charges under consideration. The teacher was found guilty on both charges and received two letters of reprimand and a $300 fine.
There is no exemption in the Code of Professional Conduct for teachers who are parents. Dealing with an issue involving their own child does not exempt a teacher from the obligation to adhere to the code and the directions spelled out therein. Additionally, there are issues about individuals who are and who aren’t considered “proper officials.” A principal is a proper official in a matter such as this. A learning coach is not a proper official. Learning coaches were created to, in part, provide a buffer between principals and staff.
Principals have the duty and authority to supervise and evaluate staff. Learning coaches do not have this authority. It is important that learning coaches be able to work with teachers without a concern about supervision and evaluation entering into the mix. Principals need to be able to carry out their supervisory tasks, and being able to separate themselves through learning coaches gives them the clear lens through which to look. By highlighting the concerns to the learning coaches, the teacher in question shared concerns about a colleague with people who are not proper officials.
Though not part of this case, both administrators and learning coaches have some growth opportunities from this matter as well. When confronted with a teacher who is expressing concern about another colleague’s practices, it is incumbent upon principals, learning coaches, consultants and even superintendents to ask one important question: Have you shared these concerns directly with your colleague? If the answer to that question is anything short of an unequivocal yes, then the teacher should be directed to do so, and the concern should not be entertained until such time as the two teachers have communicated on the issue.
Without doubt, one of the hardest things for a teacher to do is to directly criticize a colleague one-to-one. Nevertheless, the ability and obligation to do so is at the heart of being a professional. To handle matters like this appropriately, a teacher must speak directly to the other teacher. This conversation cannot and should not be brokered by another person. If it is not feasible to have this conversation in person, then written communication is appropriate. Note, however, that simply sending an email copied to the principal is not sufficient notice because the receiving teacher would not have time to respond before the principal is informed. Likewise, sending the email and then immediately forwarding the email to the principal fails to meet the appropriate professional obligation.
The Code of Professional Conduct does not prevent colleagues from criticizing practices that they don’t support. Rather, the code outlines a process to which teachers must adhere when they are offering such criticism. If a teacher adheres to the process, they have every right and opportunity to voice their concern. This includes teachers who are dealing with the teachers of their own children. Also, if your spouse is not a teacher, it may be best to let your spouse deal with the matter. ❚