It’s unprofessional to skip conference sessions


June 9, 2020 Cory Schoffer, ATA Secretary to Professional Conduct Committees

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 are afforded many opportunities for professional development throughout a given year. The Alberta Teachers’ Association alone offers many such events (Beginning Teachers’ Conference, Leadership Essentials for Administrators, teachers’ conventions, specialist council conferences, to name a few). Other organizations have a wide array of PD offerings, and teachers attending them can have their expenses covered either through their ATA local, their school or their school division. A professional conduct committee recently heard a case where attendance and reimbursement didn’t quite align.

In this particular case, a teacher had sought permission and applied for funding to attend a conference organized and hosted by the ATA. The teacher received authorization from their principal to be absent from school to attend the conference. The teacher’s ATA local also confirmed that it would pay for subsistence (meals, travel, accommodation) related to the teacher’s conference attendance. These layers of approval meant that, on the days of the conference, the teacher’s attendance at the event was mandatory.

When the conference ended and the teacher returned home, the teacher submitted expense receipts. The teacher received payment as reimbursement for expenses that were incurred. The costs of the absence were borne by the employer. It turns out, however, that the teacher did not attend the conference as required and as anticipated by those who approved and paid for the teacher’s attendance.

The conference took place during a Thursday evening, a full day on Friday and half day on Saturday. While evidence indicated that the teacher did travel to attend the conference, the teacher did not sign in at any session nor at the main registration desk and did not attend the conference on Thursday, Saturday, or for much of the day on Friday. The teacher acknowledged having attended only a couple of breakout sessions on Friday morning and spending time with family members rather than attending sessions.

The professional conduct committee found the teacher guilty of one charge of unprofessional conduct. The teacher failed to act in a manner that maintained the honour and dignity of the profession by failing to attend conference sessions despite attendance being mandatory. In citing reasons for the finding, the committee commented that registering for the conference and receiving both permission and funding approval made attendance mandatory. Attendance was a condition for the absence and for expense reimbursement.

Additionally, the committee determined that the actions of the teacher violated the trust of colleagues, the employer and the public at large because the teacher failed to honour a professional commitment. The teacher’s failure to honour the professional commitment was exacerbated by the decision to engage in personal business during the time that the conference was in session. This brings disrepute to the profession. Further, the teacher filed an expense claim and received payment for expenses that were incurred at the event, despite having attended very little of the actual conference. The actions of the teacher reflect poorly on the profession.

The professional conduct committee imposed a letter of reprimand and a fine of $300 dollars. In addition to the penalty, the teacher was ordered to reimburse the local in the amount of the paid expenses, and to provide proof of payment to the Association within 60 days of receiving notice of the written decision. As with any cases where a fine is levied, the teacher must pay the fine in full and on time; otherwise, their membership in the Association will be suspended.

This penalty is in keeping with precedent cases of a similar nature. Teachers are under significant public scrutiny, and their professional development opportunities are often subject to scrutiny. The public and the profession expect that teachers will behave in a manner that upholds the honour and dignity of the profession. The penalty reflects the condemnation of the behaviour and is also intended to act as a deterrent to this teacher and others who may consider not attending conferences that they have been approved to attend.

Attending conferences often provides teachers with opportunities to travel outside of their school community. This gives teachers the ability to interact with colleagues on a social level, and may even give teachers a chance to reconnect with loved ones and friends. There is nothing wrong with seizing these opportunities outside of the regular schedule of the conference. Many conferences will schedule their events to allow this type of flex time and to afford attendees the ability to enjoy the venue or surrounding area. Nevertheless, there remains an expectation that teachers will attend the sessions that they have committed to attending as their first and utmost priority. ❚

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