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.
Many times when teachers are asked what they teach, they will respond by saying “I teach kids.” What this response speaks to is the fact that teaching is more than simply a technical enterprise.
Delivering curriculum in a meaningful way is paramount to the work, but truly successful teachers have a solid grasp on their role as relationship-builder. These relationships are built with colleagues, parents, community and, of course, students. Teachers are held to a high standard in these relationships, and it is a key component of maintaining the public trust and confidence in teachers that teachers strive to maintain the honour and dignity of the profession at all times.
Teachers also have their own private lives. Sometimes the details of what goes on, or what has gone on, in a teacher’s private life make for a good and interesting story. In an effort to build relationships with students, it is not uncommon for teachers to discuss elements of who they are with their students.
As children get older, these stories change. Teachers often have photos of their families and loved ones on their desks. It would not be unusual for students to ask questions about the people and pets in those photos and for teachers to engage in conversation about them. Sometimes teachers will have items of personal importance in their classrooms, such as posters from favourite movies, travel photos or sports memorabilia. Again, it would not be out of the ordinary for students and teachers to engage in some conversation about these things.
There are, however, elements of teachers’ private lives and their professional lives that are out of bounds for discussion in classrooms. Recently a Professional Conduct Committee heard one such case. In this matter, the teacher crossed the line both in terms of sharing stories of his personal life and also elements of his professional life.
The teacher was the victim of a smear campaign involving a former romantic partner. This person had placed posters outside of the teacher’s school that were clearly embarrassing to the teacher. Unfortunately, the teacher defied his principal’s directive and openly addressed these posters with his students, at times detailing and highlighting the inaccuracies depicted on the posters. The details of the teacher’s comments to his students shared personal information that was not appropriate to discuss with students.
The teacher’s inappropriate commentary in his classroom did not stop there. The teacher also spoke to students about interactions at parent-teacher interviews. These interactions, which were sometimes embellished, portrayed parents in a very negative light.
Additionally, the teacher told stories about his previous employment, again with some embellishment, that was random and not connected to the curriculum. These comments were disturbing in nature. As well, the teacher spoke of suicidal students in ways that diminished the challenges facing youth with mental health concerns.
The teacher was found to be guilty of unprofessional conduct on two charges. The teacher received a severe reprimand and fines totalling $600. It should be noted that fines payable to the Association include a timeline whereby the fine must be paid or else the teacher’s membership in the Association will be suspended. If a teacher is not an active member of the Association, they immediately fail to adhere to terms of their contract of employment, and their employment will be terminated immediately.
The teacher was experienced and should have known better after multiple decades in the profession. Despite being directed by his principal on how to deal with the awkward personal situation that he faced, the teacher ignored the directive and persisted in behaviour that was unprofessional and demeaning to students. Students expressed concern about the potentially traumatizing impact of the teacher’s statements on other students, noting that they did not feel safe or cared for in school, and in the teacher’s classroom in particular.
The teacher’s comments were deemed to be insensitive, unsympathetic, cruel, disrespectful, unco-operative and without contextually appropriate judgment. The Professional Conduct Committee considered the behaviours of the teacher in juxtaposition to the personal matters that the teacher had experienced.
The penalty, though considerate of the teacher’s long and unblemished record and personal circumstances, needed to serve as both a punishment for the teacher and as an effective deterrent to others who might engage in similar behaviours. ❚