Your students aren’t your colleagues

Pitfalls and Precautions

February 25, 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.

A school as a workplace cannot be equated with other workplace environments. For example, there are few workplaces where a significant majority of people present are minors. I worked retail and at a restaurant when I was in high school. There were lots of minors working alongside me, but few actual adults were around (especially in the restaurant environment). Nevertheless, in those workplaces, the adults and the minors work together. In a school, the minors in the workplace are students. They are not colleagues. 

At a recent hearing of a professional conduct committee, the hearing panel heard a case in which the lines between teacher and student interactions in a classroom became decidedly blurred. The committee heard the case of a teacher who used inappropriate language with students in a Career and Technology Studies lab setting. 

The inappropriate language used by the teacher covered a gamut of situations and references that made students feel very uncomfortable in the class. Included were comments related to a student’s drug use and intimated domestic violence and spousal abuse. Further, the teacher singled out and targeted the lone female student in the class with derogatory comments designed to target her physical appearance.

In addition to the series of comments made by the teacher, it was also brought forward that the teacher used physical force to restrain a student. During a particular incident, the teacher was loud, upset and angry.

The teacher’s administrators had reminded him of his professional obligations and expectations, which included both verbal and written direction, on more than one occasion. Nevertheless, the teacher’s behaviour did not change. The persistence of this behaviour demonstrated a lack of understanding of the impact of his actions.

The hearing committee found the teacher guilty on four charges of unprofessional conduct. The teacher failed to treat students with dignity and respect and was not considerate of their circumstances. The teacher also failed to maintain the honour and dignity of the profession.

Though not specific to this case, I have heard teachers in similar circumstances indicate that they are simply preparing students for “the real world” and what things will be like when they work in industry. These defences do not hold any water! The teaching profession does not condone this type of behaviour, either in classrooms or in industrial settings.

A penalty of a three-month ineligibility for membership in the Alberta Teachers’ Association and a recommendation that the minister suspend the teacher’s teaching certificate for three months was imposed. It is important to be reminded that a suspension of Association membership means that a teacher cannot work for a public, separate or francophone school division in Alberta during that time. If a teacher was under contract at the time of the suspension, they could no longer adhere to the terms of their contract of employment, and their employment would be terminated immediately. Likewise, the suspension of a teaching certificate means that a teacher cannot work for a private or charter school authority that requires a teaching certificate. Additionally, to have membership in the Association reinstated, a teacher would need to make an application to Provincial Executive Council (PEC). 

The teacher remains suspended beyond the three-month period stipulated in this hearing until such time as the teacher makes an application to PEC. If PEC approves a reinstatement request, then the teacher becomes eligible for ATA membership; otherwise, the teacher remains suspended.

In imposing a penalty in this case, the hearing committee considered a number of factors. The conduct was deemed to be serious. In hearing testimony from students, the committee ascertained that they were made to feel uncomfortable, anxious, worried and unsafe in this teacher’s classroom. Their self-esteem had been undermined. The committee cited the experience of the lone female in the classroom, who was made to feel exceptionally uncomfortable due to the misogynistic comments directed toward her and toward women in general. The comments and behaviour of this teacher undermined the trust that the public has in the public school system, and the teacher failed to understand the impact of these actions. ❚

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