Teachers can be political while upholding professional obligations

Q & A

May 12, 2021 Dennis Theobald, ATA Executive Secretary

Question: I have several questions about how teachers may or may not express their views on the draft curriculum and other government decisions. What is acceptable from a professional and policy perspective? Is it acceptable for our ATA local to order and distribute to teachers and other community members lawn signs about the curriculum or education funding or classroom conditions?

Answer:  It is perfectly permissible and appropriate for teacher locals to pass out signs that engage curriculum or any other policy issue relating to public education, even if that is “political” in that it refers to a specific position adopted by the government or another political party. What would not be acceptable is for the local to endorse a candidate or political party. 

That said, locals undertaking such activities should contact the ATA’s associate co-ordinator of communications, Jonathan Teghtmeyer, so that the Association can ensure that the reporting and accounting necessary to comply with provincial legislation regarding “political advertising” is taken care of.

It is also entirely acceptable for teachers to choose to post signs relating to education or any other political issue, including signs that might endorse a candidate or party, particularly around election time. This is true for municipal, school board, provincial and federal elections. Engagement by individual teachers, even in a partisan fashion, is entirely acceptable and is even encouraged as a professional and civic responsibility. 

Question: How outspoken can our teachers be without crossing the line when it comes to board policy? Some of our teachers are very unhappy with decisions being made by our trustees, particularly about being enlisted to pilot curriculum. 

Answer: If they are told to pilot the curriculum, a teacher can, and I would argue, should, request that they be informed of this in writing by the superintendent to establish this direction as a “lawful order of the board.” The teacher could then reply in writing to the superintendent stating their concerns and indicating that they would comply with the order but only under protest.

Teachers may also speak out about their concerns with the curriculum generally while avoiding the direct criticism of the board. They can even say “I have an obligation as an employee not to criticize the decisions of the school board, but I do wish to point out my personal professional concerns regarding the draft provincial curriculum and the process being used by the government to develop and implement it.” 

The same principle applies with respect to other issues touching on provincial education policy. While teachers have a fiduciary obligation to their employer school board, they are not employed by the government and enjoy the same right as any other citizen to engage in public political discourse.

Question: Does the Association really need to be picking fights with the government? How does this help teachers?

Answer: In the game of tennis, an “unforced error” is said to occur when a player makes a mistake that is attributed to that player’s own failure rather than to the skill or effort of an opponent. While there have always been budgetary and policy tensions between the Association and various governments (including, let’s not forget, the New Democratic government under Rachel Notley), teachers’ current animosity toward this government’s education policy is largely a reaction to several unforced errors, including the termination of the curriculum partnership between the government and the Association, the AIMCo takeover of the management of the teachers’ pension plan and the impending imposition of additional red tape affecting the collection of member dues. 

In each case, the government’s decision was unilateral, made without meaningful consultation, and badly motivated. These were not fights that the Association sought out, but rather, they were forced upon us. A more pragmatic government would realize that teachers are politically diverse and that there are votes to be won among our number. A more imaginative government would realize that this situation might still be salvaged in a way that would serve its interests while benefiting teachers, students and the province as a whole. ❚


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