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.
Recently, the Professional Conduct Committee heard a case in which a teacher’s failure to act created an unsafe classroom situation.
The incident leading to the charges of unprofessional conduct occurred in a health class attended by students in grades 7, 8 and 9. During a unit on interpersonal relations, the teacher assigned students a group project to demonstrate how people can react passively, assertively or aggressively in different situations. Students were to develop either a slideshow, video, poster, cartoon or skit to demonstrate their understanding of the subject matter.
Two Grade 9 boys chose to work together. After the first day of their project planning, they presented the following plan for a poster and skit to their teacher:
A girl is at her locker. A guy walks up to her and starts flirting. He “gives her a good old slap on the ass.” Aggressive reaction: she hits them back. Assertive reaction: she tells them to stop it and knock it off. Passive reaction: she ignores it and giggles.
The teacher didn’t tell the students that the project wasn’t appropriate and that they would need to change their plans. When later questioned about this by an Association investigator, the teacher explained that the project plan didn’t alarm them because “students like to choose themes that shock the teacher.”
On the second day of the project, the teacher assigned a Grade 8 girl, who had been absent on the first day, to the group with the two Grade 9 boys. The female student expressed her discomfort with the skit to the boys in her group, and they agreed to change their plan. They ultimately presented a revised presentation that didn’t involve touching or slapping.
The girl’s parents informed the school principal about the original plan that the teacher had approved and the fact that the change came about because their daughter was courageous enough to refuse to go along with the original plan.
The Professional Conduct Committee found the teacher to be guilty of unprofessional conduct, ruling that the teacher allowed the group’s inappropriate planning to proceed with little to no intervention, and, in doing so, they were responsible for the situation in which the younger female student needed to advocate for herself.
The committee determined that the teacher failed to meet section four of the Code of Professional Conduct, which requires that teachers treat their students with dignity and respect and are considerate of their circumstances. The public and the profession expect teachers to provide safe and caring learning environments for their students at all times. This teacher failed to do so.
In addition to the above, the teacher was also found guilty of violating sections 13 and 14 of the code because they sent emails that were critical of their principal to the division’s superintendent without first discussing their concerns directly with the principal.
The committee assigned the following penalties to the teacher: a letter of severe reprimand and a fine of $500 to be paid within six months. Failure to pay the fine in full within the specified time will result in the teacher being declared ineligible for membership in the Alberta Teachers’ Association.
Ironically, in a lesson in which the teacher was trying to teach students to communicate assertively, it was the Grade 8 girl who clearly communicated her concerns to her student peers that led to their skit being changed to remove the overt sexual harassment and assault while the teacher stood passively by. ❚