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.
One hallmark of a profession is the establishment of and support for a professional code of conduct and standards of practice. In Alberta, the Alberta Teachers’ Association is responsible for ensuring that teachers employed in public, separate and francophone school jurisdictions adhere to the Association’s Code of Professional Conduct. The code of conduct outlines the minimum standards of conduct expected of active members of the Association. These expectations cover how teachers should conduct themselves with regard to students, colleagues, school authorities and the profession itself. Included within the relationship to school authorities is article 11, which stipulates that teachers abide by the agreements negotiated on their behalf by the Association.
From time to time, the Association will provide support and assistance to teachers who are experiencing a breakdown in their employment relationship. In these instances, there are times when it is beneficial for both the school jurisdiction and the teacher to end the employment relationship. The Association will, at the request of and with input from the teacher, engage with the school authority to outline the conditions of the cessation of the employment relationship. This formal, legally binding agreement is referred to as a settlement and release agreement. Ultimately, the terms of the agreement are signed off on by the teacher and the school authority. Once a settlement and release agreement is signed by the teacher and the school authority, both parties are expected to abide by its terms.
In a recent precedent-setting case, the employment contract of a teacher was severed through a settlement and release agreement negotiated with the school authority by the Association on the teacher’s behalf. Within the terms of the agreement, there was a requirement that the teacher would not disparage the name or impugn the reputation of the school authority or its officers, directors, employees, agents or representatives.
A lengthy period of time after the formalization of this settlement and release agreement, the local media covered a story involving the school authority and its officers. The media story was unrelated to the teacher’s individual circumstances. It was featured in several community publications, as well as on the Global News website. On various occasions, the teacher contributed to the comments sections of the posted stories and, in doing so, made several critical comments about the board and its officers, both past and present. When the school authority became aware of the comments, they made a request to the Association to investigate the teacher’s actions.
The Association launched an investigation that led to two charges of unprofessional conduct. The first charge alleged that the teacher had failed to uphold the dignity of the teaching profession, and the second alleged that the teacher had failed to adhere to the agreement negotiated on their behalf by the Association.
The Professional Conduct Committee found the teacher guilty of the two charges, reasoning that the teacher had failed to uphold the terms of the settlement and release agreement, bringing dishonour to the profession and their obligations as a teacher. Furthermore, the actions of the teacher in disparaging their former school authority over social media brought disrepute to the profession in a very public fashion.
The public must have confidence in the work of teachers at both the school level and the system level, and by publicly criticizing the school authority and its officers, the teacher undermined the teaching profession. In addition, the teacher was found guilty of breaching article 11 of the Code of Professional Conduct. It was the first time in the ATA’s history that a teacher had been found guilty of breaching this article, which specifies that teachers must adhere to agreements negotiated on their behalf by the Association.
The committee imposed a letter of severe reprimand, a fine of $2,000 for the first charge, a fine of $4,000 for the second charge, and an order to the teacher to remove all social media posts that disparaged or impugned their former school authority and its officers. The committee further imposed a 120-day timeline for the teacher to pay the fines. As is standard in these cases, the committee indicated that if the member failed to pay their fines in a timely fashion, their membership in the Association would be suspended.
Article 11, Code of Professional Conduct
The teacher adheres to agreements negotiated on the teacher’s behalf by the Association.
In imposing the penalty for this case, the committee reasoned that it should reflect the seriousness of the matter and act as a deterrent for other members, that it should maintain the public’s confidence in the profession, and that the public must have confidence that when the Association negotiates on behalf of its members the agreements will be upheld.
Finally, the $4,000 fine for the second charge was imposed because it was precedent setting and the actions of the teacher negatively impacted the reputation of the Association and its ability to effectively represent teachers in matters involving the negotiation of agreements on their behalf. ❚