ATA 101 is a feature series aimed at informing members, both new and experienced, about various aspects of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.
This instalment provides a brief glimpse of the historical context that gave rise to the formation of the ATA as well as some of the organization’s main functions. Watch for additional instalments in upcoming issues of the ATA News.
In 1916, the life of an Alberta teacher was characterized by poor wages and deplorable working conditions. Teachers had no employment security and could be replaced at any time by someone less qualified (and lower paid). If school boards couldn’t collect enough taxes in a particular year, schools closed and teachers weren’t paid at all.
In those days, most teachers were young, single women who, if they married, were deemed no longer suitable for employment. Those teachers who were paid faced falling salaries in the midst of strife caused by the First World War. The average annual salary for an Alberta teacher in 1916 was $828.69, not a lot more than the $800 salary paid by the Edmonton School District to its first teacher in 1885.
While teachers’ circumstances were grim, Alberta’s agriculture-based economy was in much better shape. Crops were excellent, grain prices were high and farmers were doing very well in 1916 – the general prosperity just didn’t get to teachers.
It was against this backdrop that Alberta teachers succeeded in organizing the province’s first teachers’ organization, with the Alberta Teachers’ Alliance being incorporated in 1918.
The Alberta government did not respond generously to the establishment of a teachers’ organization, nor did Alberta’s school boards, but that didn’t stop the fledgling organization from tirelessly pursuing its goals:
- Professional and organizational recognition
- Automatic membership for all teachers
- Higher school grants
- A pension plan
- Transfer of teacher preparation programs to universities (and the closure of normal schools)
- Higher professional standards
During the organization’s first decades of existence, the ATA’s top (and only) executive was general secretary John Barnett, a teacher and former member of the National Union of Teachers in England. A large part of Barnett’s job was to drive around the province each year convincing teachers of the benefits of belonging to the ATA and to collect the annual membership dues, which were originally $5.
From the Alliance’s inception in 1918 and up to 1935, Barnett and other organization officials worked tirelessly to convince successive governments – first the Liberals, then the United Farmers of Alberta and finally the Social Credit Party – to enact legislation establishing teaching as a profession.
In 1935, the United Farmers of Alberta government passed the Teaching Profession Act, which ended the Alliance and created a legal foundation for a new organization: the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA). In 1936, the new Social Credit government amended the act to require mandatory ATA membership for all certificated teachers employed by publicly funded school boards. These two developments, the passing of the Teaching Profession Act and its subsequent amendment, were watershed moments for Alberta teachers, moments that form the core of today’s ATA.
From that point forward, freed from the need to conduct perennial membership drives, the Association turned its full attention to fulfilling its new statutory obligations and to building a strong, determined, effective and respected teaching profession.
Over the next 10 years, the government approved legislation giving teachers a process for appealing dismissals, a pension plan and the right to bargain collectively. In 1942, Alberta’s first faculty of education was established at the University of Alberta, beginning the process of moving teacher education from normal schools to universities. ❚
A Definitive Purpose
The ATA’s purpose is outlined as four objects in the Teaching Profession Act:
The objects of the association are:
- to advance and promote the cause of education in Alberta
- to improve the teaching profession
- by promoting and supporting recruitment and selection practices that ensure capable candidates for teacher education,
- by promoting and supporting adequate programs of preservice preparation, internship and certification,
- by promoting the establishment of working conditions that will make possible the best level of professional service,
- by organizing and supporting groups that tend to improve the knowledge and skill of teachers,
- by meetings, publications, research and other activities designed to maintain and improve the competence of teachers,
- by advising, assisting, protecting and disciplining members in the discharge of their professional duties and relationships, and
- by assessing the professional competence of its members by means of a professional practice review process provided for under the bylaws of the association;
- to arouse and increase public interest in the importance of education and public knowledge of the aims of education, financial support for education, and other education matters;
- to co-operate with other organizations and bodies in Canada and elsewhere having the same or like aims and objects.
Professional Association + Union
Since its inception in 1935, as outlined within the objects contained in the Teaching Profession Act, the ATA has performed both professional and union functions. Over the decades, the Association has evolved structures and processes that allow it to fulfil both functions without conflict.
The investigation and adjudication of complaints relating to professional conduct or practice are handled separately from the protection provided to members in matters of employment and collective bargaining. The Association does not represent members who are subject to its professional discipline processes.
On the professional side, the Association also supports a wide range of professional development activities as well as advocating for the cause of public education in the public interest. All this is paid for by its 45,000 member teachers through fees set by their representatives at the Annual Representative Assembly.
Teacher Qualifications Service
Everyone wants to get paid what they’re worth, and for Alberta teachers that happens through the work of the Teacher Qualifications Service (TQS).
The TQS was created in 1967 as a partnership between the government of Alberta, the Alberta School Trustees Association (now the Alberta School Boards Association) and the department of education.
The service evaluates the coursework of new education graduates and working teachers who have completed additional study so that their educational credentials are taken into account in their salary grid placement.
The service operates out of the Alberta Teachers’ Association building in Edmonton as an arm’s length operation that’s administered by a board composed of members from the ATA, the Alberta School Boards Association, Alberta Education and the universities of Alberta, Calgary and Lethbridge.
In 1960, delegates at the Annual Representative Assembly approved a resolution to form specialist councils “for the purpose of improving practice in the various specialities.” The first specialist councils included English, modern languages, science, social studies, mathematics and a council for school administrators. In 1961, the guidance counsellors established their council and there were councils underway for home economics, business education and industrial arts.
Inaugural specialist council conferences took place in May 1961, and the first specialist council seminar was convened in October 1961. Fine arts and health and physical education signed on in 1963. Today the Association has 22 specialist councils in a wide array of specialities.
What the Heck is PEC?
If the Alberta Teachers’ Association were a city, PEC would be its city council. It is an executive committee of 20 teachers that is responsible for directing the business of the Association.
On PEC, there are five table officers (ATA president, two vice-presidents, past-president and executive secretary) and 15 district representatives. The executive secretary serves as the Association’s chief executive officer and is responsible for the operations and staff of the Association.
All positions, with the exception of the past president and executive secretary, are elected to office by ATA members every two years.
PEC is also referred to as Council.
Members of PEC
- are certificated practicing teachers;
- meet as a council two days at a time at least eight times each year;
- serve on internal and external committees and Association subgroups, like specialist councils;
- engage in professional development as part of their duties;
- make decisions affecting the budgets, policies and strategic direction of the ATA; and
- are accountable to the ATA membership, i.e., you.
Did you Know?
The Annual Representative Assembly is the ATA’s equivalent of an annual general meeting and operates as an annual parliament. Each May long weekend, more than 450 teacher delegates gather to debate ATA policy and the organization’s annual budget.