Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange is seeking to remove responsibility for the professional discipline of Alberta teachers from the Alberta Teachers’ Association. This will likely be branded as an extension to her Students First Act. It’s hard to argue with the name, as it would be hard to argue with a Don’t be Cruel to Puppies Act, but, with respect, removing the ATA from any meaningful role in the discipline of Alberta teachers would be an error.
Relative to what I have seen regarding the education minister’s motivation to take the professional discipline of teachers away from the ATA, it seems she has a rather vague sense that the current processes, somehow, fail to adequately protect the students in Alberta schools.
As a lawyer, I have had the great privilege of acting as counsel to many ATA Professional Conduct Committee (PCC) hearings and discipline appeal panels over the last 25 years. That role has proven to be an excellent opportunity to observe the fairness and effectiveness of current long-standing practices and the role of the ATA. When it comes to the existing professional discipline practices for Alberta teachers, this is very much a case of “when it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The three interests to be considered by a professional discipline hearing body are the interests of the public — including students, the interests of the profession itself and the interests of the member facing discipline charges. In my 25-year experience, watching the various ATA hearing and appeal panels deal with professional misconduct charges, they invariably treat the interests of students as their first priority.
Certainly, they are alive to the interests of the profession and averse to any misconduct of a teacher that brings the profession into disrepute. They treat members charged with misconduct fairly, sensitive to the presumption of innocence, and ensure that the member gets a fair hearing. But, conclusively, the ATA regards its “public” as Alberta students, and the ATA’s discipline panels have had a students-first focus for years.
One can envision that I might become a bit jaded on the subject of teachers generally after spending about 25 years regularly dealing with allegations of professional misconduct by teachers, but I am happy to say that my involvement has had the opposite effect. I hold teachers and their profession in higher regard than I ever did. I have seen the commitment to the betterment of their profession of the volunteer teachers who devote so much time and energy to hearing, and fairly adjudicating on, teacher discipline cases. I have seen the teachers called as witnesses to hearings to give evidence regarding their colleagues — teachers who may be reluctant witnesses but who are ready to put professionalism ahead of personal affiliations. I am aware of the more than 45,000 Alberta teachers who will never face professional misconduct allegations in their careers.
While my experience with the ATA has been more extensive than with professional discipline in other professions across my almost 47 years of practice, I have had engagements in Law Society of Alberta professional conduct cases, as well as discipline cases involving pharmacists, veterinarians, doctors, psychologists, accountants and other professions (even the NHL). I can comfortably say that the current ATA-led practices and procedures overseeing teacher discipline in Alberta represent as good, or better, a system governing professional discipline as any I have encountered in any profession.
I strongly disagree with the minister in her thinly supported conclusions that, in matters of teacher discipline, the interests of Alberta students have not now (or historically) been treated as a first priority, or that the removal of the ATA from the conduct of teacher discipline in exchange for some nebulous new governance of such will be better for the students of Alberta. That sounds about as wise as removing the teachers from any meaningful role in the formulation of student curriculum. ❚
Richard Rand is a retired lawyer who practised primarily in the area of family law and professional discipline cases. He has served as a member of the conduct committee and professional responsibility committee of the Law Society of Alberta.