The story dominated the news for days. Len Lethebe, the principal of a school in a small northern community, was accused of engaging in a romantic and ultimately sexual relationship with a student and, as a result, was charged by the Alberta Teachers’ Association with failing to treat a student with dignity and respect and failing to uphold the honour and dignity of the teaching profession.
After a two-day hearing of the Association’s Professional Conduct Committee, Lethebe was found guilty of all charges. He was fined, declared ineligible for membership in the Association and hence is now ineligible for employment in Alberta’s public, separate and francophone schools. A recommendation was made to the minister of education that Lethebe’s teaching certificate be revoked.
As the story played out on television, radio and in the newspapers, Albertans learned details of the case and the sad consequences for all involved of the selfish actions of a talented and popular teacher who betrayed the confidence of his community, his colleagues, his employer, his profession and, above all, the students in his care. But Albertans also learned something about the values our profession stands for and what we’re willing to do to uphold those values.
Albertans learned, for example, that teachers believe the teacher–student relationship and its associated responsibilities endure even if the student is on holidays, between grades or attends school intermittently. They learned that teachers are never justified in pursuing romantic relationships with their students because such relationships are, by virtue of the influence a teacher possesses, exploitive. They learned that even if a teacher’s conduct does not cross the line into criminality, the teacher is still expected to answer to the profession and the public for that conduct.
At a time when the public’s confidence in many professions and institutions has been sorely tried by revelations of misconduct and abuse, teachers still remain among the most trusted members of society, and the Alberta Teachers’ Association retains the respect of Albertans. In a recent poll, 79 per cent of Albertans agreed that the ATA represents the views of teachers and works to improve classroom conditions for students. Roughly 70 per cent also agreed that the ATA looks out for the best interests of students and is an expert authority on teaching in Alberta.
While the credibility of our profession has been built through the day-to-day work of teachers, it is reinforced by our profession’s willingness to hold teachers to a higher standard of conduct and to enforce that standard through a process that is as open as it can be, while respecting principles of fairness and natural justice. Parents and citizens can be assured that, as a profession, we will do everything we can to protect children and the public interest in education.
It would be wrong to conclude this editorial without recognizing the contribution of Association volunteers and staff who facilitate our professional conduct processes. Theirs is a demanding task that calls for meticulous attention to detail and process motivated by a commitment to see justice done. It demands compassion and worldliness and a firm moral foundation. Without being celebrated, and often at considerable emotional cost to themselves, they deal with the worst of us in the worst situations. But in doing so on our behalf, they are the very best of our profession.
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