Read and understand before you sign

January 14, 2015 Robert Mazzotta

It’s important to know your contract and where to turn if you have questions

“I have no idea what kind of contract I have. I think I signed one. Does it make a difference what type of contract I have?”

When a teacher calls Member Services for advice, this is often the response to one of the first questions asked by the staff officer on call. And yes, it is important for us, and you, to know what kind of contract you have, as the advice we provide is sometimes based on the contract type.

It is also important that you read and understand your contract before signing it, because when you sign it you are entering into a legal agreement with your school board and you need to agree to follow what the employer is asking.

A longer contract is not necessarily a better or worse contract. As well, in Alberta a contract must be in writing. Verbal agreements or contracts are not legally binding for teachers. Contracts of employment are with the school board, not the school or the principal. Finally, in certain circumstances teachers have strong protections in the School Act. Don’t agree to anything without doing your due diligence and don’t agree to do “extra” just because you are asked to do so. Call Member Services for advice before signing any legal, employment document.

Teacher contracts are found in the School Act (sections 97 to 103), and the act is clear in defining how the different contracts are used based on the situation.

Temporary contracts are issued for teachers employed to replace someone who is absent from his or her duties for 20 or more days, often to replace a teacher who is ill or on leave. A temporary contract ends on June 30, but can be ended sooner if 30 days’ notice is provided. If you are on a temporary contract and are replacing someone who is ill, your contract does not end early if the teacher returns early. You must be provided with 30 days’ notice. Call us if you are being told your contract is ending earlier than planned and you have not been provided with proper notice.

Probationary contracts are for open teaching assignments, meaning no one is scheduled to return to that position. These contracts start on the first operational day and run until June 30. If you are on a full-time probationary contract, you need to be formally evaluated by your principal and he or she needs to make a recommendation about your future employment to the superintendent before the end of the year.

Boards that offer an individual teacher two full-time probationary contracts in consecutive years may be in breach of the School Act, as a second probationary contract (called a probationary extension) is offered only when a principal is not convinced that you have demonstrated all the descriptors of the Teaching Quality Standard.

I received a call not long ago from a teacher who had not been evaluated. The teacher indicated that, while the principal had been in the classroom a few times, the teacher never received anything in writing. At the end of the year the employment relationship was not renewed. When I followed up with the superintendent, I inquired about the evaluation and the basis for non-renewal of contract. Because the superintendent realized that a proper and full evaluation was not completed, the teacher was given an additional probationary contract so a full evaluation could be done. In that instance, the teacher was given another opportunity to demonstrate his skills in the classroom and to have a written report to be used with other employers.

A continuing contract has no end date and can be either full-time or part-time. Teachers who hold a continuing contract also have tenure and have access to a board of reference should the employer move to terminate that contract without the teacher’s consent or without just cause.

In 2007, the Association made application to the courts for judicial review of certain contract clauses that were problematic for teachers. Justice R. P. Marceau ruled that certain contract clauses were ultra vires (beyond the powers of) the act and not permissible. School boards could no longer offer contracts with the following types of clauses:

  • When termination of a contract was delegated to the superintendent of schools, the teacher no longer had access to a termination hearing before the superintendent. The court stated that the rules of natural justice applied, and teachers were permitted to appeal the termination by way of a formal hearing before the superintendent.
  • Teachers with a valid driver’s licence would be required to obtain a Class 4 driver’s licence if part of their roles and responsibilities included driving students. A teacher’s main focus is to instruct students, not drive them around for school activities. The ATA argued that a school board could not compel a teacher to drive students for school purposes.
  • Contract clauses whereby a teacher would need to agree in advance that a breach of other contract provisions regarding conduct or competence would amount to just cause for dismissal. Again, the Association argued successfully that a teacher cannot agree in advance to behaviour that has not yet occurred.

While the majority of contracts in Alberta are acceptable, we do come across the occasional contract that raises eyebrows. In those instances we advise the teacher of what he or she is agreeing to or, in some cases, we call the school division to question or challenge the terms of the contract. The key point to remember is this — know and understand what you are signing before you sign it.

Robert Mazzotta is an executive staff officer in the Member Services program area of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

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