Under a microscope

January 14, 2015 Ihor Kruk

Teachers are teachers always, and are expected to behave accordingly

 “The teacher acts in a manner which maintains the honour and dignity of the profession.”
Section 18 of the Code of Professional Conduct

When asked to write an article about problems teachers face, I thought back to my early days of teaching in rural Alberta and remembered an offhand comment someone made about my living accommodation, an aspect of my life that I considered both uninteresting and private.

At that moment I realized that, as a young teacher in a rural community, I had become a public figure to a certain extent. People were naturally curious, not only because I was male (the majority of their previous new teachers had been female), but also because I was from overseas.

The point I wish to make is that teachers new to a community become a focus of attention. This, when coupled with the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision that teachers wear their teacher hat 24/7, puts a particular onus of responsibility not only on our normal on-duty conduct, but also on our off-duty conduct, wherever we may be.

Many precedents exist both from the professional conduct committees and from the court system (provincial and federal) regarding what is deemed to be unacceptable professional conduct.

In general we can say that such activities as impersonating Lady Godiva while riding on a horse through the local bar after a rodeo are unprofessional conduct. Similarly, the courts have ruled that employers can take disciplinary action against teachers who fail to act responsibly.

John and Ilze Shewan were husband and wife and were employed as school teachers by the Abbotsford School District in B.C. Mr. Shewan took a photograph of his wife that displayed her nude from the waist up. The photograph was published in the February 1985 edition of Gallery Magazine, with the permission of both Shewans, who had entered the picture in a contest. The contestants were women, posing in the nude and in a variety of positions. They were to be paid $50 if their photograph was published and were eligible to win a prize.

The school board became aware of the publication and suspended the teachers for six weeks.

The case came before the B.C. Court of Appeal, which ruled that the publication of such a photograph of a teacher in such a magazine was bound to have an adverse effect upon the educational system to which these two teachers owed a duty to act responsibly. The suspension was upheld, although for a period of four weeks. The reduction from six weeks to four was the outcome of appealing the decision to the Supreme Court of British Columbia.

Approximately 10 years later the Supreme Court of Canada upheld a decision that found a school board liable because it failed to take appropriate action against a teacher for off-duty conduct. The teacher, Malcolm Ross, made repeated public attacks on Jewish people. A parent complained to the employer, School District No. 15 in New Brunswick, that Ross publicly made racist and discriminatory comments about Jewish people during his off-duty time and that this created a “poisoned environment” in the school district, negatively affecting the Jewish children and other minority students. Ross’s writings and statements included books, letters and interviews with local media.

A board of inquiry determined that Ross’s activities, even though they had occurred outside of school, had poisoned the school environment — it removed him from the classroom. The school district continued to employ him in a nonteaching capacity in central office. After appeals in the New Brunswick court system, the case came before the Supreme Court of Canada. Here, the court made compelling statements regarding the role of the teacher, specifically regarding off-duty conduct.

“The standard of conduct that a teacher must meet is greater than the minimum standard of conduct otherwise tolerated given the public responsibility that a teacher must fulfill and the expectations of the community. In addition, a teacher’s freedoms must be balanced against the right of a school board to operate according to its own mandate.”

Catholic context

Teachers signing contracts with Catholic school boards must usually agree to additional clauses commonly referred to as faith requirements. These normally include a declaration that the teacher is a practicing Catholic, is willing to teach in an environment in which the Catholic faith is fully permeated within the school and undertake to follow a lifestyle in harmony with Catholic church practices both in and out of school.

It’s not uncommon for these faith requirements to raise questions about conduct.

The first one that comes to mind is an individual who claimed to be Catholic, signed the contract and then became baptized in another faith community. No matter what a person’s faith, in contract law, a person’s signature on a contract indicates that what he is signing is true. If any misrepresentation occurs, it can be grounds for termination of the contract.

The most common concerns within a Catholic school context come from female teachers and pregnancy. Boards have terminated contracts of single teachers who have become pregnant, even if the pregnancy occurred because of a medical procedure.

One Board of Reference dealt with this issue when a teacher became pregnant for the second time without being married. The Board of Reference agreed the school board had acted reasonably when, upon the first pregnancy, it had directed the teacher to ensure that in the future she adhered to the teachings of the Catholic church. The board was also deemed to have acted reasonably when, upon the second pregnancy, it terminated the teacher’s contract.

An interesting case presented itself when a Catholic school board wished to terminate a teacher’s employment based on evidence gathered from personal emails that had passed through district servers. The teacher admitted to another person that he would be at fault if his marriage broke down. The school board also discovered evidence that the teacher had dated another employee while married to someone else.

The LGBT question has manifested itself, too. Catholic school boards have terminated or attempted to terminate the employment of a teacher who changed his gender and of a teacher who claimed to be living with his brother. Most recently a teacher was terminated when the board discovered he had inquired about including his same-sex partner on his benefit plan.

For new teachers, it can be difficult to fathom that one’s conduct during personal time can be subject to the same level of scrutiny as one’s in-school behaviour, but the growing list of court decisions illustrate that this is reality. Like it or not, teachers are teachers...always.

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

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