Q & A: Managing professional and union roles a matter of attention and skill

August 29, 2017
Gordon Thomas, ATA Executive Secretary

Question: A colleague of mine was subjected to an ATA professional conduct investigation because a parent of one of her students felt her kid should have received higher marks. I was surprised that my union did not represent my colleague and she was left on her own. Why didn’t my union defend my colleague? We should be standing up to parental bullying.

Answer: The ATA is responsible for setting professional conduct standards and for policing them for teachers employed by school boards. These responsibilities are defined in the Teaching Profession Act (TPA), the legislation that establishes the ATA and sets out its objects and its powers. The TPA establishes legal obligations for the Association in protecting the interests of the profession and the general public.

Under the Public Education Collective Bargaining Act and the Labour Relations Code, the Association also has union responsibilities, having obtained a bargaining certificate for each school board in Alberta and a handful of charter schools and private schools. Our union responsibilities relate directly to collective bargaining and each collective agreement, and we have an obligation as a union to represent a union member as it relates to the collective agreement.

Professional conduct and professional practice are not matters detailed in a collective agreement, so the Association has no union responsibilities to represent members who may have engaged in unprofessional conduct or whose professional practice does not meet the established standard. In fact, our obligation is to take action to protect the public and the profession from unprofessional conduct and unskilled practice. Accordingly, the ATA does not provide legal counsel to support or represent a teacher in ATA hearings on professional conduct and professional practice. 

With respect to conduct, we have several obligations. We are required to investigate every complaint initiated against a member. If there is sufficient evidence, a hearing is ordered and the ATA prosecutes the member. If there is no or insufficient evidence, the complainant can appeal the decision not to have a hearing. Through all of this, the ATA’s job is to protect the public and the profession, not the member. This is fundamental in the regulation of any profession: the public interest must be paramount.

I am certainly not communicating that the ATA will not take action against parents or others in certain circumstances. We do, but that’s quite different from a conduct investigation. We have taken parents to court for defamation and we have won. We have commenced civil action against parents and others. We will represent our members in such circumstances. However, we do not provide legal representation in professional conduct and practice review hearings.

Managing professional regulatory functions as well as union duties does require some attention and skill. We routinely sever professional discipline from the union — the process related to professional conduct or professional practice review has to be completely separate from the union, and is. The Association continues to seek amendments to the Teaching Profession Act so that all certificate holders, not just teachers employed by school boards, are subject to professional conduct and professional practice standards established by the profession.

So it is absolutely correct that we do not provide legal counsel to the investigated member in professional discipline hearings. That said, we do take action in support of our members, including civil action, if that is required. ❚

Questions for consideration in this column are welcome. Please address them to Gordon Thomas at Barnett House (gordon.thomas@ata.ab.ca).