ATA is there for teachers as new discipline processes unfold
Question: Occasionally I have heard news reports of teachers who have behaved horribly, bringing disgrace on our profession. Why is the Alberta Teachers’ Association now representing bad teachers?
Answer: The Association’s role has fundamentally changed as of Jan. 1, 2023. That’s when the government officially took over the management of teacher professional conduct.
Prior to this takeover, for the previous six decades, the Alberta Teachers’ Association upheld high standards of conduct and, more recently competency, with the objective of protecting the public interest. Under this model, teaching was similar to other self-regulating professions such as law and medicine. In its own disciplinary processes, the Association’s role was to investigate all complaints received and bring before professional conduct hearing committees those cases where there were grounds to believe that a teacher’s conduct had failed to meet the standards set out in the Association’s Code of Conduct. This was difficult work, but we did it conscientiously.
Now, with the government taking over the management of complaints and the prosecution of alleged unprofessional conduct or practice, the Association will be pivoting to represent members who are caught up in the new process.
It is important to remember that not all complaints are well founded and not every accused person is guilty. By virtue of the intensity and complexity of their work, the competing demands placed upon them and the fact that they are always on public display, teachers are uniquely vulnerable to false accusations. Even if a teacher has behaved badly, the provision of Association representation does not constitute approval of that teacher’s behaviour. Rather, it is an effort to ensure they are treated fairly and in accordance with law and principles of natural justice.
Just as in criminal proceedings, every accused person is entitled to mount a defense and to have representation to assist them. In the criminal courts, this representation in undertaken by defense lawyers. In the case of proceedings under the government’s new process, representation will be provided by Association executive staff officers with the advice and assistance of legal counsel. The nature and extent of this representation will be determined by the Association, balancing the interests of the individual teacher with those of the general membership and profession.
I believe that the Association’s executive staff officers are well positioned to take on this new role. Not only are they familiar with undertaking complex investigations and presenting at quasijudicial hearing tribunals, but they are also all teachers who have a deep understanding of the realities of the classroom and of the working lives of their professional colleagues.
As well, the Association has, through processes kept strictly separate and apart from its previous disciplinary functions, always provided guidance and representation to teachers in conflicts with their colleagues and employers and legal assistance in instances where they have faced criminal charges arising out of their role or work as teachers. This body of experience applies directly to the provision of support to teachers who are the subjects of complaints and proceedings under the new regime.
I’ll note as well that the Association offers mediation services and related professional development that in many cases would assist teachers to more effectively manage and satisfactorily resolve conflicts than lodging a complaint with the government.
Association representation will be very important for teachers who are accused of unprofessional conduct or practice. At this point, we do not know how the government’s processes will function in practice and won’t know until we see them in actual operation. In contrast to previous Association processes, where an accused teacher would appear before a hearing committee comprised of a majority of active members, the general panel appointed by the minister of education consists of a pool of 30 individuals, of whom only 15 have teaching certificates and, of those, just two are classroom teachers currently working in public, separate or francophone schools. We don’t know who will be presenting cases on behalf of government or who will be advising those panel members assigned to hearing committees or to perform dispute resolution or mediation.
Facing uncertain processes, with little prospect of appearing before a panel comprised of peers, with potential career and life consequences being so high and with the looming potential for ministerial interference in any outcome, teachers deserve effective representation. The Association will be providing it. ❚
Questions for consideration in this column are welcome. Please address them to Dennis Theobald at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Executive Staff Officer, ATA
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