The dust-up between Alberta Education Minister Jeff Johnson and the Alberta Teachers’ Association continues. In the latest chapter of a political fight that shouldn’t be happening in the first place, Minister Johnson made a great show of permanently revoking the licenses of four Alberta teachers who had been suspended through the ATA’s disciplinary hearing process. Publicly, Johnson states that he intends to “work with” the province’s teachers’ union and professional association, but in less public settings, he has expressed the desire to break up the ATA by separating its professional and union functions into separate bodies – a union and a Teachers’ College, the latter of which would be under the direct authority of the province.
First and foremost, then, questions around the discipline of badly behaving teachers should be understood fundamentally as a political battle. The ATA and the Ministry have different ideas about how our province’s schools ought to be run. Curriculum resources, spending priorities, mandates for professional development and testing regimes are all examples of choices that reflect underlying beliefs about what schools ought to be all about. It’s an enduring ideological debate that we are all familiar with. Right leaning interests want to keep taxes low, spend less, and promote industry. Leftists wants a larger public purse, and social programs and institutions that promote greater social equity. It’s about spending, but it’s also about competing visions of the “good society” and what students ought to be taught in order to promote it.
Thus Johnson’s PR campaign against the ATA is indeed a political one: it’s an effort to undermine the credibility and hence the power of the organization. The end game of splitting off the professional oversight function of the ATA from its union activities would give the province greater control over many aspects of teachers’ professional learning and development, not just the discipline of teachers who do stupid things. By creating a Professional College, the Conservative government would have more freedom to pursue, for example, the plan outlined in Johnson’s Task Force Report – that is, to subject every teacher in the province to five year competency reviews – with little or no input from the teachers these would apply to.
Due Process? What Due Process?
It’s all the more frustrating to see energy expended on what is essentially a non-issue, because the bottom line is that the disciplinary system really ain’t broke, and doesn’t need fixing. The ATA isn’t perfect any more than our justice system is perfect. As a quasi-judicial body, the ATA, just like our courts, will occasionally render decisions that strike members of the public as unfair, “too soft,” or “too hard.” And let’s face it – most of us base our sense of fairness on what our guts tell us rather than a critical examination of the facts. This is exactly why we need courts and arbitration bodies: to ensure the rights of accused persons to due process so we don’t get out pitchforks and hang ‘em in the town square.
It’s ironic that Johnson is attacking the ATA’s disciplinary role precisely by appealing to this vigilante mentality. In legalese, his revoking of four teachers’ licenses was arguably both arbitrary and capricious, based on political whim rather than systematic investigation of the facts according to established protocols. It may feel satisfying to Johnson and some members of the public that he got all tough and transparent, but we need to ask ourselves if we’d like the same treatment and “transparency” applied to all teachers (and for that matter ourselves). Our newspapers rarely report on teachers who take stress leave or quit the profession because they’ve been wrongfully accused of misconduct and had their names and reputations dragged through the mud. The public’s “right to know” seems more defensible in the easy (albeit very rare) cases where a teacher or caregiver is a predatory sex offender. But the vast majority of cases require a considered balance of the public’s “right to know” with the teacher’s right to some degree of privacy.
What Would a Teachers’ College Accomplish?
As for Minister Johnson’s seeming pursuit of a separate Teachers’ College, which would effectively de-professionalize the ATA, we’d also be smart to question the long-term consequences of such a move. I did some scanning around the internet and some of our research databases here at the University of Alberta, and here’s the deal: It is pretty much impossible to find a non-partisan account of the pros and cons of splitting the labour and professional functions of a teachers’ organization.
The best I could figure from my reading was that the outcomes of professional regulation have less to do with the body doing the investigating than with the procedures, check and balances used in the process. Thus it isn’t too surprising that the disciplinary process used by the Ontario Teachers’ College is almost identical to that used by the ATA’s Professional Conduct Committee. I will say that if BC and Ontario may be examined as precedents, Albertans could expect the same political rhetoric they are accustomed to – essentially with disputes between a Teachers’ College and the ATA taking the place of present disputes directly between the Ministry of Education and the ATA. In other words, “same old same old,” with different (and possibly more) bureaucracy. For an example of how political disputes persist, take a look at this response by the Ontario Teachers’ Federation to a professional designation proposed by the Ontario Teachers’ College. It appears that a separate College may not resolve transparency issues either: I found it interesting that BC and Ontario both have reviews and media reports calling for – guess what? – more transparency on the part of the Colleges.
The bottom line is that professional self-regulation is a complex issue, and the creation of a separate College is no panacea. There are compelling reasons for self-regulation, but there are some moral hazards as well. Well crafted bylaws and transparency mechanisms can offset these hazards, but if we don’t actually understand them, we can hardly have an informed debate about how well they are working. Reforms or a review of the present system may be appropriate. I don’t know, and frankly, most of us don’t know. But we do know better than to be suckered by the bad theatre that was Johnson spinning his six-shooters. Don’t we?
The ATA’s Discipline of Teachers: What You May Not Know
In preparation for this blog, I read publicly available material on the Alberta Teachers’ Association website that describes the Professional Conduct Review process in detail. I also had a lengthy phone conversation with the ATA’s Jonathon Teghtmeyer, Associate Coordinator, Communications, Government.
- The labour union functions of the Alberta Teachers’ Association are completely separate from the disciplinary functions. Staff are in the same building, but are prohibited from interacting on these matters.
- A teacher who has their license suspended cannot teach in an Alberta public, separate or francophone school without 1) getting a teaching job again and 2) pleading a case for reinstatement to the ATA. A suspension, then, is almost without exception a revocation de facto, or in practice. This is why only one teacher in the history of the ATAs existence has ever had their license re-instated.
- ATA hearing panels consist of 3-5 volunteers. The volunteers are ATA members, drawn from the membership at large. In other words “ordinary teachers” judge their peers with the support of ATA protocols and independent legal counsel. The hearing panel must include a member of the public, and public members are appointed by the Ministry of Education
- Anyone, including a member of the public, can bring forward a complaint if he or she believes a teacher is in violation of the Alberta Teachers’ Association Professional Code of Conduct.
- The ATA is obligated to follow up on every conduct complaint it receives. A full-time staff person is in charge of investigations.
- Competency and Conduct are not the same things. Teachers face a conduct review and potential disciplinary action when they are charged with a breach of their Professional Code of Conduct. Reviews of teacher competency are handled by a separate process called Practice Review. That process can include remediation to help a teacher improve his or her practice but it can also result in the cancellation of a teaching certificate.
- The ATA is obligated to provide legal council to members who are charged with criminal offenses related to their teaching role, regardless of the Associations’ position on the matter in question. The ATA is not defending the teacher per se, but his or her right to a fair hearing.
- (A reasonably clear Q&A about the ATA’s Disciplinary Process is available here on the ATA website. The Globe & Mail’s explanation here is also a well balanced overview.)
 Provocatively, of the fourteen cases Johnson reviewed, eight had resulted in licenses being revoked by the ATA. Somehow this is left out of Johnson’s account. The precedents for this move in Canada are similar actions taken in British Columbia in 1988 and Ontario in 1997. Want to see evidence of values at work in education? Take a look at the Three Es of Education in the Glossary of the Alberta Government’s Dual Credit Initiative. The “Three Es” are actually pretty darn good. Unfortunately, “ethical citizen” and “entrepreneurial spirit” too often seem to run at cross purposes. This means that the ATA has a mandate from the government to conduct hearings, render verdicts, and impose penalties on members. The hearings operate just like a court, with the ATA acting in a legal capacity as prosecutor, and the teacher providing his/her own defense. Just as in courts, decisions look at precedents set by earlier cases. Decisions are legally binding. See LeSage (2012). Review of the Ontario College of Teachers Intake, Investigation and Discipline Procedures and Outcomes, and the Dispute Resolution Program. In case the language is getting confusing, the Alberta Teachers’ Association, if split up, would likely follow the model in place in BC and Ontario, with professional oversight by a “teachers’ college” and bargaining and advocacy through a separate “teachers’ federation.” Again, see LeSage (2012) as well as this Vancouver Sun OpEd (2011), Toronto Sun (2012) report. The BC Teachers’ College was replaced by the Teacher Regulation Branch under the BC Ministry of Education after years of political wrangling between the BC Government and BC Teachers’ Federation for control over the College. Here’s the BCTF’s take on the issue.