The comments made by Education Minister Jeff Johnson to the St. Albert Gazette’s editorial board concerning “teacher oversight” betray both Johnson’s bias and eagerness to disregard any facts that contradict his personal agenda.
Johnson claims that he has overturned professional conduct decisions made by the Alberta Teachers’ Association that “no parent would support.” He suggests that the association is responsible for allowing teachers guilty of professional conduct to remain in the classroom. These comments indicate that Johnson doesn’t fully understand the processes he is criticizing. A few facts might help the Gazette’s readers (and maybe even the minister) better understand how the association handles discipline matters:
• Discipline processes are entirely separate from member representation – the association will ensure that a teacher’s right to fair process in matters concerning employment is respected, but in matters of professional discipline, the association investigates and prosecutes the teacher.
• Professional Conduct Committees which hear discipline cases and determine penalties are composed of classroom teachers and a public member named by the Minister of Education. Hearings are open to the public and the reports of the hearing committees can be accessed upon request. These measures help to ensure that the discipline process reflects and protects the public interest.
• If it finds a teacher guilty, depending on the severity of the offence the professional conduct committee can impose reprimands, fines, and suspend or expel the teacher from membership in the association. If suspended or expelled, an individual cannot teach in a public, separate or francophone school because ATA membership is required by law to teach in these settings.
• For all practical purposes, suspension from membership has the same consequences as expulsion. Even after a suspension has run its course, the suspended teacher must still apply for reinstatement proving that they are fit to teach again. Since 1936, only one teacher under suspension has succeeded in being readmitted to membership in the association.
• The minister, not the association, controls teacher certification. When it has suspended or expelled a teacher from membership, the association will make a recommendation to the minister to take the same action with respect to the teacher’s certificate, but has no jurisdiction or control over what decision the minister may make.
• When the minister suspends or cancels a teacher’s certification, it additionally insures that the teacher cannot work in private schools that do not require teachers to be association members. Unlike association membership, a teacher’s certificate will be automatically restored by the government at the end of the suspension process without any further scrutiny.
So during his time as minister, Johnson has not actually overturned association professional conduct rulings. What he has done in all cases referred to him is accept the association’s finding of guilt but, in four of those cases, chosen to cancel rather than suspend the teacher’s certificate as recommended by the association, an action that, frankly, is of greater symbolic than practical import. That is his right, although Johnson’s comments, as they are reported, gloss over the complexity of the cases and relevant facts that affected the penalty recommendation.
It is concerning too to hear the Minister of Education say that “We’re too focused on pedagogy.” One would think that a focus on pedagogy, the art and science of teaching, would be important for someone who created a task force for teacher excellence.
Finally, the minister needs to look at practices in other provinces. Most are like Alberta in having teacher organizations that perform both professional and union functions (Ontario and British Columbia are notorious exceptions). If Johnson gets his way and the Alberta Teachers’ Association is stripped of the professional responsibilities it has performed for over 70 years, a very different system culture will emerge in Alberta, a culture that will serve neither teachers, nor students, nor parents well.
Mark Ramsankar, president, Alberta Teachers’ Association