Teachers’ Unions Should Focus on Advocacy Rather Than Governance

December 28, 2019 Updated: January 7, 2020


Suppose a middle-school teacher is accused of inappropriate behavior toward five students.

Among other things, the teacher allegedly put his hands under female students’ blouses, touched their breasts, and rubbed their shoulders. These allegations are confirmed by witnesses, including another teacher, a parent, and several students. After hearing all the evidence, a disciplinary review committee finds the teacher guilty of unprofessional conduct.

If you were a member of that teacher’s disciplinary committee, what consequence would you recommend?

Most people would recommend he be permanently banned from the teaching profession and from any other contact with children. No teacher with a history of inappropriate touching belongs in a classroom, particularly one with elementary or middle-school students. That was certainly the reaction from Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, who permanently canceled this man’s teaching certificate within days of hearing about the case.

However, the disciplinary committee recommended only a two-year suspension of his teaching certificate. In other words, committee members thought he should have the opportunity to return to the classroom, even though its report concluded that he “engaged in a pattern of heinous actions that exploited the trust and innocence of multiple students.”

Because of the sexual nature of the teacher’s misconduct, it isn’t surprising that LaGrange found a two-year suspension to be unacceptable.

In Alberta, the Teaching Profession Act states that a 20-member teacher professional conduct committee shall decide whether a teacher’s behavior warrants a finding of misconduct. Of these 20 members, 17 are teachers appointed by the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA), while the remaining three are appointed by the government in consultation with the ATA executive. Obviously, this gives the ATA significant control over the disciplinary process. Most other provinces have similar arrangements with their teachers’ unions.

Given that teachers’ unions bargain and advocate on behalf of their members, it’s problematic to also give them control over teachers’ discipline. In other professions, governance and advocacy groups are much more clearly separated. For example, Alberta nurses are represented by the United Nurses of Alberta but are governed by the Registered Nurses Association. This separation of roles enables the United Nurses of Alberta to strongly advocate on behalf of their members because they aren’t also involved in disciplining them.

Fortunately, three provinces have introduced similar separation for the teaching profession. In British Columbia, Ontario, and Saskatchewan, teachers are governed by a professional college or a regulatory board that operates separately from their unions. Interestingly, these are also the only provinces that publicize all teacher disciplinary decisions. In other provinces, these decisions are shrouded in secrecy and typically come to light only when the media file freedom of information requests to obtain the information.

Obviously, the secrecy surrounding disciplinary decisions isn’t a minor inconvenience. In 2018, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection released the results of a study on child sexual abuse by K–12 school personnel. The study found that there were at least 750 cases of child sex abuse cases over the past 20 years, about 35 per year. In most provinces, the center had difficulty accessing teacher disciplinary decisions and mainly depended on media reports for information.

As a result, the center recommended that all provinces make teacher disciplinary decisions accessible on a public database, at least so that teachers who had been disciplined in one province or territory couldn’t get a teaching job in another one. This is standard practice for other professionals such as doctors, dentists, and lawyers. Making this information publicly available strengthens confidence in the profession and ensures that teachers are held to similar professional standards as other professionals.

Interestingly, CBC Manitoba recently used a freedom of information request to inquire about disciplinary decisions. It found that of the 20 Manitoba teachers suspended for misconduct since 2016, 14 of those were for sexual offenses. Monique St. Germain, general counsel for the center, reiterated her organization’s call for teacher disciplinary records to be made publicly accessible.

However, the Manitoba Teachers Society president argued that posting the records wouldn’t serve the public interest. That is exactly the response expected from a union leader protecting his members, but it isn’t the response expected from the leader of a professional association who must put the public interest first. This shows that it’s probably unreasonable to expect a union leader to fill both union and public interest roles simultaneously.

Surely it isn’t a coincidence that the only provinces with publicly accessible databases of teacher disciplinary decisions are those with independent regulatory boards. Freed of the teacher advocacy role, these regulatory boards can concentrate exclusively on governing their members in the public interest.

The reality is that it’s unrealistic to expect teachers’ unions to simultaneously advocate for and also to discipline their members. It’s now clear that advocacy and governance functions should be handled by separate organizations, as they are in other professions.

Teachers’ unions can’t do justice to both. Thus, unions should focus on advocacy and not on governance.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.