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There is a right way to criticize a colleague


September 3, 2019 Cory Schoffer, ATA Secretary to Professional Conduct Committee

Pitfalls and Precautions is a series that aims to educate teachers on professional conduct issues by highlighting situations addressed by the ATA Professional Conduct Committee.

You may be right, but you may be crazy! With apologies to Billy Joel, this is actually a common theme in the professional conduct world.

I’m not referring to any specific case in this segment, but rather the issue of being right versus being unprofessional, which is an oft-repeated theme in the professional conduct world. Most teachers are very familiar with sections 13 and 14 of the Code of Professional Conduct, but if you’re not, here they are:

Sec 13: The teacher does not undermine the confidence of pupils in other teachers.

Sec 14: The teacher criticizes the professional competence or professional reputation of another teacher only in confidence to proper officials and after the other teacher has been informed of the criticism.

One of the frequent complaints that we hear from teachers is that teachers cannot criticize a colleague that they know to be incompetent. This is simply not true. The code does not forbid such criticism. Rather the code lays out a process by which a person must undertake to levy such criticism. Simply put, a teacher must inform their colleague directly of their critical opinion, and must do so before addressing the matter with proper officials.  Failure to do so is unprofessional, and will likely result in a teacher facing a professional conduct investigation, and a subsequent appearance before a professional conduct committee or in an invitation.

Teachers have been reprimanded and fined in the past for such transgressions. This says nothing of the other personal and professional consequences faced at the school level and with the employer.

This begs the next question. What constitutes a proper official? Well, that depends. If you are a classroom teacher raising a concern about a fellow classroom teacher, your principal could be deemed to be a proper official. If you are a teacher raising a concern about a principal, the proper official would be the superintendent. If you are a principal raising a concern about a teacher, again, the superintendent would be a proper official. The duty rests on the person levying the criticism to inform their colleague and to give their colleague a chance to respond. Copying your colleague on the critical email to the proper official is not sufficient.

That group of proper officials seems limited, and it is. People who are not proper officials include school board trustees, other teachers, support staff in the school, parents, students and your followers on social media. Even if you advise a colleague first of your criticism, addressing your criticism with people on this list remains unprofessional.

So while we would like to operate in a world where everyone is happy with everyone all the time, we know that this isn’t the reality. As teachers, you do have a forum to address concerns with colleagues, and that forum is afforded to you by the Code of Professional Conduct. There is a high standard placed upon professionals to engage appropriately with their colleagues when there is a concern with a colleague’s practice. The profession expects that you will govern yourself accordingly.

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