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Our dignity and quality of life are at risk

Q & A

January 18, 2022 Dennis Theobald, ATA Executive Secretary

Questions: So the minister of education wants to take over teacher discipline: Why should I care? Why should anyone care?

Answer: Good question. While it may not be immediately apparent, if the government proceeds to strip professional discipline from its mandate, the Alberta Teachers’ Association and the entire culture of teaching and public education in Alberta will be fundamentally and irrevocably diminished.

Since its creation in 1918, the Alberta Teachers’ Alliance, later Association, conceived of itself as a professional organization promoting teacher professional development and a code of ethics. The drive to be recognized as a profession, with the rights and obligations that derive from that, were reflected in our motto, Magistri Neque Servi, Masters not Servants. After decades of struggle, the passage of the Teaching Profession Act in 1936 formally charged the Association with the responsibility of upholding the professional practice and conduct of teachers.

If the government succeeds in its radical plan to strip the Association of its professional regulatory role, we teachers will be diminished as a profession and our focus and role in public education will be fundamentally altered. Our relationship to parents and the public will be changed, as we will necessarily become more narrowly focused on our own immediate interests and less concerned with promoting the greater public good. We will become a union, plain and simple – not that there is anything wrong with that. We are a union currently, but much of our success in promoting the interests of teachers and students has come due to the respect we command in our larger role as a professional organization with regulatory functions. 

If we do not regulate ourselves, then we will be regulated by others. Those others will not necessarily be motivated by a larger concern for public education or informed by an understanding of the lived realities of teachers in the classroom. Do we have confidence in the minister of education to undertake this important task fairly and effectively? 

Over the last few months, she and those speaking for her have consistently misled Albertans about Association professional discipline processes. I’ll be frank – she has been spreading myths and misinformation to advance crass political ends and to distract from her government’s mishandling of a series of issues, including the rollout of a flawed curriculum and an inadequate response to the challenge of COVID-19 in schools. What is maddeningly ironic is that the process her own department administers for teachers who are not active members of the Association lacks the transparency and accountability of the Association’s own process.

Attempts to deprofessionalize the Association are not new. In my 20-year tenure at the Association, it has been seriously attempted twice before: by Lyle Oberg and Alberta’s Commission on Learning in 2003 and by Jeff Johnson and his Task Force on Teaching Excellence in 2014. We know from these prior experiences that removing teachers’ ability to self-regulate is only one part of a constellation of destructive ideas, which typically include: 

  • removing principals and school leaders from membership in the Association, a goal that Premier Kenney has specifically endorsed;
  • removing certificated staff in central offices from membership, a process being facilitated by the government’s creation of the College of Alberta School Superintendents as a professional regulatory body – giving to superintendents precisely what they are trying to take away from us;
  • diminishing teacher engagement in activities central to teaching, including the development of curriculum;
  • taking control of teacher professional development, including, potentially, taking over teachers’ conventions; and
  • favouring the creation of and providing preferential treatment and funding to private and charter schools, both of which are very much defined by the fact that teachers in these schools are precluded by law from having active membership in the Association.

These ideas all spring from a common ideology and related beliefs – that teachers are not really professionals, that teachers do not deserve autonomy and do not have the capacity for self-direction, that teachers should do as they are told and don’t need to be worrying their pretty little heads about matters that are better left to their bosses and betters to decide.

We must fight back against this attack on our professional regulatory processes, not just because of the threat it poses to teachers’ professional identity directly, but because this may be our last chance to deter the government from advancing other policies that are equally if not more destructive of our status, our dignity and the quality of our working lives. 

This is a fight for our profession and for the culture of public education that, over more than a century, we have helped to create in this province. ❚


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