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June 1998


Canada’s Courts Say Teachers Must Be Role Models

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Just how perfect are teachers supposed to be? Recent court decisions say teachers are going to be held to a higher standard because of their position of trust and influence.

By Jack H. Berryman

Teachers are expected to be positive role models for their students, both inside and outside the classroom.

In Ontario, this expectation is a statutory duty of teachers set out in Clause 264 (1) (c) of the Education Act: "It is the duty of a teacher and a temporary teacher ... to inculcate by precept and example respect for religion and the principles of Judaeo-Christian morality and the highest regard for truth, justice, loyalty, love of country, humanity, benevolence, sobriety, industry, frugality, purity, temperance and all other virtues."

Although critics of this clause argue, with considerable justification, that its language is archaic and that teachers cannot possibly fulfill the duty as written, it is nevertheless important to recognize its intent. Teachers are expected to maintain a high standard of conduct.


In Toronto Board of Education versus Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, District 15, the Supreme Court of Canada recently made the following comments about the clause: "The language is that of another era. The requirements it sets for teachers reflect the ideal and not the minimal standard. They are so idealistically high that even the most conscientious, earnest and diligent teacher could not meet all of them at all times. Angels might comply but not mere mortals. It follows that every breach of the section cannot be considered to infringe upon the values that are essential to the make-up of a good teacher. However, the section does indicate that teachers are very properly expected to maintain a higher standard of conduct than other employees because they occupy such an extremely important position in society."

High standards of conduct are expected of professionals at all times. Indeed, off-duty conduct can lead to charges of professional misconduct. The British Columbia Court of Appeal, in Shewan et al versus Board School Trustees of School District No. 34 (Abbotsford), addressed this matter in 1987: "The reason why off-the-job conduct may amount to misconduct is that a teacher holds a position of trust, confidence and responsibility. If he or she acts in an improper way, on or off the job, there may be a loss of public confidence in the teacher and in the public school system, a loss of respect by students for the teacher involved, and other teachers generally, and there may be controversy within the school and within the community which disrupts the proper carrying on of the educational system ...

"The minimum standard of morality which will be tolerated in a specific area is not necessarily the same standard of behaviour that a school teacher must meet. The behaviour of the teacher must satisfy the expectations which the British Columbia community holds for the educational system. Teachers must maintain the confidence and respect of their superiors, their peers, and in particular, the students, and those who send their children to our public schools. Teachers must not only be competent but they are expected to lead by example. Any loss of confidence or respect will impair the system, and have an adverse effect upon those who maintain a standard of behaviour which most other citizens need not observe because they do not have such public responsibilities to fulfill."


In Attis versus New Brunswick District No. 15 Board of Education (1996), the Supreme Court of Canada recently endorsed the British Columbia Court of Appeal ruling: "By their conduct, teachers as ‘medium’ must be perceived to uphold the values, beliefs, and knowledge sought to be transmitted by the school system. The conduct of a teacher is evaluated on the basis of his or her position, rather than whether the conduct occurs within the classroom or beyond. Teachers are seen by the community to be the medium for the educational message and, because of the community position they occupy, they are not able to ‘choose which hat they will wear on what occasion’... teachers do not necessarily check their teaching hats at the school yard gate and may be perceived to be wearing their teaching hats even off duty.

"It is on the basis of the position of trust and influence that we hold the teacher to high standards both on and off duty, and it is an erosion of these standards that may lead to a loss in the community of confidence in the public school system."

To be a teacher in Ontario, one must be a member of the Ontario College of Teachers. The College, which has been operational since May 20, 1997, is to regulate the profession of teaching and to govern its members. One of its objects, as stated in the Ontario College of Teachers Act, is "to receive and investigate complaints against members of the College and to deal with discipline and fitness to practise issues."

Teachers who are found to have contravened their statutory duty to be positive role models for students may be subject to disciplinary action by the College and their employers.

And the courts have clearly indicated that teachers – even mere mortals – are expected to maintain a high standard of conduct that reflects their position of influence and responsibility, both on duty and off.

Jack Berryman is an education officer in the School Governance Branch of the Ontario Ministry of Education and Training and a member of the College of Teachers. For 12 years, he managed the process relating to suspending, cancelling and reinstating teachers’ certificates.