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Professional Boundaries

From electronic communication to physical contact, the College's new advisory provides practical advice to teachers on maintaining appropriate boundaries.

By Brian Jamieson
photo: matthew liteplo

Person holding cellphone

Time and proximity with students. Power imbalances. Shifting conditions within a school or a school community. These and more test the professionalism of Ontario educators daily.

Teachers need time with students to know them and their learning needs. Proximity builds trust. But boundaries must be respected. Knowing what to do and how to act to maintain respect and integrity in all learning environments and situations can sometimes feel like walking a tightrope.

"We know that practitioners go out of their way to create positive learning environments and experiences for students," says College Deputy Registrar Chantal Bélisle, OCT. "Our advice is practical and instructive but not exhaustive. It recognizes different situations and challenges and is built on our collective professional ethics and standards of practice while respecting employer, legal and legislative direction."

"Boundaries" are defined as "the verbal, physical, emotional and social distances that an educator must maintain to ensure structure, security, and predictability in an educational environment." Most often, the boundaries that are transgressed relate to role, time and place. By respecting contracted roles, appropriate working hours, and by practising in accepted learning environments, secure boundaries are in place for all members of the schooling community.

The College's Professional Boundaries — An Advisory for Ontario Certified Teachers resource document states: "Educators hold authority and students trust their safety and welfare to them. Boundary violations occur when the imbalance of power tips toward serving the educator's needs, not the student's, and the student's welfare is compromised."

The advice aims to support teachers, regardless of where they are in their careers. It helps to clarify professional responsibilities within the context of professional, employer and community standards, legislation and the law.

The document caps months of extensive research and consultation by the College, exploring educational responses from teachers in different countries, and consulting broadly with experts, stakeholders and critical readers in and outside Ontario. While it recognizes the various roles educators fill with students, parents/guardians, colleagues and others — and the different contexts in which they work and serve — the advice is specific to the educator/student relationship.

As with previous College advice, it stresses the importance of educator awareness and personal reflection. It asks practitioners if they know the different types of boundaries, whether they've set clear, appropriate boundaries with their students, and if they can discern legitimate professional behaviours from possible violations.

It asks, Do you keep good records, recognize and avoid potentially problematic situations, or know what to do if you see conduct you believe is unprofessional?

Establishing professional boundaries can be complicated. Right and wrong aren't always clear. The advisory provides several examples of avoidable behaviours and guidance. However, practitioners are reminded to check their board's policies and protocols and to never assume that conduct that is not specifically prohibited is acceptable.

"Every day, teachers live and demonstrate the ethical standards of care, trust, respect and integrity. Our advisory honours that," says Nicole van Woudenberg, Chair of College Council. "It also provides guideposts to help to ensure that educators maintain the good judgment and common sense they need to fearlessly guide, instruct and support their students."