Professionally SpeakingThe Magazine of the Ontario College of Teachers
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In this issue




The First Decade: 10 Years, 10 Accomplishments

 Full Article

The First Decade: 10 Years, 10 Teachers

 Full Article

Male Presence in Teaching Continues to Decline

by Brian Jamieson

 Full Article

Where Was That Line?

by Joe Jamieson

 Full Article


Governing Ourselves


Where Was That Line?

Maintaining professional boundaries with students

by Joe Jamieson

He was known as a hardworking, dedicated teacher with an excellent record of service during his 11 years as a secondary teacher in a mid-size town. Most local residents knew him as a nice guy in his professional and personal lives.

In addition to the long hours dedicated to his school, he was a volunteer at the blood bank and a coach with the local boys' bantam hockey team. Parents appreciated the time he spent with their kids and recognized his many contributions to the community.

The team he coached consisted of students from several schools. Only two of the boys attended his school.

He viewed his role as a coach to be a personal-time activity – he never really connected coaching minor sports to his role as a teacher.

To get the exercise he needed, he would coach on ice, playing alongside the boys and participating in scrimmages with them.

“Not bad for an old guy,” he'd shout after he scored a goal. Once in a while, as the game would heat up, he threw his weight around and delivered a few body checks – for instructional purposes, he claimed.

He never really connected coaching minor sports to his role as a teacher.

One body check sent a boy, a young centre, reeling into the boards. The young player popped to his feet, yelled a few choice terms at the coach and then threw his stick at him, narrowly missing his head.

In the heat of the moment, the coach cursed back and threw his stick at the boy, who just happened to be one of the students from his own school. The stick could not have struck a worse location. The blade speared an exposed area of the boy's neck and created a large, gaping cut. It took 21 stitches to bring the bleeding under control.

The coach was immediately remorseful. The boy's parents, however, were furious about the alleged assault and questioned how someone who was with kids all day in the role of a teacher could lose his cool so easily.

The parents were concerned enough about the conduct of the coach to submit a complaint to the Ontario College of Teachers.

On duty or off

Let's back up. How could community volunteer work end up potentially affecting someone's certificate to teach?

This teacher found himself facing questions that pose real dilemmas for many professionals in society. First, where does my professional life end and my personal life begin? Second, where are the boundaries that should be drawn when dealing with students or patients or clients?

As members of a profession, teachers are always on duty. Just as doctors, lawyers, nurses, engineers and other professionals are bound by certain standards of conduct, so too are teachers.

This is not the College as Big Brother speaking. In fact, the court cases that set out this rule were all decided before the College began operations.

The Supreme Court upheld the notion that teachers are, in a sense, always on duty through three court cases known as the trilogy. The court determined that “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.”

The notion of on duty needs to be viewed through the lens of reasonable expectation of conduct. One of the privileges associated with professional self-regulation is that the public has entrusted the profession to determine what reasonable expectation of conduct looks like through the decisions and reasons of a panel of peers.

A professional needs to be acutely aware of the dynamics and layers of professional relationships.

In this case, was the teacher on duty while coaching? We need to consider if it is reasonable to connect his conduct outside the classroom to his potential or known conduct inside the classroom. We also need to look at the impact his conduct would have on his own reputation and that of the school and the teaching profession, on the confidence of the public in the school and the teaching profession, and on the safety of students.

Most likely a discipline panel would decide that this is one case where, as the Supreme Court wrote, the teacher was wearing his teaching hat even off duty. Most who witnessed the incident knew that he was a teacher. Two players on the team were his students, including the one who was injured. Panel members would be concerned about how he reacted to students on this occasion on the ice – and aware of the concerns it would raise among parents, students and colleagues about how he might react again off the ice.

If the teacher lost his temper in the same way with adult peers and without parent or student witnesses, could the on-duty consideration be seen differently? Most likely.

Did volunteering as a coach in his community with his own students and students known to him put this teacher at risk? You could say that it did – but so would many other activities that we all think of as part of everyday life.

A professional needs to be acutely aware of the dynamics and layers of professional relationships. It is easy to understand why professionals, especially those of us in the helping or caring professions, could confuse the margins of professional prudence.

The confusion is not intentional and the margin is often fluid, so how does a teacher stay on the right side of the line?

Finding the boundaries

Boundary issues in relationships with students are usually due to teachers unknowingly stumbling into dual relationships, transference behaviours or counter-transference behaviours.

The most important considerations in discussing these boundary violations are the motivation of the teacher and the impact on the student.

Our hypothetical hockey-coaching teacher found himself in a compromised position because he had entered into a dual relationship with his students.

In one context, he was a teacher to the boys, in another he was a sports coach. Each of these roles has a unique set of expectations, norms of engagement and accountability. When a teacher is in a dual relationship, the lines get blurred.

It is probably safe to assume that the teacher would not have sworn at his student and thrown a stick at him if they were in gym class. Similarly, the student would not have done the same.

Dual relationships create confusion for students. Clear lines become fuzzy and norms become inconsistent. Within the confusion of a dual relationship, the potential for boundary concerns and allegations of improper conduct sharply increases.

Dual relationships create confusion for students. Clear lines become fuzzy.

Transference occurs when a teacher allows an inappropriate relationship to develop with a student because the student perceives the teacher as something other than a teacher. Teachers need to be acutely aware of this potential and bear the responsibility for managing it effectively.

For example, if a teacher is aware that a student from a one-parent family is struggling to connect with a mother figure, it would be inappropriate for the teacher to begin to take on that role in the student's life, even though the student may be transferring that role to the teacher.

Again, there's a fine line to consider. If the teacher responds to the transference dynamic and begins to parent the student, then behaviours and role association typically found in a parent-child relationship emerge. Counter-transference now develops as the teacher has bought into the transference of the student and actually participates in the transferred role.

This can manifest itself gradually through activities like making the student a lunch from home, booking and attending medical appointments, intimate conversations with the student and counselling beyond the capacity of the teacher. Eventually, what started as well-intentioned help for the student can lead to a very unhealthy relationship between a teacher and student, and one that makes both extremely vulnerable.


Teaching is a profession that involves a sacred trust of care, concern and advocacy for the education and welfare of students. To be human makes us vulnerable when we get caught up in the business of balancing and maintaining appropriate relationships in all the sectors of our lives.

Teachers should check in once in a while and reflect on their relationships with students.

Teachers are role models who hold a sacred key to the shape of the next generation.

Some questions we may ask are:

  • Do I favour any particular student?
  • Do I get myself involved in the private matters of my students?
  • Do I seek emotional comfort or validation from any student?
  • How far will I go to ensure that I am liked by students?
  • Do I have any dual relationships that are risky for me or unhealthy for my students?
  • Have I noticed a student who seems to be particularly fond of me; what have I done to protect myself?
  • Is a student seeking out my time in areas that are beyond my role as a teacher?

Within appropriate boundaries, a teacher-student relationship can be transforming and inspiring. Teachers are role models who hold a sacred key to the shape of the next generation – never should that trust be violated or jeopardized.

Joe Jamieson is Professional Affairs Co-ordinator at the College and was Manager, Intake and Hearings, in the Investigations and Hearings Department. He has 15 years of experience as a teacher and curriculum consultant in the Halton Catholic DSB.

The trilogy cases

To read the three Supreme Court cases, visit