Maintaining a sense of professionalism in and out of the classroom is an important way to ensure continued trust in teachers.
By Stuart Foxman
Are teachers ever truly off duty? Not entirely.
Consider one Ontario Certified Teacher who was active on social media. He posted a blog with discriminatory language. On his website he also used, or linked to sites that used, homophobic language (referring to the LGBT community, for instance, as “a new anti-moral social order”). Moreover, this teacher made inappropriate comments to a student, saying that homosexuals are bad for society.
At the College, a Discipline Committee panel found the member guilty of professional misconduct and suspended his teaching certificate for one month. In addition, he was directed to complete a course on maintaining appropriate boundaries.
Misconduct isn’t just about what happens in the classroom, elsewhere in a school or board, or anywhere else where teachers are on the job. That’s because the way in which individual teachers and the teaching profession are viewed transcends work hours and activities.
“Teachers are role models in a community,” says Nadine Carpenter, the College’s manager of Intake and Hearings. “The position they hold is central to students in their care. It’s important that high standards are upheld on and off duty.”
Being part of a profession that’s held in such esteem is a privilege. The flip side to that privilege is the obligation to uphold it.
“Teachers’ off-duty conduct — even when it’s not directly related to students — is relevant to their suitability to teach.”
Like anyone, teachers have private lives, yet teaching is a public profession. This means teachers should be aware of the possibility for their behaviour to come under scrutiny.
That’s not just a College mandate, but an idea that has legal precedents. In a trio of cases from 1996 and 1997 (Ross vs. New Brunswick School District No. 15, R vs. Audet, and Toronto Board of Education vs. OSSTF, District 15), Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that teachers’ off-duty conduct — even when it’s not directly related to students — is relevant to their suitability to teach.
While other regulated professions have an expectation of professionalism, the teaching profession is seen as particularly important in society. Why are teachers different? The Supreme Court noted the special position of responsibility and influence that they occupy. That comes with high expectations. Breaches of those expectations can cause widespread damage.
“Off-duty conduct becomes important when it undermines the public’s confidence in a teacher or the profession as a whole,” says Carpenter. “If you’re intoxicated on a weekend, a physical fight breaks out and police are called, a parent trusting a child to your care may be concerned. When conduct bleeds into a community’s faith in teachers entrusted with students, it can become an issue of professional misconduct.”
The College’s Professional Misconduct Regulation reflects the high expectations for members. There are clauses that mention specific behaviour that constitutes misconduct, like abusing a student (in multiple forms), failing to supervise adequately, falsifying records, practising while in a conflict of interest, and more.
Yet, as Carpenter notes, the regulation also has several basket clauses, which refer more generally to “failing to maintain the standards of the profession,” acts that “would reasonably be regarded as disgraceful, dishonourable or unprofessional,” and simply “conduct unbecoming a member.” The regulation is written to cover a lot of potential ground — on and off duty.
What defines such misconduct? This isn’t simply about a list of dos and don’ts, but about an onus on members to be mindful of how to act as part of a public profession.
Certainly, there are discipline matters that involve teachers and students beyond the classroom. Things like inappropriate communications on social media, inappropriate conduct on a field trip, or purchasing stolen property from a student.
Perhaps those actual cases appear more problematic. The professional misconduct might seem more obvious, related as it is to interactions with students. However, off-duty behaviours where members have eventually been found guilty of professional misconduct don’t have to involve students or the school at all.
In one case heard by the College’s Discipline Committee, a member made uninvited physical advances on several occasions, including at a social outing and in a car. The member was inebriated on all occasions. He received a reprimand, a suspension for three months, and an order to take a course on professional interactions and boundary violations. The conduct fell into those basket clauses previously mentioned.
Another discipline case that touched on off-duty conduct involved a member who was found guilty of assaulting someone with whom he had a personal relationship. The Discipline Committee panel commented that this member failed to model appropriate behaviour, eroded the public’s trust in teachers, and harmed the reputation of the profession.
In a third instance, a member was arrested and charged for taking someone’s bank card without their consent and, over two months, withdrawing $1,140 from that individual’s account. After pleading guilty to related criminal charges, the member received a conditional discharge and probation, and the fraud charge was withdrawn. During the College discipline process, the member argued that this incident was at the low end of the spectrum of professional misconduct and did not in any way involve students. The Discipline Committee stated that this dishonest conduct warranted a reprimand and an order to take a course on ethics. The committee hoped that the penalty and the publication of the member’s name “serves as a general deterrent by reminding the profession that such behaviour is not tolerated.”
Some might say that the negative reflection on professionalism and the profession is clearer in incidents like these, which involve criminal behaviour. Off-duty conduct doesn’t have to be quite so dramatic to come to the attention of the College. There are plenty of grey areas, which makes it even more important to act prudently.
What might happen, for instance, if you post on your social media (even with high privacy settings) disparaging comments about your students or school? What if you’re out in public, drink too much, get sloppy and tip into behaviour that might be seen as unseemly? What if the risqué pictures you took, intended for private consumption, are made public?
This isn’t to say that discipline ensues. Perhaps it doesn’t. Yet even if these or other off-duty issues don’t warrant a finding of misconduct, you may still have to address concerns within the school community and related repercussions. Or you may still be forced to deal with the diminished perception of yourself as a professional.
“[Misconduct] isn’t simply about a list of dos and don’ts, but about an onus on members to be mindful of how to act as part of a public profession.”
Another case that underscores the responsibility and corresponding duty held by teachers, involving a member, garnered some attention because it concerned freedom of speech.
The member’s conduct in the classroom, and teaching abilities, were not in question. To some, that added complexity to the case. What the member did, among other things, was establish organizations that alleged that multiculturalism is damaging our society, take part in events organized by a white supremacist group, speak at events involving white supremacists, and attend a celebration of Adolf Hitler’s birthday.
This was an important test for the College. Does free speech trump all? Does it matter if the teacher in question is not espousing his or her views (however heinous) in the classroom?
In this decision, the Discipline Committee affirmed that the member had the freedom of speech to say whatever they wanted, provided it was within the law. “But that doesn’t mean, necessarily, that they can also be a teacher when they say those things,” the panel stated.
Commenting on Canada’s immigration and refugee system is one thing, said the panel. “When those comments are presented at an event with racists and white supremacists, and you make clear that you are [at] common cause with those people, then you are sending a message that is very different.
“This case is not about the member’s right to hold political views that are unpopular or to participate in legal political activities,” the decision read in part. “It is about whether a teacher who publicly expresses views which are contrary to the values of the profession and the education system and which have a negative impact on the education system, is entitled to be a member of this College.”
When it comes to off-duty conduct, it would be easier if there were clear guidelines on what’s permissible, what’s out of bounds, and what’s somewhere in the giant middle. But there aren’t exhaustive lists of what’s permissible, as each case will proceed based on its individual merits. So what are teachers to do?
Mainly, stop and think. Consider the clauses in the Professional Misconduct Regulation, and how terms like “disgraceful,” “dishonourable,” “unprofessional” or “conduct unbecoming” might apply
At all times, whether at work or in your private life, are you acting like a professional? Could what you’re doing reflect poorly on you, the profession or your school? Are you posting a comment or image online that you wouldn’t be comfortable sharing in the classroom? Would your peers or supervisors consider your actions to be professional or honourable? Would the community?
“The College encourages reflection and thoughtfulness as teachers conduct themselves,” says Carpenter. Such introspection and sound judgment comes with the territory. You may not always be on the job, but when it comes to professional expectations, you’re a teacher 24/7.
The Ontario College of Teachers provides advice to its members through the publication of professional advisories. Check out these advisories and more at oct-oeeo.ca/advisories.