Caution advised on teacher-conduct oversight
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/12/2022 (183 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
If a child is sexually exploited by a teacher, there are at least two significantly damaging consequences, the first being the worst: victimization of a child. Second is the damage to the teacher-student relationships writ large.
Given that, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, the minister of education and the Free Press are correct in declaring teacher misconduct of a sexual nature a matter of significant public interest which, when it happens, demands a swift and severe response. Nevertheless, a cautious, carefully thought-out approach to oversight is advised.
Four recommendations were made by the CCCP and endorsed by the Free Press. Two are eminently achievable, and deserve immediate support: mandating sexual-abuse prevention for all school personnel (not just teachers), and developing trauma-informed support to students who have been victimized.
As a former chair of the CCCP board of directors, these are positions I have supported for more than two decades. They would go a long way toward reducing any hidden exploitation of children and helping with the healing of abused children.
Where I would advise some prolonged public discussions are the other two recommendations: making teacher discipline public, and creating an independent oversight body.
Teacher discipline and teacher misconduct are easily understood in relation to sexual exploitation but, as everyday terms, they include much more. Teachers are disciplined by their administrators for myriad reasons, from violating fire codes to showing up late for meetings and everything in between. These surely do not require public oversight, record-keeping or reporting, except perhaps internally.
Teacher discipline is just too broad a term to be useful or helpful.
Teacher misconduct, as an all-encompassing term, is also not terribly helpful outside the context of breaking the law, as in criminal offences of any kind. It also includes insubordination of supervisory directives and conduct unbecoming a professional, which in themselves are not criminal but serve to compromise the relationships between authority and current reasonable and acceptable public norms.
Both are moving targets, depending on the judgments of an administrator, and upon what the majority of the public finds appropriate at any given time. They can include matters as controversial as dress codes for teachers.
As a society, we have not found a way to eliminate the grooming, luring and sexual abuse of children by some adults, including those most often guilty: family members and close acquaintances. The internet has not served us well in this regard.
Nevertheless, we must expect teachers not only to conform to a higher standard regarding their behaviours and actions, but also to help the general public in reducing the potential for child exploitation — and here, the existing laws are very clear.
In addition to being subject to compulsory pre-employment Child Abuse Registry and criminal-records checks, teachers have a legal responsibility to report even suspected instances of child abuse to law enforcement. Their duty to society exceeds their duties to the profession and their colleagues — the law demands mandatory reporting, and it is a criminal offence not to report.
And when a teacher is convicted, or even charged with a criminal offence, it is made public.
Also, regularly, a public body called the Certificate Review Committee sits in judgment of teachers’ alleged misbehaviour, with discipline ranging from reprimands to loss of teaching certificates. Perhaps some of that should be public, but to what end, and at what cost, and who should decide?
British Columbia’s College of Teachers perished as a result of endless rancorous squabbling that undermined, rather than enhanced, the public trust of professional practice. The Ontario College of Teachers, the only one in existence, has tried in vain to come up with an overriding set of regulations, procedures and standards, but finds itself now engrossed in a seemingly insoluble dress-code controversy.
Reporting all manner of teacher indiscretions remains as problematic as ever and, as the president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society implied, raises significant privacy concerns.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that even one instance of child sexual exploitation is unforgivable, unfair and devasting to children and their caregivers. The public has a direct interest and responsibility to eliminate the possibilities, as do teachers themselves.
While we don’t want to somehow protect unscrupulous teachers, equally we don’t want to encourage false accusations and cast aspersions that place teachers under unbearable and unjustified scrutiny, which could destroy the lives of good, caring teachers, and portray a very good teaching profession as fraught with child predators.
A more deliberate approach and thoughtful, engaged public dialogue are warranted.
John R. Wiens is dean emeritus at the faculty of education, University of Manitoba. A lifelong educator, he has served as a teacher, counsellor, work education co-ordinator, principal, school superintendent and university professor.