COLUMN: Think Again – An online teacher registry makes sense
“We see it as anti-teacher.” That’s what Manitoba Teachers’ Society President Nathan Martindale had to say when asked for his thoughts on Bill 35.
Calling a bill “anti-teacher” is a serious accusation. One might think that Bill 35 closes schools, abolishes tenure, or cuts teachers’ salaries. These are the kind of actions that might reasonably be considered anti-teacher.
However, Bill 35 does none of these things. Rather, Bill 35 establishes an online teacher registry and independent discipline process for teacher misconduct. In other words, as already happens in other professions such as medicine and law, the public will be informed when teachers are found guilty of misconduct.
Holding misbehaving teachers accountable hardly sounds anti-teacher. Since the vast majority of teachers are ethical people who genuinely wish to help students, they have nothing to fear from an open and transparent disciplinary process.
In addition, the province had good reasons for introducing this legislation. Last year, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection released a scathing report that raised serious concerns about child safety. It found that over the last four years 252 current or former school personnel across Canada committed, or were accused of committing, offences of a sexual nature involving children.
Sadly, the actual number of offenders is likely much higher since several provinces, including Manitoba, do not currently require public disclosure of discipline decisions. This means that the public only hears about teacher misconduct when criminal charges are laid. Many cases never make it that far.
MTS’s main objection to Bill 35 is that the bill contains an “overly broad definition of misconduct” that will expose teachers to “frivolous and malicious complaints.” However, the bill’s definition of misconduct is quite specific and focuses on things such as sexual abuse and causing physical or significant emotional harm to a child.
During a CTV interview, Martindale expressed concern that students might file frivolous complaints against a teacher “if they receive a mark that they’re not happy with, if a teacher raises their voice.” Those would be frivolous complaints indeed. Fortunately, they are already ruled out in Bill 35.
In fact, Bill 35 explicitly states that the commissioner of teacher discipline can dismiss a complaint if it is frivolous, vexatious, trivial, or made in bad faith. Furthermore, the commissioner can also decline to proceed if there is no reasonable prospect that a hearing would result in an adverse finding by the panel or if pursuing the complaint is not in the public interest.
Thus, no one who actually reads Bill 35 can seriously think that teachers will be hauled before a disciplinary panel because they gave a low mark or raised their voice.
To further ensure due process, complaint hearings will take place before a panel of three members, one of whom must be a teacher. In addition, anyone who disagrees with the panel’s decision has the right to appeal it in court. Clearly, there are plenty of safeguards built into Bill 35.
Finally, Bill 35 brings Manitoba in line with what is already happening elsewhere. Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and New Brunswick have public teacher registries and make teacher discipline cases public. Last time I checked, teaching remains a viable profession in these provinces.
This doesn’t mean that Bill 35 is perfect. For example, I agree with MTS that it doesn’t make sense to include “professional competence” in a bill that focuses on teacher misconduct. In my view, competence and misconduct are two separate issues and should be dealt with separately.
Nevertheless, Bill 35 is, on the whole, a step in the right direction. Keeping students safe must always be a top priority.
Michael Zwaagstra is a high school teacher and a Steinbach city councillor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.