Chapter Nine: Teachers and the Teaching Profession

9.5 Codes of Ethics

There is an obvious relationship between what it means to be a member of a profession and what it means to act professionally. As in other professions, the latter is addressed in teaching by a code of professional practice that is laid out by most, but not all, provincial teachers’ associations in Canada. While each provincial association has its own code, there is a considerable degree of similarity among provinces (see Box 9.5.1 for an example of a code of professional conduct, and Table 9.6.1 for the website references for access to all provincial unions, associations, federations, societies and colleges of teachers). Just as the characteristics of a profession cannot capture the complexities of what it means to be a profession, so too a code of ethics represents only a skeletal outline of what it means to be a professional.

The Purposes and Functions of Codes of Ethics

As a guide to professional conduct, an enforced code of ethics serves several functions. First, it provides some assurance to its clients that they can expect to be treated in accordance with established standards of practice and acceptable moral conduct. Second, it offers the general public some confidence that the profession is serving a public interest worthy of trust and support. Third, it offers a set of uniform rules and standards that define for its members acceptable professional behaviour, and that provide a basis for properly regulating their conduct (Rich, 1984).

Box 9.5.1

The Alberta Teachers’ Association Code of Professional Conduct

The Code of Professional Conduct stipulates minimum standards of professional conduct of teachers but is not an exhaustive list of such standards. Unless exempted by legislation, any member of The Alberta Teachers’ Association who is alleged to have violated the standards of the profession, including the provisions of the Code, may be subject to a charge of unprofessional conduct under the bylaws of the Association.

In Relation to Pupils

  1. The teacher teaches in a manner that respects the dignity and rights of all persons without prejudice as to race, religious beliefs, colour, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, physical characteristics, disability, marital status, family status, age, ancestry, place of origin, place of residence, socioeconomic background or linguistic background.
  2. (1) The teacher is responsible for diagnosing educational needs, prescribing and implementing instructional programs and evaluating progress of pupils;

(2) The teacher may not delegate these responsibilities to any person who is not a teacher.

  1. The teacher may delegate specific and limited aspects of instructional activity to non-certificated personnel, provided that the teacher supervises and directs such activity.
  2. The teacher treats pupils with dignity and respect and is considerate of their circumstances.
  3. The teacher may not divulge information about a pupil received in confidence or in the course of professional duties except as required by law or where, in the judgment of the teacher, to do so is in the best interest of the pupil.
  4. The teacher may not accept pay for tutoring a pupil in any subjects in which the teacher is responsible for giving classroom instruction to that pupil.
  5. The teacher may not take advantage of a professional position to profit from the sale of goods or services to or for pupils in the teacher’s charge.

In Relation to School Authorities

  1. The teacher protests the assignment of duties for which the teacher is not qualified or conditions which make it difficult to render professional service.
  2. The teacher fulfils contractual obligations to the employer until released by mutual consent or according to law.
  3. The teacher provides as much notice as possible of a decision to terminate employment.
  4. The teacher adheres to agreements negotiated on the teacher’s behalf by the Association.

In Relation to Colleagues

  1. The teacher does not undermine the confidence of pupils in other teachers.
  2. The teacher criticizes the professional competence or professional reputation of another teacher only in confidence to proper officials and after the other teacher has been informed of the criticism, subject only to Section 24 of the Teaching Profession Act.
  3. The teacher, when making a report on the professional performance of another teacher, does so in good faith and, prior to submitting the report, provides the teacher with a copy of the report, subject only to Section 24 of the Teaching Profession Act.
  4. The teacher does not take, because of animosity or for personal advantage, any steps to secure the dismissal of another teacher.
  5. The teacher recognizes the duty to protest through proper channels administrative policies and practices which the teacher cannot in conscience accept; and further recognizes that if administration by consent fails, the administrator must adopt a position of authority.
  6. The teacher as an administrator provides opportunities for staff members to express their opinions and to bring forth suggestions regarding the administration of the school.

In Relation to the Profession

  1. The teacher acts in a manner which maintains the honour and dignity of the profession.
  2. The teacher does not engage in activities which adversely affect the quality of the teacher’s professional service.
  3. The teacher submits to the Association disputes arising from professional relationships with other teachers which cannot be resolved by personal discussion.
  4. The teacher makes representations on behalf of the Association or members thereof only when authorized to do so.
  5. The teacher accepts that service to the Association is a professional responsibility.


*Items 13 and 14 do not pertain to reporting to the Association on the possible unprofessional conduct of another member. Section 24(3) of the Teaching Profession Act requires members to report forthwith to the executive secretary on the unprofessional conduct of another member.

Source. The Alberta Teachers’ Association. (2018). Code of professional conduct.


The organization of the Alberta Teachers’ Association code into categories that outline the responsibilities of teachers to pupils, school authorities, colleagues, and to the profession is similar to that found in most codes.  Codes of ethics tend to combine general statements of overriding ideals and principles (e.g., “a teacher’s first responsibility is to the pupils in his or her charge”) and quite specific procedures and rules of professional conduct (e.g., reporting suspected child abuse). Provincial teachers’ organizations are responsible for enforcing their codes, and for dealing with cases of unprofessional conduct. While most do not have the authority to withdraw a member’s teaching certificate or to remove teachers from their teaching positions, they may reprimand their members, expel them from the organization, and, in the most serious of infractions, recommend to the minister of education that their certification be revoked.

Teachers and Students

The prime responsibility of teachers is the educational well-being of their students. To accomplish this task, the professional teacher creates, along with other educators, an appropriate learning environment for each student that takes into account individual interests, needs, and abilities. This commitment to each student is spelled out in the Alberta Teachers’ Association code: “The teacher teaches in a manner that respects the dignity and rights of all persons without prejudice to race, religious beliefs, color, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, physical characteristics, disability, marital status, family status, age, ancestry, place of origin, place of residence, socioeconomic background or linguistic background”.   Of course, writing down the obligation is one thing; carrying it out every day in practice, as discussed in earlier chapters, is very difficult.

Professional competence is often recognized by the expectation (1) that teachers will participate in a career-long process of professional development; and (2), in the words of the Alberta Teachers’ Association code, that “the teacher protests the assignment of duties for which the teacher is not qualified or conditions which make it difficult to render professional service.”  The websites of teachers’ associations across the nation are listed in Table 9.6.1 for easy access to provincial and territorial codes of professional practice.

Teachers and Colleagues

Professional status requires teachers to respect the expertise of their colleagues, to refrain from acting in ways that undermine professional authority, and to deal with collegial disputes in a professional manner. This means that teachers are expected to follow clearly defined procedures if they wish to criticize the professional activity of a colleague, or if they oppose decisions duly agreed upon by other teachers. Failure to do so could lead to disciplinary action by the appropriate teachers’ association.

Whether such regulation of a teacher’s criticism of a colleague could be deemed a violation of the teacher’s freedom of expression as guaranteed under the Charter was a question addressed in a British Columbia court case (Cromer v. British Columbia Teachers’ Federation). Cromer, a teacher and parent with a child attending a school in the school district in which she worked, attended a parent advisory committee at which concerns were expressed about the sex-education program in which her child was enrolled. At the meeting, she became involved in a heated exchange with her child’s teacher in which she made a number of derogatory personal criticisms of the teacher. The teacher complained to the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation that this violated its code of ethics, and the BCTF initiated disciplinary proceedings. Cromer maintained that the charge violated her freedom of expression as guaranteed under the Charter. However, at trial and on appeal the code of ethics was upheld. The Court of Appeal judge commented:

The code of ethics is designed to avoid disharmony among teaching colleagues, and to promote professional standards, all in the interests of creating an environment where the children being taught will receive the best educational opportunity possible. The code of ethics does not preclude criticism by one teacher of another; it sets out a procedure for making criticism that is intended to increase the beneficial effects of the criticism and minimize the harmful effects.

Because the criticisms were addressed personally to the teacher and not at the specific subject matter under consideration, the judge concluded:

pinion, the “freedom of expression” guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is capable of overriding cl. 5 of the code of ethics of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation. To determine whether it does so in any particular case depends on a weighing and balancing of the interests involved, as has always been the case with “freedom of expression” questions. In this case, I do not consider that Mrs. Cromer’s interests in saying what she is alleged to have said were sufficient to override the interests underlying cl. 5 of the code of ethics.

In the case of British Columbia Teachers ‘ Federation v. British Columbia Public School Employers’ Association, 2013, the British Columbia Court of Appeal upheld teachers’ freedom to express dissention regarding educational policy.  The BCTF initiated a campaign against underfunding of special education, overcrowded classes and school closures, to which employers responded demanding the removal of campaign material.  Employers’ rights to demand removal of material was initially upheld by the lower court, but later overturned by the Court of Appeal with the rationale that there was no evidence of harm to children in the material.  However, the Court of Appeal did add that teachers’ activism should not turn schools into “political battlegrounds” (Clarke & Trask, 2013; de Britto, 2018).

The Teacher and Authority

As employees in a bureaucratic organization who also see themselves as professionals, teachers often face conflicts between what the organization wishes them to do and what they regard as being the best decision. For example, a teacher may disagree with a particular school policy, may feel that a student has been treated unfairly, or may feel that a curriculum change is not in the best interests of students. Teachers in these situations face difficult dilemmas. To what extent should they publicly express their views? For example, in school climates that are not built on trust and professionalism, a teacher who voices an opinion that is unpopular, either with colleagues or with the school administrator, runs the risk of being penalized in a variety of ways. They may receive a less positive evaluation, may be given a less desirable teaching assignment, or may have a harder time getting resources and support for a favourite course or project. Administrators are in a position to impose such sanctions without ever making it evident that a teacher is being penalized, although one would hope that leaders would not stoop to such tactics.  In fact, teachers may often overestimate the likelihood of their being penalized for expressing their ideas.

On the other hand, it is part of one’s responsibility as a professional to voice one’s views and concerns in an open and constructive manner. The Alberta Teachers’ Association code deals explicitly with this by stating: “The teacher as an administrator provides opportunities for staff members to express their opinions and to bring forth suggestions regarding the administration of the school.”  Surely administrators would want to know if people had serious concerns about their proposals. It cannot be desirable for people to keep quiet in public and grumble in private about decisions. Being a professional carries with it the responsibility to act in the best interests of one’s profession, even when there may be a personal cost involved. All of these points suggest that teachers should be prepared to take a stand on important issues.

It might also be appropriate to reflect on the parallels between teachers and students. If teachers are reluctant, despite the protections of their adult status and their membership in a professional organization, to speak out about their concerns, then much more so are students, who have none of these protections and who are much more vulnerable to coercion and retribution for expressing unpopular opinions. (Chapter Four raised the issue of the school as a democratic community in which it would be desirable to provide vehicles for everyone to express opinions in an open but constructive way.)

As in so many areas, no clear and unambiguous answer to this dilemma is possible. Teachers have to decide what steps seem warranted. Depending on the situation, discretion may or may not be the better part of valour. On occasion, a teacher might consider collective rather than individual action, since acting with colleagues provides both a stronger statement as well as a measure of protection from reprisal. Such decisions are essentially matters of conscience, which is another way of saying there is no formula for resolving them.

The Private Lives of Teachers

The expectations of teachers as professionals do not stop at the entrance to the school. What teachers do in their lives out of school cannot necessarily be deemed irrelevant to their work in the classroom, as clearly illustrated in the highly publicized and precedent-setting case of New Brunswick teacher Malcolm Ross. In 1996, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that his publication of anti-Semitic books and pamphlets during his off-duty time contributed to a discriminatory and “poisoned” school environment and required that the school board remove him from any teaching position (Ross v. New Brunswick S D, 1996).

There has long been a public expectation in Canada that teachers lead morally exemplary lives. Some codes of ethics have chosen to avoid statements about teachers’ private lives. Others articulate a requirement that teachers uphold the professional reputation of their work. For example, the Alberta Teachers’ Association code requires that “[t]he teacher acts in a manner which maintains the honour and dignity of the profession” and “does not engage in activities which adversely affect the quality of [their] professional service.”

As late as the mid-twentieth century in parts of Canada, teachers could be dismissed for entering a bar or a pool hall, presumably for fear that they would set a bad example for the students in their care. Although standards have changed, teachers’ private lives are still sometimes relevant to their employment. Issues of teachers’ out-of-school conduct can and do arise in many different contexts. The general standard accepted in law is that private behaviour “not impair one’s fitness to teach” (Hurlbert & Hurlbert, 1992, p. 186), but this does not necessarily resolve all the problems.  Often the determination of what constitutes that fitness to teach is based on the moral standards of the community of which the teacher is a part.  For example, in another well-known precedent-setting case, two teachers’ passion for photography outside of the classroom lead to their suspension without pay for four weeks (Shewan & Shewan v. Abbotsford, 1987). Mr. Shewan submitted a semi-nude photograph of Mrs. Shewan to a “men’s” magazine in which it was published as part of an amateur photography feature.  The issue that became central to the case was the fact that the photo was accessed by students. In determining the judgment, the position clearly stated by the courts was the following:

Teachers must not only be competent, but they are expected to lead by example. Any loss of confidence or respect will impair the system, and have an adverse effect upon those who participate in or rely upon it. That is why a teacher must maintain a standard of behaviour which most other citizens need not observe because they do not have such public responsibilities to fulfil. (1987)

Educational law researchers have wondered if the same ruling would be reached in today’s courts (Mackenzie, 2016) given that the photo itself was not considered to be pornography ‒ the issue was the effect of the photo on the learning environment.  Essentially, court rulings suggest that teachers do have some right to pursue a lifestyle of their choice, provided that their behavior does not have such detrimental effects on students or the school that it impairs the teacher’s ability to teach in the school.

The internet has greatly re-shaped teachers’ off-duty conduct, particularly related to their engagement with social media.  Disciplinary tribunals and judicial decisions make it clear that the fundamental premises of case law found in the Ross case remain for teachers in relation to their conduct in social media. One such case is that of Ontario College of Teachers v. Halliday, in which a teacher attended a “Dirty Disney” party hosted by her roommate. MacKenzie (2016) writes:

[Halliday] exhibited poor judgment insofar as one of the party guests was a student at her school board (although not at the teacher’s school); Ms. Halliday and her roommate both knew the student and her family from a local community group. The underage student brought her own alcohol to the party and drank it in the teacher’s home, then slept there overnight.

Compounding her misbehaviour, Ms. Halliday posted a picture of herself “dressed in immodest attire as Minnie Mouse, with a cigarette in her mouth and a wine glass in her hand,” on her Facebook page – which clearly identified her as a teacher with the Board, right below the picture. Administrators learned of the picture the following day. It is not clear that they would have discovered the teacher’s poor judgment had she not posted the photo online. Ms. Halliday was suspended without pay for 20 days and pleaded guilty to professional misconduct before the College of Teachers.” (pp. 59-60)

Canadians vary widely in the standard of behaviour that they find proper or acceptable, which can create problems for teachers. Even the case of crime is not clear-cut. Teachers in Canada must submit criminal record checks to their employers who determine whether or not the crime is such that it presents a risk to students or others in the school.  Generally speaking, a teacher convicted of a crime could be dismissed from his or her job on the grounds that a criminal cannot be a suitable teacher. So could a teacher who was convicted of possessing illegal drugs. But people might well differ over what sorts of crimes merit such punishment. Physical or sexual assault might indicate unsuitability for teaching, but would a conviction for shoplifting also merit dismissal? What about driving offences? What about offences committed many years before the person became a teacher? School district hearings in this regard are considered confidential, but as in the case of teacher conduct outside of school, decisions made in this regard are often viewed through the lens of the values of the local community. To that end, some districts will be more conservative in their rulings than others.

Issues of sexual behaviour are particularly sensitive. One can no longer be dismissed from teaching in Canada on the basis of sexual identity. On the other hand, Catholic school boards in Canada have dismissed teachers who were divorced or who otherwise violated Catholic religious teaching, and these dismissals have been upheld by the courts. The conflict between the public’s expectations of teachers and teachers’ right to lead private lives of their own choosing makes it likely that other such cases will end up before the courts.


Share This Book