SRTA Presentation to Bill 35 Committee

On Monday, April 24, 2023, SRTA President Jonathan Waite delivered a presentation to the Standing Committee of Social and Economic Development regarding the Provincial Government’s proposed Bill 35 The Education Administration Amendment Act (Teacher Certification and Professional Conduct). Below is the text version of the presentation. The Manitoba Government also has this Hansard transcript (Jonathan’s presentation starts on page 30), as well as this video recording on YouTube.

My name is Jonathan Waite.  I have been a teacher for 22 years in the Seine River School Division.  I submit this presentation to you as a Local Association president representing the 370 plus members of the Seine River Teachers’ Association.

I need you to know, unequivocally, that I fully support laws that protect children.  I am the proud father of two daughters who have now completed their public education in this province, and I appreciate the laws that are in place for their safety, as well as efforts to review and improve those laws as concerns come up.  Like all educators, my primary professional responsibility is to students.  This is why it is enshrined as the first item in the Manitoba Teachers’ Society Code of Professional Practice.

Educators have a duty to make sure that students are safe, and a responsibility to create safe spaces.  I’m very familiar with the phrase in loco parentis, a phrase I take very seriously, for I know that acting in place of a child’s parent is an important responsibility.  The classroom needs to be a safe space for students, free from harm, free from bullying, free from abuse, and free to work hard, work differently, make decisions, make errors, find success, and ask questions that matter to them.

In a bill that seeks to enhance protections for children in public education, I don’t understand how competence aligns with the intent of this bill.  I do understand the importance of investigating a complaint about an educator’s conduct, and with that, the subsequent adjudication of the complaint.  Again, I have no opposition to this, I value any system that protects the safety of children, full stop.  However, competence and conduct are two distinctly separate issues, and with the way this bill has been presented, I need to outline my concerns about how the term “competence” may be interpreted by the commissioner, or panel, that this bill seeks to establish for the safety of children.

As part of a quality education experience, students will encounter many different educators along the way — educators with different teaching styles, with deep knowledge of pedagogy and curriculum, who build individualized assessment plans for each of their students. Educators strive to build positive relationships with students and their families, while also striving to better themselves through their own professional development and learning.  We know that to be the best, we all need to seek ways to improve as educators.

We also know that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to education, and that while standards are important, it’s also important to rise above the standards to meet the variety of needs that students come to school with.  This may mean teachers have to change their teaching style, or adapt their materials, or change the dynamic of the learning environment.  Teachers have to take risks when it comes to connecting to students and guiding them on their educational journey.  And just as we set up safe spaces for our students to learn through making decisions, teachers also need their schools to be safe places for them to find effective ways to educate every learner.  I’m concerned that Bill 35 has the potential to negatively affect some of my hard-working, risk-taking colleagues. In an environment where, “any person may make a written complaint to the commissioner that alleges that a teacher has been or is incompetent to carry out the professional responsibilities of a teacher,” I fear that some of my colleagues may end up being unfairly targeted, simply for utilizing a different teaching style, or exploring a curricular topic in a way someone in the public may deem “incompetent.”  

To speak plainly, I’m going to reference a personal situation.  It was not too long ago that I was speaking to a very good friend of mine about a math concept his child was learning at school.  He just couldn’t wrap his head around the method his child was being taught, and this upset him.  He asked my advice, and the first thing I told him was that the way he and I learned math concepts in school was just one way to arrive at a correct answer, and that by teaching additional concepts to his child, they were likely getting a much better, more robust understanding of number sense. I also told him that his best path forward was to talk to the teacher directly, and that if that didn’t get him the results he was seeking, to then talk to the school’s principal.  This is, after all, a natural and fair way to resolve a complaint, so much so that this is enshrined in the policies of my own school division, as it is in many others.

If the amendments proposed in Bill 35 were in effect then, and my friend deemed the teacher to be incompetent, they could have made a direct complaint to the commissioner, without speaking first to the teacher, or to the principal, or to anyone in the school division.  And yes, as this bill is written, the commissioner could “decide not to take further action,” but at the same time, they could also initiate an investigation of the teacher, initiate a “consent resolution agreement,” or refer the matter to a panel for a disciplinary hearing.  Now, in this example, I think most would not see this situation as something to act on further, but what about a different situation?  

What happens when any member of the public, whether they have children in the school or not, decides to file a complaint against a teacher because they deem them incompetent for allowing a discussion on residential schools, or gender diversity?  I don’t pull these topics out of thin air – one only has to pay marginal attention to some of the laws being made in other regions to see how they are impacting teachers in what and how they can teach.  And the way this bill is written, in my opinion, offers no safeguards to our educators that teach in ways one might describe as “outside the box”, or support discussions that challenge societal norms.  It also removes the ability for my employer, the school division, to address complaints related to teacher competence.  My employer was the one who hired me, and over the years, has supervised and evaluated me in a fair and effective way.  I believe that it is my employer’s responsibility to continue to ensure competence in their schools, and not a third-party commissioner.

Speaking of which, I also have concerns about who might be named as commissioner, or as panel members, if this bill passes.  As it stands, our profession is governed by the Certificate Review Committee, a committee made up of professionals in the field.  I trust them to be experts in teacher competency, and to consistently hold educators accountable to their professional responsibilities and obligations. Honestly, while I would generally trust any commissioner to have the best interests in mind when it comes to student safety, I have no such trust that a commissioner without any connection to education would be able to fairly adjudicate issues related to teacher competency, and I would extend this concern to any hearing panel comprised mostly of non-educators.  Surely, Minister Ewasko, when a parent arrived at your school to talk with you about an issue, you valued their perspective and their opinions, as all educators would.  But to suggest that members of the public would be fair and completely knowledgeable in addressing complaints about educators is actually a deprofessionalization of what we do.

Minister, I know you want a fair and just system for handling complaints against educators.  I have read that you believe that “due process is in place in the bill to prevent frivolous accusations.”  I would love to believe that a rational, logical person acting as commissioner, or as a panel member, would never subject an educator to a vexatious, unnecessary investigation.  But respectfully, the bill does not spell out the safeguards you and I might hope for, and because it is silent on whether teachers can expect to have the support of the union in the event of an investigation or hearing, I have significant concerns about the slippery slope this can create when it comes to creating vulnerability for educators.

To this end, I’m going to speak plainly, and not hypothetically, about I situation I had to deal with as a Local president earlier this year.  I received a call late in the evening regarding a complaint against a teacher.  It would be unfair for me to go into details here, but I will tell you that students were never at risk of harm, and that the complaint was, in my opinion, both frivolous and vexatious.  Involving me as the Local union representative meant that the educator affected by the complaint had someone to talk to, and to get advice from.  Whether the complaint was or was not valid, having the union involved was an important part of the due process.  Minister Ewasko, as a former educator, if you managed to have a career without need for consultation with a union representative, consider yourself fortunate, because I deal with questions and concerns from members on a daily basis.  Surely as someone who was previously supported by MTS, you value the support they offer to members and to public education, and so I hope that amendments to this bill will clearly define the role of the union.

So, with my final statements, as many of my colleagues have already suggested and will continue to suggest, I would like to propose the following amendments for consideration:

  1. Remove competence from the Bill. 
  2. Ensure hearing panels are composed of a majority of teachers, in line with the composition of disciplinary panels of other professional bodies in Manitoba. 
  3. Include the expressed right to representation for a teacher being investigated. 
  4. Limit reports by employers to suspensions and terminations, as opposed to any and all discipline for professional misconduct or incompetence. 

I thank you for your time. This is my first time speaking to a legislative committee and I’m happy to take questions if you have any.