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Behind the Fight Over Who Runs BC's College of Teachers

Critical report drives to question of how best to maintain the professional independence of province's teachers.

By Katie Hyslop 10 Dec 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop reports on education for the Tyee Solutions Society, and is a freelance reporter for a number of other outlets including The Tyee. To republish this piece, please contact the Michelle Hoar.

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Who controls her profession?

After months of speculation, the Donald Avison report on the BC College of Teachers was released this week, but instead of dousing the fire of the lengthy dispute between the College and the BC Teachers Federation, the allegations of bias and ulterior motives are still being flung.

A College Divided: Report of the Fact Finder on the BC College of Teachers is the result of a lengthy investigation into the college that began this year after 11 members of the college council wrote a letter to Minister of Education Margaret MacDiarmid accusing the BC Teachers Federation (BCTF) of having undue influence over the council.

According to the ministry, similar letters soon followed from the BC Federation of Independent School Associations, BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils, BC School Trustees Association, and the BC Principals' and Vice-Principals' Association. As a result, MacDiarmid appointed B.C. lawyer and former public servant Avison to conduct a review of the college.

The report, due in early October but delayed due to the cabinet shuffle, found the college had failed in its efforts to be an independent self-regulator of the province's teachers.

'Dysfunctional' college: report

"The BC College of Teachers is not currently regarded as an independent and credible entity. A striking number of those interviewed, including many council members, consistently described the college, particularly at the council level, as 'dysfunctional.' That assessment is accurate," reads the report.

The report goes on to accuse the BCTF of interfering with the college and preventing it from acting independently from the union -- allegations the union vehemently denies.

"[The report is] laced with unsubstantiated allegations and continues a sorry history of friction within the College of Teachers," reads a statement from Susan Lambert, president of BCTF, in a press release issued Dec. 8.

"Teachers are committed to maintaining the highest standards of professionalism and quality in our public schools. We did it before the college ever came into being, and we continue to be committed to this principle."

Since the release the BCTF has backed off from a full dismissal of the report, saying they are alarmed by reports of teachers accused of misconduct remaining in the classroom, but maintain it is biased against the teachers' union.*

But at least one member of the college agrees with the report's findings. College registrar Kit Krieger has been lobbying for independence from the BCTF since 2004, when he was elected to the college council as a BCTF endorsed member. Krieger, a former president of the BCTF from 1997-1999, says he is grateful to the union for his term as president and for the representation they provide their members, but says he defected from the union after making it to council because he believes in an independent self-regulatory body for teachers.

"The college is so out of step with every other regulatory body that this process of [BCTF] endorsement and the long history until last spring of caucusing with [BCTF] members [on council], of having a policy framework which seeks to override, contradicts the legislation that sets the college up," Krieger told The Tyee.

"The assertion that the college is supposed to be democratic and represent the profession instead of the public interest, or that the public interest is adequately represented by school boards or by the BCTF, those are simply wrong assertions."

A rocky start

Depending on who you ask, the creation of the college in 1987 was imposed on teachers to weaken the BCTF, or created to strengthen disciplinary standards for teachers accused of misconduct. The BCTF takes the former point of view, arguing the Social Credit government, in exchange for teachers' collective bargaining rights, introduced the college for teacher certification, decertification, and discipline, formerly the responsibility of the union. This, according to then-president Ken Novakowski "split the professional aspects of teachers from the BCTF."

But in his report, Avison claims the college was introduced because of the case of Robert Noyes, a former teacher and principal convicted of 19 counts of sexual offenses against students in 1986, with more than 600 incidents occurring between 1970 and 1985 in several communities in the province.

Until 2003, the college council was composed of 15 elected members and five government appointees. Almost every elected member was a BCTF endorsed candidate. The government dissolved the Council in 2003 citing a lack of independence from the union, installing 20 government-appointed members in their place. But after the majority of teachers withheld their College fees in protest, the government returned the council to the teachers, but reduced the number of elected candidates to 12.

The BCTF briefly lost their majority on Council in 2009-10 when three BCTF-endorsed members -- Richard Walker, Norm Nichols and Jerelynn MacNeil -- defected from the union, calling for an independent council. Joining forces with the eight government-appointed members, they wrote the minister complaining the council was too divided to achieve its legislated mandate of evaluating teachers. Since that time council elections have restored the union's majority.

Controversial meetings

The non-BCTF members also took issue with the union holding meetings with their elected members before each council meeting to discuss the issues and policies on the council agenda. After the letter alleging BCTF control was sent to the ministry, the BCTF invited all members of the council to the meetings, but the non-union members refused to attend.

"We haven't recently [held a meeting] because of the furor over it," says Lambert, adding the council now holds Provincial Education Group meetings with education interest groups before the council meeting.

"It's looking at proposed policy and ensuring that the policy is reflective of the classroom and of societal expectations and is rigorous, and we look at it from it's always better to have another pair of eyes look at something you propose before you actually adopt it because you get a different perspective sometimes."

But Krieger disagrees with both the BCTF meetings and the current Provincial Education Group meetings the council holds before each meeting, arguing the council cannot be independent while being subjected to lobbying efforts from other educational groups.

Controlled by teachers or by members?

"[The BCTF] thinks this body is a democratic body that the teachers use to represent them," Krieger says. "I don't think the leadership understands the college and what it contributes to its profession, and in seeking to control it undermines professionalism and undermines public confidence in the teaching profession."

Section seven of the members' guide to the BC Teachers' Federation outlines the union's position on the college and includes a section titled "Democratic control of the college": "All professional bodies in B.C. are controlled by the members of those professions. Only practitioners can truly understand the nature and demands of any profession. A council representing the teaching profession, as opposed to representing the government."

But Lambert says the council has less members of the profession on it than other self-regulatory bodies in the province, such as the College of Registered Nurses of British Columbia or the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia.

"We have far fewer teachers on our college than any other professional college. So there is a greater degree of separation, if you take the separation definitionaly with the representation on the college," she says.

Krieger says Lambert is confusing members of the profession with members of the union. According to him, 18 out of 20 Council members, or 90 per cent, hold a teaching certificate with the college, even though all are not currently practicing teachers. The council's non-BCTF members include superintendents, principals, and vice-principals -- who until 1987 were members of the union -- as well as two members of the public, a university dean, and a school board trustee.

'Manufactured crisis': BCTF's Lambert

Lambert says the college has always been independent, and the idea there is a crisis was borne out of personal and political issues on behalf of Walker and Krieger, both former BCTF representatives on council.

"The allegations that the Federation interferes with self-regulation of individual teachers, the discipline of individual teachers, is absolutely and utterly false," she told The Tyee.

"It's a manufactured crisis and it has no credibility or no kind of grounds in any kind of polling we've ever done."

Lambert had hoped the report would focus solely on the workings of the council, but she feared it would touch on areas the college currently has no control over, particularly professional development courses, which the union currently delivers, fearing the college would make certain courses mandatory.

"If you're told that you must take whatever course of training, it's much different than if you are a reflective practitioner of inquiry and research into your own practice," she told The Tyee.

"If I am told to take a course in science teaching and I'm a teacher librarian, that's not going to have any relevance to me and that's going to be completely ineffective."

According to Avison's report, other professional colleges are actively involved in the monitoring of professional development of its membership, and it was part of the college's original responsibilities as designated by the province's legislative assembly. But the college rejected this responsibility from the beginning, and left the responsibility to the union to create and disseminate the development workshops.

Unlike professions such as lawyers and doctors, however, teachers are not self-employed and are required by their employers, the school boards, to participate in five unpaid professional development days per year.

"It's part of your practice. Like when you say mandatory it sounds like a boss/slave relationship, it sounds really weird to me. We're a profession, we require that of ourselves," says Lambert.

No more status quo

Avison provides three recommendations for what should happen to the college: maintaining the status quo; reducing council membership to 15, with equal membership of teachers, superintendents, principals and vice-principals, and other administrators; or council composed entirely of government appointed members. However the report is not optimistic about any of these options.

"Given the relative failure of the College of Teachers to meet the expectations of the mandate originally assigned to it and given both the deterioration of the reputation of the college and the corresponding loss of confidence in the body now expressed by many parties, it may be time for the government of B.C. to re-assert control over the regulation of the teaching profession by bringing all related functions back within the jurisdiction of the ministry of education," reads the report.

The ministry has already scheduled meetings with the BCTF, College, and other education groups to discuss the report's findings, and MacDiarmid says it's important each group have time to meet with their members and get feedback. But it is clear to the minister that changes are necessary.

"The college as it is now, there will be changes. We've been given some options and we haven't made a decision," she told The Tyee.

"Even just the conversations I'd like to have will definitely take a period of time. So we'll do it in a timely fashion, but I certainly don't want to rush it. It's very important that we get it right."

*Story updated at 11:30 a.m., Dec. 10, 2010.  [Tyee]

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