Article

Sharing Personal Information With Students —When is it just 'Too Much Information'?

Jerry DeQuetteville and Sharon O‘Halloran

A grade 5 teacher was leading his class in a study of the novel Island of the Blue Dolphins when they came across the word ‘faggot,’ meaning, in this case, a bundle of twigs. The class snickered and there were some asides. “Some people would be offended to hear you say that,” the teacher remarked. “As a gay male I am offended.” Was this teacher acting professionally?

Education Act Duties and Responsibilities

Section 264 of the Education Act describes your duty to provide moral leadership this way: “to inculcateby precept and example respect for religion and the principles of Judaeo-Christian morality and thehighest regard for truth, justice, loyalty, love of country, humanity, benevolence, sobriety, industry,frugality, purity, temperance and all other virtues.

This may seem like a tall order, out of step with our multicultural, modern society, but the spirit of these obligations remains. The law is meant to reinforce your instrumental role in the moral guidance of vulnerable young people both in your teaching and in the example you set.

When examining whether or not a disclosure of personal information is appropriate the employer would often look at four factors: your motivation, the age of the students, the type of information shared and the local community.

Motivation

A teacher who is going through a difficult divorce and shares the details with students could face an allegation of inappropriate professional activity. This person may need to talk about the situation with somebody but there are other more appropriate supports.

However, the motivation may be educational. A teacher who overheard a student being teased for being in a single parent family, could say: “I’m a single parent; it is not my child’s fault. What you said to X is hurtful.” This should be interpreted as relevant self-disclosure. However, the employer might question the extent of the disclosure if the teacher dwelt on the issue.

Age of Students

Many  people  believe  that  children  should  be protected from certain issues and information until  they are  the  right  age. As educators we understand that children develop differently so rigid rules are inappropriate.

We  also  know  that  within  reason,  parents should make decisions about what is appropriate  for  their  children. However, in  the  public education system we deal with issues that some parents  will  feel  are  never  appropriate.  They have tried hard to prevent teachers from using materials such as those that deal with same-sex partnerships or diverse family structures.

The Ontario curriculum, the Ontario College of Teachers’ standards of the teaching profession, and the competencies set out in the teacher performance appraisal process require teachers to teach for diversity to ensure  that all students feel they are represented in the classroom. It is the board’s responsibility to deal with parent objections and to support staff in carrying out their duties.

Generally,  sensitive  information  should  not be shared with children in the early years. Many boards  have  developed  specific  guidelines  for dealing  with  sensitive issues  in  the  classroom. Teachers should be aware of  and comply with them.

Youthful indiscretions

Disclosure about youthful indiscretions are problematic even in the context of a teachable moment. For example, parents might consider it inappropriate for a teacher to disclose a teenage conviction for theft. Parents could construe this as indirect encouragement by the teacher who is a role model. In this case the employer would likely take the position that the disclosure was contrary to the teacher’s duties as set out in the Education Act.

Community Values

News that a teacher is undergoing a sex-change procedure might be more controversial in a small community than in urban Toronto. Community values should not force teachers to hide their identities. ETFO expects that the rights of teachers under the Ontario Human Rights Code, the collective agreement, and board policies would be upheld.

The Ontario Human Rights Code

The  Ontario Human Rights Code protects  you from  discrimination  or  from  harassment  in employment on these prohibited grounds: race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, age, record of offences, family status or disability. (See VoicSpring 05 and Winter 06 for more on this topic.)

You have the right to be free from discrimination or harassment based on the prohibited grounds. A teacher who tells her students she is Aboriginal could file a complaint against them if they harassed her as a result. This type of bullying should be addressed in  accordance with board  policies. If there are no policies, ask your board for guidance.

Disclosure of sexual orientation or same sex partnershi status

A student, naturally curious, may ask about a partner or a photo on your desk. You need not be afraid to tell the truth.

At ETFO we believe that everyone has the right to her or his identity, and the right to be free from discrimination and harassment. Disclosure of sexual orientation or same-sex partnership status is the same as a disclosure about any other aspect of identity.

However, such disclosure might cause some reaction, depending on the school, the community, and school board practices and policies. Those who perceive the disclosure of sexual orientation or same-sex partners to be “promotion of a gay lifestyle” will fear and misunderstand it. As well, there still are double standards about what is and is not appropriate. It is unlikely that anyone would protest if a teacher told her class she was marrying her male boyfriend.

It is important to ensure that personal disclosure is firmly rooted in the “teachable moment” and situated in the context of a classroom discussion about bullying and discrimination. It should be appropriate to the age of students and the curriculum. It should be motivated by the spirit of the legal and professional obligations to promote  acceptance and respect. (For one teacher’s story see “Knowledge is Power” in the Spring 05 issue of Voice.)

The grade 5 teacher? His employer thought he had violated his professional responsibilities and disciplined  him. ETFO challenged the board, and won. We based our objection on the fact that the teacher had responded in an appropriate way to an expression of bigotry by students. It was a teachable moment – and he was teaching for diversity.

Remember:

  • Do not attempt to be overly friendly with students, to pry into their personal or family lives.
  • Never share your personal troubles or problems. You are in a position of power and must refrain from using the teacher-student relation- ship to satisfy a particular need. A student should never be used as a confidant, advisor or friend. To do so constitutes a clear boundary violation.
  • Sharing intimate information with students can be regarded as a deliberate attempt to create a situation of intimacy for improper purposes.
  • When in doubt, consult: speak to a colleague with more experience, find expertise at your school board, contact your ETFO local or PRS at provincial office.
  • If the employer does not support your legal and human rights ETFO would explore the avenues available under the collective agreement, local harassment policies or the Human Rights Code, and launch a legal challenge if warranted.

Call PRS for more information and confidential counselling if you wish to discuss this further: 416-962-3836 or 1-888-838-3836.

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