In December of 2017, teachers across Ontario learned that the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT) was seeking to raise our $150 annual fee by 20 per cent. Thanks to the collective pressure of our unions, the Ontario Teachers’ Federation (OTF) and the actions of individual teachers, this fee increase was voted down by the governing council. However, it has once again shone a spotlight on the shifting direction of the OCT, which increasingly ventures outside of the College’s original mandate. This ‘mandate creep,’ a term coined by OTF in a 2014 research report on the OCT, has resulted in increasing bureaucracy and activities that are extraneous and unnecessary to the OCT’s regulatory role. While at first glance this might seem surprising, upon closer examination of the origins of the OCT, its current ‘expansion’ is right in line with the current political climate surrounding education—one where governments, driven by neoliberal agendasi, increasingly seek to control all aspects of schooling, including teachers themselves.
The Mike Harris Conservatives established the OCT in 1996 via Bill 31, the Ontario College of Teachers Act. It’s important to note, however, that it wasn’t Harris who came up with the original idea, and it wasn’t teachers themselves who asked for the creation of a self-governing body. Jennifer Lamarche-Schmalz, a graduate student at the University of Western Ontario in 1997, documents the evolution of the creation of the OCT in her Master’s thesis. She asserts that the original idea for the creation of the OCT came about in 1968, via a Royal Commission on Learning. She cites a resulting report by the OTF that concurs with the commission’s notion of raising the professional status of teachers. The idea was raised again in 1980 but was this time opposed by teacher unions, who argued that the government was placing the perceived interests of the public before the professionalism of teachers. It made headlines again in 1995 via another Royal Commission on Learning created by the Bob Rae NDP government, but never came to fruition prior to the provincial election in the same year. Lamarche-Schmalz reveals that the new Harris government initially claimed that they had no desire to enact the ideas of their predecessors, but then suddenly created legislation, with no warning and no consultation with OTF or its affiliated unions. Part of her study was a documentary review to glean the government’s perspective on the creation of the OCT. She found, to her admitted surprise, “little, if any, mention of the government’s desire to further professionalize teaching.”ii Instead, both the key government report and the Minister of Education’s public addresses “made it clear that the government’s position was one of public accountability.”iii Lamarche-Schmalz ultimately concluded that the purpose behind the creation of the OCT was not one that was intended to be beneficial to teachers, through the guise of raising ‘professionalism.’ Instead, it was another way the government could assert more control over teachers’ work.
It is no coincidence that the Harris government enacted the Ontario College of Teachers Act at the same time they were legislating a variety of other education reforms, including the so-called Education Quality Improvement Act (Bill 160), which centralized education funding.iv Both pieces of legislation shifted power to the government, through the Ministry of Education. The government could now not only control the funding of education, which gave it enormous power during contract negotiations, but it could also frame and control public discourse surrounding teacher professionalism through the OCT. In a 1996 brief to the Standing Committee on Social Development Concerning Bill 31: College of Teachers Act, 1995, OSSTF/FEESO provided a detailed and hard-hitting outline of Federation concerns. It pointed out the unprecedented powers given to the Minister of Education in the governance of the OCT; the fact that the investigative and disciplinary powers given to the OCT extended well beyond human rights and privacy legislation; the lack of due process for members facing discipline; and the shift of the power to determine teacher competence from school boards to the OCT. OSSTF/FEESO detailed very specific opposition to the legislation’s attempt to have the OCT oversee teacher professional development. The brief contained descriptors such as “absurd,” “Orwellian” and “police state.”v Despite similar presentations by other affiliates, and concerns raised by the OTF, the Conservatives went ahead with Bill 31 and addressed very few of the issues that had been raised.
Teachers have now lived with the OCT for over twenty years, and our annual fees have risen steadily. What benefits, exactly, are coming from those fees? The OCT states its mandate on
The Ontario College of Teachers licenses, governs and regulates Ontario’s teaching profession in the public interest. It sets standards of practice and ethical standards, conducts disciplinary hearing and accredits teacher education programs affecting its 235,000 members in publicly funded schools and institutions across Ontario. The College is the only self-regulatory body for teachers in Canada.vi
Additionally, it lists its other roles, including the accreditation of teacher education programs, establishing and enforcing professional and ethical standards, and investigating complaints against OCT members. It claims that it does these things to inspire public confidence. It is governed by a council of thirty-seven individuals, fourteen who are appointed by the provincial government, and twenty-three who are elected. The latter twenty-three are certified teachers, and despite the fact that they are elected representatives, there is no contact information for them on the OCT website. According to the OCT’s own statistics, in the 2015 election, only 2.45 per cent of eligible voters cast ballotsvii, the second-lowest voter turnout in the OCT’s history (in 2009, it was 2.16 per cent, despite a new online voting system with 24-hour accessviii). In addition, it has been very difficult for the OCT to drum up teacher interest in running for council positions. While the OCT describes itself as ‘self-governing,’ it’s clear that it’s not really teachers who are determining its governance, and the dismal statistics from past elections point to the fact that few teachers see the OCT as relevant to their everyday working lives. Rather, the OCT serves as a bureaucratic arm of the provincial government, one that disciplines teachers, and one that is increasingly being used to frame public discourse around teaching and teacher professionalism.
As predicted by OSSTF/FEESO two decades ago, the investigative and disciplinary processes used by the OCT have privacy and due process concerns. Every member’s public page contains a ‘name history’—which lays out members’ marriage histories for the public to see, a privacy issue that particularly affects women. Members can wait for years for investigative processes to conclude while unproven and often devastating allegations remain publicly available for the entire time. School boards, knowing that they can refer even minor transgressions to the OCT for discipline, will settle union grievances but then refer an issue to the OCT anyway in order to circumvent the labour relations process, even though, in most cases, they have the choice not to. This can result in a member being disciplined twice for the same offense—first by their school board, then by the OCT. The same discretion is rarely applied to OCT members who are management, so the public is never made aware of these disciplinary cases. Finally, consider the following advice from the OCT:
Teachers are always on duty. You should be aware that teachers are expected to be professionals 24/7 and that the College has a duty to investigate if a complaint of alleged professional misconduct, incompetence or incapacity is made against you.ix
The implications of this statement are broad, and invoke the description of ‘Orwellian’ used in OSSTF/FEESO’s 1996 brief on the OCT. Not only must teachers fear scrutiny from their employer, students, parents, any member of the public, and even colleagues at work, but they must fear continual surveillance of their private lives as well.
Ironically, teachers finance these investigative and disciplinary processes via their OCT fees, and pay for an organization that has incredible powers to impact their livelihoods.
Teachers have generally accepted this, particularly as the law gives them little choice. What they made clear in December, however, is that they aren’t willing to fund the things that are clearly outside of the OCT’s mandated purview. Research by OTF in 2014 captured some of these newer activities, which broadly spill into the arenas of teacher advocacy and professional development.x In the case of advocacy, the OCT was never meant to represent or advocate for teachers. Its sole purpose is regulation. The OTF and affiliated education unions speak for teachers, a long-established role that they fulfill without conflict of interest. A body that regulates, investigates, and disciplines teachers on one hand cannot advocate for the profession on the other. These functions are fundamentally at odds. Teachers know that any claim to the contrary by the OCT is simply disingenuous, and they resent paying for public awareness campaigns that attempt to paint the OCT as an advocate for teachers. The same applies to the OCT’s increasing involvement in the delivery of professional development. This was never the mandate of the OCT, yet the OCT continues to push for greater involvement in this regard, despite that this function is already well-served by the OTF, education affiliates, and other truly teacher-led bodies.
Beyond these two broad areas of ‘mandate creep’ are simply activities upon which the OCT wastes its financial and human resources, such as contests, prize giveaways, loyalty programs, or campaigns to have members ‘like’ the OCT on social media.xi As OSSTF/FEESO recently pointed out:
There is no reason for a regulatory body to attend political fundraising dinners, or lobby the government, and it’s a mystery how hosting golf tournaments or wine and cheese events helps the OCT to fulfill its regulatory mandate. Those concerns are only exacerbated by the proposed fee increase and the lack of transparency surrounding it.xii
While many teachers and support staff work in aging buildings that are sweltering in the warmer months and cold in the winter, where toilets don’t flush and windows don’t open, and must work within budgets that barely cover the cost of essential classroom supplies, the OCT is housed in some of the most expensive real estate in Toronto, complete with polished marble floors. Teachers are keenly aware of the disconnect between the OCT and our daily working lives.
In addition, there is the often-infuriating content of the glossy OCT magazine, Professionally Speaking. In the back are the ‘blue pages,’ where the OCT provides the details about members facing discipline. Every issue has a story about a celebrity’s ‘remarkable teacher,’ many of whom, ironically, would be putting themselves at risk of discipline by the OCT for their lauded teaching methods if they used them today. Much of the remainder of the magazine has become advertising, advice on what products teachers should buy for their classrooms (from their own funds, of course), information on contests and giveaways, or articles on teacher issues that the OCT pays writers who aren’t teachers to produce. During the recent fee increase debate, OTF President Chris Cowley identified the latter as a common, and troubling, OCT practice. Take, for example, a featured article from the magazine’s December 2017 edition entitled “The Benefits of Occasional Teaching.” The writer—who, a Google search reveals, runs his own communications company, and is not a teacher—extolls the benefits of being a precarious worker. No matter that you’re struggling to find work every day; you should just learn “Lesson #2: Go with the flow.”xiii No wonder so many copies of Professionally Speaking end up in the recycling bin.
It’s relatively easy to dismiss what I’ve outlined above as simply a bureaucracy running amok and wasting our money. Instead, it’s important to view the state of the OCT within a larger political context. From its beginnings, the OCT has been an agent of the government. It was imposed by the government to give itself more power over teachers, couched in the guise of ‘public accountability.’ Teachers, after all, have historically been the resisters when it comes to governments imposing political agendas in education.xiv In a neoliberal era—one where governments have become beholden to financial markets and have insisted on cuts to education spending—teachers and their unions stood in the way. Increasingly coercive legislation has been the primary tool of consecutive governments in dealing with resistance,xv but it has not been their only strategy. The other is the erosion of teachers’ power to define professionalism for themselves, to the point where definitions of professional judgment have to be negotiated by their unions at the bargaining table. Whereas teachers might view themselves as professionals who will defend public education, maintain academic standards, and critically assess government, Ministry and board initiatives, the government would prefer professionals who value obedience over advocacy. This is the type of professionalism that the OCT promotes. It not only defines what ‘professional standards’ are, it enforces them via disciplinary processes, and frames them for the public and for teachers. This form of professionalism makes it more and more difficult for teachers to resist, even when a government is blatantly infringing on their rights. What the recent fee-increase fiasco has revealed is just how far this goes. Much like a corporation looking to sell a product, the OCT is purposefully expending financial and human resources on communications experts, who are tasked with framing the ‘message’ for public consumption. We see this via the OCT’s blogs, website, and written publications. It is bringing this message to politicians and others via fundraisers and other swanky events. There is no doubt that the OCT is pushing to deliver professional development because it is another vehicle for non-teacher-driven messaging.
The OCT needs to abandon its ‘mandate creep’ and stick to what it was created to do. Teachers want their fees used to make real improvements in areas such as due process and real member service, not prize giveaways and golf tournaments. In order to see that this happens, teachers, and the organizations that democratically represent them, must keep the activities of the OCT continually on their radar, and must commit to action when action is required. The OTF and its affiliated unions must use their political clout to continually raise issues with the OCT and the provincial government. The fact that the recent fee increase was voted down is a testament to what collective action can do. We must collectively resist the vision that the OCT is selling, and clearly express that it has no business using our own fees to compel us to buy into that vision.
i Duncan MacLellan, “Neoliberalism and Ontario Teachers’ Unions: A ‘Not-So’ Common Sense Revolution”, Socialist Studies: The Journal of the Society for Socialist Studies, 2009: 5 (1), p. 51-74.
ii Jennifer Lamarche-Schmalz, “The Ontario College of Teachers: Self-Regulation or Control of Teachers?” (Master’s Thesis), University of Western Ontario, 1997, p. 62.
iii Ibid., p. 63.
iv Joseph B. Rose, “The Assault on Teacher Bargaining in Ontario”, Relations Industrielles, 2002: 571, p. 100-128.
v OSSTF/FEESO, OSSTF Brief to the Standing Committee on Social Development Concerning Bill 31: The College of Teachers Act, 1995. 9 April 1996.
vi Ontario College of Teachers, What is the mandate of the Ontario College of Teachers? Online at www.oct.ca/faqs/general-information-on-the-ontario-college-of-teachers/what-is-the-mandate-of-the-ontario-college-of-teachers
vii Ontario College of Teachers, Seventh Council elected, April 9, 2015. Online at www.oct.ca/public/media/
viii OTF, “Course Correction: A Renewed Focus for the Ontario College of Teachers”, OTF Research Report, January 2014. Online at www.otffeo.on.ca/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2014/10/OCT-Paper-Course-Correction-Jan-2014.pdf
ix Ontario College of Teachers, Complaints and discipline. Online at www.oct.ca/members/complaints-and-discipline
x OTF, January 2014.
xii OSSTF/FEESO, “The OCT needs to check it priorities”, Update, 2017-2018, 45 (3). Online at www.osstf.on.ca/en-CA/publications/update/2017-2018/45-03/the-oct-needs-to-check-its-priorities.aspx
xiii Stuart Foxman, “The Benefits of Occasional Teaching,” Professionally Speaking, December 2017, p. 32-37.
xiv Andy Hanson, Classroom Struggle: Teachers’ Unions, Collective Bargaining, and Neoliberal Education Reform, Public Sector Unions in the Age of Austerity, eds. Stephanie Ross and Larry Savage, (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2013), p. 103-112.
xv Leo Panitch and Donald Schwartz, “The Continuing Assault on Public Sector Unions,” Public Sector Unions in the Age of Austerity, eds. Stephanie Ross and Larry Savage, (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2013), p. 31-45.