Professional Boundaries - Professional Advisory
The Council of the Ontario College of Teachers approved this professional
advisory on October 1, 2020.
This advisory highlights the importance of maintaining professional boundaries
and provides practical advice to Ontario Certified Teachers at any point in
their education careers. It identifies some of the professional, ethical and
legal parameters that govern their practice. It also clarifies their
professional responsibilities to conduct themselves in accordance with
professional standards, legislation, and the law.
It applies to all Ontario Certified Teachers (OCTs) including teachers,
consultants, vice-principals, principals, supervisory officers, directors of
education, those working in non-school-board positions, College members in
private and independent schools, and those in positions requiring a
certificate of qualification.
Members of the profession spend a tremendous amount of time with their
students. Proximity and time enable them to get to know students well and to
assess and address their individual learning needs. Members require greater
self-awareness and sensitivity to the conditions which give rise to the
possibility for overstepping professional boundaries — in class, online
or in any learning or supervisory situation.
Ontario Certified Teachers (OCTs) understand the imbalance of power they have
with students and are careful to manage their responsibilities with respect
and integrity. The overwhelming majority do. As professionals, OCTs are
expected to demonstrate good judgment and common sense at all times. Their
actions should be as transparent as possible and have the appropriate consent
of supervisors and parents/guardians.
This advisory highlights the importance of maintaining professional boundaries
and provides practical advice to OCTs at any point in their education careers.
It identifies some of the professional, ethical and legal parameters that
govern their practice. It also clarifies their professional responsibilities
to conduct themselves in accordance with professional standards, legislation,
and the law.
There are also multiple roles with colleagues, parents and others in the
community that can lead to boundary questions. For the purposes of this
document, the College’s advice is restricted to professional boundaries
between educators and students.
Issues of establishing professional boundaries are complex. Although some
choices are clear in terms of what is wrong or right, some grey areas exist.
The guidance and examples provided in this advisory are not an exhaustive list
of unacceptable behaviours. OCTs should never assume that conduct that is not
specifically prohibited is acceptable. They should consult their employer
policies, protocols and Ministry of Education resources.
Boundaries define professionalism
Every day, professional educators promote positive relationships and
interactions with everyone in the school community. It is critical to
understand that their professional judgment can be affected when the line
between their personal and professional relationships is blurred.
This is intended as practical advice. It appreciates that teaching is complex,
occurs in full view and public scrutiny and that aspirational ethics are
supported by the structure of legislative, legal and employer direction.
This document should be read in conjunction with College advice on the
use of electronic communication and social media,
the duty to report child neglect and abuse, and
professional misconduct of a sexual nature. It will be updated periodically to reflect changes in policy, legislation
and case law.
OCTs are professionals who seek to embody the profession’s ethical
standards of care, respect, trust and integrity. This advisory applies to
all members of the profession, including teachers, consultants,
vice-principals, principals, supervisory officers, directors of education,
those working in non-school board positions, College members in private and
independent schools, and those in positions requiring a certificate of
The College subscribes to the National Association of State Directors of
Teacher Education and Certification1 , a respected clearing house
for disciplinary decisions affecting educators. NASDTEC defines
“boundaries” as “the verbal, physical, emotional and social
distances that an educator must maintain in order to ensure structure,
security, and predictability in an educational environment. Most often, the
boundaries that are transgressed relate to role, time and place. By respecting
contracted roles, appropriate working hours, and the location of the learning
environment, secure boundaries are in place for all members of the schooling
Examples of boundary violations including but not limited to:
using an unprofessional tone; too casual; using language inappropriate to
the age group
suggestive remarks; obscene language; inappropriate verbal compliments;
comments that are racist, homophobic, sexist or related to ableism; using
hurtful, humiliating words; berating students
- sharing jokes of a sexual or racial/cultural nature
- talking about sexually inappropriate matters
refusing to stop discussing intimate/sexual matters when a student asks
using social media to connect with students about intimate or sexual matters
withholding information about academic performance to manipulate time alone
with the student
- asking sexual or intimate questions of students
sending messages that are overly familiar, inappropriate, or invasive of the
inappropriate eye contact and interpersonal distance such as staring at a
- physical contact such as touching, hugging, tickling, massaging
unwarranted, unwanted or inappropriate touching of a student with an object
such as a pencil or ruler
- pushing, shoving or hitting a student
- unwarranted presence when a student is dressing or undressing
- treating students preferentially
encouraging students to develop emotional dependencies that the educator can
use to develop an inappropriate romantic or sexual relationship
- promoting the idea of educator as friend or confidante
intentionally choosing not to intervene when a student is in imminent
- flirting or expressing romantic feelings towards students in any form
- engaging in a romantic and/or sexual relationship with a student
meeting a student or students alone, outside of school, without an
educational context and/or the knowledge/approval of a supervisor and/or
parents/guardians such as going for coffee to a social event or inviting
them to a party
using technology to start or perpetuate a relationship outside of the
appropriate role, time, and place governing educator-student interactions
using social media to communicate inappropriately with students at any time
using personal email, websites or social media or technology not authorized
by the employer to communicate inappropriately with students
singling out students by giving them money or gifts in a preferential
Educators hold authority and students trust their safety and welfare to them.
Boundary violations occur when the imbalance of power tips toward serving the
educator’s needs, not the student’s, and the student’s
welfare is compromised.
Educators, too, can be vulnerable and susceptible to at-risk conduct.
Difficulties in one’s personal life, a need for recognition, attention
or admiration may be cause for inappropriate behaviour. Awareness of
one’s motivation is key. OCTs should not seek emotional support or
consolation from students, regardless of the difficulties they themselves may
be facing professionally or personally. They need to be aware that their own
well-being has an influence on that of their students.
The onus is on the educator
The onus is always on the educator to set and maintain boundaries –
those that clearly separate professional conduct necessary to meet student
needs and personal opinions, feelings and relationships that are not germane
to helping students. Boundary violations create a dual relationship or role
that is incompatible with a professional educator-student relationship. For
example, students may mistake an educator’s friendliness for friendship.
Not only must educators not forget the distinction, but they have an ongoing
duty to help students understand the difference.
Those who work with special needs students may require physical contact that
would be inappropriate with other students. If possible, it is best to have
another adult present.
Those working in smaller, religious, language or cultural communities may also
need to consider alternative approaches to maintain proper professional
It’s important to maintain respect for the worth of each student and
empathy for what they experience.
Working in smaller communities can present additional challenges as educators
are more likely to know or socialize with parents of their students, and as
parents themselves, in clubs, associations or in sporting circles as leaders,
participants, instructors or coaches. Consequently, they will have legitimate
reasons to attend social events, visit each other in their homes and
contribute to the well-being of the community.
In these circumstances, educators should continue to ensure that any social
contact with students happens with the full knowledge and approval of their
parents/guardians. In addition, in social settings, educators should avoid
being alone with students and discussing their learning, progress or any
An ethical foundation
Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession
Standards of Practice for the Teaching Profession
provide the foundation for professional conduct.
The Ethical Standards of care, respect, trust and integrity inspire members to
reflect and uphold the honour and dignity of the teaching profession, identify
ethical responsibilities and commitment, guide decisions and actions, and
promote inclusiveness, diversity, public trust and confidence in the
Further, the ethics embody principles of trust and fair-mindedness. Ontario
Certified Teachers honour and contribute to human dignity, emotional wellness
and cognitive development and model respect for spiritual and cultural values,
social justice, confidentiality, freedom, democracy and the environment.
Boundary violations that harm students are unethical because they exploit the
educator-student relationship, undermine student and community trust in
educators, and can irreparably damage students psychologically2.
OCTs’ responsibility for student safety extends to the treatment of
students at school or beyond during daily interactions and modelling behaviour
and decency that aligns with the profession’s standards.
Teaching professionals are expected to establish and maintain respectful
relationships. They are expected to know the difference between
“professional” and “personal” life and to know how
their behaviours affect students.3
For example, OCTs should not discuss intimate or private issues with students
and instead help them to understand that having a friendly professional
demeanor does not mean they are friends. Context matters and the principles of
due care and sound judgment guide professional practice.
Ontario Certified Teachers must not use their professional position to coerce,
improperly influence, harass, threaten, abuse or exploit a student.
Familiarity with students should be a strength that guides their learning and
educators should continue to intervene professionally as needed.
“Teachers who are socially and emotionally competent develop supportive
and encouraging relationships with their students.”4
Professional boundaries extend beyond the classroom and the school. The
Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association says that “What may be
acceptable for non-teachers may not be acceptable for teachers. This is true
12 months of the year, seven days of the week. A teacher is always a teacher.
A teacher’s after-school behaviour can also be scrutinized.”5
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario advises that
“Administrators and colleagues need to recognize danger signals in
others’ interactions and intervene.”6
Legal and disciplinary considerations
The Ontario College of Teachers has zero tolerance for student sexual abuse as
reflected in its
Professional Misconduct of a Sexual Nature professional advisory. Under the
Ontario College of Teachers Act, members found guilty of professional
misconduct of sexual abuse will automatically lose their licence to teach. All
other forms of student abuse are also cause for member discipline.
Additionally, if the conduct constitutes criminal behaviour and is considered
a Criminal Code offence, the member can face possible incarceration.
In December 1991, Canada ratified the
United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, including the right to be protected from “all forms of physical or
mental violence, injury, or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment,
maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of
parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the
child.” This includes Ontario Certified Teachers.
All professionals have a legal duty to report suspected abuse or child abuse
and an ethical and moral duty to take responsibility for carrying out the
duties of their profession. You cannot be held liable for reporting if the
grounds for your suspicion are reasonable and you are not acting
Educators should not assume that conduct that is not specifically prohibited
in this document is acceptable. Inappropriate use of electronic communication
and social media, including taking pictures or videos of a student of a sexual
nature, can result in criminal charges, conviction and/or civil action and
have professional disciplinary consequences. For example, “It is
inherent in this relationship that students can reasonably expect teachers not
to abuse their position of authority over them, and the access they have to
them, by making recordings of them for personal, unauthorized
Making sexual remarks to a student via social media or sharing sexual content
with students online would give rise to the mandatory revocation of an
OCT’s certificate of qualification and registration.
Using professional judgment
Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession
Standards of Practice for the Teaching Profession
exist to guide professional practice and inform professional judgment.
Professional knowledge and experience shapes decisions, and reflects
one’s education, pre-certification and in-career learning, and personal
interactions with students, colleagues, and community members. There may be
times or circumstances that require additional expertise, research or
resources to develop and support your professional judgment.
Good judgment entails continual reflection. Thinking critically about daily
practice and the impact of decisions on students helps to further one’s
understanding and improve practice. Planning, evaluating situations, assessing
risks and making informed decisions are the hallmarks of sound professional
Good judgment means being accountable for one’s actions and doing the
best you can for the students in your care.
Blurred boundaries or breaches
When educators become friends and confidants with students outside of an
official educational role, boundaries blur. For example, new teachers, closer
in age, may mistakenly see students as peers with common interests and musical
tastes. That proximity can lead to risky conduct such as providing extra or
added individual attention.
Boundary violations occur when that power imbalance is misused and the
student’s welfare is compromised. In the extreme — grooming
— the person in authority intentionally creates a strong emotional
connection to gain the student’s trust leading to a sexual relationship.
The student’s perception matters. OCTs must operate with the full
awareness that cultural diversity, differing faith or sexual orientation,
disabilities and socioeconomic factors can affect perceptions. What an
educator considers well-intentioned may not be perceived the same way by a
Alternatively, teens coming to terms with sexuality may flirt with OCTs or
invite a closer relationship. The correct educator response is to guide the
student to more appropriate conduct. The fact that a student doesn’t
object to inappropriate behaviour doesn’t make it right. The educator is
the responsible adult. Keeping a written record of any such events and
reporting them to the school administrator are practices that OCTs are
encouraged to follow.
Boundary violations deviate from the professional role and harm students.
Boundary crossings are departures from commonly accepted practices. They blur
Avoid unnecessary touching such as hugging, uninvited touching, or touching
that may be interpreted as sexual in nature. Do not tell sexually suggestive
jokes or make comments about a student’s body, appearance or clothing.
Don’t ask about intimate aspects of students’ lives or disclose
intimate aspects of yours. If a student discloses personal information, it is
not an opportunity to share your personal history.
Make notes in your daybook whenever you meet with students outside of
regular classroom time such as at lunch, recess or after class.
Use an approved employer (work) account, not a personal account, when
communicating electronically with students and parents/guardians. As an
additional caution, consider including a supervisor, colleague or a
parent/guardian on the conversation.
Speak with your principal or immediate supervisor if you are unsure what to
Follow your employer’s policies and protocols with respect to distance
Treat students fairly. Act professionally. Ensure your actions can withstand
When working with students individually, ask yourself:
- Am I doing the right thing?
- How would colleagues/others judge my actions?
- Is it essential to meet one-on-one?
Can we work together where others can see us, preferably in a public place?
- Can I provide this help during normal school hours?
Am I using the school’s authorized technology to communicate and not a
personal email or social media account or platform?
Are my actions known and sanctioned by the principal/supervisor and/or the
If a colleague, family member or friend was watching, could they
misinterpret my behaviour?
Grooming has been defined as a conscious, deliberate and carefully
orchestrated approach by the offender. It entails gaining access to a victim,
initiating and maintaining abuse, and concealing the abuse. According to the
Canadian Centre for Child Protection (CCCP), it involves “manipulating
the perceptions of children and adults around children to gain their trust and
cooperation. It is also used to normalize inappropriate behavior through
desensitization, to reduce the likelihood that a child will disclose, and to
reduce the likelihood that a child will be believed if they do
Some educators, acting out of care for their students, intervene personally
yet inappropriately. Others — rare though they may be —
don‘t care about student well-being and are, in fact,
“grooming” them for a future sexual relationship. The difference
is intent, which is often determined by police, employers, the College and the
victims themselves in hindsight.
In its study Child Sexual Abuse by K–12 School Personnel in Canada, CCCP
reports that, between 1997 and 2017:
- 750 cases involved a minimum of 1,272 students and 714 offenders
- 87 per cent of the offenders were male
- 86 per cent of all offenders were certified teachers
grooming behaviour was identified in 70 per cent of the cases (excluding
cases involving child pornography)
victims were 75 per cent female (69 per cent high school, 17 per cent middle
school, and 14 per cent elementary school), and 25 per cent male (69 per
cent high school, 20 per cent middle school, and 11 per cent elementary
One aspect of grooming may be to identify and target children and students who
are needy, have low self-confidence or are isolated and/or living
independently. Technology and social media may make grooming harder to detect.
“Grooming” isn‘t a term used in Ontario legislation and it
is difficult to define because it can include many different behaviours.
However, it does appear in professional discipline matters, and elements of
grooming behaviour are recognized in the Criminal Code. Offenders
prepare students for sexual abuse later by gaining their trust, and sometimes
the trust of the adults around them. It often begins with friendship, moves to
touching (such as back rubs), escalates to sexual touching and creates
emotional dependency leading to abuse.
“Grooming is a very deliberate and calculated process, although it can
sometimes begin innocently enough if a teacher is conflicted about his or her
role. A teacher may develop a relationship with a student with the best of
intentions, yet the teacher may become predatory and victimize the student to
meet the teacher’s own needs. Once this stage is reached, the goal of
the groomer is always very specific: to create a strong emotional connection
with a child as a way of gaining that child’s trust prior to initiating
a sexual relationship.”10
Inappropriate behaviour may progress incrementally. In students, telltale
signs may include regular absence from school, lying about whom they‘re
spending time with and where, and being secretive about phone texts, calls or
videos. Students who are emotionally vulnerable, struggling academically or
having problems with parents at home may be targeted.
Grooming behaviours may include fixating on one student, providing special
privileges and gifts or attempting to become close to their family and
friends, and telling sexually explicit jokes or discussing sexually explicit
information while pretending to teach. The frequency and intensity of these
actions are also warning signs.
One of the defining aspects of grooming is keeping secrets that separate a
student from their peers. This may result in a student losing connection to
peers and their family. The student may be blamed or told they are in trouble
for what is occurring.
It‘s up to OCTs to heighten their awareness to protect students and
prevent professional assistance from becoming too personal. Behaviour that
might not be considered criminal may become grounds for disciplinary action.
Social media and electronic communication
Used thoughtfully and appropriately, new technologies enable OCTs to model
digital citizenship for students and deliver curriculum in innovative and
Digital communication can be used to extend and enhance education, but care
must be taken not to cross professional boundaries. For example, the immediacy
and simplicity of a text message may lead to longer, informal conversations
that become personal and then intimate. Accordingly, OCTs are urged to keep
their online interactions as professional as they would in a classroom.
“The relationship between secondary teachers and their students is
particularly vulnerable in this age where social media is generally embraced,
where the casual and the cool reign, where sex sells, and the social cohesion
of communities is fractured.” 11
Boundaries like technology are not static or neatly defined. OCTs require
supportive, and clear professional behavioural guidelines and explicit
training in ethical decision making and other relevant skills such as
Ontario Certified Teachers are advised to:
operate in all circumstances online as they would in a classroom and follow
employer protocols and approved practices for the use of distance learning
maintain a formal, courteous and professional tone in all communications
decline student-initiated “friend” requests and refrain from
sending “friend” requests to students or browsing their social
avoid exchanging private texts, phone numbers, personal email addresses or
photos of an intimate nature with students
- only use employer-authorized technology to communicate with students
only communicate with students at appropriate times of the day and through
established education platforms.
A Framework for Action and Self-Reflection
- Recognize a potential problem or issue.
- Gather facts and evidence.
- Assess what you know about the situation and its context.
- Ask whether there’s more you need to know.
Know what’s expected of you by reviewing the duty to report and
employer policies and protocols.
Consult with a supervisor or other educational professionals as appropriate.
Know the number of your local child protection agency. In some communities,
you can dial 411 and ask for a children’s aid society or family and
Remember that abuse and neglect shared in confidence is always subject to
your duty to report.
- Are you aware of the different types of boundaries?
- Have you established clear and appropriate boundaries with students?
- What do professional boundaries mean for marginalized groups?
How do lenses of anti-oppression and equity apply when we talk about
Have you fulfilled your professional obligations and done everything
expected of you?
- Are you satisfied with your actions and what you would do next time?
- Do you require additional training, resources or support?
Do you understand the difference between a boundary crossing and a
Can you identify behaviour that is considered legitimate or, depending on
circumstances, might be perceived as a boundary violation?
Are you aware of possible legal repercussions for actions that would be
considered professional misconduct?
- How do you demonstrate appropriate concern for students?
- Do you keep good records about your interactions with students?
Do you recognize and avoid potentially problematic situations such as
closed-door conversations/meetings or private encounters with students off
Are you using school-approved technology when you communicate with students
Would you be uncomfortable or concerned if your digital communications with
students were read by family members, friends or colleagues?
Do you know what to do if you witness conduct you consider unprofessional?
Have you stopped to consider the effect of your actions on the student
(potential harm), your career or public perception?
- When would boundary violations amount to grooming?
Setting and maintaining professional boundaries is an ongoing professional
obligation. Develop a deep understanding of the ethics that govern your
practice and professional behaviours, and the policies and practices in the
workplace to protect and enhance the well-being of students. Be aware of your
own and colleagues’ actions. Learn to govern your private and
professional relationships appropriately.
National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and
Certification [NASDTEC] — “Model Code of Ethics for
R. v. Friesen, 2020 SCC 9 (CanLII)
Ross v. New Brunswick School District No. 15, 1996 CanLII 237 (SCC)
R. v. Audet, 1996 CanLII 198 (SCC)
“Contemporary professional boundaries and their relationship with
teacher and student wellbeing” Z.A. Morris, Monash University, Clayton
“On Thin Ice: Maintaining Professional Boundaries — a Resource
for Teachers”, OECTA, 2017
“Professional Boundaries — An Important Issue for
You…” ETFO, 2018
Child, Youth and Family Services Act, 2017, S.O. 2017, c. 14, s. 125(10)
R. v Jarvis, 2019 SCC 10
The Prevalence of Sexual Abuse by K–12 School Personnel in
Canada, 1997–2017, Canadian Centre for Child Protection Inc.
- BC College of Teachers magazine 2009
“Boundaries Blurred: The Modern Classroom”, A. Zenisek, Canadian
School Counsellor, 8 March 2019