How disobeying the principal can get you sacked

How disobeying the principal can get you sacked

A recent case relating to teacher disobedience is a stark reminder of the fundamental duty of an employee to obey the directions of school leadership, says an employment lawyer.

In a recent Fair Work Commission decision of Jeb Hendricks v Catholic Education of Western Australia [2022] FWC 2702, the Commission found that a teacher, who held the position of Head of Mathematics, improperly undermined the school’s leadership by emailing parents to alert them that a NAPLAN test was rescheduled, in deliberate disobedience of the Deputy Principal’s direction.

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The teacher’s disobedience was grounded in his belief that he was a “direct servant of God” and this superseded his duties under his employment contract and the school’s code of conduct to obey lawful and reasonable directions given by the school’s leadership. The dismissal of the teacher was held to be fair, because he showed “little regard for his duty to his employer”.

Paul O’Halloran, an Accredited Specialist in Workplace Relations and partner at Dentons Australia advises many independent schools and frequently deals with issues of teacher disobedience. 

“While we might like to think we have moved away from a master/servant type relationship in schools, concepts such as obedience continue to be fundamental obligations in the context of the employment relationship,” O’Halloran told The Educator.

“A school’s power to give orders to its staff and expect them to be obeyed is a fundamental feature of the employment relationship. This duty of obedience is implied by law into every employment contract whether it is contained in the written employment contract or not.”

O’Halloran said a failure to obey amounts to breach of contract, and depending on the facts, may often be a valid reason for dismissal, subject to other industrial rights.

“The fact is, an employee cannot do whatever they want in the workplace,” he said.

“The Downtown Abbey notion of master and servant still pervades the employment relationship today, and teachers must obey all lawful and reasonable instructions. We saw this more recently with directions to comply with vaccination policies”.

O’Halloran said schools face many challenges when dealing with teacher misconduct, but it is important for schools to rely on well drafted and broad codes of conduct which set out the expectations and values required of staff, and ensure ongoing internal education on the need to comply with such codes, and policies.

“Schools should factor disobedience of lawful and reasonable directions into disciplinary processes, which may include reliance on verbal directions, as well as clear directions contained in policies and codes of conduct.”