Saturday, September 16, 2006

Teacher Union Person: Soldier or Diplomat?

I guess the title of the post says it all.

As I head back into the classroom with millions of other school teachers, I find myself putting back the uniform of the union building steward.

Utility belt, check.

Sympathetic attitude towards fellow teachers, check.

Contract locked, loaded and indexed, check.

Open mind to both sides of the story....uh....check.

(Note that there is no cape in my costume, as it is the undoing of all superheroes-- just watch the Incredibles, you'll understand when you see the end with Syndrome and Jack-Jack.)

I guess I've been thinking about this for a while-- and I ask you, the readers of this blog, to comment on the topic. Is your building union person a soldier or a diplomat? Both? One more than the other? How does it work for them? How are they regarded?

I have been both. I would prefer to be diplomat rather than soldier, but there are times for both.

When a teacher comes to me with a concern I usually have a standard operating protocol.

First, I usually invite them up to my room. If they decline, then it's not a big deal, but if they agree, then there's something up. It's important for my colleagues to feel like they can tell me what's going on without worrying about who hears what. I have learned the virtues of a closed door conversation. In fact, once we're in my room, I make it a point to ask them if I need to close my door before we get into what we're talking about.

I offer them a seat and ask them what's on their mind. As they tell me, I'll usually nod, ask questions, take notes, do the "Mmm-hmmm" thing (without sounding patronizing) to show them that I'm listening. I don't fidget and look them straight in the eye. I try not to interrupt too much, especially if they're really heated about something. I will always take notes when money is involved so I can get dates, hours and such right.

One of the things that I try and do when they're done is repeat their story or concerns back to them (not verbatim, of course) for two reasons. One, it tells them I was listening to what they had to say, and two it allows me a chance to make sure I understand what they're saying to me and ask clarifying questions if I need to.

Another thing that I try to do as I repreat their story and concerns is to emphasize (and show empathy) for the inconvenience and/or struggle they have to go through as a professional because of said issue/ situation. I don't have a hard time seeing the hassle that my colleagues have to deal with, so my empathy for their issue is genuine, even if I don't view it as major or all-encompassing as they do. The trick, however, is to make them feel as if you do.

Once my colleagues have had a chance to relate their issues with me, I usually begin to think out loud. Sometimes I'll reference the contract from past experience or just plain pull it out and start thumbing through it. My mantra, however, is that if I don't know an answer I won't fake it. I will find the relevant passage in the contract, and if I can't, I'll call the Uniserve office to find out the answer from someone who does know.

I'll generally give them a number of options that are built around trying to solve their issue. They range from passive to aggressive, with me handling/solving the issue to them solving the issue. Sometimes my colleagues actually want me to do nothing; they just wanted to vent, or let me know of the situation. I'm more than happy to serve as an outlet for their frustration because it gives me a bigger picture of my building overall and helps me to know my colleagues better, which ultimately allows me to better serve their interests. I'll generally end those conversations with "Let me know if you need me to do anything".

As I give them their options, I make sure that I lay them out in the "Here's what I can do" format. This means that I tell them what I (personally) can do, or what they can do (if they so choose to). This allows them to exercise complete control over the outcome of the situation. This is because I personally wouldn't want to take a sensitive issue to someone who I thought could offer either direct help or consultancy to help me solve it and end up having them unilaterally trying to affect the situation against my wishes. Conversely, I don't think I've ever encountered a serious situation where I felt I had to do something and my colleague didn't want me to-- yet.

The unfortunate thing about being a union steward is that people automatically assume that your job is to fight the administration in your building, and that your relationship with the administrators is going to be adversarial no matter what. Perhaps I'm just a glass is half full kind of person when it comes to this stuff, but I honestly can not remember any administrators that I honestly didn't like. I mean seriously, I cannot remember any. I think I've liked them all (to varying degrees, of course).

Liking them, however, does not preclude disagreeing with them. I do that all the time. I just try to disagree amicably, if there is such a thing. At the same time, I don't really want to get into a major conflict with my boss(es) but I am someone who's going to speak their mind, or convey the feelings of others. I have to remember (and I try to) that regardless of my personal feelings on someone or something, I was elected by the staff of my building to represent them, to represent their interests and stand up for them. I cannot forget that going into the administrator's office....even if they do have a darn good argument for what it is they're doing.

Some of my best work in the past has been sitting down with an administrator and trying to see their side of the issue and glean what it is they want out of it. I then am able to explain what I want out of it (a person to not get a letter in their file, for example) and how they can get what they want, I can get what I want (which, of course, is in the best interests of the teacher or teachers involved) and everyone can be happy. Usually in this situation, I end up playing the role of a post-Presidential Jimmy Carter-- that is, running interference for the teacher and am the go-between so they don't have to deal with the administrator(s). Unfortunately, this does not always work.

Back to my relationship with the administration. As I was saying, I'm going to get predictably nowhere with them if I am spit and vinegar all the time. I need to keep the relationship as cordial as possible. Quite honestly, I try to embody the teacher mantra from opening bell to closing bell-- "pick your battles". When I play, 99% of the time I play nice. However, I'm like a lawyer-- I will generally not ask a question of an administrator that I don't already know the answer to. I just want to see what they say. It's not that I don't trust them, I just don't trust them. :)

It's hard to be a diplomat when the teachers around you want you to be a soldier and get things accomplished quickly, brashly and boldly. Most of what I do is listening, very little is actually doing. Something goes wrong, teachers want to file a grievance and fix the problem. I've told them before, a grievance doesn't actually fix the problem-- it's just a formal notification that the two sides at the table (union and administrator) cannot come to an informal solution or understanding of a problem. The grievance then begins the adjudication process of a complaint. Grievances can be sustained or dismissed-- just 'cause ya file one doesn't mean that it is the union equivalent of pushing the Staples Easy button-- far from it.

Similarly, I don't like to threaten that I am going to file a grievance or call the Uniserve office. You can't threaten. You can't cajole, you can't beg. You have to work together and come together to seek a solution to your problem. If you are truly and wholly contractually in the right and you can't come to a solution, file a grievance, that's what it's for, but for god's sake, don't threaten to file one. That's just drawing a line in the sand and asking for the administrator to step over it. That means they'll test you to see if you will file one, and if you don't they have your number and you'll get walked all over for the rest of your time as a chapter leader or shop steward or whatever.

In the past, I've said things like "I really hope we get this solved, because situation X is not acceptable." The administrator goes on to say whatever it is they say that reveals that they are not budging on whatever it is that is the problem. I then respond with "If we can't solve this and situation X remains, then I am going to have to file a grievance. It's not what I want to do, but it's what I am required to do in this situation." Remember, it's not about what you want to do, it's about what is best for the teachers in your building you are there to make sure they are treated like professionals.


Anonymous said...

It sounds like a very tough balancing act. I actually like the CC in my building, though his loyalties are not mine, and he helped me a lot when I had a real problem--getting my kid prescription coverage.

Yet people in the building cavalierly say he's not doing his job. Still, no one, including me, challenges him for it. I may run when he retires, but I don't expect to be any more beloved than he is.

Ryan said...

Great post, Homeslice!

This is my first year as VP of my union, and it's been an adventure. Going toe-to-toe with the Superintendent is tough even under good circumstances, and even pushing for the right thing can be one of the most difficult things in the world to do.

Then there's trying to stay objective, respect all viewpoints, honor the contract, work out win/win scenarios, and keep that relationship piece vibrant.



Anonymous said...

It is a tough balancing act, but I agree that cultivating a working and positive relationship with administration is key ... as is doing the same with members. In many ways, you are a liaison or conduit between the two and working to find positive resolution for all involved is always the goal. But there are those times when you simply have to represent the member and go toe-to-toe with administration ... if there is a decent working relationship to start with, in my experience even the confrontational times can be productive ... it's about keeping it business when it has to be business and not taking things personally.

Interesting thoughts and perspective ... thanks for the post!

Unknown said...

Simply excellent... you should consider getting this published in a national periodical. It's well written and gives another perspective. I loved it! Thanks for inviting me to read it!


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