A Network Connecting School Leaders From Around The Globe
Avoid stepping on toes by initiating a respectful relationship at the onset.
No, “Dancing with the Teachers’ Union President” is not the name of a new television show, nor is it a featured video clip on YouTube. I have, though, equated the principal’s relationship with the president of the teachers’ union as a dance where each wants to lead and yet there is, as in most relationships, a mutual dependency that makes each person realize that there is a time when you lead and a time when you follow. The devil is in the details of when and how each segment is skillfully accomplished.
Please allow me one caveat as I set this stage. I am not referring to the contract negotiations segment of the union and administration relationship. The contract negotiations process is so emotionally charged and adversarial in nature that it should remain outside the parameters of the day-to-day relationship between the teachers’ union president and school principal.
Of significant importance in a balanced relationship is for each person to understand the role of the other because it is within that clarity that one can agree to disagree and do so with mutual respect. Having an acrimonious relationship is counterproductive. It has been my experience that neither person practicing bullying tactics over the other can produce the best results. The primary function of the principal as you initiate the dance is to read, under-stand, and fully bring the teachers’ contract into the mechanism of your school. Whether you agree or disagree, like or dislike any or all of the articles, sections, or specific language within the contract, you must work with the existing contract and coordinate your school accordingly.
There are two primary functions of the president of a teachers’ union: making sure the contract language is not violated, and making sure that each teacher has been given fair, due process in any endeavor taken against him or her. It is not the role of the union president to offer opinions about the pedagogical ability of a teacher or to make judgments on your decision, for example, to not offer a teacher continuation of employment. However, what a good union president does is hold your feet to the fire to see that all manners of due process for that union member have been carried out prior to a non-continuation decision. In terms of any potential disciplinary action, the same due process component is foundational to the course of action. Therefore, one of your chief responsibilities must be to maintain complete and sufficient documentation.
Part of the dance will be the knowledge and understanding the union president has of your ability to maintain unambiguous, efficient, reliable, and purposeful documentation. These forms of documentation can be as simple as meeting dates noted in your office calendar, notes of conversations with teachers about an issue that appears to be heading toward a union action, and letters/ memos sent to a teacher about either an area of concern, specific job requirements, or parameters within the teacher’s area of responsibility. These one-on-one meetings or formal correspondences are those usually reserved for when a teacher has not performed well or failed to meet any aspect of his or her contractual obligations and usually follows at least one verbal, informal reminder.
In terms of formal documentation, I suggest staying away from the use of e-mail as a method of exchanging correspondence between teacher and principal and between principal and union president for potential serious matters. E-mail is certainly expedient in reaching a certain destination, but time might not be an issue here. Also, hard-copied, hand-signed documents send a subtle but significantly stronger message of importance than an e-mail, even though e-mails can be printed. If an issue involves a potential health and safety concern, even e-mail will not be fast enough. In this situation, a hand-delivered note, enhancing your verbal comments, is required.
By the time the union president gets involved in a situation in your building, time might have lapsed. A teacher has or has not done something and you have probably countered with some action, either verbally or in writing. The fact that the occurrence and your reaction happened in the past, unfortunately, allows for interpretation, innuendo, and misunderstandings, all influenced by the passage of time and who is recounting the events.
A union president who knows from past experience that he or she is dealing with a principal who maintains well-organized and competent records tends to address an issue with less bravado and is more careful. I am not suggesting a degree of paranoia that requires the recording of every event, but you also do not want to be caught short without a clearly recorded trail of events or efforts on your part. There might come a time when an adjudicator will sit in judgment of a case and will want to see a clean delineation of actions taken. This could be months into the future and relying on your recall is something that could be precarious. And even if a situation does not reach the grievance stage, keep in mind that many times your superintendent (and, subsequently, your board of education) has purview over issues and your paper trail will speak volumes toward your leadership and professionalism.
The Grievance Procedure
The grievance procedure is another area where your understanding of the mindset of a union will be important. In most cases, a grievance might be filed if you violate the language of the contract. Many times, the call is clear: You did X and the contract called for you to do Y. Clearly archived documentation of your actions will, at least, pinpoint what was performed by you and the teacher.
There is, however, the issue of con-tract language versus the interpreted intent of the article or section of the contract—and that is where an issue becomes complicated. It is the interpretation of what is meant by the contract language that many times leads to a grievance.
I suggest staying away from the use of e-mail as a method of exchanging correspondence between teacher and principal and between principal and union president for potential serious matters.
For example, a contract might state that teachers “will be available for extra help after school on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays for 30 minutes each day.” Some people might interpret the word “available” to mean that a teacher must be present every one of those days in his or her classroom waiting for a student to show up for extra help. However, the same word has been interpreted as indicating that arrangements can be made (by parent or student) for extra help on those days and, therefore, a teacher waiting in the classroom is unnecessary.
Also, it can be the philosophy of a union to file grievances to try and expand its contract parameters outside of the negotiation process: Win a grievance and a contract is expanded based on the ruling; lose the grievance and it becomes no harm, no foul. As a result, the union has at least what it had prior to the grievance, with an added caveat that no redress will be taken against the grievant or the union for filing the grievance.
In most cases, the grievance will be against you for something you either did or did not do as it relates to contractual language. This is why knowledge of contract language is critically important. Most policies request that prior to the actual filing of a grievance, a meeting between the principal, the aggrieved party, and his or her union representative take place. Your first step, prior to that meeting, should be to involve your superintendent in what is taking place and, in most instances, your district’s attorney will be called to discuss the merits of what is happening and you will most certainly be advised on how to continue.
And the Band Plays On
So what is the best way to dance, especially when you could be interpreting the music differently? As with any professional you are working with, honesty builds trust and trust is the foundation of any strong working relationship. If you are the new principal on the block, meet with the union president to at least establish face-to-face knowledge of each other. If you are a fixture in the district and a new teachers’ union president is elected, extend a welcoming hand and arrange a meeting with him or her to commence working knowledge of each other.
During this initial meeting, discuss how you would present a potential issue to a teacher who you feel needs pedagogical improvement or a teacher who is not working within the guidelines of the current contract. For example, explain to the union president how you would approach a teacher the first or second time he or she is late to school or arrives late to a supervision responsibility. Or describe what your process is for following through on an issue raised by a parent about a teacher. In all these cases, you are not asking for permission to use your instructional or managerial philosophy; rather, you are demonstrating how you would potentially deal with such situations. Ask for the union president’s response of how he or she feels these potential situations could be handled—if he or she is inclined to offer such input. Your intent here is to initially build a relationship and a foundation, not to flex muscles. The bottom line is not to let your first meeting be one that is based on a pressing need.
Remember, in many ways, it is nothing personal. The teachers’ union is not attacking you; the union is working for its membership. If the union can protect its weakest teacher, then it is simultaneously protecting all its teachers. If the union can make contractual gains by grieving, it will do so. Read and fully understand and comply with the union’s contract. If there is a difference in the interpretation of what can be done according to who is reading the contract, then in understanding what he or she is trying to accomplish when the music starts.
Don Sternberg is principal of Wantagh Elementary School in Wantagh, New York.
Copyright © National Association of Elementary School Principals. No part of the articles in NAESP magazines, newsletters, or Web site may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. For more information, view NAESP's reprint policy.
A great piece! Thanks for sharing. It is a wonderful reading for administrators, either young or more seasoned.