You’re Filing a Grievance About What?!'s picture

Flashback to August 30, 2010: I was focused, filled with excitement and had total clarity of how I was going to launch my first staff meeting as a principal of a large high school. I methodically mapped out the school year to be productive and action-oriented, as the change was the overwhelming theme. My enthusiasm was quickly overshadowed by the reality of the recession, where change was viewed as forced and vehemently unwanted by most. It was the year of transitions as I had to lead the move from the luxury of a 4x4 block schedule, back to the traditional six-period day. The newly implemented Michigan Merit Curriculum and change in the schedule was taking its toll on elective courses as student choice was crippled. The curriculum and grading procedures needed to be aligned, yet the department chair (leadership) positions were eliminated. The Board of Education voted to increase class sizes by six students without changing the bargaining agreement, while also launching the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme – despite increased class sizes and laying off a number of teachers the previous spring. For the first time in history, the state was mandating a rigorous, transparent and fair performance evaluation system that included a percentage of student growth data be used to determine the newly defined rating requirements of Highly Effective, Effective, Minimally Effective or Ineffective. Not to mention that the teacher tenure law changed from four years to five years, the right to assign was in play and seniority lost its luster and power to protect the most experienced teachers.

Back to present: I share all of this because minutes before I took my first walk down to the staff meeting, the union president and building representatives requested to see me in my office. I was a teacher, coach, Dean of Students and Assistant Principal for 15 years in the same building prior to my new role – they were my colleagues and friends. So, of course, I complied. I wanted to honor their request and assumed they were there to give me their blessings. My radar could not have been more off target than that August morning. They were there to file a grievance based on the strategies I had communicated in the August staff newsletter, which had outlined how we would collectively manage all of the changes and cuts made the previous spring to the overall system. Their main complaint was the shared responsibilities for department leadership. Since the department chair positions were cut, I divided up the role and broke it into digestible tasks that I believed could be shared among each department member. I was wrong. From the union’s perspective, if there is no position, then no one is doing the work for free. No one. Keep in mind a big part of my staff meeting was designed around teamwork and intentionally focused on how we could get through one of the most difficult years in education, one challenge at a time, but I was missing their perspective.

While I was in problem-solving mode, the union was in protection mode. It was a pivotal time where many of the union’s bargaining rights were being stripped away, so naturally, they were clinging to what they could. They were exercising their power to preserve and protect what they viewed as rights for the collective group. I still had to move forward and lead a large staff who were hurt, anxious, overwhelmed and at times very emotional, through multiple transitions that changed the face education. A grievance was inevitable. I wasn’t expecting it on the first day or minutes before my launch as a Principal, but I knew I had to step back and rethink my approach. I also learned that I could not take it personally. I consciously chose to lead during a tumultuous time in education, and I learned early on that it is critical to listen to your union representatives and staff to keep a pulse on your building climate.

The continuous change and demands on educators will undoubtedly generate grievances at both the building and district level. Do not take grievances personally. You must understand the why behind the issue and know how to determine whether it is a complaint or an actual violation of the bargaining agreement. One thing is for sure, your contracts should have a defined process and timeline of how a grievance is filed. You must know the process and be mindful that they may be different from contract to contract.

If you want to learn more about how to be proactive, create a collaborative culture with your union representatives and how to manage all of the steps of the grievance process, I encourage you to join me at MASSP’s upcoming workshop "You’re Filing a Grievance About What?!" on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018 from 9 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. in Lansing. Learn more and register here. All participants must bring a laptop, their bargaining agreements for all union groups, their district’s employee handbook and have access to board policies.

Written by Carol Baaki Diglio, an MASSP Consultant with Consulting by Diglio. Carol is a veteran administrator who recently retired from the Novi School District. She spent many years as a High School Principal and as the Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources.