I’ve written several times already about the environment I walked into at Shaker Junior High School 26 years ago. In short, the faculty was dominated by a small group of very experienced teachers who had pretty much done their own thing for several years. They were comfortable doing what they were doing and certainly weren’t too interested in a younger principal working to change how things were done. I’ve detailed several specific experiences I had with these “reluctant learners” and, even given a fair level of openness in their attempts to make me uncomfortable, which they were at times successful at, I learned quite a bit from them. My backbone got a little stiffer, my skin got a tad thicker, I learned how to make progress even while difficult staff members were working just as hard to undermine that progress. I also began learning who I wanted to be as a principal.
Yet another attempt at intimidation, or at least creating discomfort, involved liaison meetings. Each school has two or three teachers designated as liaisons, members of the teachers association who work with the building administrators to address concerns that arise as identified by varied association members. The idea of the liaison meetings was to work to resolve identified issues or concerns outside of making it a contract issue, and, thus, we could avoid the filing of formal grievances. Early on, these meetings served as a vehicle for this cadre of older teachers to, in my view, hassle me. They would want to meet right after students left, usually on a monthly basis, but would ask to schedule meetings more often as they deemed necessary. And the topics that were of a “concern” were nothing that, in my mind, rose to that level. They were little things, often issues that had minimal, if any, connection to the teachers’ contract. Many were not even issues, just items to fill an agenda. The meetings were intended, clearly, to bother me.
So I didn’t want to just flat out say we weren’t going to discuss an item, I didn’t think that was the right message at all. Even resolving some of these minor concerns helped someone do their job a little easier. And I didn’t want to come across as someone who wouldn’t discuss items put forward as concerns. I knew that some of the topics were manufactured solely for a liaison meeting, but I couldn’t be sure which ones. I still wanted to help colleagues if possible. But I had to come up with something to reverse the tables.
As I always did in my early years when I was finding my way, I had a conversation about the liaison meetings and my perceptions of them with Pete McManus, the Assistant Superintendent. And, also as always, he gave me great advice, specifically two actions to take to switch the liaison climate.
First, he said to stop thinking that liaison meetings were solely for teachers to share their concerns. Instead, I should start looking at them as opportunities to share my thoughts and concerns, to use them as a forum to discuss different programs that we needed to consider, to discuss building practices that needed to be changed, to put on the agenda as many items as the teachers did. Fair enough, and good advice, as the concern sharing should swing both ways. But the second suggested action was the key.
He said to schedule the meetings after the teachers’ contractual day had ended, and to put some time between the end of the contract day and the meetings. His perspective was that if the teachers’ concerns were truly concerns, the teachers would be interested in discussing them at any time. If they weren’t that important, they would not want to remain well after their day had ended to discuss my items.
He, again, proved to be all-knowing. There was initial griping about the time scheduled for the liaison meetings, but setting the time was my prerogative. It was clear after the first couple of late-scheduled meetings that the liaison members’ hearts were just not in it. The agenda items were not that important anymore. Maybe we could discuss some items if and when they arose during the day, they asked? I said maybe, but we may need to schedule a late meeting again if too much arose. The quality of my professional life improved significantly, and I had sent a clear message to these teachers. If they had legitimate issues to discuss, I was more than willing to do so. But, I was not going to waste my time with trivial topics manufactured to make my life difficult.
We don’t hold scheduled liaison meetings anymore, mostly because the climate is so different today than it was a couple of decades ago. (It certainly helps that I’ve hired all but four of the current faculty members!) Instead I’ll have a conversation with a union rep as needed. And our way of doing business works. I ask to speak to the rep about a concern I have as often as he/she will ask to discuss a concern of theirs. We co-exist quite well. And the level of mutual respect is where it should be.
And that’s my perspective.