It was fall 1995. I had just been hired by the Alberta Teachers’ Association as a staff officer in Teacher Welfare—the first woman ever hired to a continuing executive position in TW. We were planning for the fall meeting of economic consultants, a corps to which I’d belonged for only two years, and a group containing about a dozen negotiators with significantly more experience than me, many of whom had applied for the position I now held. Nervous? You bet! How did I end up here?
My involvement in the ATA started in my second year of teaching. I don’t recall what the issue was, but I didn’t agree with something and chose to get involved in order to change things from the inside. What I discovered was an organization that supported public education, represented teachers and tirelessly advocated for what was best for students and teachers. How could I influence the ATA’s actions?
As a policy-driven organization, the ATA holds views on a wide range of issues, from the amount of money that should be spent on renovations to Barnett House to the conditions necessary to support students with special needs. The ATA is also a very democratic organization, with its policies hotly debated at the Annual Representative Assembly (ARA) in May. Every teacher can influence these policies either by becoming a delegate to ARA or ensuring their elected officials know and understand their concerns. Early in my career, I started to think about how I should be involved in this complex, amazing organization.
As most women did in the early 1980s, I started as a school representative and a member of the professional development committee. After a few years, I thought I’d run for local vice-president—and ran smack into the glass ceiling. In a small local where there were never elections, suddenly someone ran against me. There was a record turnout at the meeting and I came in second. However, a few months later the winner resigned (he wasn’t really that interested in the job), and I was invited to join the executive, where I served as VP and subsequently president. Once in the role, I was welcomed by all my colleagues and had a wonderful experience learning even more about the Association.
My next adventure was bargaining. Getting elected to the Regional Economic Policy Committee involved another round of stereotype breaking, but it’s where I found my first negotiations mentor. Mike Kischuk taught me some important lessons, lessons I still value today—always remember you’re dealing with people (be hard on the issue, soft on the people) and sometimes you just need to keep calmly saying the same thing until they hear you.
Around the same time, I was considering where to take my career. Up until then, I’d had no interest in administration. As a band teacher, I wanted to be with my students, and if anyone asked me, I’d say “I’m in it for the students.” But then our school got a new vice principal—the first woman administrator I’d worked with. Even though I’d been raised to believe I could do anything, I’m a bit ashamed to admit that, until I saw a woman in the position, I didn’t think administration was suitable for me.
That situation made me realize that talking wasn’t good enough. People need role models—adults need them and so do students, and not just with respect to gender, but also culture, religion and heritage. Our students and colleagues need to see teachers, administrators, superintendents and Association leaders (local and provincial) who look and act like them. It inspired me to think about what it would be like to be an administrator. I decided to take some graduate-level university courses in educational administration, first as an unclassified student, then in the master of education program. One of my career regrets is that I never had the opportunity to apply for a position in administration—less than a year after starting my MEd, I was hired by the ATA.
Once at the ATA, I was surrounded by mentors. Some of the most experienced bargainers and the kindest, funniest and most caring people were the TW coordinators—Winston Nettleton, Earl Hjelter, Klaus Opatril and Ernie Clintberg.
From Winston, I learned about the image I wanted to project at the bargaining table, the highest level of integrity and the importance of orchestration. There is no role for uncontrolled emotion at the table. Genuine anger was for the caucus room; however, angry responses were acceptable provided they were carefully scripted.
Earl taught me how to deliver information honestly. While I might not have been quite as blunt as he was, I learned that people need to hear the truth and expect that from their leaders. Klaus taught me about mentoring and the importance of encouraging people to get involved. Once they were involved, he modeled how to help them feel comfortable asking questions (no such thing as a silly question!). In reality, Klaus is most responsible for my career at the ATA because of the way he encouraged me to get involved in bargaining.
Finally, perhaps because I was ready for these lessons, I learned from Ernie about how to lead staff and demonstrate genuine appreciation for their contributions. I find it difficult to offer words of praise, but Ernie helped me understand how important it is.
Once at the bargaining table, I was often the only woman in the room, and while my experienced colleagues could enter the room and simply tell the Negotiation Subcommittee (and the board) what we were doing, I didn’t have the credibility to do that. So I developed the leadership style that I still use today—I would listen to the teachers, discuss the options, point out the pros and cons of each and eventually we would arrive at a consensus. While this took longer than a more conventional approach, it also meant that the decision belonged to everyone—almost every teacher involved owned it and took responsibility for carrying out any necessary actions.
Years later, even after I had established the credibility to walk in and say “this is what we’re doing,” I still used a shared leadership model, because in my experience, people work better when they feel their views have been heard and understood, even if the decision doesn’t reflect their preferences.
In 2008 I broke another stereotype when I was appointed coordinator of Teacher Welfare. One of our goals was to encourage teachers to be involved in bargaining even though we wouldn’t be back to the table until 2012. We developed the Teacher Welfare Education Program with a syllabus designed to create an interest in bargaining and build negotiating skills. The TWEP provided a foundation for many activities over the subsequent years.
In this role I was also able to provide leadership beyond TW as I saw how each of the programs work together to benefit teachers. As a member of the Association’s team attending three rounds of tripartite discussions with the government and Alberta School Boards Association, I developed a broader understanding of the complexities of the education system. In the 2012–13 school year, the Association went through a difficult period during which the minister of education interfered and obstructed the ATA at every opportunity. We were presented with a framework “agreement” intended to settle bargaining for four years. Because of my expanded perspective, I was able to see the overall impact of the framework rather than focusing solely on the TW perspective. These experiences were instrumental in preparing me for my last position at the ATA.
In 2013, I made one more move—to assistant executive secretary—which meant following in the footsteps of another mentor, Jacquie Skytt. From Jacquie I learned persistence and adaptability. Jacquie was able to accomplish many great things by taking “no” as simply a need to change the approach or direction. I worked closely with executive secretary Gordon Thomas, learning from his extensive experience and in awe of his ability to think through every possible political angle and outcome.
My role shifted from working with teachers to supporting the ATA office staff who work for our members. I found this phase of leadership exciting and fulfilling. There are more than 100 people, often invisible to members, quietly doing their best to keep the organization operating effectively and I was now supporting them, thus allowing our frontline staff to focus on serving members. The learning curve was steep. Now I was hiring, mentoring and supporting these key people, many of them doing work I knew little about—graphics, publishing, running the cafeteria and keeping the building clean and safe. It gave me one last opportunity to ensure the ATA continued to have the capacity to carry out its mandate in the most effective manner. It brought me full circle by giving me the opportunity to embody a lesson learned in university—the most important people in a school are the secretary and custodian—and that’s true in the ATA as well.
Now that I’ve retired, I think back to that first meeting in 1995. How did it go? Very well! My fellow consultants accepted me in my new role. I was fortunate that instead of valuing length of experience, which disadvantages women, the Association was looking for potential. I’m grateful to the Association for all the opportunities I’ve been given to serve Alberta’s teachers.
Sharon Vogrinetz joined Association staff as an executive staff officer in Teacher Welfare in 1995 and became the first female coordinator of Teacher Welfare in 2008. She became assistant executive secretary in 2013 and retired from that role in July 2017.