A few years ago MEA member Sarah Garrett set her hopes on nominating longtime Battle Creek Public Schools secretary Bernadette Gordier for an NEA award — believing her friend deserved national recognition for tremendous service to the school district and community.
However, Gordier would soon pass away at the age of 74, in January 2021, still active in her role of 54 years as a beloved administrative assistant to the principal at Battle Creek Central High School. Instead of an award, local unions joined forces to establish a memorial scholarship in her name.
The Bernadette Gordier Scholarship Fund has already raised $13,000 and this year will make its first award to a support staff professional or alumnus seeking to obtain a teaching credential.
“I still cry when I talk about it, because Bernie was my mentor — she mentored everyone,” said an emotional Garrett, president of the Battle Creek support staff union representing office personnel. “She gave tireless hours over more than a half century, and she loved what she did.”
So it came as a shock a few months back when Garrett was asked to be Michigan’s nominee for the 2023 NEA Education Support Professional (ESP) of the Year award, the very honor she had wished to see bestowed on Gordier, she said.
“When I was asked if I would accept, I stood in the middle of my office, and my mouth dropped open, and I literally said, ‘What?’ It caught me off guard at the time, and it is just so, so humbling. But this is also such an exhilarating moment in my life, after having experienced all that I have with MEA and NEA.
“It really does take a village to do what we do. No one goes it alone. Absolutely no one.”
Garrett has known forever that secretaries are the center of the action in whatever setting they work in and more broadly that school support staff too often go unrecognized for vital work they do to help students and make school days run smoothly.
An 18-year district employee, Garrett spent eight years as the secretary at Ann J. Kellogg Elementary School, caring for everyone who needed it: students, teachers, parents. Last fall she became the administrative assistant in the Office of Student Services and Pupil Accounting.
“You serve so many people in the course of a day, and everyone is at a different level. You have to remember to meet them right where they are and help guide them to where they need to be,” she said. “It’s true for everyone that a secretary’s path may cross: They are the glue that holds the building together.”
She knew little about what leadership in her local union might involve, however, when she was drafted to take on the role of vice president six years ago. Garrett figured she would take it slow and learn over time — but then one year in, the local president accepted a job outside of the union.
“By process of elimination, I became the president,” she said. “I was petrified, to say the least. I didn’t feel ready, but I had to get ready.”
Garrett didn’t expect to last more than a year in the post, but it’s been five and counting, “and I have really evolved in that position. I’ve been challenged, and I’ve pushed myself in more ways than I can say, but this has been the greatest experience outside of motherhood that I have been a part of.”
Growing into the role meant learning everything she could get her hands on, which she loves to do, Garrett said. She read union materials, tapped into her UniServ director, and befriended Anthony Pennock — president of the Battle Creek Education Association — for help and partnership.
She has attended MEA conferences and last March participated in an NEA Leadership Summit in Las Vegas that she described as “mind-blowing when you see so many people there, united for a common cause.” She spent last summer diving deep into MEA’s UniServ pre-employment and SNAP bargaining trainings.
Now she’s a presenter at union gatherings. This month she and Pennock led a session at the MEA Winter Conference, “Always Together: EA and ESP Units Working Together in K-12 Districts,” outlining their multi-year effort to build a strong relationship for the betterment of members and students.
Garrett says she loves getting to know her members through personal visits, listening to their needs and concerns, and advocating for them with district officials — whether it’s seeking the pay they deserve or speaking up on their behalf in uncomfortable situations.
She intervenes when her members get extra work assigned that isn’t part of their job description. She’s defended the innocence of a member who was disciplined for a mistake she didn’t make, successfully getting a reprimand removed from the member’s personnel file.
She has brought members into the fold who let their membership lapse or never joined. “I call them ‘my secretaries’ because it’s personal to me,” she said. “These are my people, and I need to make sure they’re OK. I meet with them and listen and tell them, ‘Call me if you need anything.’
“It gives you confidence in doing your job to know that MEA is there and it’s the biggest support system you can have. Being a part of the association means we’ve got you — when you walk in this building, MEA has got you covered.”
For all those reasons, Garrett was tapped to help other MEA leaders and staff organize a new paraeducators unit in a neighboring Battle Creek district, which she called exciting. “It’s new blood, and seeing it come together from the ground up is a process I hope to be a part of again.”
For her leadership skills, district officials similarly selected Garrett to help develop and implement a new customer service model for school employees to adopt. Amid the challenges of the pandemic, she and another staff person completed a lengthy training from the innovative Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor.
Despite working remotely at the time, she and her colleague successfully presented to leadership teams, cabinet members and the Board of Education across the district in the new approach.
“It’s truly been a district-wide effort, and I was so proud to be part of it — but I’m always proud to be a Bearcat,” she said of the role.
Born and raised in the city and a graduate of Battle Creek Public Schools, Garrett has deep connections and commitment to her community. She has chaired and organized numerous activities and events, including breast cancer awareness days at her church.
What began as “Pink Sunday” with information and remembrance at the historic Black church she attends — Second Missionary Baptist — evolved into a collaboration with Olivet College featuring doctors, nurses and community organizers raising awareness of cancer signs and the importance of health checks.
“It resonated in my heart because of my family,” she said. “I lost my entire father’s side of the family, including my father, to cancer. So it was a lot of labor, but so well worth it.”
That willingness to dedicate her time and talents to helping others is what sets Garrett apart, her union leader counterpart — Anthony Pennock — wrote in his letter of recommendation for the NEA award.
“Sarah has always been authentic with her staff, administration, students, families, and community,” Pennock wrote. “This authenticity has been returned by everyone she interacts with in the form of absolute respect.”
Ever humble, Garrett said she was grateful for others who “saw things in me I didn’t see in myself,” opening opportunities that made possible “this incredible journey” in her work and union leadership.
“The more I learn, the more I want to know,” she said. “There’s a song I reference a lot that says if I can help somebody as I pass along, then my living shall not be in vain.”