This interview was with Mrs. Audrey Austin, former principal of J. C. Sawyer Elementary School, from 1967-1977. Mrs. Austin was the first female principal in Pasquotank County. The interview also revealed information about school integration, teacher shortages, and an innovative building program. The interview took place on January 12, 1987, at her home on Rivershore Road in Elizabeth City, N.C. She was quite candid and frank and vividly recalled dates, names, and interesting situations.
|Audrey Austin was born in Rowan County, North Carolina, and completed all her education and work experience in this state. She received an undergraduate degree in Primary Education from Woman's College (now University of North Carolina at Greensboro). She then taught third grade in Johnson County for two years. She moved to Chapel Hill and taught three years in the city schools while working on her M.Ed. in Elementary Education which she received in 1952 from UNC-Chapel Hill. She joined the education staff of Greensboro Woman's College and taught elementary education courses, supervised student teachers, and worked with graduate students in a demonstration school. She also worked on her Ph.D. at Greensboro. When her husband got a new job in Elizabeth City, she moved and taught at Sheep-Harney and J. C. Sawyer Elementary Schools. In 1967 she became principal of J. C. Sawyer Elementary School for a ten-year period. Her teaching career spanned twenty years. She retired in 1977 after a thirty-year career in education. Since that time Mrs. Austin and her husband have traveled extensively including trips to all fifty states, Canada, and Mexico. They plan to visit China, Australia, and New Zealand this summer. Her hobbies include doing needlepoint and cross-stitch. She is also active in her church and the community. Interview with Retired Principal.|
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Q: I think first we're going to talk about how many years you were in education as a teacher. How many years would you have been in education just as a teacher, altogether?
(Streamed audio file of interview for this question using RealPlayer)
A: As a teacher--between twenty-two and twenty-three years. I think I had a half year in there.
Q: How about your tenure as a principal?
Q: How would you describe the school where you were principal?
A: Well, it was a small community school. It was--ah--it opened with one section of grades one through six. It really was designed to be a primary school, but when the neighborhood survey was completed they found out they really needed grades one through six so the original plan was not followed until about three years later when it was changed back to one through three, all primary school.
Q: And what was the staff? Approximately about how many teachers?
A: We were very small. We had only six teachers when we first started, when the building was opened. See that was back before we had teacher aides and support personnel and special programs. The classroom teacher did everything. We did have one music teacher, I think, that came in about one day a week and that was all. And I don't think we even had a physical education teacher at that point in time. That came a few years later, too.
Q: Seems like those came in maybe with a. . .
A: It's always a question of -
Q: . .different federal monies and things.
A: . . .funding was always the problem. If something was cut, it was either physical education or music or art. Art usually went first. P.E. and then music.
Q: Why did you decide to become a principal?
A: I didn't decide. Ah, I had no intention of ever becoming a principal. I was not interested in administration. I enjoyed teaching. I always had, but we had some problems and the time our school was opened with principals, we had one who was hopelessly disorganized that stayed there for a number of years and everything just sort of fell to pieces. And then the Board decided what we needed was some very, very strict disciplinarian who could sort of pull things back together and the next person they hired was a military man who had not been out of service long, who had been a major in the Army. So we went from one extreme to the other. No control to total almost a dictatorship which soon led to a complete rebellion by students, teachers, and parents. It was too many extremes and teacher morale was low. Ah, students were crying, not wanting to go to school. They were afraid of the principal. Parents were constantly going to the Board of Education demanding that changes be made and after having had two in a row, I think it was a request of a group of parents in the community that they pull me from that teaching position since I knew the situation, knew the problems, the schools and I did have a principal's certificate even though it had expired at that time. Teaching at the university, I never needed it. So I did not keep it renewed when I came to Elizabeth City. So I think it really came about as a request from a group of parents to sort of straighten out a bad situation. I had known and worked with them for a number of years. And it took some convincing 'cause it was not something I was really interested in doing. But, I was so fed up with it --being a teacher--I think I saw it as a way to maybe go in and straighten things out and it looked so simple and so easy. You know, when you are sitting in the classroom, it's easy to say why can't this principal support us on discipline, why can't this principal get us better supplies, why can't he do this. So I thought, well, I could do all these things and we'll get this mess straightened out. But, of course, you know it didn't work that way. When you walk in the other man's shoes, its quite different. You begin to see why things were not done the way they were. You begin to see that it takes money to do these things. You begin to see that you don't always get support further down the line where you need it. So, ah, I learned from scratch what it's like to be a principal. That you just don't go in and correct right off the bat even though you may know what needs to be done. It was a rough road. I'm glad I did it. I learned a lot and I grew to really like administration but teaching was always my first love.
Q: Well, I think that's a good recommendation then, because so many times administrators have gotten so far away from teaching that they cannot look back and put themselves in their shoes and you- even though it was hard for you to move directly from one to the other--you had that close contact with your people. What was your school's philosophy?
A: Well, ours was basically the same thing that most schools were following at that time. We were trying to determine what the needs of our children were and to meet those needs mentally, physically, socially in every way we could. And it was developed jointly by the teachers. We were going through a procedure with Southern Association, you know, during some of that time and they spelled out pretty close that philosophies had to be spelled out and that was a big help because it gave us a starting point, pulling the staff together. We were forced to work together because these things had to be determined and no longer was it just a matter of stating a philosophy on paper, it was all right if this is your philosophy, then how are you going to carry this out. You have to go the next step and that might have had a lot to do with being the first step that pulled that staff together and put 'em back to working together. Ah, lots of work. Hours and hours and hours of work.
Q: But it did keep you in close contact which is a. . .
A: . . .with the teachers, and that was what I needed at that point. There was a great disadvantage there, however, for me, when you have worked with these people every day as a fellow classroom teacher and then you suddenly step across the line where you are the boss, so as to speak, in the school. The transition doesn't come easy. The teachers found it difficult to know what approach to take with me. I was no longer the fellow teacher down the hall. They were not sure what evaluation techniques I would use with them. You see, back at that time that was not spelled out. That was left pretty much up to the individual principals. We did have a little checklist thing that was sent out by the main office that was not very adequate, but it was mainly up to the principals at the end of the year to say you would either do return to this position or you don't. And I think there was an element of fear there and it took em', I'd say, a good three years probably to break through that to where they could feel free again to come back and discuss the issues that all of a sudden no one was discussing any more. Things that I had always discussed with them as a teacher I could no longer discuss with them as a principal. And that was an adjustment both for me and for them. And it took a lot of hard work to convince them that that door was still open and they could come through anytime they wanted to.
Q: Sounds like you did it.
A: I don't know as I would recommend taking someone who had taught as long as I had with this particular group of teachers because we did not have a big turnover of teachers in that school. And I had not just two or three or four years, I had quite a few years with this group. I would not really recommend putting someone from a group like that and putting them in an administrator's position in the same school.
Q: That's what I was going to say. We have had, you know, since you have been principal there have been several women who have been promoted from within the school district, but it has always been that they were in another. . .
A: That's good. I. . .staff or another school and so they did get, even though they knew some of the people, they did get to start anew. I do believe in in-house promotions to reward your people where you see the need for it, but it's extremely difficult when you've spent say fifteen years maybe with this group and then suddenly the whole atmosphere changes. One of the funniest things that happen was after about three or four weeks one of the teachers came by the office to see me. The teachers had met as a group--I was not aware of it--they didn't know what to call me. And you see how in being new at the job, I didn't know to tell them in the beginning and they were reluctant to do this. They drew--had to finally draw straws to see who got the unfortunate job of coming in and they said, "Are you still Audrey, or are you Mrs. Austin now?"
Q: Kind of like a step-mother, isn't it?
A: And I hadn't thought about that, you know, that was a problem for them. And then it suddenly occurred to me that for that number of weeks I really hadn't been called anything. I had been so busy with other things, I had overlooked that. And we had a lot of laughs about that later, but at the time. . .
Q: It was a concern.
A: It was a concern. It was a real problem and no one wanted to ask and I wasn't experienced enough to foresee that this was a problem and tell them. But there was many a little thing like that in the first year that came up that I can't recall others right off the bat, but I do remember the one about the name.
Q: That's funny. I've been in the school many times that you've taught in, and it does seem to be free and an enjoyable place to be. How did you create that climate for learning that seems to be there?
A: It took a while, because everything was so tense at the time that I took over as principal. The students were sensing the teachers' frustrations and they were not getting along with each other. The teachers were just trying to keep body and soul together at that point in time. And we started by trying to work with the atmosphere in the classroom. We decided that we needed a bright, cheerful learning environment where that both teachers and students felt free to express themselves within the limits of courtesy and proper behavior, of course. But having been under a principal formally, who was almost like a general in the army, teachers had lost their ability to express themselves, as had the students. It took a year to reestablish that. And that was the first place that we felt like the learning environment needed to be improved. And I did get together with them very quickly and I did not wait for the teachers to tell me exactly where they wanted to start. Having stepped right out of that classroom, I knew where we were already. I knew the frustration I had felt and the many comments I had made as a teacher about this untenable situation we were in. And I think I started by saying here were the things that bothered me and from having worked with you for years and having discussed it, I know that this is your concern, too. So these are the things I would like for us to work on first and see if we can correct them. There may be some I've overlooked; let's get yours. And then we gave them a priority order: which of these must come first and classroom environment was one of them. And then how are we going to go about doing this? How do we break down these barriers that were there? I think most everybody heaved a sign of relief when they found out that they were not going to be put on the carpet for every little thing that happened. Even though I had known them for years, they still did not feel free to speak, because I was now principal and not classroom teacher. So it took a long time to convince the teachers that problems could be discussed without the fear of this going on the evaluation. That the evaluation would be based on what you are doing in the classroom that I observe and see. It will not be based on things that we have discussed as problem areas. I consider that part of the running of the school that really had nothing to do with teacher evaluation.
Q: So once you got them to a point where they were able to exercise this freedom and that they were doing a good job and everything, you kind of let them roll and go with it?
A: Um huh, and I knew exactly when I had reached that point. It was a funny thing. Many times in those early meetings no one would respond or say anything. I would say, "How do you feel?" And you got no response. And then if you finally pinned them down, you'd say--and these are not the right names--you'd say, "Well, Mary Lee, give us your idea." "Well, I agree with you." (Mary Lee) You know, it was this sort of thing. And the day that I knew we were over the hump was the day that one of my very proper reserved teachers, who never made a comment, came into my office and I don't even remember what the issue was, something I had done that evidently had upset her very much, and she disagreed with. And she walked in the room, and didn't bother to be admitted by the--at that point, we didn't have a secretary, but they would usually knock on the door or something. And she walked right in and she said, "Audrey, I don't agree with you on this at all! I cannot go along with this! I won't go along with this!" And the minute that happened, I knew we were there. They had finally--she, this particular one, had finally let go. And that's where I wanted it, was on that working level and that sort of broke the ice for the others.
Q: So then if people. . .you asked them for their opinions and then I assume you gathered this consensus and then you. . .then what did you do from that point? Did you go back and form, if it was a decision that had to be made, you took all these things under advisement and made your own. . .
A: If it had to be an administrative decision and some things had to be, then I would put it all together and come up with a decision that was best for the majority. That was all you could do. If it was a decision that did not have to be administrative, then the teachers decided. Here are the facts: One, two, three, four. Now which ones shall we follow? I let them. . .in every case where they could be the instrumental one in the planning and the final decision particularly, I thought it was better. And this is the policy. . .I worked. They are the ones in the classroom using it, not me. But there were some few things where we were hemmed in by the State Department where we had no choice and this I did not know until I became principal. Many times I had criticized the former principals because I didn't know their hands were tied. Now, granted, they should have told us. We never knew why our requests were not honored. We would just. . .said no. . .We were told no you can't do this or this is not possible. So, once I found out what the requirements were at the state level and at the superintendent's level, I did make that known to the teachers and I would say now here's what the state will permit and here's what it won't. So now we have no choice because this is mandated by the State Department. That helped. They would say, "Oh, we didn't know that." Q: People like to be in on the know and then they. . . PAnd then one time when I had the opportunity, I asked this principal that I followed, why didn't you tell us these things, you know, when we were trying to get information. He said, "Well, who wants to go to a lot of long meetings and have all of this spelled out?" And I said, "Well, it's good for public relations." And maybe it could be done through bulletins, or some other form if we don't like, you know, meetings. Of course, he had a point there. Teachers were so busy they really didn't like a lot of long meetings, but so many of the things I had complained about I did not know that they couldn't be done anyway even if we had the funding to do it.
Q: Well, I don't think teachers object as much to long meetings as they don't like to feel that people are making decisions without their best interest or without. . .
A: I think that's true. . .
Q: . . .things in mind. I think they like to be in on what's going on even if they can't change it. I think that pretty much covers what the leadership techniques you used and you told what you felt like was successful for you. Is there any type of leadership technique that you feel was not successful that you maybe tried and it just didn't work for your style and situation?
A: Yea, there was one. I have one great problem that I had to overcome and it took me a while to do this. I guess I'm impatient by nature. If I see a need and I see a very simple way to fulfill that need, I expect to get on with it. And when I had my own classroom, I could do that. Because I had this group of children. I was responsible. I could make the decisions with them. So, as principal, then I could go into a teacher's room and see where the problems were and see there was a simple solution to correcting it. I was prone to, in as nice a way as I could, to get her to see this. It doesn't work that way. That leadership technique doesn't work. Your expertise doesn't always help that teacher. What does help her is getting her to see her own way clear to correct it. And this is where supervisors can be quite valuable. There are many times when supervisors can go into a room and work with a teacher more effectively than a principal can. So that was something I had to learn was even though you see the need, just telling somebody what it is is not always effective.
Q: Well, if they are blocking out sometimes or even if your personalities are not the same.
A: That works very well with some teachers, but there's that percent that it does not.
Q: And that's when you have to be wise enough to. . .
A: . . .back off.
Q: . . .seek outside. . .
A: . . .get other help for it.
Q: What role did you play in public/community relations?
A: Well, I was sort of the coordinator between the teachers and the home, at that point, working very closely with the PTA when I took over because there was so much dissention between the school and the parents at that time. Maybe this is where I was a bit of a dictator--the same thing I criticized the former principal for being- but having had the advantage of working in that school system for so many years, I did know the parents in the community and I did know their feelings and I had learned to know which ones would be good school workers if they were given the opportunity. And in a rather undemocratic process, I selected my people, I didn't ask the other parents, I didn't ask the former PTA we had the year before, I simply took the bull by the horns and said, "I would like for you to be our PTA president," that we didn't have a nominating committee, it was made up of one person--me. I don't necessarily recommend that. This was sort of an emergency tactic. We had to have the right people that first year. After I took the job, it hit me very shortly that not only did we have this mess to pull together, but we had integration sitting right on our doorsteps that very minute and we were going to integrate staff at the same time and without having the problems within the school worked out and not knowing what problems to expect from integrating staff, I felt like time was one thing I did not have to play around with there. I had to have good people and I went to our former supervisor who left the year after the previous principal and said, "Before you leave, do me one favor. I need two really good black teachers because we have a mess at Sawyer School. And I need two that are not racist. I need two who can teach, and two that can work with people and maybe overlook a few mistakes that the whites are going to make. And I need to know how soon I can get them and get them over here." Well, she selected me two. That request was granted. And I couldn't have had two better ones. She was wise enough to have selected a fairly young teacher who had both feet on the ground and a much older black teacher who was a superb teacher of the old school and who had spent years working with black and white. And I really give those two teachers credit for having helped us during those early years of integration. And I went to them immediately and I said, "Look, you know the parents out there in your community. I don't. And we are going to need an integrated PTA staff. Tell me who can handle this job and who can't." And they gave me the names of two--both of them agreed on this--two really good black leaders in the community that the following year would have children in my school. That year we were under freedom of choice; the next year it was mandated. And so we called them in and gave them offices on the PTA. We had two blacks and two whites that I had selected myself. And I told both the blacks and the whites who they would be working with and what the problems would be. And they were just fantastic people. They were willing to assume that responsibility for the school and I think they all went into it with fear and trembles because it was new ground that we were breaking. And then after that year we were very democratic. We had a nominating committee and we went from there. And maybe that wasn't the best way to do it. That was a way that I could see that would work for me. I was just trying to avoid conflicts that maybe could be avoided and I felt like I had two good black teachers who knew what they were doing and who were interested in seeing that the school went on without too much disruption. It worked.
Q: Every leader has to analyze every situation and if you're working with a fire, you do things differently than when you're working with a garden club meeting or something. When did the freedom of choice, about what time period was this going on?
A: Well, let's see. I was principal for ten years and the freedom of choice went in with students, not teachers. Freedom of choice with students went into effect the year before I became principal because I did have several black students in my room as a teacher. It was a very nice experience.
Q: Around '65. . .or something like that?
A: Approximately, we had no problems with that.
Q: Then integration came in.
A: We integrated staff next. We had a year of integrated staff with freedom of choice and the year we integrated staff we had more black children by choice than elected to go to our schools and then, of course, by the third year we were in full integration. And our school had a very large number of black students in it because we were in-- on the edge of the black community. Its on file somewhere in the school system, the percent we had the first year. I'd say twenty, twenty-five, right off the bat and then it climbed to fifty and then I think by the time that I retired we had about 69% black students, but we never had racial problems. The students worked fine together. The parents got along well together and I give a whole lot of this credit again to these first two black teachers that came into our school who were determined to make this thing work for both communities and for a good group of white teachers who were willing to work with them. And that's the secret. And I think we did--I think I did select the right group to get the parent group started. That worked to our advantage. Our problems were academic, not racial.
Q: It took some catching up for a while, I'm sure. PIt took quite a bit. Our problems were mainly academic.What do you think teachers expect principals to be?
A: Everything in the world that you can think of. I think they expect them to be an instructional leader for one thing. And I think they expect them to support them. Particularly in discipline. And there are not many things really that teachers don't expect of principals.
Q: They want all things from one person and it's hard to fill all those roles, I guess.
A: I believe probably all the jobs in public education, I believe that's the hardest, because you have the community that turns to you for every problem, you have the teachers, you have the students, you have the administrative staff, you have your board. And somehow or other on both ends of the spectrum, the buck seems to stop there where the principal sits. Whether it should or not, I don't know, but that's where it winds up one way or the other. A lot of flak goes through the principal's office. And that may have improved some since I retired, I don't know and really I can't figure out any way it can be avoided. I don't think it's a deliberate thing or passing the buck. I think that it's because you are sitting in the spot that kind of ties the two together. You are between the teacher and the administrative staff. The Superintendent and others. So you were sort of positioned where that's automatically going to be part of it.
Q: And part of your job is to keep your hands on to everything. . .
A: . . .Yes, it is.
Q: . . .and be aware of everything.
A: But it's a hard job; it's not easy. I found out right quick that just knowing what the problem is doesn't mean you can correct it. I thought when I first took over as principal that I had the great advantage--and it was an advantage--there's no doubt about that because I already knew what needed to be done. But knowing and doing are two different things.
Q: Can you describe a little bit about your evaluation process?
A: Well, my process was mainly one-on-one with teachers, and as a teacher, I never knew until the end of the school year what sort of evaluation I would have and I only knew then after the principal handed me this little slip of paper which was a checklist. And sometimes they didn't hand you that unless you requested it. So I felt like it was important that teachers know what you were looking for ahead of time and then rather than wait and checking off at the end of the school year which was the only tool we have at that time, to make it known to them ahead of time which kind of thing you were looking for or expected. And I think this worked better. I think one thing that caused so much politics to be involved in school systems came about because of the techniques principals were free to use in evaluations. They were the sole evaluator. They did not have to put anything in writing except that little checklist. Some schools didn't even have that. And personalities very often got in the way of good teaching and if there's one thing that I think this new evaluation thing has done, it has forced principals into a position whereby they must fairly try to evaluate a teacher and if they give her a poor evaluation, then it's mandated by law now that they must prove that she's that poor. They've got to prove that she's not doing this in the classroom. They have to also prove they've made available to her ways to improve. So, you see, it's kind of a two-way street now, and I think that's good. I think what's bad about it is the fact that there is so much emphasis placed on evaluation, particularly with this new thing of career ladder coming up and all this, that I think you're getting back to where you are wrecking your teacher morale again; teachers are afraid and this is damaging. If there was some way that teachers could work as a group to evaluate their own performance, I think you would see better results in the classroom, more honest evaluations really. I don't know how you would work that out. Some schools have tried it and they say they do it very successfully. Most elementary school administrators can look for classroom control and management. That's obvious. You can see that when you walk in. They can look at the learning environment in the room. When it comes down to the basic teaching skills and whether or not these are being--the right skills are being taught--they don't know, because it has never been trained. That was the one advantage I have, of having taught, I knew the skills, I knew what to look for. A very incompetent teacher, I find in this, can fake a lot of good teaching unless somebody who is observing who knows that this has nothing to do with the reading program at this particular time. If it looks good and sounds good and the children are interested and having a good time, you may get a very good evaluation, but you may be getting none of your basic skills across.
Q: Well, that's where it pays, too, to go in for informal observations and, again, keeping back in touch with your teachers.
A: This is especially important the first three or four years of a child's school experience. It's just mandatory that they get those basic skills in sequential order.
Q: Well, what when you found your teachers that were good teachers and some that weren't, how did you make them feel important? What techniques did you use?
A: Well, I'm a great believer in praise. And I found out that teachers are very proud. I'm speaking mainly of your good teachers or your average teachers. Those who are dragging their feet, this is a harder job. Teachers like to see what other teachers are doing and they rarely get a chance. Now this was one of the first tools that I used. If I saw a teacher who was doing something that I thought was outstanding. I had heard their complaints and I had complained myself as a teacher--well, why can't we instead of somebody telling us this, let's see it. It's easier to hear it; it's not that easy to do it. So one of the first things I decided was these teachers are going to see other people teach. If we don't do anything else this year, they are going to do this. And I felt like this was particularly important going into integration. So if I saw something good in the classroom, I would say, "I know how busy all of you folks are and you want to see things, if you get a minute, run by Mrs. Jones' room and see what she's done with her bulletin board," or something. Or how she's planned her skill outline for her students. And you can be sure that before the next day rolled around, every teacher somehow or other, after school or early in the mornings, are going to get a chance to go look in that room. And if you can do enough of this, I'll then provide--you had teachers who were willing--say if I'll stay with your children an hour today and take over teaching whatever you want me to teach, would you like to see Mrs. Jones do math in her room today using the new textbook we have? But ahead of time you've got to be sure Mrs. Jones is willing for this teacher to come in. You can always find one or two who will. And I tried to provide a little time where every teacher could go see somebody else do it. Occasionally, I'd call another school if I'd hear one of the other principals say, "Oh, I've got a reading teacher who's a real crackerjack." I'd say, "When can I send a couple of my teachers over to observe her?" And it took a little while to get down to be willing to do that, but we did get an exchange going between the schools. And sometimes I would go in and cover that classroom which was easy for me because I had taught. It was harder for principals who had not. Sometimes we'd have a volunteer parent who'd come and do this for us. Once a year we'd try and provide means for every teacher in the school to go to some other system to observe. Particularly the systems that were making a name for themselves in new techniques and methods and teachers loved this. They'd come back and they'd start using some of these techniques that they'd see. We'd always have a follow-up discussion on them in the classroom and in staff meetings afterwards. And little by little when one or two teachers would be willing to take that extra step, the others were competitive enough that before long you saw them doing it. And then finally, you always have that one or two that are going to hold out. It doesn't matter how far behind they feel like they're dragging their feet, they're not going to do one thing about it until the children in that classroom starting saying, "Why can't we do so and so like Mrs. Jones." And if you ever get there, those little kids can do more to change that teacher than a principal or a supervisor or anyone else. I've seen it happen over and over again. Children can't be fooled. If something more interesting is going on in the room next door, they want in on it. They want to be a part of it and once the kids start putting the pressure on a teacher, you've got a better chance at getting it done.
Q: I hadn't even thought of that. . .
A: I've observed this happen more than once.
Q: That's something to keep in mind when we want to motivate everybody. Everybody likes to do what the Joneses are doing.
A: I guess so.
Q: I don't--we've talked a little about your philosophy of education and that you believe in the individual and the student. Anything else that you can add to that that you think of as your basic philosophy?
A: Well, yes, I think my philosophy is that education, learning really begins after you get out of school. And I think that you're just starting to learn when you get out of school. And I see our job as teachers and administrators as preparing students that when they get to that point, they're equipped with the necessary skills to learn. You know, most of those who go into industry, they don't accept what we teach. They start them all over in a training program, but they've got to have certain skills to equip them to go through that. And I think our big job is really getting students ready to learn and have it a continuous process through their lifetime. It's not just a learning process for their school year, it's a lifetime process and there are skills they have to have in order to keep doing this. If they are going to do that. And then, in thinking along philosophy of teaching, I think teachers need to look at teaching as really the mother of all professions that are known to mankind, because it all starts there with teaching. Every profession we have evolved from teaching when you look at it. And if they can see the broad range of that, not just getting these basic skills across this year to my third graders, but that when they leave here they are going to be lawyers, they're going to be doctors or ministers or whatever. And this is where it all starts; this is the beginning. It ties the whole thing together. That's just my personal feeling about it. They may be others who would disagree with that.
Q: What about your personal leadership philosophy.
A: Well, I think you've got to be mighty good at public relations. I think that must come first. I think the secret of leadership is to have people respect your ideas and feel like the course you are suggesting or trying to get across is something that they can accept. I've found out no one follows a leader that they think is incompetent. Now they may not like you, but they may follow your leadership if they are convinced that maybe you do know a little bit about what you are asking them to do. And I think that's critical in any leadership role and that's hard to achieve. But I do think public relations again plays a big role in that, in how effective you are as a leader.
Q: And I know there are some people who lead but they are one dimensional. They only know one area so perhaps you have to--I guess probably your public relations sums it all up--but you have to be able to deal with all aspects of the management, whether it be the financial, or the personal, or the communications, or whatever else. What does it take to be an effective principal do you feel?
A: Patience. Lots of patience. A good sense of humor goes a long way. I've found that when tension builds up, that you can break the ice many, many times that way. I think you've got to know your school, you've got to know your instructional program before you can expect to lead your teachers into that. There are just so many elements of that and it changes so often. This is what makes the job difficult. When you talk about an effective principal, what is effective this year may fall flat next year. It's always a certain amount of trial and error in the two, and most principals are not willing to admit. A lot of trial and error and experimentation to see what will work and what won't work. But I think underlying the whole thing you do have to know education. I think you have to know what your goals and your objectives are and have some organizational skills, a lot of organizational skills, and that's where a lot of your programs fall to pieces, I think, is in lack of organization.
Q: And it sounds like it takes a lot of time to do all this. PA principal that isn't organized isn't going to get to first base. And no matter how well you organize, you're never going to find time enough to carry it out. You can be sure of that. But at least you have a plan to work from and you're not just floundering around hopelessly. Well, we may have covered this previously, but what kind of pressures did you face as a principal? We've talked about several different ones, are there any others that you can think of?
A: Well, one great pressure was funding. And this was something I had very little control over unless we could raise enough money through our PTA to get the things we had. Believe it or not, that when Sawyer School opened we had one broken down projector that worked part of the time. That was the only piece of equipment that we shared with every teacher in the school. We had the state textbooks that were provided by the state and each teacher was given approximately $5.00 to buy art supplies for the year.
A: Five. The PTA sometimes would throw in another ten or fifteen. Most of what we used we had to either beg, borrow, or steal. And that can be taken literally. That's what it boiled down to. It took a long time to get a PTA active enough to go out and work to get additional funding for Sawyer School. We finally had one of the best audio-visual, I think, labs probably in the school system there. Simply by the community effort. And it took long hard hours. It was a question you asked me earlier about the community relations. This is where the principal works with community relations. You have to first get your parents in there and convince them that it's needed. As you always have that fellow who says, "It was good enough for me, and it's good enough for my child." And we had those. We finally had reading labs for every teacher in our school, but it took a ten year effort. It didn't come about overnight. So we started from a little school that had an old projector. We had about fifty library books and no place to put them. They were still in the little office adjoining the principal's. There was no room for a library there at that time. And, of course, the new building had the magnificent media center. With all this right at your fingertips, but when you consider what we didn't have in the way of supplies you'll understand why funding was my big problem; that was it.
Q: If you had it to do over again, what would you do to better prepare yourself for the principal's role or job?
A: I think I would have preferred to have been an intern under another principal for at least a year. I think that should be--of course, the assistant principalship serves that role. I think that's mandatory. I did have the background in the area that I was an administrator. Most of them did not. That should be a requirement. I don't know if a principal should ever be put in a position when he has no experience teaching in an elementary classroom. I would like to have known more about what the state required, what could and could not be done. This was something I had to learn piecemeal. We had no workshops on this for beginning principals. You had to find out for yourself by calling Raleigh and saying send me handbooks if you have them or do you have anything that tells me what I can or cannot do about this. The materials are there and they are available, but they are just not readily supplied. You have to dig them out. Now I think all of that has changed, but at the time I was principal it was not. So somewhere along the way to be a principal, in North Carolina in particular, you need a course or you need a workshop or you need some preparation of what the laws are. And you need a course in School Law. Now that would be a must or you'd wind up in litigation every day of your life. I had the.
Q: . . .They do require that, but then of course it differs from state to state.
A: It does, but I had the luxury of being principal at a time when everyone was not trying to sue you for what you were doing. This is no longer the case. I would also have liked to have had more experience under an experienced leader before I had to get started.
Q: How did you handle teacher grievances?
A: It depended on what kind it was. If it was a personal grievance, I did it on a one-to-one. If it was like some of those that I had when I was a teacher, where we were all complaining about the same thing, then we handled it as a group. We spelled out what the problem was and then I would try to check with what resources were available, if any, to correct it and make it very clear to the teachers what our limitations were. If there were certain areas we were not allowed to go beyond, they needed to know that and that's something I never knew as a teacher. So, therefore, I never knew why we couldn't do certain things and I tried to make that clear first. These were the things we have no control over. Now these are the things that we can do. And usually that would be worked out as a group and very satisfactorily. And once teachers know the guidelines, what they can and what they can't do, and then know why, the grievance has a way of going away. Either that or they know how to tackle it or how to handle it.
Q: Well, how about firing a teacher?
A: Very difficult, very difficult. I've had that experience; it's not easy. When I started, teachers just weren't fired. You didn't do it. First of all, we couldn't get teachers. There was a terrible shortage. And this was your first problem. If you had a teacher who was not competent, and you got more complaints from the parents than you could handle, the custom was shift her to another school. And there may be a little of that still going on, I don't know. As teachers became more plentiful, the job became a little bit easier. But there again, it was difficult and it is still difficult. Now you have to document everything that you do, which is good. I think that before you fire someone that person has a right to know that it's a fair decision, that she's not being discriminated against and I think it's your responsibility to see if she's incompetent and you need enough evidence to do it. It's slow and it's time consuming and no one likes to do it. But it's a dirty job that occasionally has to be done for the welfare of the students. And we did get into some tough ones on that one, because if you were firing a black teacher you knew you were going to have trouble with the NAACP which I did have. Unfortunately, the first teacher that I had to fire was a black teacher. It was bad in that it really wasn't her fault, because she did not want to teach. I found out later that she had taught years and years ago when you could teach without a college degree. When the federal programs came about and they had so many days in which to provide a teacher, sometimes the funding became available in the middle of the school year. You had to come up with a teacher right on the spot. This is how this teacher was brought back in. If you'll just come fill this position until we can find a teacher so we don't lose our funding. And to help her community which was commendable, she did this with the understanding that at the end of the year that was it. At the end of the year she loved it; she didn't want to stop. Now this teacher was not in my school when all this happened. So they just kept her on. She took a course here and a course there and finally got enough to renew her certificate and never did get her certificate fully instated but just enough to keep her going so that next year they would give her another extension of time. And then she was transferred to my school in a federal reading program. We had so many children who needed that extra help desperately and we had wanted to get this teacher and we needed a good one because our problem was academic as I had stated earlier. When they transferred her to me I had never seen her teach, I didn't know anything about her except that she had been in the school system for a number of years. I heard no complaints, but when I began to observe her--it was a play period. And the hour that they went in to stay for their federal reading program, nothing went on. What little teaching that was being done was being done by the aide who was quite efficient. And I had the unpleasant job of sitting down with her and telling her that this was a class where we improve reading instruction. We place the children according to test scores. And she tried, she really did. She gave all she had, but she did not have the educational background and she was too old to get it at that time. But what do you do? Do you take a nice old woman and let all these children suffer? Or. . .the first thing I did was try to find some other position whereby she wouldn't be teaching. There wasn't any. And then you finally bite the bullet and say you're going to have to protect the students first. That's what it's all about. And the federal director of programs helped me a great deal because we had to have federal evaluators under those early programs, those Title I programs. I don't know what they call it now; it may still be Title I. But we had outside evaluators to come in so it just wasn't one school system saying this teacher can't teach. I had the supervisor to observe and evaluate. I wanted the superintendent to do it; he refused. He said we had no power to fire this teacher. He said if you do it, you're on your own. If you do go to court, then don't expect support from me. He spelled it out. He said we may have enough problems with race relations, we don't need this. And I told him, I said well, I'd like to go to the Board about this, but I won't do it until I tell you first. And I'd like your support in going to the Board. No way. He said you can go to the Board, but I'll be right there to tell them I do not support you. So there was no point in going to the Board. I did not. So I went to the federal director and he told me what was required and we had the option at that time of choosing one person on that team--they bring in two or three of their own. We had to provide one in-system and one out-of-the system. So I asked him to pick someone out of the system that he knew that was in a federal program that was a black person and that was competent. And he found a crackerjack one over in Edenton. And when she came in, we were very honest with her. We told her that we had requested she be put on there because we had felt like the children needed this instruction and that to evaluate herself. If you don't agree with us, say so. And that was one tough old gal. When she went through, she knew what she was going. She didn't like what we were doing and she told us so. She said you've given me a dirty job. And she said the first thing I'm going to look for is racial discrimination and if I find it, I'm not only going after a teacher but you as well. And I said that's fair enough. I'll go with you right down the line on that. She observed and she was the only one in that room that really knew what was going on and knew enough about reading to evaluate. And when she finished and wrote up her report, she said the teacher has to go unless she can be totally retrained within a year's time. So her recommendation was that they give me one year to see that she was retrained. And I talked with her and this meant going back to summer school. And there was no way in the world she could pass her work in summer school and she knew this. And she finally decided on her own just to walk away from it. She said I am old enough that I can retire if I need to, and I'm not going to put myself through this. And I think she made a very wise decision.
Q: Well, it saved her dignity and. . .
A: I don't think she felt we were being unfair with her, because she told me, she said I know I can't teach reading but remember I didn't ask to, I was asked.
Q: Well, you can see her feelings, too.
A: You can see her feelings, too. But that was the hardest one I think I ever had to deal with because she had a lot to offer in every way except basic reading skills and that's the thing she was hired to teach. And that's what made it so bad.
Q: That is. You can't make any other shifts. Everything involves reading, I would think. How do you think we can improve education or teachers? The whole area?
A: Well, I think it needs to be better screening, first of all, at the college level. I think there needs to be a closer working relationship between the teacher colleges and the communities that they are sending teachers into. I think the State Department has a role to play there in working very closely with these colleges. Very often, what colleges are requiring teachers to do and what the state's requiring are two different things. I think there needs to be some form of organization that ties the whole thing together, so that when these young people go into teaching they know what's required. I think they should, at the college level, be taught the basic skills. I think they should be perfected at the student teaching level and then I think that before they are put in a classroom as a certified teacher, they should have a minimum of a year's internship under an experienced teacher and that's something we should have.
Q: They're talking about it.
A: And I believe if you did this I think you would have fewer teachers leaving the profession. They are too often pulled right out of college and put in a classroom and left to sink or swim. And I think we've lost a lot of good teachers through the cracks that way. But it's a complicated job, and I think they need supervision and help early on. I do like the provision, even though I am opposed to tenure in many, many ways, that's there's some good things about tenure. I do like the fact that before a teacher is given tenure at least now she has to be--what is it, three years? Three years probation? I think that's good, but I don't think that in any way would replace a year's internship under an experienced teacher. I just don't think. . . .
Q: Right, we were talking about being, provisional status as a teacher, and even though that's good, it didn't really take the place of that year of internship that you feel like would be advisable. Okay, we've talked a little bit about the Civil Rights issue and the integration of schools that occurred during your time. Did you have any busing issues or anything that went on?
A: Not really in my school. We were small. We only had one bus. You don't have many busing problems when you're just running one bus. And we were a small community school and our buses didn't go very far. They were just traveling around in the neighborhood. So our busing, what little problem we had with buses, occasionally we might have a discipline problem on the bus which was no great problem to solve. But I know there were areas that did have rather severe busing problems, we just didn't have those.
Q: And then the Civil Rights issues seemed to have been handled very well in this town?
A: I felt like they went very well, not only in my school, but throughout the entire system.
Q: What procedures do you think should be used before a person is selected to become a principal? We pretty much covered this talking about internships and that they should have experience.
A: You can pretty well spot teachers that have administrative ability or that you think will have. When you put them together in a teachers' meeting, there is always going to be one who can pull that group together. I know you've been in meetings and things sort of go far afield, there's going to be one person, nine times out of ten, that's going to be able to sort of take all these ideas and pull a group back together and promote harmony. This is the first thing you need to look for in a principal. And then I think you need somebody who likes that sort of activity. Some people do not. Planning a budget and doing things like this can be very difficult and very uninteresting for many, many people. That was one of the hard things for me to adjust to. It wasn't creative enough. There's one way you did it and you didn't change it. I like things I can change occasionally, you know. And it's not always the same, but you adjust to that too. And then you need that person who's good in public relations. You need the one that has a feel for the total school system. Now the big problem with many, many teachers who want to go into administration, they can only see--say, if they are elementary teachers, they can only see the elementary aspect. You can't do that if you are an administrator. You've got to fight like the dickens to get what you want for your school, but if you see it's not going to fit in the overall thing for all the school system, then you've got to know how to back off that. And that's hard to get across to your teachers. You see, you have to see it in terms of the entire school unit, not one grade, not one school. And you need a person that has that particular skill if you're going to recommend them to go into administration. I did recommend very strongly to one of my teachers that she do this and she did get her principal's certificate and did her internship with me. Principals, by the way, have to have a year's internship, but teachers to do. And I think she's been a very effective principal.
Q: Well, that`s good that you were able to take someone from within your own. . .
A: But you can spot it. There's certain talents that just stand out that you recognize as being talents that would be good for administrators.
Q: How did you handle assistant principals or did you even have one at your level?
A: Didn't have one. You have to have a school of a certain size before you really qualify for that. So I've had no experience working with an assistant principal. I would have loved to have had one many, many times, but one wasn't available.
Q: Yes, at that time. What were you doing when President Kennedy was assassinated?
A: Teaching the third grade.
Q: Do you remember your reaction?
A: Yes, the principal came in and called me out of the classroom to tell me that this had happened. And it was really one of shock, because it is not like a president that gets ill. You know, you have a little time to get used to the idea that something may happen. This was like a bolt out the blue. And I remember the hard task of telling this to the children in a way that they wouldn't be upset. And the principal very wisely said he thought we should go ahead and discuss it with the children before they went home and let them talk about it and sort of come to terms with it. It's amazing how children react to that; the things they would say, even the very young ones. I think it was good they be allowed to do that. No, I'll never forget that day.
Q: As a principal, what was your biggest concern?
A: The instructional program.
Q: How about your biggest headache?
A: Money. Where we going to get the money?
Q: In so far as working with discipline over the years that you were principal, did you see changes in this or what is your philosophy about discipline?
A: Well, I think the ultimate goal, of course, is to try to teach your children to work toward self-discipline. And when they were sent to the office for disciplinary action, that was one thing I did try to do. I did not say your punishment is this unless it really came to that. The approach that I usually took with the young children was, this is your problem, you created it, so you're the one that will have to solve it. Now, how do you plan to do that? And, of course, you know what they're going to say, "I don't know." And usually it would be two little boys fighting that were sent to the office. Then I'd say, "Well, I don't consider it my problem. It's yours. You're responsible for your behavior, so suppose you two guys just go in the auditorium and sit down. I'll give you five minutes and decide what you're going to do about it. And then when you come back, I'll see if your explanation is acceptable. And if it's not, then maybe I'll have to decide." Well, they never really new what it meant if I had to decide. Nine times out of ten when they came back they'd have the whole thing resolved between them. They'd say this is how it started, and this is why the fight started, and this is what we did. Now we know what's got to be done to prevent it from happening again. And they could go through all the steps from reasoning right on down. It's amazing how it helped. Sometimes they'd come back and you could tell that they had giggled through the whole five minutes and they'd have some...they'd come in and say, "We've got it all solved, Mrs. Austin. We'll never do it again." I'd say, "Sorry, that is not acceptable. That hasn't told me anything about how you're going to prevent this from happening again. Back to the auditorium for five more minutes."
Q: That's interesting.
A: It does help. That's just one technique I used and, of course, you got to know your children in a small school. This is a great advantage. Same thing doesn't work for all of them. But teachers do expect principals to support them in discipline. They do. It's hard for teachers to understand though, and I'm not sure that they ever completely, particularly some of them, understand this. If they send a child to the office too often for every little infraction of the rules, they have weakened their own authority in that classroom. And anytime a teacher can handle it, in lieu of going to the office, she should by all means do it, because then the next time it's less likely to happen. But in those severe cases where you're not getting a response and where it's happening over and over again, you do need help and you should have it. And many times it involves calling a parent--which I don't hesitate to do or didn't if I thought it was necessary. My philosophy was let the teacher handle the minor things and let the big ones come through the principal.
Q: What about the career ladder for teachers and this merit pay?
A: Well, I have grave doubts about merit pay. I do think that there should be some system whereby teachers who do an outstanding job and who are willing to go above and beyond should be rewarded for that. I think you weaken your system when you say we're going to pay everybody the same salary regardless of how effective they are in that classroom. I think this keeps you from improving your educational system. I know of no way to keep politics out of a merit system. Even with the best evaluation procedures. Under a merit system, you're only going to be allowed so many merit raises. Say maybe you're allowed three, but suppose you have six people who are really qualified, then you know what's going to happen. You're back into that political ball game--which one can influence the evaluator the most. And there ought to be some way that's fairer and better than a merit system. I've worked under a merit system at the university. It didn't work there and I don't believe it's going to work in the public schools. We had too much in-fighting between the departments. I wish I had an answer for how that could be solved. I don't.
Q: Everybody's trying to figure out some way to reward teachers, but. . .
A: . . .But there should be some way to compensate that teacher who does the better job. Maybe they got off on the wrong foot when they started talking about merit pay. That in itself discourages everyone. And if that terminology had been left totally out of it, maybe there's some way the teachers themselves can come up with the ideas on how you reward or how you determine which teachers should be rewarded. I don't know. I would hate to be the man that says this teacher gets a merit raise and this doesn't--this one doesn't when you're talking about two people who are equally competent. I think this is bad.
Q: And it'll probably come back down to the principal again. I don't know whether you're aware that much or have seen in the news the standards of quality established by the State School Board. Are you aware of those that much or have any comments on that?
A: I have read some about them since I've retired, but I'm not really up on that. I've been so involved in other things. I do think that standards of quality are necessary. I would hope that when the State School Board determines these that they have a lot of input from people who are in there. My experience in things that came down from the State Board many times, they were too far removed from the school room. I would hate to see standards of quality imposed that were not in the best interest of teachers or students. And I do think they are sincere in what they are trying to do and I think there is a genuine effort to improve quality of education, but I think it's thin ice--they need to walk very carefully on that one.
Q: What do you think are the characteristics associated with effective schools?
A: You have happy teachers and you have happy students. You have children who enjoy learning and it shows. You can walk into a school and tell or you can walk into a classroom and tell. It's easy to see.
Q: It's just a feel?
A: You sense it; it's everywhere. They used to call those teachers master teachers. They'd say, "She's a master teacher. Her kids love what they're doing. Love to learn." Children don't learn well unless they like it. You can get them regimented enough that you can insist on learning and you'll get some learning, but to really get out of him what he's capable of doing, he's got to love it. And that's the difference in what you may say is really the master teacher and the inexperienced teacher. The key to the whole thing is the teacher.
Q: That is. . .
A: That's the key to the whole thing.
Q: . . .And yet there have been, I think, principals or leaders, whether it be industry, that have come into schools and either turned those teachers around or filtered those teachers out that weren't following their philosophy and brought out the best in some teachers. PI think you're right. I think parents can be a big help there, too. If you can work with your parents and get them to support you at home with what you're doing at school you're going to get that learning environment improved a great deal also. So that's part of the climate or the. . .
A: My first grade teachers used to say, "In six weeks or less we can tell which children have been read to by their parents prior to coming to school for three or four or five years." They already come with a love of books and a curiosity about the printed page. It shows.
Q: Okay, well this next question--were you a manger of a building or an instructional leader I believe you've pretty much answered.
A: I believe I was an instructional leader.
Q: And what was the toughest decision you had to make as a principal?
A: I reckon to retire.
Q: Okay, and why was that so difficult?
A: It was for health reasons.
Q: Okay. . .
A: . .I'll have to comment on this. I did not want to be an administrator. I did get to the place that I enjoyed what I was doing. I still miss the classroom, but I enjoy it because I felt like I was in a position whereby I could do things with teachers that I could not do as another teacher. And I knew what they wanted done because I had been there with them so long. And another reason it was tough, if I had one dream from the time I decided to be a teacher, it was to run my own school. To build my own private school, to set up my own program, and run it the way I wanted to do. And all through the years when I would go from school to school I would say who in the world designed this building? Nothing is suited for children. And this was a gripe that I have had for years and shortly before I retired I almost got to do that. It wasn't a private school, but I did get to build my own school and set up my programs and it's the greatest experience of my life. Sawyer School, probably, is the only school in the state that was designed solely by teachers and a principal.
Q: Really! How about that!
A: When the building was to have been--the old wing--was to have been torn down, the Board just gave the architect instructions we need--I've forgotten now how many rooms it was, we'll say ten rooms that would match the old ones. And that was exactly what we didn't need--was ten more rooms like what we had. And we had no input, nothing. We were just told you would be having a new school with the lunchroom, auditorium, and office wing will be left. Everything else will be razed and we will be starting over. And finally the plans were finished and they were brought to us and the superintendent in staff meeting gave them to me one day and he said, "Mrs. Austin, here are the plans--the preliminary blueprints- for your new school." He said, "We'd like a little feedback, because you have insisted on it." Well, I had, but I was ignored every time I said, "Well, can we tell you want we want?" "Well, we'll show you the sketches when we get them." So he said take them back to your teachers and then come back and tell me how they liked them or what suggestions they would have. So I looked at those plans and I wanted to cry. It was just ten more rooms of what we already had. And this was not working very well anyway for us. So, I didn't want to influence the teachers, though; I honestly wanted to see how they felt about it. So I took the plans in that morning and I told them they would be put on the bulletin board and ever chance they had to look at them and study them and then we'd meet that afternoon and I'd like their comments. Well, all day long I didn't hear a word, but everybody looked at those plans ever chance they had. We went to staff meeting that afternoon and I said, "Well, ladies, you've seen them now. This is our new building. How do you like it?" Silence. Not one sole would utter a word. And I tried my best to get some feedback from those teachers and I could not. So finally, one of the teachers said, "Well, Mrs. Austin, how do you like it? What do you think of the building?" And I said, "Well, do you want me to say what the administrative office wants me to say or do you want to know the truth?" And they said the truth. And I said I think it's horrible, just horrible! I don't like anything about it. And I said we have worked hard to plan a new program; it won't work in this building. Well, they heaved a sign of relief and everybody cried out what are we going to do about it? And I said, "Let's make it known. Let's tell it." So I took them back to the superintendent and I said, "Now you asked for this, so be prepared. We don't like it. It's not what we need. It's a waste of taxpayers' money the way you've got it designed. And it just isn't going to suit our structural program." I said, "Now if you're building a building for building, that's fine, but if you're building a building for instruction, it's lousy!" Well, of course, they got very upset with us. And then several days later they called me back in and he said, "Mrs. Austin, do you and those women over there have any idea what you really want?" And I said we know exactly what we want. He said, "Okay. You've got twenty-four hours. Come up with a plan." And we had to teach all day. So after school we dived in and we started sketching and we talked and we planned and by the time the sun rose the next morning, we had the general outline of the building. We wanted our media center that everybody could get to it easily. You know, with little children, they don't wait well. Their attention span is short. You can't spend twenty or thirty minutes running off to the library to find something you may need on the spur of the moment. We wanted it all right there and everything around it, so that we could get to it in a hurry, but we wanted privacy, also. But we didn't want four walls all closed in. We wanted a building we could totally open up or it could be closed up. And then we found out after we designed this that since we were using state bond money, the Division of School Planning had to approve it anyway and they would not have approved what the original plan was. We didn't know that at the time. Neither did the superintendent. So when they say, when the architect looked at it, he said, "Now there's a school building." And he said, "I was going to say the same things those teachers said; they didn't need an architect for that." But he said, "You told me what to design and that's my job to do it, so I did it." And when it went to the Division of School Planning, they loved the design except for one thing--they didn't want a wall left standing on the inside--nothing. They wanted it totally open. Well, we balked all over the creation on that, and we finally compromised. We had one wall facing the media area open, everything else was closed off. And if a teacher needed complete privacy, we solved that by the furniture we brought. And that let us select all of our own furniture for the building. We had movable furniture with tall cabinets that you would block the whole area from view if you needed total privacy. You could roll it back out of the way if you needed it there. So we got a combination of the best of both worlds, I guess. Well then the next problem was the parents. They took one look at that building and went up in arms. They said no way would that work. You'll have bedlam. One class will disturb another and all this. And we had several meetings with the parents over and over. The architect met with them. We showed how the acoustics would take care of this. And we finally got most of our parents to go along with us. And we got everything we wanted except a larger music room. They weren't going to give us the music room at all. They didn't think that was necessary for a primary school, but we had a beautiful music program. And we got our soundproof music room. Smaller than we wanted, but adequate. And then when we finally got it finished and got the children in, there was no bedlam. And it worked beautifully.
Q: And it's continued to work successfully.
A: And it's continued to work as far as I know for nine years. But that was a dream, and that's why retiring was hard because I would have liked to have gone on with the program and seen it through to the end. I saw the building program through, but not the instructional program. Somebody else had to take that over.
Q: I think that's good to say that retiring is hard, because most people say, "Oh, good!" So what did you feel was your key to success as a principal?
A: I think having an open mind, probably, and being willing to listen, and I think I had the educational background that was necessary. I think I knew the skills; I think I knew where we were going. And I think that basically was it.
Q: And it sounds like you have some foresight, too, to, you know, move ahead instead of accepting what had been done from the last years before.
A: Well, I've never been afraid of change, but I don't think you should go into any form of change lightly. And I think you should take it step by step. Now, when we went into an open form of instruction, so many people when we talked about open classroom, thought it meant the structure of the building. But by open classroom we meant a type of instructional program. It had nothing to do with the building. It was a program that would allow us to recognize that different children are on different levels, and that you can't throw them all in there and everybody will be reading out of the same book at the same time and this sort of thing. And we wanted our building and our program to complement each other. And that was the part of the program that I never did really get to see through. There was a lot of controversy over that method, too, and I can understand why parents might have been afraid of it, because it was so different from what they were used to.
Q: From the traditional sitting-in-your-seats types of things. What do you think of testing procedures?
A: Well, I think you need testing, because you need something to measure against, but I think maybe it's been overdone. I cannot see, say in an elementary program, testing every year. I think you need testing to start. When the children are young, you do need to know the readiness level before you plan a program for them. I think that's absolutely essential. I think you need some testing maybe at grades one, three, or six or something like that, but as for mass testing every year, I think it defeats its purpose and I think it terrifies the children. I prefer a teacher--a well-made teacher test- for the simple reason that if you plan your program and you set your skills, you need to test to see if you've accomplished those goals. Your national testing programs don't do that. They're testing overall; they're not testing the goals we've set at Sawyer School. And that's where we want to know if our program's working.
Q: So a continuous evaluation on a school level with your own goals is more important than what's done in California?
A: Right. To me it's more valuable, yes.
Q: What was your code of ethics as a principal?
A: Well, I followed pretty much the one that's set up by the state of North Carolina as a teacher code of ethics. I thought it was good. It encouraged professional behavior. It did encourage the importance of going through channels. In other words, if a parent walked into my office and she had a complaint with a teacher, before I listened to the complaint, my first question was, "Have you discussed this with the teacher?" And nine times out of ten the answer was no. And then I would say, "Well, why haven't you?" "Because I wanted to talk with you." And my comment usually would be, "You need to see the teacher first. She may know something you don't know. I can't advise you until I know the whole thing. So you go talk to that teacher; I'll set up an appointment." They didn't want to go to the teacher and this is why they came to me in the first place. It's an embarrassing situation for them. But I would always make it as painless as possible. And most of the time when they sat down with the teacher with the complaint, it never got back to me. They'd stop on the way out of the building and say, "Oh, Mrs. Austin, we got it all settled. I didn't know so-and-so. Now that I know this, I understand what's happening." But there were those times when that did not work. And I think that you should go to the teacher first; if you're not satisfied, then go to the principal. But tell her you're going to do it. If you go to the principal and you're not satisfied, say I didn't get results with the teacher and I didn't get results with you, I'm going to talk to the superintendent about it. I think it should go through chain of command. Because there are certain levels at which things can and should be handled in a professional organizational. And that may be a little bit rigid, but I think it works. I think where you get in trouble is where you try to by-pass a couple of those and go straight to the top when you need to know the facts all the way down the line.
Q: Plus, you're giving your teacher the benefit of knowing everything that's going on and the benefit of the doubt.
A: And I think it's so important that the teacher know that.
Q: Okay, we talked about the future administrators and discussed that. How did you spend most of the time during your work day?
A: Paper work. Mountains and mountains and mountains of paper work. Most of that really was done at night, because if you did it all during the school day, you'd never evaluate your teachers. You'd never participate with the instructional program. There wouldn't be enough hours in the day to do it. Of course, your day started with your bus routine. Mine was very simple, because I had one bus coming in. And then once you get the program under way for the day, I spent most of my day trying to rotate around among the classes or sometimes in meetings all day. We had quite a few meetings.
Q: So you did feel like you were pretty visible?
A: Oh, yes, one of the beauties of our new building was the principal could observe without upsetting the teacher. You could just make a tour through the building and do some marvelous observations and it did not intimidate the teachers or the children. And it gave you a link of communication you didn't have. So many things in the old style building you'd miss. And I missed them. I could walk by and pause momentarily and see something marvelous going on in the classroom and I'd think that's something another teacher would like to know about. Then at the end of the day I could call them in and say, "When I went by today, I just happened to notice. . . ." In the old building, you never just happened to notice.
Q: You had to open a door and go in and sit down and disrupt.
A: And you can do some of your best evaluating that way.
Q: Okay, I think we talked a little bit about retirement and you said for health reasons, is there any other reason that you retired or thought about retiring?
A: Well, it mainly was for health reasons, because I had a light stroke and it was the doctor's recommendation. And then, of course, my husband also wanted to travel since he was semi-retired. (End of Tape II, Side A)
Q: A couple of other issues that we hadn't talked about are changes in special education. When you started as a principal, what provisions did you have for the disadvantaged or the handicapped students?
A: We really didn't have any except one program. Helen Wise, I believe was her name, started the first program here and there were no guidelines or anything and it was not in my school. But she took a certain number of children and they were sent to her. It was sort of a hit and miss sort of thing. She was interested in this because she had a handicapped grandchild. And our program really through the years grew out of that. Now, of course, the state began to fund programs and require it. And we added the programs slowly at Sawyer. We started first with an EMR class. And then we expanded to an LD program. And we had no guidelines either for that. When we started our LD program, the teacher that I had really almost wrote the program and it was later, a large part of it, was adopted by the state. And also she got national recognition on that. And was invited to go to Washington, D.C. She worked it out. There's a program with LD teacher working in conjunction with another teacher--the two that worked together. And it worked beautifully and I think they're probably still using that approach to that. But we were doing very little mainstreaming--in fact, we were doing no mainstreaming with the first EMR class that we had. I understand now they're doing this more. We were mainstreaming with the LD children though. They'd be with special help a certain period during the day, then back in the classroom with the teacher working very closely with the LD teacher.
Q: And how about over the years that you were principal? Did you see changes in the amount of supervision from the central office? Including principal evaluations and things along this area?
A: It was just starting the last year that I was a principal. I never had a--I was never evaluated by the superintendent in the way that he would call me in and sit down with him across the desk and to go over a written evaluation as we do with teachers. We were told we were evaluated. I saw one written evaluation the last year that I was principal, but it was just sent through the mail to me.
Q: No consultation or communication?
A: No, no consultation. But there was also a bulletin that went along with it that said that the following year it would be done. We would be observed by the superintendent so many times during the year just as you observed your teachers. But I retired before that was done. I had the feeling, though, that last year they had already started that because the assistant superintendent made more trips to the building. It might have been because of his interest in the new building or the programs that we had underway because we had quite a few visitors in and out of our building all the time. But it needed to be done. Principals need evaluation just like teachers do. And they also need someone to give them help when they need it which they do not have. Teachers get far more instructional help than principals get in their role as administrators.
Q: They seem to be offering more workshops just for principals and it may. . .
A: . . .I think that's good.
Q: . .have come about from their having to do teacher evaluations, but there's bound to be some peripheral benefit to the principals, I would think. So they can get together and talk. Last question is, what have I not asked you that I should have?
A: About teachers' salaries. And principals' salaries.
Q: And do you feel that they are adequate? More than adequate? Underpaid?
A: Disgracefully low. When you are dealing with professional people who are required years and years of training to do what they do, and you are demanding really a high degree of expertise, you cannot justify this with the salary you are paying any of them. It's ridiculous, really. Other states are way, way ahead of us. Every time we make the slightest gain, the others are still a leap and a jump ahead. I think probably the greatest weakness right now in the educational system is the salary scale. And they are not going to correct their educational program until they pay for it. It's going to have to be paid for.
Q: I say hurrah to that!
A: They are earning it and they should be paid that.
Q: Good. Okay, well, thank you again.
A: I've enjoyed this.
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