Interview with Nancy Burleson


I am interviewing Nancy Burleson. Today is Tuesday, September 22, 1987.

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Q: Nancy, can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

burleson audio (Streamed audio file of interview for this question using RealPlayer)

A: I grew up in Eastern Carolina in a very small town. I went to the schools there and didn't realize until many years later that I was an underprivileged child. We had a very small school system consolidated with eight months of school and only eleven grades, and it was understood in my family you didn't finish school until you went on to college even though it was during the deep depression. That was something we looked forward to. I attended East Carolina Teachers College in Greenville and started out on this great teaching profession.

Q: Is there anything you would like to tell us about your family? Are you in business now/still?

A: Yes, since I'm retired from teaching I have several interests. One is breeding Scottish terrier dogs and taking them to show. I have a couple of champions, one that I'm working on, the championship right now, and also I'm doing catering. I have a small catering business. I find that very entertaining. Cooking is something that I've enjoyed all my life, and now I'm getting paid to do it.

Q: Very good. How many years were you in education - as a teacher, first, and then as a principal?

A: I think it was eleven years in the classroom in a variety of places. When I first started teaching I decided I was not going to stay in one spot. I was single, and I wanted to try different places, and so I started off at home in Carolina and then was in Norfolk, Virginia, went to Florida, went to D.C., and that's where I was teaching, in the District of Columbia, when I was married. Taught there for three years. The interesting part, I found out when I started to get retirement papers together, that when I taught in the District, there were two school systems. There was the white school system and the black school system. It was difficult to find the papers. They had all been stashed away. It had been such a long time. Even the contracts had been written up that way.

Q: So you taught in that system. Were you ever a principal?

A: No, I was not a principal until I came to Fairfax County.

Q: How long were you a principal in Fairfax County?

A: I was a principal in Fairfax County for eleven years, no, for fourteen years. It was so much fun I forgot. Fourteen years.

Q: That's a good amount of years. Could you describe some of your schools for me. You might think about socioeconomic levels, location, parental support, that type of thing?

A: As teacher and principal?

Q: Really, primarily as a principal.

A: The first school I went in, when I was assigned there, I was so excited, and I drove over to see the school, and it was in a lovely neighborhood, and I thought, oh, this is, the school is very attractive, and little did I know what was ahead of me. It was quite a mixture of populations. There were apartments, a number of apartments with a lot of broken families and people who moved a great deal. There were different levels of economics in some of the families who were bused in, and then I had the so called upper-middle class that surrounded the school. Made for a very interesting group of parents and children, and for the first few years it was the normal type of school population, but as time went on, the apartment group became a whole different type of person. Many more problems. Some of the homes, the smaller homes, where the children were bused in, had lots of problems, and of course, the children reflected it. It was difficult. To start off, the pressure of the classroom, in a situation like that, was quite hard. I had never been an assistant principal or anything. I went straight from the classroom into the principalship, and there was no one to tell you anything. Walked in the door and they said, "This is the office." That was my introduction to being a principal. It was an introduction by fire because the principal who had been there the previous year had not had a warm following of the faculty, and all but two of the teachers had left, not knowing he wasn't returning! So I went in with a staff of twenty teachers, eighteen of whom were brand new to the school, and most of them were first year teachers, and with a principal who had never been a principal before, and so it was really, it was a great learning experience, and I think that probably in the long run it paid off because you have to try things. You don't have any background or information to fall back on except what happened to you when you were in the classroom, and the kinds of things you remembered good and bad, and you sorta use those as guides. I had a wonderful group of teachers who were young and enthusiastic and willing to help, and so we worked it out. I survived it, and I still have such a warm spot for that school, and, now, I occasionally bump into parents from the school, and we have a wonderful time talking about their grown children and my grown children who were just little kids when I was over there.

Q: That's quite an experience going in without any assistant principalship training. Why did you decide to become a principal?

A: Strangely enough, I had never given it any thought. I was very happy in the classroom. The first year I was in Fairfax County I had probably the most miserable teaching situation I had ever encountered with a first year principal who never learned to delegate. She always had to be right on top of everything, and tell you exactly how to do it, what to do and all that sort of thing, and I guess that I didn't know any better, but I always felt if you had a problem, you went to the person involved in it, and were forthright with them. And she had such a horrible relation with the staff, and most of them were trying to undermine her in many ways, but when we would "butt" heads, I would say what I thought, and not try to be nasty, but, at least, try to be honest with her. Near the end of that first year, they asked if anyone wanted to transfer. Well, I had come in with the understanding from personnel and from Fairfax that since I had small children I would keep them there for that year. That they would be transferred in the spring so I would be closer to my home because it was a long drive everyday, and my principal was irate. She said it was a very unprofessional thing to do. We talked through it. and then she later said that I had been so forthright with her, and that she thought I would be good administrative material. Well, I was just flabbergasted because I had never given that a thought and least of all coming from the source it did! Because it was quite a surprise! After that, after I left there the first year, every now and then I would think about it, and then when I went to Braddock, working with Mrs. Deavers, she encouraged me to do the same thing. She, I guess, recognized the fact that she thought I would make a good principal, so she encouraged me to go to the seminar, which I did. She recommended me. It was at the end of three years at Braddock that I went into the principalship.

Q: Sounds like you were certainly respected for your opinions. When you were a principal, what was basically your school's philosophy, and how did you develop it?

A: We developed it jointly with the staff depending on the children. You have to change it as our population changed so drastically. The main thing was trying to reach the youngsters. And involve the parents, and provide the things that would help the whole community, and we did it as a joint effort. And, of course, at the same time, not overstepping the ground rules that are set up basically by the county and our own supervisors.

Q: How did you create a climate for learning in your school when you were principal?

A: I think basically by having an "open door" policy. I felt that I should be available for staff at any time because there are a lot of things that affect the teaching climate that have nothing to do with academics. When your staff, that you're working closely with, have problems, whether they be personal or professional, they need some support or a "pat" on the back or whatever, you should be available, and I think it makes for a more relaxed atmosphere, and also trying to be available to parents who have concerns and to "head off" problems before they became big ones. Good communication is the name of the game.

Q: Very good. What leadership techniques did you use?

A: Well, I combined lots of things that happened to me through my years of teaching. And, as time went on, you remembered the things you liked about a situation you worked in, and then you also had the "don't," the list of things that you say, "I would never do that to a person. I would never ask that of someone." And when you have the opportunity, then you sorta take an evaluation of yourself and think how can I work these things together, and my feeling was that it makes no difference how you accomplish what is going on in the classroom or job that's assigned, so long as its done well. I mean no two people approach a problem in the same manner, and I feel you should give people the freedom to express themselves and of creating in their classrooms the things they want to do as long as they are covering the prescribed course of study and accomplishing the aims the county sets forth. Then I think you should give them some freedom, and I think they work better. None of us like to be clones.

Q: What role did you play in public/community relations?

A: Well, there's always PTA. I was active in PTA. And, of course, in my personal life I was actively involved in the church, Business Professional Women's Club, DAR, many activities that enriched me, and, in turn, I could use to work with the people I was involved with. Because I think, education, you have to advertise it unfortunately. To make people realize that you are in there doing good things in your schools, and give them an opportunity, too, to come in and invite them. Let them feel free to come in and observe what's happening in the school. So that they feel that it is a community activity, and good things are happening.

Q: What do you think teachers expect principals to be?

A: Miracle workers. Sometimes I felt that way. I know they got very frustrated with things that were going on. And they didn't realize, at the same time, the principal was being pressured and feeling the same frustrations, and sometimes I think it was a very lonely job because having worked with people and liking people a great deal, and there is definitely a change when you go from the classroom, when you're used to working with the same people, into the principalship. There is sorta a fine line of demarcation because you have to make decisions that are not always pleasant decisions or not always popular decisions, but if you're doing your job, you have to, and it sometimes causes a little unhappiness and uneasiness between the staff and the principal.

Q: How did you evaluate teachers?

A: Observations, of course, following mainly the policies that are set forth in the county, the county sets forth, but I think. too, you have to be human and include the qualities the teacher has that you see day in and day out, not just on those few observations that you observe when you go into the classroom. Their daily things - the way they handle situations that might arise or when there is a crisis with a child or with a parent. It's just an everyday, on-going process.

Q: What techniques did you use to make teachers feel important?

A: I tried to recognize people when they did things that were special and not always just taking for granted when somebody did something well. They should do it well, but you usually only speak up when they don't come up to standards, and I feel you should recognize them for a job well done at any time.

Q: What does it take to be an effective principal?

A: The wisdom of Solomon. I think you have to have a lot of empathy for people. Really love people and children and enjoy working with both, and being willing to, many times forget your personal likes and dislikes and plans and when something comes up with them, you have to put it first, its not always pleasant to the rest of your family, but I feel, to me it was a twenty-four hour job because so many things you can't resolve, and you bring them home and think and pray on them and go back the next day hoping you come up with the proper solution.

Q: What pressures did you face as a principal, and how did you handle them?

A: I think the pressure of paper was what really finally helped me decide to retire because every year there was more and more reports and statistics and the whole thing, and I just felt that the children were the losers, and we did not have the time to work with teachers or spend as much time in the classrooms and with children as I wanted to. It became just a rat race. Took all the pleasure out of it. I couldn't wait to get to school in the morning. I got to the point I really dreaded thinking, "I wonder what kinds of things will come in the mail today." And, you know, the pressure.

Q: If you had to do it again, what would you do to better prepare yourself for the principalship?

A: I guess nowadays I wouldn't have a choice. I would be given an opportunity to go into an assistant principalship or some other role that would be similar. I think one thing that did help me in the principalship, I worked for the government for three years, five years when I was overseas and was a dependant wife, and when you work with the military, you learn to listen, to do as you are told, and to question not what is given you to do, and I think it puts you in good stead for working with any large school system because there's a lot that's gone on that is handed down that's its not up to you to question. It's up to you to see that it's put into effect.

Q: How did you handle teacher grievances, and did you ever fire a teacher?

A: I tried to handle grievances fairly. I used to bring in specialists in the field, if it was a specialized field, or to help in giving assistance to the teacher. The teacher was having problems and it was an academic problem, a teaching problem, I would bring in many different people to help her, as well as myself, to give her opportunities to go and observe in other classrooms, in and out of the building, to try to give her ideas of how she might improve her status. Unfortunately, I had a number of occasions when a person was fired, and it was a very unpleasant thing. The brunt of it was on the person who was bringing up the grievance. But my feeling was, as an administrator, if I found someone who was inept, and was not doing what should be done for children, then I was not coming up to my standards of professionalism, if I did not carry through and see that the person was removed from the system. ....administrator, if I found someone who was inapt, and was not doing what should be done for children, then I was not coming up to my standards of professionalism, if I did not carry through and see that the person was removed from the system.

Q: How can we improve education and teachers in general, as a nation, perhaps?

A: I feel that we should make them feel that they are professional. I think for too many years teachers have been looked upon as people who are working part time or full time just to add to the family budget. And I feel they are true professionals, and they should be categorized along with doctors and all the rest of the people who are looked at as great community leaders and high on the status level, and I think if they're going to do that, they have to, not only, think of the educational side of it, but they certainly have to have salaries that are commensurate with the demands that are put upon them. I know of no other profession that is required to go back to school and renew certificates and take additional work every five years. Doctors can get their degree and pass their exam, just like the lawyer, and never go back in another course, and, yet, my life may depend on their expertise.

Q: How did you handle the civil rights issue, or the busing issues, or the National Commission on Excellence in Education reports - any of the big issues that might have come up in your tenure as a principal?

A: Well, I did not become a principal until after the big busing and the discrimination things were over. I was at home with small children when all of that was going on. But I feel that you have to handle them sensibly and honestly, as we did with our minority children that were in our building. We had lots of them, and I think we treated them like all the other children that are there. The color of their skin has nothing to do with the way they are handled. I think that those issues, sometimes, I think they dump them on the schools. That's what makes me very unhappy. That anytime an issue comes up, like the present time with aids, I mean anytime a questionable issue comes up, the first thing that is mentioned is, "Let's take it to the schools, and that's where we'll have it taken care of, and I don't know why they think we're miracle workers. We need lots of help in these issues.

Q: What procedures should be used before a person is selected to become a principal?

A: I feel the person should have a lot of experience across the board in the types of activities within the school. Even to sponsoring activities, that sounds small, yet, it does help you in handling people, in organizing and scheduling and all that sort of thing, and working, with not just one small group that you might in the classroom. Giving every opportunity to work with the staff, whether it be working with the self study. That is something that I think is very helpful because I was chairman of self study, two years before I went into, just prior to the principalship and having to organize schedules and having to work with the staff, I think was very helpful. And I think you should give a person, if they're interested in administration, every opportunity like that. I think the principal, working with the teacher, can help a great deal.

Q: This question is how did you handle assistant principals? you may not have had an assistant.

A: I never was fortunate enough. I had fifty children qualifying for assistant principal, but I never got there! I would loved to have had one!

Q: As a principal, what was your biggest concern?

A: I think running a school, you can never meet everyone's needs, but running a school that tries to meet the needs of the children, and I think here in Fairfax, with the last few years, with the big influx of foreign students who spoke no English, and communication with their parents, planning for their needs, at the same time, carrying on with the needs of the youngsters that, the ones we were used to, and then many other minorities who were coming in, and I think that, you know, was a big job, and then, at the same time, you were bringing in many specialists, and the more extra, special people you bring to a staff, the more you have to handle them with kid gloves, and to keep things from erupting into confrontations. Because I think, sometimes, our helpers end up putting more work on us than helping us. They come in with good intentions, but it makes it very difficult for the teachers to work around and to work with these people.

Q: Well, this question is very similar. It's what was your biggest headache?

A: I think probably children with severe discipline problems were one of the biggest headaches because many times the child had severe problems. The parents did not recognize it and were not willing to admit that there was a need for them to get special help and to work with this youngster, and, of course, I always think of my example when I was, ended up in the hospital because of a child that had emotional problems, and the parents had refused to get special help for him. But, things like that stay with you through the years!

Q: What do you think of career ladders for teachers, and what do you think about merit pay?

A: I can see career ladders, because, for example, you can see teachers who come into your school and in a few years, you think, that one is really headed for administration. They really have the capabilities and the mind set, and they're willing to put in the time and the effort that it takes, whether it be advanced degrees or extra activities or whatever you ask them to do, and, I mean, they are ready to do it. you can see that they are going up, and there should be some way to recognize them. But, I feel strongly, it may not be the popular thing, but, I feel strongly that merit pay is not the solution. Having worked with teachers for so many years, and having seen the closeness and friendly atmosphere of teachers sharing with each other, "I have a good idea. Let's try it." And others joining in. I just shudder to think of what will happen when we have everything depending upon your observations, and if I were a teacher, I'd certainly close the door and keep all my good ideas to myself so that I will be the one who is going to go up on the merit ladder, and am going to get the extra salary, and I think we are going to lose something. I just don't feel, that you can put everything, you can really fairly evaluate a teacher, all the wonderful things, the warmth, the empathy for children and for people, by going in and observing two or three times in a classroom. It's not a normal situation; it's role playing. And I feel so strongly we are going to set ourselves back in education.

Q: What do you think of the standards of quality established by the state school board?

A: I was glad to see they had standards of quality because for many years, before the state got around to it, Fairfax County had had standards of quality, and, of course, this sounds like we're "patting" ourselves on the back, but, I think, if you read the standards of quality for the state and the ones for Fairfax County, you'll find great likeness. It could be that our superintendent who went to the state level had something to do with that, but there is a great deal of likeness in it.

Q: What do you think are the characteristics associated with effective schools?

A: Schools that are aware, people are aware, can't be the school, but the people in the school make the difference, the staff that's empathetic to children and willing to cooperate with the parents to "go the extra mile" to try to help with the problems that might come up. They're aware when there is a problem in the family, when there's a death or something of that kind, and they help that child through things of that sort, through the trying times. And then, of course, the other side is you keep the educational standards up, and try to meet the needs of the youngsters, regardless of the school population you might have.

Q: What do you think of testing procedures, for instance, the Scholastic Aptitude Test; I guess many of the tests we do now in the county, and they're published in the papers, all of that?

A: That's a sore spot. I think testing has its place. It's good to help a teacher in placing children and to sorta help you to see, "Oh, yes, I did have that child pegged right, and these are the areas I need to work in." But to use a test as the end of all, and say that this is a good school or this is a bad school, and they're not teaching properly because of test scores is unfair because the thing they do not look at, and they should never give these scores out without showing the I.Q. in the school. You take a school with a high percentage of foreign speaking students, and you put those scores next to a regular middle-class community, and it is not fair, and, yet, I know for a fact that Fairfax real estate people get these lists, and people buy homes according to the school community and how the school tests, and I think it's awful, and it forces people to do what happened this spring in Fairfax - teaching to the test, and it's because they feel such a horrible pressure that they have to do well.

Q: What was the toughest decision you had to make as a principal?

A: I guess one of them was a decision to leave the school where I had been very, very happy for eleven years, and move to another one, but, I had an advantage because the school I was going to was one where I had taught, but that also made it a tough decision because I had great questions about whether I could go back. They say you can never go home. Tom Wolf, You Can Never Go Home. But I wondered if I could go back and as principal of some of the staff that I had taught with as a classroom teacher, and I found out I could, but it was a rough decision to make, but I'm glad I did because I think it's a real challenge and a learning situation, I mean, you don't realize. You've sorta gotten in a rut until you change schools. It's like starting all over again with a new community and your staff, and it was really great. It was sorta rejuvenation, at its best!

Q: So, you did go back to that school.

A: I did go because I had taught at Braddock for three years, and then I went back and finished up as principal for three years, the last three years I was working.

Q: Nancy, were you a manager of a building, or were you an instructional leader, or both?

A: I felt that I was both. There were times when, if you remember when our cafeteria staff walked out on us, I was in. there slinging hash that day, for several days, so that, and if we had a custodian out, I was unlocking buildings. So on that side, I was a building manager, and seeing that supplies were there and all those good things. But I like to think of myself more as an instructional leader. That was the thing that was dearest to my heart. The others were necessary evils in order that we could have a school that was running, and we could have the instruction. You have to have the other side of it. You have to have a building provided with the necessities in order to have a good instructional program. So you have to do both. There's no one to "pass the buck to."

Q: What was your key to success as a principal?

A: Enjoying people, whether they be little people or big people, or parents or teachers. I love working with people, and I have spent my whole life in some capacity, doing it, and it's very gratifying. And I think that really helped because I know there were situations, with the county people, when you're trying to get snow removed or furnace repaired or things like that. The fact that I was willing to have coffee ready on those early mornings when they came to remove the snow or things like that, that seem very small, but it just a fact that I liked them, and they were, and they realized it, and I got things done. I think it's a necessary quality if you're going to be working with people, and I really enjoyed them.

Q: What was your code of ethics as a principal?

A: I guess it was the kinda code that goes along with the "Golden Rule." It may sound trite, but I felt that if you handle people kindly and in an honest fashion that things would happen, and you expect, I feel it's sorta like a mirror, if you smile into a mirror, you get a smile back, and I think if you're working with people, if you're kind and honest and forthright with them that you get the same treatment from them, and I think you can get things to happen.

Q: What advice would you give to a person who is considering an administrative position, maybe a person such as myself?

A: Continue the way you've been going. You have your good years of outstanding teaching behind you, and you've worked with people, you've worked with many difficult children and parents, and now you're getting a chance to work with the staff. Pursue it. and take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself to give you new and varied experiences, so when that magic day comes, you'll feel comfortable, as comfortable as possible. The main thing that really makes you feel comfortable in that job is just experience, time and experience.

Q: Would you enter administration on the principal's level if you had to do it over again?

A: Yes, I would. I have no qualms about it.

Q: What aspect of your professional training best prepared you for a principalship? I think we went into that earlier with your government work and so on. Is there anything else?

A: No.

Q: Did you feel that central office policies prevented you from accomplishing goals you felt could have otherwise been obtained?

A: No, in a system as large as this one I think it's a necessary evil, so to speak, to have central office policies, because it would be a lonely world sitting out there in a school unless you had some guidelines because there are many problems you run into each day facing parents and various problems that come up. You need the backing of the central office and those big, blue books that we deem our Bibles because they really give you the back up. You couldn't expect somebody from central office to be there at your elbow, but when you have the "regs," you can pull them out and find something that would show that you were taking the proper steps.

Q: What consumed the majority of your time?

A: I'd say working with staff and children was the biggest thing the last few years, even though there was a great deal of paper. I was not willing to give up the hours during the day to do it, so I ended up working late after school was closed or bringing it home rather than having it take away from the every day contact I had with the children.

Q: What would you like to have spent more time on but other responsibilities prevented you from doing so?

A: Sounds like the broken record. I would like to have spent more time actually with the children because I love watching them work in the classroom and all the activities they had going on. But there never seemed quite enough time to do that, a lot when you're doing observations and all those good things, and that's not the kind of work with the children I had in mind, I mean, that's observing them, but it's not the same as the interaction with them.

Q: The last one. What have I not asked you that I should have?

A: I can't think of anything. Except maybe, and it has nothing to do with it, how busy I am at this point in my life. It seems I'm as busy as I ever was when I was working with the schools. The big difference is that I can stop if I get real tired and not feel the pressure of having to finish a job, but I feel it's a gratifying thing that you can retire when you still feel well enough to do the things you've put aside all these years while you were involved in working because there was just not enough time in the day to do these things, and I think everybody, my feeling is, you ought to leave the job while you're still on top and while people still remember you favorably and wanted you to stay and not wait until they say, "Oh, my Lord, why didn't that old lady leave a long time ago?"

Q: Well, that concludes the interview. I thank you very, very much.

A: It was my pleasure.

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