Interview with Elton Bonner


| Back to "B" Interviews | Index of Interviews | Protocol | Home |

Q: I believe you originally started off as a principal in in Franklin County (Virginia)?

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

A: My first experince was in south Alabama where I was teaching history and other subjects - math, economics, and I also acted as principal of an elementary school with 700 pupils, and then as assistant principal of a high school with about the same number of pupils. It was in a rural setting. The pupils were bused on school buses (for long distance). There was an economics pro gram, an agricultural program... So I came to Virginia. They were looking for - Well I actually started to work on my doctorate in south Alabama- And I was told to go by and look in at the situation in Franklin County where they were building a consolidated high school. (Mr.) Alexander, director of secondary education of the State Department- His dream was to consolidate all small, rural schools and form one high school. The superintendent of Franklin County was looking for someone who had some experience with a rural setting and similar to the setting there. So I postponed work on the doctorate (laughs) and became principal there. I stayed for nine years. Then I came to Fairfax County where I opened a new high school, James Madison HS and was there for 8 years. I went on to the personnel department, there for 13 years. As director of secondary education (I) hired, selected, processed and placed teachers.

Q: What initially made you go into education, or admini stration specifically?

A: I was a son of a minister and I felt I should perform some sort of public service. I thought about medicine, I thought about ministry, and I thought about education. I ruled the others out for one reason or another. I enjoyed being a student myself. I liked my teachers. I enjoyed the ambiance of the classroom and the school so I chose that.

Q: Do you feel you had a particular model? Someone in in teaching or administration or anywhere along the line?

A: Well I had an older brother who was a superintendent school in Virginia. We were all born in Alabama, but for some reason settled in Virgina. That's a long story there, but anyway.. He was the one who gave my name to superintendent of schools in Franklin County when they were looking for someone there. I had another brother who became a doctor. He was teaching in high school and then in college. So our family was... And my mother was a teacher, and as I said my father was a minister. I don't know of anyone in particular that I modeled from, but I wanted to become a history teacher because I felt the way I was taught history were rather dull and I imagined ways it could be taught that was interesting to the students. I did have a good time. A professor I had in college had a very dry manner. I didn't want to model myself after him. I was, I think, successful in that area.

Q: Sort of influenced by a negative sense, not wanting to certain things.

A: Right, Oh yes.

Q: When you first became an administrator in Franklin County were there specific issues or concerns that you had to deal with, either internally or in the community?

A: Well, as I said, this was the second soncolidated high school in the state; Charlotte Courthouse being the first. I had to open a brand new school, so I wanted to sep up a program I --- By coincedence, for my masters degree orals, they asked, "If you had all the money to spend, how would you organize a high school?" So I gave and answer that I though was satisfactory, at least to them, and i wanted to try it. So I had just that opportunity. I didn't have all the money I could spend. I had to make do with less money than I would like. I was able to try a lot of new ideas in schools. Is that what you...?

Q: Well yes. I'm thinking in terms of opening the new school. Did you meet with resistance from the community?

A: No, not really. Uh, I pretty much had a free hand. The superintendent seemed to have a great deal of faith in my ability and he gave me a free hand to do much of what I wanted to. The school needed a music program. They didn't have a band so I got the students, bought the band uniforms and they didn't seem to heve uh, direction in the curriculum so I spent many long hours every night working on the curriculum. I was looking way that the students could have a choice and chance to explore, as well as take the basic subjects. They hadn't had exploratory subjects. The community did not object at all. In fact, I pretty much had the backing of everything, including the athletic program. They didn't have, or it wasn't very much of a football team. They gave me all the support necessary. Things seemed to go pretty well during the nine yeats that I was there.

Q: When you were designing the curriculum, for music speci fically, or or any other area, what was your approach to that as far as input from teachers?

A: Well, the first thing I did was met with the teachers. We met for many sessions on what we wanted for the school. We discussed the philosophy; what direction we wanted to take, and what we wanted to see the kids learn, various activities, etc. And we came up with a written document listing the resources we needed. We discussed this with the superintendent and the school board. And through this we used all the resource we could. Franklin County, which is one of the largest in vir ginia. We bused students in then from, uh, 25 miles away. So some of the students were riding 50 miles a day on the schoolbus. So we didn't have a totally free hand because of the restricted hours we spent in school. We did the best we could. Coincedenally, I that was 38 years ago , and I got a phone call the other day. They want ne to give a commencement address.

Q: That's terrific! As far as your leadership style... Could you character ize it by any certain style?

A: When I think of leadership style I think of two extremes. Uh, some people ahve given these extremes names. I'll call them A and B, for want of better terms. The A styles is the administrator who is always considering the feelings of the employees before making a decision. uh, so if a teacher comes in late, for an exmaple, uh, he might inquire as to why. "Is there anything I can help you with?" Uh, always gives and is concerned. This type of administrator is pretty much apt to change his mind, you know, to fit the pressures among the Staff and the students, and the community. In other words, not make up his mind. If he wants to do things a certain way, and if he gets caught up in corner, uh, well he'll change his mind. This kind of administrator can cause some confusion because there isn't anything really definite in his statements. The other extreme is the arbitrary type who says, "You have a contract and I expect you to live up to the con- tract. I don't want to hear any excuses, and if you can't hack it, if you can't. stand the heat in the kit chen then get out." So I think somewhere between these extremes I might fit in. I don't believe in holding people to a strict interpretation of the contract, be cause if there are mitigating circumstances - an ill ness in the family, or the child gets the croup then you take that into consideration. But, I think there has to be some give and take there. You have to be definite in your decisions once you've weighed all the circum stances. You have to make up your mind and decide where to go. So I would say that my leadership style is some where in between those two extremes.

Q: Do you think your style evolved or changed over the years? Did you head more in one direction than the other?

A: Yes, I think so. I fluctuated between those extremes, and sometimes maybe more one way than the other, and maybe switch over. I, I'd say that for the most part that I was more of the A type, of, of wanting to con- sider the feelings of other people as we were making decisions; to call everybody, to get all the answers that I could muster and make decisions based on those and, of course. if I had too much of those I might make some changes. As I got older I realized that , uh, uh, you have to make decisions. You have to de cide definitely that your're going in a certain di rection, and certainly gather all the facts and try to cover all the ground. And I attempted, I think, to accept some of these things and expect people to live up to their contractural obligations without excuses. I expected teachers to be professional. I did not breath down their necks. So when they did not act in a professional way I got them to conform to that. I did I suppose, let them know that they had contratural obligations; that the children's lives were too impor tant to jeopardize their education.

Q: In your move to James Madison H.S...

A: Yes?

Q: Do you feel you had to adjust yourself to the community any differently?

A: Every community is different. Uh, for example, the Franklin County school board, which composed of some businessman, some farmers, others who were apt to say, "Well, Mr. Superintendent, you know more about this then we do, so why don't you go ahead." They had a lot of faith in the superintendent, and they, they tended to simply rubber stamp whatever it is you wanted to do. Smaller communities are highly political, that'true. And, uh, we were fortunate in Franklin County to have a superintendent who knew just how far to stay ahead to make programs necessary without getting too far out where he had a rebellion on his hands. I was able to work in that situation with one style. Whereas when I came to Fairfax County, you have a school board with a higher level of education, of various experiences. The community makes quite a number of de mands on the schools. Uh, their education, the parents education level is generally higher than you find in a lot of areas. Uh, and, and a lot more things are being done for the schools through the central office. Differ ent from Franklin County. For example, I actually did the contracting for work to be done around the school. Installing the lights on the football field. Things of this nature, of course would be done with the approval of the superintnendent of schools, and the school board. Wherein Fairfax County, those things were done through the board of education. Uh, personnel were hired at central office. Whereas the princi- pal in Franklin County went out and beat bushes to try to find teachers. Uh, that was done for me when I came to Fairfax County. And if you had a window pane knocked out, you didn't call on your custodian to re pair it you called the central office, one of the de partments, and they came out to repair it. Um, and, and it follows then that your whole styles of opera tion would be quite different in Fairfax County as opposed to Franklin County.

Q: Do you feel that tied your hands too much? Did that become difficult at times, that central control?

A: It did take away, Fairfax County did take away some of the freedom you had, and on the other hand it gave you more materials to work with. It gave you, uh, uh, they compensated in other ways. So you can't say one sit uation is better than the other. One reason I came to Fairfax County was because I wanted my children to have a chance for the best education they could have. Uh it was nice to be able to call the shots at Franklin County. I was probably oh, uh, - sort of a big fish in a small pond. In Fairfax County you're a small fish in a big pond, and uh, ... Whereas we had one consoli dated high school in Franklin County, there, in Fairfax County there are 24 to 25 high schools. So there's quite a difference. So, as I said it ties your hands somewhat because you can't put all your eggs in one basket. When you're in a community where there's one high school, the whole community is behind that one school. All the re sources, all the that includes money, etc. to come into a situation like Fairfax County... If uh, you gave one principal the opportunity to go to a national con ference you'd have 24 other principals to consider. What do you do about it? Everybody can't go. So if you took just a few each year you would find that uh, uh... I believe that principals of a large school systems would have fewer opportunities to participate in the national level or state level activities than in the other situa tions. So, so I'm sure a principal in Fairfax County doesn't have as much of an opportunity to go to a national conference. Whereas, in Franklin County I was not only expected to go the Southern Assoc. of School Principal convention, or to NASSP, and to become active in one of those associations so that you could really get a feel for what's going on.

Q: Do you feel that's still occurring as much as it was when you were down there?

A: I'm sure so. For example, I was on my way back to Ala bama and went through Rocky Mount, Franklin County Stopped by, for the first time, to meet the principal of the high school and found that the principal is the president of the State Principal's Associa cipals. How could all of them become the president of the state principals' association, much less the National association? But that's not unusual for a principal of consolidated schools to have that opportunity.

Q: That's interesting. I hadn't considered that. This might be a bit redundant then... How do you see the principal's role in the community changing over the last 20 to 30 year's?

A: I think the principal, from what I've seen, is becoming less and less of an instructional leader, I'm talking about Fairfax County or a large high school, and more of an administrator in a sense. You have a system of a principal who looks in on instruction and discipline. The priciple , of course, can't get away from being the school-community relations head. Uh, he is the liason person between the school community and the superinten dent. The principal had less and less time to give the personal touch in a large high school as in Fairfax County. Rather than being able to get into the classroom and actually become a part of all that goes on in the school, he's become more of the "person of last resort"; the one who takes the from the assistant principals, parents, students, but has less time to really do the personal sontact. Lot of it's being deligated.

Q: As far as teacher evaluation... Now with pay-for-per formance, it's been much discussed. Over the years, do you think evaluation systems were effective in recog nizing the competence of teachers? Do you think the system needs...

A: Are you thinking merit pay, or...?

Q: Aside from merit pay.

A: Aside from merit pay.

Q: Let's just say evaluations in general. Let's start back in the earlier years of your being an administrator. How were evaluation systems set up? Did you have speci fic systems set up?

A: When I was in Franklin County I had someone to handle the financial matters. Ah, in addition to our book- keeper, who was sort of a business manager. And I had someone to assist me with the instructional program of the school. Uh, and the one who assisted with the in structional program of the school made recommendations as to what should be done about teachers who were in the classrooms and their performance, or whether they needed encouragement, or needed further study, or needed help on problems they had. And they did a lot of the observations. A lot of that is still going on, I think in Fairfax County. But a lot of that responsibility has been delegated to assistants. But, ah, the principal should be the ultimate authority on the assignments and the movements of teachers. Whether or not teacher should be reprimanded, dismissed or, or, uh... And for set ting up inservice programs. And here again the princi pal can't do it all. He needs help. I think everything possible should be done to assist teachers to adjust at the offering of the job. Now, to begin with the principal, I'm talking about an experi ence in a smaller setting. The principal was quite heavily involved with the inservice program, and had the supervison of teachers, and not just the teachers, but the office staff, custodial staff and cafeteria, every one in the school. A large urban setting, um, one of the prices you have to pay is that you can't do it all. A lot of it has to be delegated. Um, The sub-school is one way to get at it. Uh, the assistant principal who takes on specific respon sibilities/duties is another way to get at it. Um, de partment chairman, chairpersons who work within the departments is another way to get at it. I think, uh, in that, during my lifetime, it has changed from sort of the big, happy family concept where the principal was the father and the mother of the group and uh, you did things together as a family. Uh, as shifting over to, not an antagonistic situation, but there is some of it. Maybe they have to recognize that, but with the teacher unions as they are and, the teachers having a process, not going to someone necessarily in the school, the superintendent or the school board, but going to another agency for assistance. To find a change in relations between administators and the teaching staff, I've seen that change during my lifetime.

Q: What should be included then when evaluating a teacher? You walk into a classroom. What had to be part of the parocess?

A: Well within recent times, uh, we've seen the establish ment of the BTAP program for the beginning teacher, who is being observed by people outside of the school. And they go to the classroom, you know. I have a friend who's teaching some of the BTAP courses. I almost got into the program myslef until I realized the time it would tie me down too much. But, uh, I think the evaluation of teachers has to be done with the idea that every teacher will have the best opportunity to succeed. The principal, the principal's role in the school is to see to it that there is the proper environment for learning, including the teaching, materials, environment, setting. And that's the pri mary role of the principal. So that in the evaluation process (of teachers) the principal is there to lend assistance. Now Fairfax County, as you know, has its own formal, formalized system of evalution of teachers. When I first started in teaching, it was purely up to the principal to see what sort of role he would be in. Also, as the person of last resort, he did as he pretty much wanted to in this sort of big, happy family setup. Uh, the principal didn't really have to get around to all the classrooms in any given time, or so many times per year as it is now. Uh, you got to be informal and you pretty much had a pretty good idea as to exactly what was going on in the classroom just walking up and down the corridor and dropping in on the classroom here and there, on a regular basis, whenever he had a little time to do so. He knew the teachers so well that he was assured of what he put down on paper was the true thing, as far as he was concerned. And the school board and the superintendent pretty much accepted that, because in the smaller setting in years gone by the superintendent and the school board put a principal in a school to run that school. And the principal was the all powerful in charge. That's not the case anymore. There is the "system" now. The "system" is set up by sepcialty this and central office, etc. And the principal has to pretty much fall in line with what the group team is. And, also you've got to be sure of yourself (to be) on legal footings as well as satisfy the school board require ments. So things have changed considerably since I've uh, been in that situation. And I don't know that there's any- thing wrong with the process now. I would hope that you didn't lose the warmth, though, that you used to have. I would hope that the supervision of teachers should not be a strain and feel uncomfortable everytime their prin cipal comes to their door. They're there to assist the teachers. I have a daughter in teaching right now. It's her 8th year now, I believe. She's teaching second grade in Fairfax County. And she went through this uh, formal ized evaluation process called merit pay. And there's a certain amount of strain on a teacher who knows that during the year I've got to have so many evaluations. Some of them announce and some of these are not going to to be announces. And it's quite different from your re laxed atmosphere where the principal came by your room and said, "Hi. How are your students doing? May I come in and sit awhile?" And you said, "Sure, come on in and join the party," so to speak. I won't say that this present-day system is bad. It has it's place and I think that, uh, though we've made some progress in letting teachers really know what to expect, they ought to have a real process. They're rights ought to be respected. Uh, we shouldn't have our hands tied so, though, in admini stration. We are hanging on to dead wood. We're cheat ing the children.

Q: Do you feel that the evaluation system now in Fairfax County is acutally going to help clear out dead wood?

A: I don't know, I suppose theoretically it's supposed to. And that may very well be. I think the FEA ought to have as one of it's objectives - to eliminate the dead wood. Same as in the medical profession. It's tragic when we have someone making errors because of incompetence either in medicine or in teaching. We're cheating ourselves when we think that by holding on to incompetent teachers that we're protecting the rights of people. We may be protecting the rights of one in dividual to perform. By overdoing it, and ignoring the rights of everybody else, I think we're cheating our selves. The teachers who have to take the disrespect of the community because some their colleagues are letting them down. They're also cheating the students who are missing the opportunity, a one time opportunity to learn.

Q: Do you think the merit pay plan, as far as careerlevel two, Is that going to improve the standards?

A: I think it will improve the standards if it doesn't do anything else. Other than to assist the teacher in realizing what constitutes good teaching. Uh, as in the BTAP program. There are many thing in the BTAP program which alerts the teacher as to what to be looking for in the classroom, and how to change their approach. Too often, I'm afraid, at least in the classroom, the teacher will come in the classroom pretty much with a free hand to teach from what they learned in college. It's a totally hit or miss situation. If you said to a teacher that the proper environment to teach, of certain things that you would be looking for - the proper lighting. You would be looking for temperature. She would say, "Oh, I knew that all along." But when you count them down that's not going to wear, at least through their actions. That these things are necessary. I think these formalized programs that are thoroughly researched and thought out and they say to the teacher, "Here's the list. Here's what you're supposed to be do ing. Here's what we expect you to do. Now are you doing these things? If you aren't let us help you to overcome some of your weaknesses." Somehow it didn't get into our minds to the point that we practice them. Mr. McNamara tells a little story, you know the former secretary of defense. He asked his son if he could ex plain his assignemnt to him. The son said,"Well I under stand the assignment, but I can't explain it." So he said, "If you can't. explain it to me then you don't under stand it. You don't know it." And I think that's the way it is in this program. If it can't do anything else I think it will make teachers aware of how to look for things that will make them a better teacher. That's why I think I'm for it. But as interested in paying the better teacher the extra money as I am, making everybody a better teacher is included in it.

Q: Do you think paying the extra money is a necessity in this process now?

A: Well some people think it's the fair thing to do. In other words, " If I am producing more than ypu are, then I deserve more money." I've had s situation where a teacher sat in the teachers' lounge and bragged to the other teachers, "Well why should I do anything else? Why should I get another job when I've got it made here? I'm making a certain salary." And I said, "Well, you are not really producing much in the classroom." And he said, "Well as long as I can get away with it, fine." That particular teacher eventually I had to let go. He thought for a long time that he could get away with it. You have certain teachers who are ready to perform, however They are participating in extra-curricular activities, are helping the children after school. I've known teachers in a situation who never had time for children after school. There are others, however, who always make it a point to say, "If you're having difficulty come after school. I'll be here." I think a teacher with that na ture works harder, doing a better job, and that's what he's getting paid for. That's the beauty of it.

Q: It's always been said that it's very difficult to dismiss a teacher? How far would you have to go? You said you had to dismiss a teacher. How far would you, or how long would you let a situation continue before intervening and and taking an action like that?

A: Well, it depends on whether I would be handling a sit uation 38 years ago, or whether I'd be handling it today. Today I would be going through a very formalized process before you could let a teacher go. Perhaps it should be that way. There was time when after a terrible evaluation and a discussion with the superintendent, and conference with the teacher ; if things didn't improve you just let a teacher go. That was it. Uh, nowadays, you go into a classroom, observe certain failings in teaching, you point that out, you give the teacher a chance to improve, this continues. Things are documented until you've built a case that's infallible. And with procedure you dismiss the teacher. It's a very time consuming, expensive process, especially if it in volves litigation. And perhaps it should be that way. I don't know. Certainly teachers should be protected from any arbitrary and capricious acts on the part of the principal. At the same time you should not go so far overboard that the child suffers needlessly because of this process.

Q: Do you think that because it's such a time-consuming process that this prevents some administators from going through the whole procedure to dismiss a teacher?

A: I'm sure that many teachers that should have been separated from the system are still in the system simply because the proper steps were not taken. We see that in the civil courts and others where criminals get off because of technicalities. That happens in this situation. Principals have not taken the proper pro cedures and the teacher then holds onto the job simply because there is no documentation.

Q: There's been a lot said about excellence in education, or lack of excellence in education. I was wondering if you would react to that. Do you agree that there's a lack of excellence in education?

A: Well if you read some of these reports on test scores, uh, standardized tests, and what not, you could believe that not a great deal of progress is being made. It's hard to evaluate what's being done and how much progress is being made overall nationwide, or statewide. I think you need more restrictive setting such as one elementary school. That will emphasize training and identify weak nesses. There's a lot of talk about getting back to the basics, because students don't know how to read. They don't know how to compute figures. Uh, I think there's a great deal in truth to that. During my father's day, a great deal of emphasis, he was in student teaching before becoming a minister, was placed on handwriting and arithmetic and reading. Built into all those were certain moral lessons being taught at the same time, which would be questionable today. But we want to get back to the basics, I think. Students ought to learn how to read above all. They need to study our history, the history of the world, and civi lization. They need science and technology, but in my opinion we should never lose sight of the fact that stu dents at a young age, prior to college for example, need a time to explore, a time where to fit in where their interests are and it grieves me when we cut down from a seven period day to a six period day. And you've got to take,say history, math, science, etc. It's very diffi cult to work in things like music, art, shop and other experiences. I know it costs more money, need more teachers. It's a little harder on the administrative staff and the teaching staff to lengthen the school day to that, but this is the last chance for a lot of them. If they don't get these experiences now while in high school then they may miss out on the one thing that may have their gretest interests. So Ithink we ought to emphasize the basic studies such as social studies, science and math, and don't lose sight of extra experiences which may become a vocation, an occupation, or then a way to spend leisure time.

Q: Given the realities of today, what does the building principal do as far as trying to add certain courses?

A: Well first you have to go back to the school board, even go back to the state board of education to see what the requirements are for graduation. Then come down to the local school board to see how much money they're willing to spend on the curriculum. Then with those limitations the principal has all the legal rights he or she can muster to put in for whatever deemed necessary to put into the school to fit the community's needs, the students' needs, and also to fir the capabilities of the teachers. Because you can't have a program without someone to handle it. So, if you're going to have music program, of course you have to have someone to teach, etc. SO, say it goes all the way to the State Board of Education. How much leeway you have at the local school to do whatever... The principal can only go so far, as I understand it. But the local school board has to be willing to give the time difference to allow for flexibility in scheduling so the students won't be restricted to just the required subjects neede to graduate.

Q: Supposedly the administrator sets the tone in the building as far as the coldness, warmth, whatever. Do you agree with this?

A: I absolutely do. Uh, there's no doubt about it. The principal sets the tome for the school. Uh, I think that says it in itself. the principal is the leader in the school since he is the ultimate authority in the building. Uh, can pretty well, through his presence, can instill good feelings and bad feelings among the teachers and the staff, and the students in the school. Recently, the principal who succeeded me as principal of James Madison was named by one of the newspapers, admin- istrator of the year. And your could just see it in the school. I recently went back when they were having their gradua tion and you could just see it in the school. The students mingled around; the faculty mingles around. When the principal left the school the students were in tears, gave him presents and, uh, to do that you know that it was a good school. And you have to say that one person made the difference.

Q: If morale dipped in say your school, and you were aware of that situation, how would you consciously raise the feeling in the building?

A: Well part of that goes back to the inate personality of the principal. Some people can't be changed no matter what you try to do, and they don't exude good feelings. Sometimes it's difficult to do anything about it, to make the change in a person. I think the princi pal who is, who doesn't feel confident, doesn't feel he or she is really giving off good vibes, as some say. They ought to put themselves more in the background until they can get out and get into something else. Uh, let someone else take over,one of the assistants, or others, or put more responsibility on the student leaders. I think it would be a sad thing if the principal didn't recognize this. He ought to get out and let someone else in to boost the morale of the school.

Q: How did you deal with a staff member(s) who were unhappy?

A: In dealing with staff members who you say were not happy with the administration, were not happy with the way things were being run. How did I handle those? How would I handle those? Tried to do it on an individual basis as much as possible. I would call them on in and ask what's the problem and try to solve it. And it happened to me. the person that I mentioned awhile ago who won the (administrator of the year) award, came into my office one morning and said, "I think I'll transfer to another school." They were opening up Marshall at the time and one of my assistant principals was going to be principal of the school. So I said, "I'm sure you like this individual and you'll like the new school. But why? Is there any thing personal?" And he said, "Well, I just haven't had that much encouragement." I said, "You know, you're right. And I'm sorry. And I certainly wish you well." And that put me on to something. That made me wake up, that if this the way you... He struggled. He was a base- ball coach. He was just out of college and I put him in as head baseball coach. And he hadn't won too many games. And I felt that I should have tried to Scotch him up a bit, pat him on the back more often and say, "It's OK. Things aren't going too well, but I'm behind you. And I said, "This gives me a clue that maybe I should go out there and see if other people are feeling this way."So, uh, I would want to solve things on a person to per son basis as far as possible. If I felt that the overall morale of the staff was slipping, then I would want to talk to some of the leaders of the staff, and uh, inquire as to what the problem was and to see if their ideas. See about solving them, say in setting up socials, more participation on their part in finding, uh... And try to resolve whatever is causing the weakness. And try to resolve whatever it is that is causing the morale to slip. I think this will occur in every administra tor's career at one time or another. You have to always be on the lookout for how people are feeling, because sometimes the principal gets caught in a box. I remember one occasion... The assis tant principal for insturction came to me and wanted to institute a completely new program in the school. And I said,"You researched it well?" "Yes." "And you have people on the staff who can handle this program.?" It was to be advanced courses integrating social studies, English courses - those two to be integrated. And we got a person down from the Northeast as a consultant, called parents in to talk about it. Of course we worked with the students and advised the staff. told the staff as to what we were working on. But after a year of two, we noticed that an elite group had developed out of this program. there was jealousy among the staff, jealousy among the students. And, uh, we felt that we ought to incorporate the best ideas of the program throughout the English and social studies department, and phase out the very select group. Somehow it caused the morale to drop in the school. But you couldn't come right out and say everything that you knew about it because you'd be insulting some teachers. You'd be downgrading some students. And so it was a very delicate thing to handle. We had some students appearing before the PTA. We had some teachers appear ing at a PTA meeting, maybe for the first time ever, raising objectives to the doing away with the program per se. And, something like that becomes pretty tedious, and we can't be completely open to everyone. We get boxed in sometimes. We sat back and worked around the pro blems and did the best we could do. Somehow we lived through it. And in a couple of years all was forgotten and away we went.

Q: How much did you try to pull the teachers into the decision-making process? In the school, master schedule, implementation of curriculum and designing curriculum?

A: Well designing curriculum is a total process and, uh, to do it you have to know your community, of course. First, as I said, you go by the state board of education. Then your local school board. Then you've got to know your community. You've got to know the wishes of your students. What they want; what their selections would be based on their interests. And this is usually done by surveys, etc. You've got to know your staff. Who the skillful teachers are. And you talk to your staff members. Staff members have their own ideas about courses they're trying to teach. And this weighs very heavi ly on the decisions you make. Once you get all these facts together, then you begin the formalized process and get your master sche- dule together. Sometimes a principal has some difficulty, or... There aren't enough students for a class, or students can't get it because classes are overloaded. There are too many conflicts. Yes, everyone should be brought into the process and teachers especially. You got to know their capabili- ties, you've got to know their expertise. They've got their ideas. Because really, they're very experienced people. They have been working with students. They have their own particular interests that they'd like to try out. Another example - A teacher came to me at Madison and said, "We've got some students at the intermediate school who are going to be here next year. they're LD and they've got vast, real problems. And unless we plan for them... And so we called in some consultants to work with these people and the teachers themselves. So they came to the principal for approval for these ideas and to put it into reality. And so we did that. We had department chairs involved. One teacher who was involved... Her name was Stone. She's retired now. She became sub-school principal at Robinson. We had international week and we had some real dignitaries to come to speak to the students. the students themselves organized this program. I got the speakers. One of the dignitaries was coming down the hall with Mrs. Stone. And there was a black student, sort of a shucking and a jiving type, and he had his hat on. Now here's a case for you. Do you discipline the kid or what? The way she handles it - When he came just a shucking and a jiving down the hall and passed this very prominent individual, the teacher stopped the student and said, "This is the speaker of the day and I'd like you to meet. At that point he took off his (laughs) hat and said, "Yes, I'll be glad to meet you."They knew what type of students they were dealing with. And they really got together. They had a great program. So that's how you involve staff in the program.

Q: What would your advice be to someone who is entering administration?

A: My advice what?

Q: What would your advice be to someone who wishes to enter school administration, on the building level?

A: My advice first of all would be that they have a great deal of confidence. That they can become successful administrators. And then receive the proper training, such as you're doing. Because you've got to have the real desire and confidence. Not just that it looks good or offers more money. They should get as much training as they possibly can going into it. They should work on the job under super- vision for a while, in an assistant's role, aides job, whatever. And when they're really ready, then go into it. But be willing to be told you aren't cutting it; be willing to take criticism. Maybe you should go in to something else. That would be my advice.

Q: What were some of your greatest headaches you had as a principal?

A: I say the one headache that stands out in my mind, and probably stands out in most principal's minds is one of vandalism. I had new students throw paint on a bleachers before a football game. I guess it's one of the biggest headaches I've had. I always believed in leaving a building in as gook a shape or better shape than when I found it. I for one, I don't know how many feel this way, you don't like to see property destroyed for no reason. I know there's a reason, but not a reason I can really understand. How you establish morale in the student body not to vandalize is difficult to do. So that no one partici- pates in this kind of activity. Most of them turn out to be great people. If I could go into a school and know that I never have any problem with vandalism, then I could do one whale of a job. It's time you begrudge having to give because it's so senseless. You can cut it down to a large degree and I did to a large degree. As I said, I always left a building in better shape. I never allowed, for example, a broken fixture to go unrepaired. Replaced it right away, such as towel racks in the restrooms. I always told my custodians that I wanted the equipment kept in good shape. Wanted halls always clean; keep things as they were. And that's one way kept vandalism down. James Madison did fine until Luther Jackson was closed. When Luther Jackson was closed those students were scat- tered all over the county and became a real minoritY in the schools. Have some 25-30 students among 1800 2000 students. You know those students must have felt awkward. If could have kept outside elements away it would have been OK. But had some fights to develop. Had some graffiti appear on the walls, racial slurs. Finally had it straightened out by calling all the antag onists together and talked it out, and presented it to the student body. They put on a show for them and every body was feeling pretty good. That (integration inci dents) led to a lot of vandalism in the school because of the antagonism. You can put up with a certain number of pranks, that's common. It's sort of comical. but with destruction of property, uh, it's senseless. That's the biggest problem I ever had to face. You may be surprised that I say that because some of the instructors don't get a long and you have to resolve that. I lost several teachers before I got one program really under way; one of curriculum program. Once I really got it established the community would never let it go. It was great, but getting the program established, we ran into some difficulties. The teacher who came in to build the program was pretty much a dictator and demanded an awful lot of the students which they weren't willing to give at first. The parents supported their sons and daughters. Once it got under way and they/he realized what the students could do, and how much recognition it got- the community understood the teacher and demanded the highest quality. Sometimes it's best to stand back when you get into something like that.

Q: How difficult was the integration?

A: The integration - I must say, when it was forced inte gration, that is we had two. We had a test. That is we had a boy and his sister come to the school. And they were received with open arms. As I say, when the one (black) school was closed in Fairfax County and students were scattered, that created some tensions because the students had to give up a lot. They had their own athletic program, their extra-curricular activities, etc. Had to join another. It was quite trying. We tried to keep it on an even keel, but you always have a few sparks. And it did flash in several of the schools in Fairfax County. As I say the way we resolved it ---I had several black students give me a list of acutal people who had threatened them or caused them any pro blems. I asked them how they wanted to handle it. If they wanted to confront them, talk to them, or they wanted me to. We met in the library one afternoon. Black and white students sat around a table. Had a recorder to take notes and after one hour we had the group turn over and kept the same recorder. Then at the end we had the recorder read what the students felt necessary to resolve the difficulties. We took this to the student body and reported to them in the gym. After that they game out of the gym arm in arm. That was that, as far as I know. I left after another year or so because I had put in 20 years as a principal and decided to go on to personnel. I think they had a few more problems after.

Q: Did the problems mostly center around student interaction, or did it center around difficulty with the staff and parents?

A: The teachers were never a problem. The outside community did, oddly enough. A former student came to a dance and got into a fight with a black boy who did not attend the school. They left and rode around chasing each other in cars. They got out and started fighting. The white boy put the black boy in the hospital. There's where the friction started. Not among our own students in the school. Outsiders brought friction in. There were no problems with the teachers. The teachers accepted it, in fact. I talked with the staff. I said, "We're going to integrate and if anyone had difficulty with that you'd better speak now. We have to accommodate these students.

Q: When you're looking for and recruiting people for you administrative staff, are you looking for people who are similar to you in thought, ideas and approaches, or are you looking for a balance?

A: Oh, the first thing I'm looking for in administative assistants, I'm talking about assistant principals, are people who respect me, who can work with me. We have to get along. We have to be able to share ideas. But, I don't want yes people. I want people with their own ideas, have their own backgrounds and training. I'll stick by them when we get together in sessions and talk about what's best for the school. And I want, I want their opinions. I don't want them to say, "If you think that's the way it should be done then I'll do it." No way! If I can't have that then they're no good to me. But once I've had our discussion, when we leave that office and once I've made my decision there should be no question about it.

Q: In choosing teachers is it the same?

A: Of course personnel office does the hiring of teachers in Fairfax County, and a principal doesn't always have a say in what you do there. But in the selection of a teacher you want someone with background and training, with a level head who loves children and loves to to teach. And if they don't love children and if they don't to teach then they don't belong in a school.

Q: Then they're working style doesn't necessarily have to be the same?

A: Right, Right. As a matter of fact. I recall several teachers that I just didn't want to be around socially, but who were doing a real good job in the classroom. So I best bend over backwords not to interfere. I can think of one individual, for example. If you gave him the chance, I saw to it that he didn't have study hall the last period of the day because he might slip out of the building and go by the old elementary school and pick up his child and go home. So rather than say, "Hey, you're not going to do this", well I did too (laughs), I simply arranged his schedule so he could have the last period free. I didn't say, "I'm out to get you. I'll have you fired." (laughs heartily) And uh, because that teacher was well-liked by the students in the classroom and was doing a good job in the classroom, who am I to say, "Well that person shouldn't be teaching our kids."? I just didn't particularly like him.

Q: What were your greatest joys?

A: My greatest joys was in the association with the teachers, with custodial staff and cafeteria workers, and the community. I thoroughly enjoyed my association with the students. It boosted my morale to work with the students, staff and community. I'll give you and example, and this may strike you as sort of strange. And this happened later in my career. I don't know why I didn't think of it earlier. I had the assistant principal of discipline to give me the names of the students who gave him the most trouble. And I got 15 names. I called the students to my office. I asked them, "How would you like to come to my office for one hour each week and just talk? Anything you want to talk about. You can criticize anyone, say anything you want to and nobody will say a thing about it after you're through." So they agreed. So I told the staff about it. "I'm taking them out. And this is what I'm doing." And I sent notes home to the parents explaining it. I got those kids in there and allowed them to talk. And they would sit there and fanta size. I never heard them criticize anyone. I said they could say anything and nothing would be said. We did that and when we came to the last session we experienced a death in the group. In other words, they knew it was the last session and they were oh so sad. When they'd see me in the halls after that they'd yell, "Hey, Mr. Bonner!" As if to say to the other students, "Wait a minute. I'm on speaking terms with the princi pal." You know, not one of those kids ever had discipline problems again. That was just a nice example of what those kids could be. It was just a nice thing.

Q: It's a nice approach.

A: And I don't know why I never thought of it before?

Q: Or why more people don't think of it. Did you miss the kids after you left Madison and went to personnel? Was it a tough decision to leave?

A: Oh yes. Certainly anyone who's been in teaching would miss the situation. This is why a lot of us go into education. And I've treasured those associations. I still see some of those people. I get invited to re unions and various functions. Dr. Biggley (former student), Harvard Medical School, was the master of ceremonies at the class reunion. It was the first class reunion I attended because I didn't want to set a precedent and not be able to attend some of the others. But it was the first class to graduate from Madison, and so my wife and I attended. And Dr. Biggley said, "I understand that this is the first class reunion you've attended. How come you picked on us?" (Mr. Bonner laughed wholeheartedly.) But I still have those association and it's great. At the same time you don't want to get back into it be- cause you're not the same person you were. You know your limitations. You don't want to hang on. I've known people to hang on and they should not have. This is tragic, not knowing when to let go.

Q: Would you have made any changes over the years as far as the things you've done? Not necessarily the positions you chose, but the way you did things?

A: If I could do it again? I've been a very, very for tunate person. In fact, my children said it at a recent birthday. One said, "I was talking to a friend and said, 'My father is very unusual. He set goals and achieved those goals.'" And I thought about that. I went in to become a teacher and did that. I wanted to eventually become an administrator, to be a high school principal at some time. I also had a double major in secondary administration and elementary administration. And I was an elementary administrator. And when I went back for my doctorate ... I wanted to do that in elementary education, but ended up in secondary education. But, uh, I don't know if I'd change anything. I think I've been a most fortunate individual. I know I'd do some things differently. I may have messed them up worse than they were before. For example, in that racial situation... I tried to carry on as business as usual. That was wrong. Absolutely wrong. You can't take a situation like that and say it's not different. We should have made some exceptions for those minority students and see to it that they had an easier time of fitting in. Even if I had to push; shove a little aside in order to fill in the dis crimination gaps. Discrimination in this case, I think I would have been justified. That's one thing I would have changed.

Q: That's all the questions I have. Do you think there are some questions that I missed that I might have asked you?

A: I think you've covered the waterfront pretty well. I commend you. I really do.

Q: Thank you.

| Back to "B" Interviews | Index of Interviews | Protocol | Home |