Interview with Dwite Barnett


We are here at Dwite Barnett's home in Wiggins, Colorado, and Dwite was a principal who retired one year ago here at Wiggins, and we are going to visit a little bit here with Dwite about his district and the things he did as a principal.

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Q: In order to gain a little background information about yourself, Dwite, could you tell me a little bit about the districts you were involved with and in what capacities.

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

A: I taught one-room country schools for five years. I taught junior high for one year, nine years of vocational agriculture. Of these nine years, I was head teacher and principal in name only, I guess you'd say, the last couple years. Now I've been the high school principal of the Junior-senior high school here at Wiggins for 21 years.

Q: Could you talk a little about the differences between the districts. Did they all have the same goals in mind?

A: Basically I'd say they all had the same goals. They were all working for the good of the students.

Q: As far as the educational values of the schools went, did they place a high value on the education of the students or were there other things that seemed to take precedence?

A: Well, for the most part, the schools were run for the education of the students. However, as time progressed, some individuals were more interested in the athletic side of the process than the educational process.

Q: Is that something you see more in the rural schools you think than the urban schools or is that Just a plight of different communities?

A: No, I would say this was pretty much the status quo for the schools, especially the schools I worked in. In the small schools everybody is involved in sports and everybody is more interested in sports than academic endeavors.

Q: What would you say is the ideal size for a school, and why would you pick that?

A: Well, when I was in the very small school (75 to 80 kids in high school), I felt that around 200 would be the ideal size. Actually, there is no real ideal size. This school system I was in was running about 112 to 185 students. When we had 185 students, we didn't have quite enough for 2 sections of English and yet we had to have two sections because we run 35 to 40 kids in a class--maybe 50. Then, I re-adjusted my desires for a little bit higher than that, but you are always going to be in the awkward place. When we shrank down to the area where we had 112 to 114 students, we were still in the awkward position; we were too many for one classroom and not big enough for two. Economically we would have been a little better off with more students. However, the smaller the class size, to a point I would say, (8 to 10 would be the smallest), the more individual attention you can give to students.

Q: Would you consider yourself a business manager or an instructional leader?

A: Basically in the small school, the principal becomes a man of many hats. Yes, I would say I was more of a manager than an educational leader. In my case I was the athletic director as well as the principal. I was counselor part time. I had no help whatsoever with anything disciplinary, custodial, etc. All those were managerial things that I had to take care of myself and this detracted from the time I was available for the educational supervision and leadership.

Q: Did you feel as a principal that your teachers were open to change for the most part and searching for new ideas and ways to get their points across?

A: I would say basically that the teachers in my system had been there long enough that they were happy with the situation as it was. They tended to resist too much change. I have some real ideas that I would like to see in teacher tenure, etc., in this very thing that I could change my history teacher for Weldona's history teacher for maybe a quarter or a semester or something like that. I would do this where I detected teacher burnout or stagnation so that they didn't interrupt their tenures as far as that is concerned but give them new insights because new grounds, new administrators, new faces might give them a fresh start. Then when they came back, they would feel better about the profession.

Q: Do you think teacher burnout is one of the major problems then today?

A: Yes, I think it is definitely a problem in schools nowadays.

Q: Why do you think teachers got burned out in your district?

A: Too many tasks was one reason. Most of our teachers were teaching six classes. We did not have study halls. We did go to a six-period day which gave them only 5 classes for preparation. This gave us a little narrower scope, however, so we went back to the seven-period day and then most teachers were teaching 6 classes.

Q: Yes, that can be a little tough. For the sake of this interview, when we say teaching 6 periods, we mean they might teach American Government, Psychology, Sociology and American History. Seldom do they have back-to-back American History.

A: That's correct. In our system we had very few classes offered more than once on any one given day.

Q: Were you ever involved in the release of a tenured teacher or did your system ever release a tenured teacher that you can remember?

A: Yes, we released a tenured teacher. Actually it was an elementary principal, but it was so early in my starting career that I don't remember too much about the situation. The man was 66 years old when he was retired. He accepted his retirement and everything and then went to court with the idea that he hadn't been given proper notification early enough, etc. It was tied up in court for a couple of years, but he did lose. That was district policy that you were to retire at age 65, and he had exceeded that by one year.

Q: Every school probably has had teachers in the district that should have been terminated or should have sought a different line of work. Could you without using any names talk about one of those teachers and tell us what happened.

A: Basically, the teacher I have in mind was one that will do just what needs to be done. He was very rote in everything that he did and showed no spontaneity whatever. The man would probably be better off if he would go into another field, but you couldn't talk him into that. He liked his summer vacations. With regard to evaluation procedures, he was willing to accept your suggestions and would try them for very short-term effectiveness. Then he always went back to the same thing.

Q: Did you evaluate teachers yourself?

A: Yes, I did all the evaluations at the junior-senior high level.

Q: How often did you try to evaluate teachers?

A: We started out years ago evaluating all teachers 4 times a year. The policy was changed to evaluating tenured teachers once a year and non-tenured teachers were evaluated twice a year. If there was a problem, they were given more time. We had a regular time sheet that we filled in with the date of the evaluation, the amount of time we spent in the classroom, and our suggestions. We went over this in our follow-up conference with the teacher and that became a part of the teacher's file. They had a copy and we had a copy for the files.

Q: Were these evaluations used in the firing process to release non-tenured teachers?

A: Well, truthfully I would say these evaluations had very little to do with firing unless it was just an open and shut case where the guy flatly refused to do anything you asked him to do. There were several instances where teachers were released in spite of my recommendation to hire them which bothered me and vice versa. Teachers were retained over my recommendation also.

Q: Could we talk a little bit about how that works in your district. You have a 5-member school board and a superintendent. Then you have one principal for the junior senior high and one principle for K-6. Would you say that your community is very active in making decisions for your school?

A: Well, I don't know how I would answer that. Regarding the term "very", they were active. We had lots of advisory councils operating -- both for vocational education and Title I. We had a principal's advisory committee and a school improvement committee. Actually we had committees for committees.

Q: Did you fill that the committee was overused?

A: No, I don't think so. We did make an honest effort to at least give the committees' recommendations consideration. We always gave them a rationale for why we did or did not accept their recommendations. I thought this gave the community better input into the situation and made them feel a part of the situation.

Q: As far as the firing process goes, did you do most of the hiring and interviewing?

A: No. I interviewed every teacher. I did some of the selection of the top 8 to 10 candidates. The superintendent and I worked hand in hand in recommending the ones we felt should be recommended for contract. The board, of course, approved all the contracts.

Q: How did you go about recruiting people to the district?

A: Generally, we were just using the various college placement centers.

Q: Did you ever go through those lean years where it was very tough to recruit people to the rural districts of Colorado?

A: Yes, we sure did. I hired a math teacher on Sunday night about 8:30 and at 8:30 the next morning he reported for the first teacher's meeting. That is how close I've come in hiring teachers.

Q: What happened in that situation? Did someone back out of a contract at the last minute?

A: No. We Just didn't have any applications. I went through the same thing in reverse when I had 50 to 75 social studies teachers apply for a job when I advertised that I wanted a social studies teacher capable of coaching wrestling. I had women apply and all sorts of applications. I also went through the time when I had English teachers crass enough write me a half sheet of paper in ink or pencil with all sorts of cross-outs and misspelled words. They called this an application.

Q: How did you go about inducting your first-year teachers to the district?

A: We always scheduled 4 to 5 days prior to school starting. New teachers were scheduled for an additional half where I sat with them in a meeting going over a packet of materials. These materials included teacher hand books, etc. I talked to them about how to prepare the first lessons, how to complete lesson plan books, when these were due and tried to indoctrinate them in everything they needed to know. Also, I kept telling them not to worry because I'm here to help you, not to jump down your throat because you forgot something. I tried to be very, very careful with my first-year teachers and always tried to make it plain that my office door was always open. For the most part, if they got into a jam during the day and needed my help, I would make time to talk to them. I counseled first-year teachers for many hours. Also, I did this with student teachers for I dearly loved to have student teachers in the building. I think this is an excellent way to light a fire under some of your teachers and give them some new ideas. To me, the use of student teachers in the building is an excellent tool for both the students, teachers, and myself.

Q: Did you ever hire a teacher that interviewed very well but was not a good teacher after being hired?

A: Yes. I don't know how it happens, but we had a teacher that the superintendent interviewed and liked. He called him back and I interviewed him. We then interviewed him a third time and felt he was the person we needed. For a while everything went very smoothly, but the longer he was around, the more strange things became. We even went so far as to give him a second-year recommendation and made suggestions for improvement. He was the kind of person who would come into the building at 2 and 3 o'clock in the morning. I like ambitious people but that was ridiculous. By the way, the man was without a job for a full year after being released here. He never could understand what we were trying to say to him.

Q: What leadership techniques are most effective in motivating teachers?

A: Personally, I feel that a teacher that has to be motivated should be rotated to someplace else. Sure, their chins might get down; but if you have to jack them up every day with the "glad hand" and so forth, you have an uphill battle. I always told them that I had my days that I went around with a little black cloud hanging over my head. Generally, when I was the busiest was when they would have a question they felt was of the utmost importance. It just seems to me that you have to keep their morale up and make them feel they are worthy of what they are doing. You do need to give them some ideas that will help them get going again but if you have to motivate them every day, then they are in the wrong business.

Q: What kind of staff development did you schedule?

A: I tried to encourage them to go to other classrooms within the system. I also encouraged them to take a day off to go visit other schools to see how things were done there. Generally the type of motivational assemblies that I had were for the whole group. Some of them were successful and some weren't.

Q: What advice could you give someone aspiring to be an administrator?

A: As a new administrator, I'd hope that you have better preparation for evaluation procedures than I had. I went through classes where nobody knew what the instructor wanted. I think the instructors should have been on the same wave length and they weren't. When I took statistics and tests and measurements, the instructors would say "They don't know what they are doing. Do it my way." They should have had common goals and instead it was a point of confusion. I would hope that today you are getting a little better preparation. My advice to the first-year principal would be to number one: Get a good feel for what is going on in the system. Don't come in thinking that you are going to change the whole structure right away. You are going to meet resistance -- both active and passive. You need to kind of get a feeling of what is going on and familiarize yourself with your people. You need to involve your people so that they feel they have something to do with the decision making rather than you as a young upstart coming in and telling a 65-year old teacher that everything is wrong about the system. You have to kind of feel your way and yet not Just sit back and let them run the show. A lot of times it takes a sell job on your part.

Q: Do you think as a principal you had more teacher problems or student problems?

A: I would say it was a toss up.

Q: Okay. Let's change gears a little. Would you please respond with a comment or two to the following somewhat controversial subjects. The first one is tenure.

A: Tenure is necessary. I can see the purpose for it, but I think it is too rigid. Laws are too sticky on dismissing a tenured teacher. Most districts and most principals don't want to get involved in law suits that drag on for years and years. I think they should instigate something in tenure that would allow a re-evaluation and re-affirmation of tenure every so often. I think this would tend to decrease teacher militancy. This would keep them striving to be cooperative and progressive in their educational processes. As I mentioned before in this interview, in a community like ours you have schools 15 miles apart. There are several ways we could send teachers on a trade system for a period of time that would not destruct their home nor tenure and yet would give the teacher a new perspective.

Q: What are your feelings on merit pay?

A: Like everybody else, I don't know how you would implement it; but it certainly seems unfair to me as a long-time school man to see Miss Jones who is beating her head out to teach 5 and 6 classes and volunteering to do everything she can to keep the system going getting paid the same increases that Joe does who says, "Oh, I'm too tired to help you tonight." I think merit pay has the definite plus for it if they could just do it without getting the apple polishing and the back biting, etc. that you would get when one teacher gets it and one doesn't.

Q: How about career ladders?

A: I'm not very familiar with career ladders.

Q: What are your feelings on teacher unions?

A: I never had anything to do with unions and I'm very happy that I didn't. I feel that teacher unions only do just exactly what I said in the merit pay. They make everyone get the same salary and it doesn't make any difference what kind of job the teacher does. It takes an act of Congress to get a poor teacher changed.

Q: How about Bennett's A NATION AT RISK?

A: I think this stirred up a lot of water but I don't know that we are as bad off as he feels we are. All the schools I know anything about didn't exhibit as many problems as he related. Maybe that is true in the ghetto school, etc.

Q: What was the district policy on personnel compensation?

A: Extra duties like pep club and class plays were reimbursed. We did pay for gate work at ball-games. There were coaching stipends. These were pretty much token in nature -- not too substantial. For someone putting in lots of extra hours, it amounts to $1.90 per hour or less and not much incentive. Maybe you should get paid so much for the hours you put in.

Q: What were your biggest concerns as an administrator?

A: My biggest concern was that students weren't taking school seriously. It was too much work to get in there and put something out. Of course, this is also a place where I have some biases in THE NATION AT RISK. In order not to make drop outs, we are supposed to amuse them. We have to teach them something and I still haven't figured out how you can set up a tough schedule where you have to pass without causing dropouts. If you don't cause dropouts, you are only adding to the illiteracy they keep talking about by keeping everyone in school. By doing this I felt we only subtracted from what we could teach the good students who wanted to learn. I think even way down in the low average students, if they saw John was not doing anything and finally dropped out of school, they began to put a little more work into it if they were looking for a high school diploma.

Q: Did you see those concerns change over the years?

A: Kids changed and teachers changed. There is always change but not that much. They tell me that kids nowadays are worse than they were. I'm absent-minded but not absent-minded enough that I can't remember that when I was a kid we had the same thing -- those who worked and those who slid by and those who did nothing. We still have them but the only thing is by keeping everybody in school by giving them a Title I program or giving them a special education program (which I am not opposed to having), we just keep slowing down. They think that someone else will help them instead of helping themselves. I felt some dropout was almost necessary to keep the other kids going.

Q: If I had walked down the hall at your school, what would I have seen that would have indicated how effective your school was?

A: That's a tough one to answer as far as I'm concerned. Very few of my teachers closed their doors. I felt that I had as good a feeling about what was going on in my building by walking down the hall as anything. In the classrooms some might be talking, others might be all quiet. Some might be in different groupings and some might be in straight rows. It was an attitude conducive to learning as far as I was concerned. Students felt some freedom to talk to their teachers and think through their problems rather than swallowing what was given and regurgitating it on the test.

Q: Did you have special way of communicating with parents or any unique ideas along this line?

A: Actually, I'm a plain old country boy, Mike. I'm dealing with country people and I always tried to visit with them. I didn't ever feel that I was any better than the person I was talking to, and I didn't try to dazzle them with my knowledge. I tried to work with them on a one-to-one level. I think since I was a principal in a small country school for 21 years, I must have had good communication skills that were acceptable to the community.

Q: It seems that administrators have so many demands on their time. How did you prioritize your day so that you could get the most out of it?

A: Basically, the one thing I have done is to build a principal's educational plan for the year during the summer. I included a calendar listing all the known events coming up the next year, and a copy of this was given to the teachers at the opening workshops in the fall. Teachers then knew when I was to be gone from the building in the total program. I used this very rigidly trying to keep things on schedule. Sure, the evaluation schedule was one place you could put them off and put them off. Ours was due December 1 and April 1. If you didn't watch what you were doing, November 15 you were furiously trying to get to teachers for evaluation procedures, which is totally incorrect. I had a goal set up in my educational plan that I would visit so many teachers per week. I tried to keep this right along side my calendar. Sure, the immediate discipline problems became top priority if it was a serious case of student fighting. My technique on discipline was to let a kid sit and stew in his own juice for an hour or two until I got to him. I tried to stay pretty close to what had to be done at any given time so that I could be free the rest of the time to do what I was supposed to. When you are managing a building and athletics also you run into problems. Referees call and they can't come and you have to reschedule that. Those situations throw you into hectic situations in a hurry. Priority -- I think a person has to have a plan and has to try to operate with a plan. Also, you can't get so involved with the plan that you have no time to do what's necessary. There is nothing that would turn me off sooner than being a distraught teacher who needed a principal's immediate decision and have them say to me, "I can't help you because I'm supposed to be researching this particular project or I'm supposed to be planning something else." As a teacher, I would feel my thing had top priority and I wouldn't have to have any pictures drawn to tell the principal that was top priority.

Q: How did you go about disciplining your teachers if you had a problem arise and you thought the teacher was wrong?

A: I never, never, never would call a teacher down in front of the students. This was part of public relations work. I don't care what they might have been doing. If it was a physically unsafe thing that the kids were involved in, I would approach it from the students' standpoint. "Please stop that." Then when I needed to correct a teacher, I probably put a note in their box saying to see me during their prep period or asking to see them after school or something like that. I didn't even make any reference to the teacher in front of the students that I wanted to see them after school because then the kids would have said, "Oh boy, ol' Joe is going to get a chew job tonight." I always tried to have my teachers come to my office and we closed the door and discussed thoroughly what we wanted to discuss. I never, never corrected the teacher in front of the students.

Q: In that disciplining process, did you create a file?

A: It depended on the teacher and depended upon what they did. If it was just that they forgot lunch duty or something like that then we forgot about it. If anything was serious like I wanted a teacher to correct a procedure that I thought was definitely part of the evaluation procedures, I would make a written request and it would be put in his evaluation file. It was not used as a whip for him to improve but just that this is the recommendation made at this time. A month later the recommendation was made again and a month later the recommendation was made again. It was then used as an indication that the teacher did not comply or make an effort to change. If it was something that was a gray area that was to be possible litigation that would have to be taken to court for dismissal such as a tenure teacher, it was written down and signed by him whether he liked it or not. If he wouldn't sign it, I would write on the bottom of the letter that the teacher was interviewed at a certain time and refused to sign the form, make a copy of it and give it to him and then put it in his permanent file. I even kept this kind of thing for discipline on students. If I was involved in having to dismiss students from school for one reason or another, I always kept a written record of the exchange, what I did to them, what I asked them to do, what they refused to do or what they agreed to do and almost always gave students in a discipline situation a choice.

Q: What are your feelings about principal's responsibilities for identifying and developing future school administrators?

A: I think we have a responsibility to help our educational process eliminate some of the "hot dogs." The old adage, "He who can't teach administrates," I think is one of the worst millstones that you could hang around a person's neck. That very definitely is often the case. They couldn't get along in the classroom so they went back to school and got more education. They got to be administrators and didn't get along there. So, they went back to school to get their doctorate degree and became a college professor.

Q: If you were able to magically waive a wand and change 5 aspects of education in the United States, what would you change?

A: Number one I would do something about tenure. Number two I would definitely do something about educational measurement. As it is now, we cannot give them a general diploma or an accelerated diploma or a special education diploma. If they meet the minimum standards, they all get the same paycheck so to speak. It's the same thing we were talking about with equal salary versus merit pay. There is something about the nation's laws that bother me about disciplining students. Anything is fair game as far as the students are concerned. They can do or not do about anything they want to. The teacher can't insult them or anything like that, which I agree with. However, the kid has the upper hand. I'm trying to say the teacher's hands are tied too much as far as what they or the administrator can do in disciplining the kids. I think we have to change the general attitude of the public as to the values of education. Too many of our parents think that "laying backing," so to speak, is the proper way for a teenager to act. I think we need to somehow motivate the public to the notion that school has dignity and purpose and the kids are rewarded for it. Actually, the kid who works hard in school and comes out with a good education -- sure he is going to go farther than the other guy. if he goes out on the job, he doesn't get one farthing more than the one who messed around. There should be some way that you could tie incentive pay to their grades maybe. I don't know if that would help, but we need something to motivate the students to make the best use of their time. Of course the classic statement is, "I'd like to see people paid better so that they attract the best people instead of the people who want to teach because they have three months off in the summer."

Q: I have a couple more questions here. Did you have a model person that you patterned yourself after?

A: No.

Q: Is there anything else that you think might be interesting for this interview that I might have forgotten to ask that you would like to add?

A: No, I can't think of anything. I get inspired as the thoughts come to me, but you have to lead me down the path.

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