Interview with Larry Byers


This is June 10, 1999. I'm speaking with Dr. Larry Byers (phonetic), at a local administrative center for Fairfax County Public Schools on his experience as a middle and high school principal.


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Q: Dr. Byers, would you discuss your college education and preparation for entering the field of teaching, and how many years did you serve as a teacher and/or principal?

A: My preparation was a bachelor's degree in chemistry with a minor in mathematics. And I obtained the education courses necessary to credential me as a teacher and I taught my first year right in the town where I'd gone to school, (inaudible) West Virginia, taught mathematics in junior high school, which at that point was grade seven, eight, and nine, so I taught mostly ninth grade. Then my wife and I came to Fairfax County and I taught middle school mathematics. Of course, because of the preparation I'd had, I was endorsed. Taught two years in middle school mathematics, and at that time was pursuing a degree in business administration, a master's degree in business administration and interviewed for a position in a central office in school finance. And was selected for that position, and became a budget analyst, worked in the budget office for a number of years, and I've had a number of -- I don't know how much you want me to go into my career in general. I don't want to go into all of it, but I mean, I've worked in finance, I worked in personnel, I worked in facilities. My teaching, total teaching years are three years total. Assistant principal years three and a half. Total principal years, 13, 6 at the high school level -- I mean, 7 at the high school level and 6 at the middle school level in 4 different schools.

Q: Would you talk about your circumstances surrounding your entry into the principalship?

A: Actually, once I got on to the administrative side, which was pretty early in my career, this is -- we're talking I was -- after my third year of teaching, I guess I was 25, I got this job in the central office. I knew then that I really wanted to stay on the administrative side. I did, at that point, having received a masters degree in business administration, it appeared that I was going to go in that direction totally, in finance. I didn't want to do that, because my goal early on in my career was to be a division superintendent of schools. And so when the opportunity came to be an assistant principal in a high school in 1973, I took that opportunity. It was a brand new school, I helped open it with the principal, and I was a subschool principal. It was really good training for the principalship. So I think at that point, when I became an assistant principal, I knew then. I had a principal that delegated a lot and I enjoyed the autonomy that I could have in handling the kids and the teachers and the parents and everything. I really enjoyed that. I felt like I was going to have an impact. So at that point, I guess, is when I really wanted to be a principal.

Q: What motivated you to enter the principalship? How did your motives change over the years?

A: Well, motivation, as I said, early on in my career, I made a commitment to wanting to be a division superintendent. With the finance experience, back at that time, we were doing some really pretty innovative things for late sixties/early seventies school-by-school budgeting. We were talking about educational accountability, I was involved in a lot of that kind of thing. I think we were, you know, pretty much on the cutting edge of things, so at that point, again, the administrative career is really what I wanted to do. And you want me to focus on what, now? The -- help me. Help me with the --

Q: Your motives for entering the principalship.

A: Motives, yes, motives. Motives were I like the idea of being in charge. I liked the idea of working with people. I've always enjoyed people. I've always tried to have what I think is a sense of fairness in handling situations. In my subschool training at Chantilly High School was outstanding, because I had so much autonomy that I was making, you know, all the decisions for my subschool, and my subschool was, you know, almost 700 students and I had 40 teachers that I was evaluating, and handling all those parents, and doing parent coffees, and handling the master schedule, I was -- we didn't have a guidance director, so I was my own guidance director as well. So I saw what it was like to run that small operation, and I thought, "Well, I can do, you know, I can do this job. In fact, I want to be in charge. And it's going to fit right in with my overall career goal, which is to be a superintendent." So the idea of being in charge, the idea of fitting into my goal, and a more practical matter, you know, my background was such that I didn't come from very much. I wanted to be successful, I wanted to be rewarded financially for what I achieved. And the principalship was a promotion. So it was going to be more money which would allow me to, you know, achieve what I wanted to achieve with my life and family, and my children, and so forth. So also money was a motivation.

Q: Which experiences or events in your professional life influenced your management philosophy?

A: Oh, boy. Golly, I -- we don't have time to name them all.

Q: How about two or three major ones.

A: Yes. Well, it's difficult for me to narrow down. I -- one for sure, early on, when S. John Davis was the superintendent of schools and I was in the finance, and then from finance into planning, we embarked on a educational accountability system which, by the way, we're still talking about in Fairfax County. But at that point, with that kind of experience, I -- it became clear to me that I believed -- some of it was based on my background in training and business administration. I felt that we, as educators, were not accountable enough. Now, it didn't mean that we could measure everything we did, but it didn't seem to me like we were measuring enough. That, you know, if it felt good, then it was good. Well, that, in fact, is not enough. And of course, we're seeing that now, with the demand for public schools to be more accountable to the public. So I think that the training I had in my masters program was really crucial, and then that experience in beginning the first real accountability system in Fairfax led me to have a pretty strong feeling about accountability. And so we're talking about management. We're talking about accountability, talking about accountability for performance of students, we're talking about accountability for performance of adults in your school, we're talking about how well you do your job, how well I do my job. And of course, I've been a believer all along that you model your behavior, so I tried to model my behavior such that I was the hardest working guy in the school and everybody else, then, would have to meet my expectations, because they couldn't say, "Well, he wants us to work hard, but he's not willing to work hard." So that was a big one, the whole masters program, and the accountability movement, so really, I guess that's two, the accountability system that we were working on in Fairfax at the time. Then I think it would be a summation of all the experiences I've had dealing with people. And I'm talking about not just teachers, I'm talking about custodians, I'm talking about secretaries, I'm talking about everybody associated with the operation of the public schools. I think the sum total of all those experiences as I was doing that, as a subschool principal, and whatever, I found that you really had to motivate people. And the way you motivate people was to pat them on the back, and tell them they did a good job when they did a good job, but not tell them they did a good job if they didn't. And if they were not doing what they were supposed to be doing, to confront them and set higher expectations. So what I'm arriving at, and it's a little bit of a theory, although it would be, I assume, termed a loose theory, of situational leadership, where you work with different groups of people differently, according to Hershey (phonetic) and Blanchard (phonetic), to their maturity and what their goals are, and all of that. So I think all that, sum of all working with all the different kinds of people, I think taught me that you handle situations differently, and you handle people differently. And also, I think, I've always had in the back of my mind that management and leadership, are somewhat different, number one. That in each, management can be learned, leadership, I think, is more of an art than it is a science. And I think it involves traits of character, trustworthiness, your -- I know I'm rambling a little bit, but what really what I'm coming to is that I have a sense of values that I believe if you had those values, and you model those values, then people will tend to want to work with you. And I felt like that I was pretty good at that, that I was always fair with people, I was always honest, no one would ever catch me in a lie, I told the truth. Sometimes it was -- the truth wasn't always pleasant, but it was the truth as I saw it, and I would say that to people. So people -- I was -- I guess people would say I was pretty predictable. All that, thought, arrives -- circles around the whole idea of values and how important values are in leadership and administration. And if you don't model those values, expect those values, talk about those values to your faculty, the students, to the different groups of people that report to you as a principal, then you're not going to be successful. And that also then builds into the situational leadership. That's probably enough. I mean, I could talk about this for a long time, as you probably already know.

Q: What kinds of things do teachers expect their principals to be able to do? And then describe your views on what it takes to be an effective principal, specifically describing the personal and professional characteristics of a good principal.

A: Okay, let's take them a step at a time. What's the -- help me --

Q: What kinds of things do teachers expect principals to be able to do?

A: Well, I think that's changing. I think -- although I think some things are still the same, I think that teachers, by and large, want to have more involvement in the decision-making process than they used to. And that, I think, is good. But I also think that teachers expect principals to make the decisions that they're paid to make. And those decisions are ones that often times a faculty would never reach consensus on, but yet are in the best interest of the whole school. And you make those decisions, and you explain why you make them, and solid, professional people will accept it. Even if they don't agree with it, they will accept it if you've been honest and up front and straightforward with them about why you made the decision you made. So they expect a decision-maker. They expect somebody that's going to support them if they're right. Now, some teachers expect you to support them if they're wrong. Well, you and I both know that you can't support a teacher when they're wrong. But there's a way to handle that, to have a teacher grow professionally without embarrassing them in front of a parent, or a child, or whatever, and I think you understand what I'm talking about. You and I have talked about this before. So I might, in a situation where a teacher has handled something and handled it incorrectly, I might show -- I certainly wouldn't show the teacher is making a major mistake, unless the teacher was willing to admit that they made the mistake. And in private, I might encourage the teacher to do that, because again, that's part of being truthful and honest, in terms of your behavior, because we all make mistakes. But I would -- but teachers want your support when they're doing something and they've made a decision that they believe is right, and it's consistent with the school policy, they don't want a principal that's going to vacillate and cave in, because somebody's pressured them. To say, "Well, you know, you need to be a little more flexible in this area." Some decisions are small ones, and you can be flexible, but the big decisions, you better be pretty consistent, and you better be able to read -- that faculty can read pretty much and know pretty much what the principal's going to be doing. As I said to the faculty down at your school when I came there, "Nobody likes surprises." That's part of my philosophy is not to surprise people. I'm fairly predictable, and by and large, I think as a manager and as a leader, that's good. Teachers expect in a principal someone who's going to lead them with a vision for what the school should be trying to accomplish. That's part of leadership. They want the vision. They want sometimes to participate in developing it, but they want someone to be able to pull all of it together and articulate it, and set the direction and lead the faculty in the right direction. So they expect that kind of thing. That's probably enough for that, but what's the next part?

Q: Describe some characteristics, personal and professional, that make a good principal?

A: Okay, I've certainly mentioned some already. I think probably the number one thing is honesty and trust. A faculty has got to be able to trust their principal, know that their principal is going to be honest with them, is not going to say one thing to one person and go out the door and say something diametrically opposed to another person. Faculty members, people in general, don't like that. So that would certainly be one thing. Help me again. What else? What --

Q: Characteristics.

A: Characteristics, yes.

Q: Personal and professional, of a good principle.

A: Yes, yes, yes. You know, the whole business of whole work, and I think humor. I always tried -- early on in my career it was a little difficult, because I was pretty intense and pretty focused. The longer I got in my career, the more I realized that we needed to have fun with what we were doing, that we needed to make fun of ourselves sometimes. So humor was certainly something that helped. The whole building of camaraderie through teamwork, working together. As I used to say to the faculty members, I said, "You know, education, teaching, administration, counseling, working in the cafeteria, cleaning the school after the kids leave, all those jobs are extremely, extremely demanding. People put high standards on educators. Certainly we need to work as a team. If we are working at cross-purposes, we are making our jobs doubly difficult. And that just doesn't make sense. So I really, really emphasized teamwork and expected it. Expected it in departments. If there were problems among team members, we would do our best to resolve those problems, face up to them, get them out on the table, you know, behind closed doors or whatever, between two faculty members or whatever, but we would get those problems resolved. Because we needed to have teamwork, because the job is difficult. And we can't be working at cross-purposes. I think another thing that -- I've certainly alluded to this -- is communication. You have to be able to communicate honestly, consistently, frequently about important things. I've seen some in my last job as a director of secondary education, I got a chance to work with a lot of different principals. I've seen some principals and assistant principals communicate about things that aren't important. I'm talking about communicating about the things that are, and doing it regularly, again, so everybody knows what's going on, so we're on the same page, and so forth. And the whole issue of values. I think I can't emphasize enough my belief that values are what makes a person a leader. And if you're going to be a principal, you need to be a leader and you need to have a good, solid value system that you embrace every day in every part of your life. What was the other? There was one more, right?

Q: That was it.

A: That it?

Q: Okay.

A: Okay. All right.

Q: If you're advising a person who is considering an administrative job, what would that advice be?

A: Oh boy, I've done that a lot. First of all, I think they would need to be able to judge whether or not they wanted to be in a leadership position. Did they want to have responsibility over others? Some people don't want that, some people do. If you don't want to have that kind of responsibility, you're making a mistake to go into administration. You also have to want to obviously, work hard. You obviously have to have, in my mind, to be a real successful administrator, a positive attitude about things, and not look at a cup half empty, but look at it as half full. And try to look at things in terms of positive, constructive decision making. So you have to be somebody that's positive, but recognize that there's going to be a lot of negatives, that there are going to be a lot of things that are going to happen of which some you have control, and some you don't have control over. And you have to be able, be willing to live with that and take the pressure associated with that. Because in the principalship and assistant principalship, as you well know, there are lots of pressures, there are people picking at you from all directions. I know there have been studies about how much time a principal -- how many different people a principal interacts with on a daily basis, and how much time they spend in each of those interactions. You have to be willing and want to do that kind of thing. If you want to sit behind a desk and be pensive and thoughtful about everything you do, you're not cut out to be a school-based administrator, because that's just not the nature of the job. You walk out in the hall, you're going to have something you're going to have to deal with. It happens all the time. Those are the kinds of things I would talk to prospective administrators about. And would always be real candid with them, because just as we've seen -- you and I have both seen teachers that didn't belong in teaching -- we've seen administrators that didn't belong in administration. I've had to deal with a few over the years. Fortunately or unfortunately, a couple of different deputy superintendents and superintendents have assigned me assistant principals that really were not good assistant principals. And at least in one case, I found that person really didn't want to be an assistant principal. He was talked into it. Well, that's not a reason to be an assistant principal. I mean, you really have to want to do that job. So there's a lot of being candid and honest with yourself. Because in education, as I said, it's so demanding, if you're going to go into it just for the money -- and I said to you early on that money was an issue, but it was certainly not the major issue. The major issue for me was I wanted to be a leader. I wanted -- I had a -- also, I mention this, and I know you know it, one of my motivators all along has been I've always been for the underdog. I was an underdog. And you can rise above your circumstances and be successful in this world if you have the right kind of guidance, direction, support. And that was a real motivator for me. I could have gone into the business world, I didn't want to go into the business world because I wasn't sure that I was cut out for a profit-centered type of approach to my life. I was more interested in the people-centered approach to my life and helping young people, helping adults, and whatever. So that was something that I probably should have mentioned earlier. It really was a real important factor and a motivator, and of course that translates into what kind of a leader and manager you are.

Q: There are those who argue that the principal should be an instructional leader, and those that suggest realistically speaking, the person must be above all, a good manager. Would you give your views on this issue, and describe your own style?

A: Yes. Well, I've had a lot of -- I've given that a lot of thought over the years, and I have several friends that I've talked to about it, because actually, I didn't perceive myself as an instructional leader. I saw myself as more of a manager and just an overall leader. But then -- and was when, earlier on in my career, when I was pretty critical, self critical, of myself and what I felt were my strengths and weaknesses, I'm not sure that -- first of all, I think we need to define what's an instructional leader. But I think leadership is setting direction and getting people to work towards achieving the direction and the goals that you've set. In that regard, I feel like I am an instructional leader. Am I going to sit down with the social studies department and figure out the best way to attack SOL (phonetic)'s, and how students are going to do on the SOL test? No, I'm not. That's -- but I don't see that as instructional leadership, at least from the position of the principalship. First of all, the principal doesn't have time to do that. If they're devoting, in a comprehensive high school, in this day and time, if they're devoting all their energies to that, there's got to be some things aren't running right. Because there's -- you've got to pay too much attention to operation to be devoted to the minutia of instructional leadership. You have to find the appropriate level of which would be an instructional leader. And I believe that the principal is the instructional leader, but really at the top of the pyramid, so to speak, in terms of setting the vision, direction, expectations for student achievement, and all of that. Once you have that in place, then I think it may be a little bit foolhardy to not use your people, to not delegate, to not look to leaders in your school, whether they're assistant principals, department chairs, or teachers, or the reading teacher, or your LD teachers or whatever, counselors or whatever, you're kind of foolhardy to think that you're going to do it all. You set a tone, you set a direction, then you allow them to effectively do their job and you kind of behind the scenes kind of watch how it's going and monitor it. Don't ignore it, but let them do their job. I mean, that's what -- you're not going to do everything. I had somebody early on in my career, when I was very first principal, said, "You know, Larry, you don't -- I'm not sure you need me. You know, you can do it all." This was an assistant principal. Well, I learned from that person, who happened to be outstanding, that you need to delegate, you need to give lots of opportunities to your people. So instructional leadership is not just setting the vision, direction, expectations, but also I did find the right people to do the job and delegate leadership to them, so that overall, you've got leadership coming from lots of different places.

Q: You mentioned selection of people. Would you describe the ideal requirements for principal certification, and discuss the appropriate procedures for screening those who wish to become principals?

A: You're talking about what, coursework? And I know you probably just have to read me the question again, because this is structured --

Q: Your ideal requirements for the principal certification, what do you view it, whether it be coursework in something else, or what you think is the way it should be done, and then how do you screen those who want to become principals?

A: Well, I think that -- actually, I think that there's been a move, and I think early on in my career might have been when it started. It's pretty prevalent now, the move towards studying leadership, and not just leadership in a school, but leadership in organizations, whether they be private, public, or whatever, and the theories associated with leadership. I think that's a really -- that's a real step forward. I happened to get that in my master's program in business administration in the late sixties and early seventies. But I think that's become -- well, I know it's become a pretty important part of masters and doctorate programs. I think you're in a course right now that's giving you a lot of background in that area, and that particular course for me was real beneficial, in terms of studying leadership and leadership styles and thinking about being a leader. So I think the coursework is important. Obviously, I don't think you can step -- I personally don't think you can step into a principalship without having walked in other people's shoes. And I think teaching, I think assistant principalship, all of that, I think, is required. I think -- I don't think we can take somebody out of the military who's been a commanding officer and put him immediately into a principalship. I just don't think that's good. So I think you need to walk in, you know, walk the path. Some people say, "Pay your dues," I'm not sure I like that term, but I think the idea of having those kinds of fundamental experiences, so you can relate to the classroom, you can relate to the assistant principal, all that's real, real, real important. Terms of -- I had another thought. I lost it now. In terms of other kinds of preparation. Oh, I know what it was. I - for me, personally, I would not have had my career go any other way. It was wonderful for me to have had both finance experience and human resources experience before I became a principal. It was excellent, because all it does is broaden your base, the knowledge broaden your base of experience, broaden your base of people you work with, you have a better understanding of the perspective of the central office or the area office, and it allows you then to more effectively work with those people, also to understand what their jobs are and how those jobs fit into your jobs. So some different kinds of supportive experience, I think, is excellent. And you know I've said that to you, and I've said it to plenty of other people. It's hard sometimes to get those jobs, but I was fortunate enough to do that, and I think it's really good training. I think that the expectation that principals be scholarly, that they have advanced degrees, I think, is really good. I think the idea of having -- I don't know whether we'll do it ever in our school system, or whether other systems have done it, but the idea of having a doctorate and being a principal, I think, is pretty -- I think that's pretty sound. I think you're looked at in your community as an educational leader. You need to have achieved almost closer, if not closer, certainly -- if not the pinnacle, close to the pinnacle, which is, you know, the most advanced degree you can get. So I think that kind of thing is important. I think to a lesser extent, participation in organizations like, you know, your national organizations and local organizations, some experiences like maybe state conferences and all that, any time you can participate in some of those it broadens. Any kind of experience that will broaden you, broaden your perspective, have you understand that there's lots of different factors out there, some of which you can't control. Principals sometimes fall into the feeling that they control everything, and you really can't control everything. And sometimes there's kinds of extra experiences, those in-services, state conferences, talking to colleagues and whatever help you have that kind of an understanding. So those would be pretty much -- and I see the program that we've got in place is pretty good. I mean, I think that for the principalship, I think the doctorate -- it would be nice if we could say we have to have it. I don't think that's going to happen for a while, certainly not with the dearth of administrative candidates. It seems to be, certainly in the Washington metropolitan area, if not everywhere in the nation. I think that's probably something that would be nice to have, but I don't think we're going to get in position to have it. We need to make the coursework and all that maybe more accessible, you know, so -- and I think we do some of that to encourage more people, maybe have the system pay more of it. You know, I think that kind of -- I mean, gosh, we don't believe that we ought to educate our education ranks to be better, then we're talking out of both sides of our mouth, so to speak. So I think that's real important. And then there was another part. What was the other part?

Q: The screening?

A: Oh, yes. The screening.

Q: What procedures for screening.

A: Yes, screening. Right. Well, boy, I'll tell you that's a difficult one. Because certainly the interview's notoriously poor. We're doing this gallop thing, I don't know whether it's good or not. I think that the best thing you can do is talk about the people that you want to hire with the people that they've worked with. I mean I think that kind of screening is the best. I think some of the programs, like there was a screening program over at George Mason -- I forget the name of it -- where you went through a bunch of different exercises, the NASSP -- the name escapes me, but you know what I'm talking about. I didn't participate in that. I don't know whether that works or not.

Q: Assessment.

A: Assessment, yes, the assessment center. Exactly. I don't know whether that works or not. I think we have a long ways to go in that area. And I think part of what we don't do, and you would think -- and you know, I know this is supposed to be general in nature to all school systems, but my experience is Fairfax -- you would think we would be a lot better at it. We're not really very good at it at all, because we really don't look for our talent. We don't search for our talent in the school system and develop it, and cultivate it, and enrich it, so that when the time comes, we've got the people there. We think we have enough people that that'll all work out. Well, good businesses cultivate their talent. We don't do that. We don't have any plan in place for doing that. And I think for a system as large, with the kind of resources we have, we should be doing that. If we did that now, then the screening issue, I think, would probably, some of it would fix itself. I mean, it would provide good opportunities for people to work. I mean, we're just now, in the last couple years, actually giving people an opportunity to work in summer school and be paid, and not expect them to volunteer, and they don't have to be an assistant principals, they can be in training. You know, we need to have lots of those kinds of training opportunities regularly. And identify the people, because we can, we can identify the really strong people. And begin to develop and cultivate that talent.

Q: Earlier you mentioned a principal can't do it all by themselves. What, in your view, should be the role of the assistant principal?

A: The assistant principal is part of the team. The assistant principals, the principals, the administrative team, works -- we work together. Obviously, the buck stops at the principal, but my feeling is an assistant principal is crucial. They should have lots of opportunities to make decisions, lots of opportunities to assume leadership roles, lots of opportunity on the part of the principal for exposure, for counseling, in terms of direction of career, all that kind of thing. So I mean, I see the principal as one step removed -- the assistant principal as one step removed from the principal. And for sure, vital. Vital to the administrative success in a school. So -- and I sure like the subschool arrangement that we have in many of our schools, because that allows the principal -- the assistant principal to have quite a bit of autonomy.

Q: Discuss your utilization of such personnel, like assistant principal, when you were principal.

A: Pretty much the way I said. I said early on, though, that in one of my middle school principalships, I came in and I did it all. And one of my assistant principals said to me, "You really don't need us." And that was a pretty good eye-opener for me. But also, I also learned, and reflected on that, that part of my rationale for that, and I still to some extent, in jobs that I've taken as principals, and I've had four different opportunities to do that, there is a school of thought that you, you know, you get everything coming to you at first, so you can learn it all, and then you parcel it out. Parcel it out to your assistant principals, you know, to give them the total autonomy. Well, I don't know whether that works or not. In high school, you can't do that. Just can't do it all. Middle school or in elementary school, you probably can. I'm not sure that's the best way, but maybe that's what I was doing, I was trying to learn it all. But absolutely, firmly believe that you've got to give assistant principals responsibilities, clearly identify what they are, and not just bus duty and cafeteria duty, but meaningful kinds of instructional kinds of things, and interaction with parents, and the idea that you all had of having parent coffees and so forth, and subschools, and have a subschool newsletter, and all that kind of -- I think that's great. I think that is the kind of thing that gets subschool principal or assistant principal being ready to be a principal, and gives them a feeling of accomplishment, a feeling of being a leader, a feeling of bringing a team together to achieve goals, setting direction, and so forth. But then they have to fit in within the school, and the problem, sometimes, is that subschools are going in different directions, and they don't fit within the whole school. And if that happens, it's because the principal's not watching it carefully enough.

Q: Administrators presently spend a good deal of time complaining about the paperwork and the bureaucratic complexities with which they are forced to deal. Would you comment on the situation during your administrative career, and compare the problems you encountered with the perceptions of the situations at this time. Specifically, the amount of paperwork and bureaucratic complexity of the system.

A: Yes. My answer's going to be pretty short on that. In a system this size, you're going to have bureaucracy. You have to learn how to deal with it. As I said, the more experience, different experiences, you have, it allows you to cut through that bureaucracy. Paperwork is necessary. It's required. Quit complaining about it and do it. And don't allow it to be an excuse that it pulls -- keeps you in your office all the time. I -- my hours were such that I would get to school early, do my paperwork first, before the teachers came in the door, and then I was accessible. My door was always open. They could walk in any time to my office. I might be writing a letter, I might be responding to something, or whatever, but the idea of paperwork and all that getting in the way of doing your job, I don't buy it. Do it, get it done, quit complaining about it, and get on with the real job, you know, the most important parts of the job.

Q: If there were three areas of administration that you could change in order to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of educational administration, what would it be?

A: Three areas --

Q: If you could change -- if there were three areas of administration that you could change --

A: Okay.

Q: -- in order to improve the efficiency and effectiveness.

A: Well, one is preparation. I mean, one is the idea I talked about: planning. You need to plan. You need to plan for our personnel needs. If we plan for our personnel needs beyond a month ahead of time, which is kind of what we do now, when we have a vacancy, then we start worrying about what we're going to put in there. We don't have any plan. Certainly that's one, and I think that's a big one. We don't plan. We don't plan for our personnel needs. It's totally inadequate. I think in administration, I think the issue of accountability, talked about that earlier, I think we need to quit fighting it and use it to our advantage. I'm not quite sure how to do that, but I think the idea of targets that we've got in the school system right now, I think that's a good idea. So I guess maybe a more honest, direct approach to accountability. Again, quit complaining about it like we complain about paperwork, and let's encompass it. If we don't encompass educational accountability and do our best to demonstrate that we're doing our best to improve each child's education every day, if we can't demonstrate that, then public education as we know it, is going to be -- is going to change dramatically. It may change anyway, with vouchers and charter schools, and private schools, and all that pulling at us, but at least we can say we gave it the very best shot we could. And so the whole issue of accountability is real, real important. And we need to encompass it and bring it in as part of everything we do. I think a third thing would be -- and this relates a little bit to bureaucracy, is give the principal and the school more autonomy in handling their resources. I -- some systems have embraced school-based management, but you know, the central office, when they allow the school to do that, puts so many things in the way to make it bureaucratic, that it almost defeats the purpose of it. Let's trust our schools. Let's hold them accountability, well let's trust them with a substantial amount of money that they can be flexible on how they staff, can be flexible on how they equip, can be flexible in terms of how they purchase supplies and computers and software, and all that kind of thing without somebody looking over their shoulder all the time and having to justify. If that was the kind of paperwork you were talking about, I'd be for eliminating some of that, but I think what you do is you approach it from a positive point of view, not that the paperwork's bad, but let's give more autonomy to our principals, and maybe that's what will reduce the paperwork. So I guess those are three things that are on the top of my mind. If we were going to be here for three or four hours, I'm sure I could think of a bunch more.

Q: Could you describe a typical workday, when you were principal? That is, how you spent your time, and what was the normal number of hours per week you worked?

A: Actually, I was part of a study. You -- all your class may want to look up that study. Rick Hartley (phonetic) was the author of the dissertation out at Virginia Tech. And he shadowed me, and shadowed four or five or six other high school principals, and documented how we spent our time. That's going to be more accurate than what I'm going to say to you. I also don't remember the name of the study, but I'm sure you could find. I'm sure it's on file at the university. I don't think Dr. Hartley ever published it. He may have, I'm really not sure. But I was one of the people that he shadowed. A typical day? I would get to school, typically, 6:15. As I said earlier, I would do my paperwork, get my little list of things I had to get done that day, people I needed to see, and whatever. Then the door was open and things happened. And things happened whether I wanted them to sometimes or not. Often times things were, you know, there were things over which I had no control. Often times it was related to students, often times it was related to parents, parents would come in demanding, you know, they don't want to see the assistant principal, you know, they want to see the principal. Well, you know that my thought is also, from a management point of view, that you solve problems in the organization at the appropriate level. And if the principal isn't solving all the problems in the organization, then the assistant principals and teachers are not, you know, are not getting the opportunity to do what they need to do. So if a parent would come in and demand to see me, the first thing I would say to them was, "Have you talked to the teacher?" And if they said yes, I would say, "Well, have you talked to the assistant principal, or whatever?" I'm giving you a little bit more of my philosophy as we're talking about this. And we'd try to solve the problem at the right level. I would -- and if they insisted on it, then I would say, "Well, who have you talked to?" And they would tell me, and I would make my very best effort to get the parties associated with it, that had been involved in the problem to come right in, right then, right now, and let's solve the problem. So what does that mean? I mean, that means your day is a little out of control. But you're trying -- I always used the term, "organize the chaos." You know, there's chaos going on out there all the time, you need to organize, and you need to keep your focus. You need to keep your wits about you so that you can be effective in what you're doing. But that was typical. And it was typical -- obviously, you had meetings, you have area office meetings, you have central office meetings. I was not one to -- I guess if you would categorize me as a principal, I was more of a stay-at-home principal. I liked to be at school. I felt like that's what I was being paid to do. I wasn't being paid to go to a lot of meetings. Sometimes I would delegate assistant principals to go to those meetings for me. If it was something that the guidance director could go to, obviously I would do that. Often times they'd say, well, the principal and guidance director ought to come. Well, a lot of principals would just let the guidance instructor go. Well, that shows the guidance instructor that the principal trusts them, and that's important. But I was pretty much a stay-at-home principal. Did my cafeteria duty, did cafeteria duty for probably 20 years of my career. Every day it kept me in touch with what was going on in the school with the kids, and whatever. I thought it was pretty much a relaxed time. Every once in a while you'd have a problem, a fight, or whatever. And then you'd have to deal with that. But just a lot of different things, of kid discipline issues, decisions. A department chair would come in and say, you know, the department of instruction wants us to think about adopting this program next year. What do you think? You know, it's just a myriad of things. And you better be a generalist. If you're not a generalist, if you're a specialist, you're not going to do well in a principalship. Specialists do not do well in principalships. You have to be a generalist. You have to be able to wear lots of different hats. Another thing is -- another way I -- another analogy I use is keeping a whole bunch of balls up in the air at the same time and not letting any of them hit the ground such that the school is running, and running smoothly. Typical day? Start at 6:15, my first high school principalship might end at 10:00 with no break, except to go out and eat dinner. My second high school principalship I learned that, for me, if I could get home it was better for me. I was better when I came back. And so I would try to take a break and go home and eat dinner with my wife, and then come back. Typical 60 hour week was not unusual. There are many of us in the high school principal ranks that looked fondly on the county government side of the organization, because the county government people at our level were getting comp time. I -- my guess is if the school system paid me the comp time they owed me, it'd probably be three or four or five years' worth. I never got a penny, and I understood that, but I mean, that was part of the job. If I didn't want to do that job, I shouldn't have accepted the position. So it's a long day. Every week is a long week, and often times you've got Sunday afternoon science fair, or Saturday night dance, or Friday night football games, and everybody wants you to be at everything. Well, that's impossible, and you can't be everything to everybody, but you do your best to be a little bit of everything, but not everything. Long days, demanding but very rewarding. I bumped into -- I went back -- this is a little digression, if you don't mind -- went back to Lee High School for my choral director's last concert the other night, and he was very appreciative that I had come -- and he was an outstanding choral director -- saw some of my kids that I'd had when I was a principal. They came up and wanted me to see them. It was a little tough for me to recognize them, because they were young adults, but we'd talked about what they'd done. And boy, those kinds of memories and experiences, and knowing that you've had an impact on people's lives, money doesn't -- money isn't the real satisfaction. It's nice to have, and the prestige is nice, but what really I have are a lot of memories of helping a lot of kids and a lot of people.

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

A: If I had to pick one thing, it would be the people that worked with me. I had really good people I worked with. And if they weren't good people, then I'd get about trying to either channel them in another career, or maybe give them another experience somewhere else. But you're only as good as the people you work with. If you don't have good people, you're not going to be successful. And so I would attribute the success -- and I had some outstanding people, many of which have been principals. I had some teachers, I could name in one subschool I had, when I was at Chantilly, I picked my teachers. I had a nominee for Teacher of the Year, I had a teacher who is now superintendent in Fulton County, Georgia, I had a teacher who is now director of secondary education in the area one office, I had another teacher who was nominated for Teacher of the Year. They were all good people, and I learned early on in my administrative career you're only as good as the people that work with you. So that would be it. How are we doing? Are we okay? Are we moving along okay?

Q: Since you have now had some time to reflect on your career, would you share with us what you consider to be your administrative strengths and weaknesses?

A: I know if it's trite to say that my administrative strengths are clearly -- are the issues of working with people, and I attribute that to a value system that was given to me pretty early on in my childhood by a grandmother, and an aunt and an uncle that raised me, I think, raised me right, raised me to be honest, raised me to have high standards for myself and have a work ethic that was strong, to communicate, communicate what I believed in, communicate my concerns and issues, and whatever. All that was fundamental, in my mind. I'm not going -- I've talked about a lot of other things. I don't want to go into all those again. In terms of weaknesses, yes, I definitely feel that I sometimes didn't give enough attention to details. Maybe I trusted some people too much. Mostly, in most cases, I had good people, so that was okay. But every once in a while I'd get burned because I trusted somebody and they did the wrong thing. And then I had to bail them out. So in that regard, trust factor, maybe I took it too far. The issue of loyalty, I was very loyal to my people. Maybe I took that a little bit too far. In terms of instruction, maybe I didn't get involved enough in the details of instruction, although I believe my philosophy -- I've had people tell me that my philosophy is sound. Still, maybe the details of instruction, I didn't get immersed in that enough. I tended to enjoy the management part of the job, the finance part, the personnel part, the facilities part, and all that, really more than the instructional part. I never saw myself as a master teacher that had all the answers of how to motivate kids and how to be absolutely 100 percent guaranteed effective in the classroom. So in that regard, I mean, I have lots of -- I think I have lots of strengths in that area, but that would be an area that I would say is one of my -- was definitely one of my weaknesses. And as I said, I've given you a few others. Hardheaded, I can be a little inflexible at times. As I've progressed in my career I learned flexibility was important in certain situations. That it's sometimes better to win the war and lose a few battles along the way. And early on in my career, I probably wasn't flexible enough. I learned to be more flexible. When I got to the area office I learned to be even more flexible, but I do think that sometimes in education we don't take a strong enough stand in some issues, and then we get beaten around, we get beaten up. You know, parents want -- and in many ways, I've got some conflicts in that regard, because parents want high expectations for their schools, yet they want their kids to be able to go on a ski trip in the middle of the year because it's convenient for their work schedules, but their kids might be missing two weeks of algebra, or two weeks of calculus or whatever. And I was pretty inflexible about things like that. And I don't think that we, as educators, are service oriented. I think we're primarily -- we have a product. And it's a diploma, and kids have to earn it. And we need to set the standards such as they earn it, and we don't need to make those standards so easy and give -- that we're giving them away. As I used to say to the kids, "I'm not giving diplomas away. You're going to earn them." And so when you have that responsibility, I think, we don't want to give in. We need to -- it's a balancing act, but we need to set pretty high standards for kids, and for education. And sometimes I think we weaken on that a little bit. Maybe I -- maybe there were times I was too strong. I don't know. I know that while I was -- my last principalship, attendance went up about 2.5 points, 3 points. Grades were high, we had more kids on the honor roll, and ultimately, we had -- and surprisingly enough, we did a little study, we had fewer suspensions. Yet I was perceived to be a disciplinarian in my school. But maybe that was because we set pretty high expectations and held the kids to them. My guess is we probably did do that. But maybe I was a little bit too rigid at times. Clearly at times too trustworthy of my people. Clearly not maybe involved in the details of the organization, and in the details of instruction probably the way I should have.

Q: As you close out this interview, for the final question, give us an overall comment on the pros and cons of administrative service and any advice you would pass on to today's principals.

A: Pros and cons? Well, I think we've, you know, we've talked about -- or I've talked a lot about that. I think it's extremely rewarding. I think any time you can be put in a position to help people, service to others is what I believe we're on this earth to do. And administration clearly is broad-based service to others. And not just students, not just teachers, but the community in general. I think you know, and certainly people that are astute now how much influence a principal has in a community. And that principal, if they handle that responsibility properly, can really have a positive impact. So the kind of impact you can have, boy, if you want to have that, you want to be in administration. You want to lead. You want to have opportunities to achieve and have others achieve with you and build a team, and all that, the things I've talked about. If you don't want to do that, then administration is not for you. What was the -- and then you said there was something at the end. What was the last thing you said?

Q: Any advice you would give to today's principal?

A: Oh, advice. Yes. Have a little bit more humor than I had. Laugh a little bit more. I think you saw me at the end of my career, when I did my little sub job, substitute principal job down at Mount Vernon. I didn't take it so seriously that I got uptight. Of course, it was easy, because I wasn't going to be in charge for the next five years, but I think that principals need to -- first of all, they need to have good camaraderie with each other, and I had wonderful camaraderie when I was high school principal with fellow principals. We need to be able to share our frustrations and get them out, but we need to maybe enjoy it just a little bit more, and not be so uptight, and not believe that we can control everything, because you really can't. Some things are just going to happen, and you just have to deal with them. That's it.

Q: Thank you.

A: Anything else?

Q: No.

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