Interview with Samuel P. Cox


I am in Stafford, Virginia with Mr. Samuel P. Cox. Mr. Cox, I am looking forward to talking with you because I have interviewed several teachers who have previously worked for you and they've all had so many positive things to say that I've been anxious to learn more about you.

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

Q: What I'd like to know is if we can go back and reconstruct your career so we'll find out what you've done to make a teacher of that stature say that you were the best administrator under whom he has ever worked.

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

A: Thank you. I started my professional education career at Grayson County, Virginia, in 1949 as a teacher and coach. The following year I went to Patrick County, Virginia, where I also taught and coached, and then in 1954 I became principal of an elementary school. After one year there I went to Bedford County, Virginia, with a gentlemen with whom I'd served as principal, as principal of a little high school, grades 1-12. After 2 years there I went to Smith County, Virginia, where I served as principal of a school, grades 1-12, for a period of 6 years. Then I went to Gar-Field High School in 1963. I spent 11 years there and from that point went into the central office of Prince William County as a supervisor of special projects. In 1975 I came to Stafford County as principal of Stafford Senior High School which just opened a new consolidated school here, and I stayed there until July 1986 when I retired.

Q: Well, you've certainly had a varied career. You've gone from elementary school education to principal of extremely large high schools. What made you decide to become a principal?

A: I think the one factor in principalship was in 1953 when I was working on my master's program. While I was working in Patrick County, I had an offer to go on the staff at Radford College as a supervisor at the training school there. I would be supervising student teachers and also working on my graduate program. At that time I talked to the superintendent of the schools in Patrick and he said, "Sam, if you stay with me at Patrick, the following year you will have a principalship." We had to weigh between the possible college teaching career and a career as a principal, and I stayed and the next year I would be appointed principal of an elementary school. So I think that is the one factor that led to my going into principalship.

Q: What actual training did you do in order to become a principal?

A: I was a Liberal Arts graduate in college and had very little background in professional education. I started teaching on a collegiate certificate, had to build up 18 hours of professional education before I started on a masters, and then I continued this work at Radford College and later a master's degree at the University of Virginia and completed that in 1957. 1 think it was a combination of graduate degree in school administration plus varied, experience in the different levels of education.

Q: What do you think is probably the most important thing in preparing principals for schools today to become principals of these high schools in today's society?

A: I think one of the most important things is actually knowing the school's staff, knowing the entire school program. Today most high school principals are the ones who have come up through the ranks at a given school division. They've either served as assistant principals within that school or within that school division in the principalship. Many years ago, when there were a large number of small schools in Virginia, the training ground was usually you would start out in a small school and be promoted to a large one so there was a lot of moving around all over the state. I think today there is better preparation and better background for school administrators than there was many years ago when I started.

Q: I have heard from some of your teachers, for example, I spoke with Ms. Jeannine Turner, and she said that one of your strengths that she felt that you had was that you knew everyone in your school. In fact, she mentioned that when she came to be interviewed you were down helping the cafeteria workers collect the money for the lunch and she said that "Mr. Cox knew the cafeteria workers as well as he knew his teachers, and he made all of us feel important." What leadership techniques did you do; what did you do to make all of those people feel important and want to work for you?

A: Well, I think it is important in the school that not only your teachers but your support services are very important. I think the old philosophy of the three "B's" of education of books, beans, and busses which means your bus driver, your cafeteria workers, and your custodians and others, they are important cogs in that school mechanism, and I think it is a point that you make people feel that their job is worthwhile, that the job is important. I've always had a philosophy that if you treat people like professionals, they will act like professionals. It is a fact that you can lead people much further than you can drive them. If they have a love and a dedication to that job, they are going to put more of themselves into it than if they are just going through the motions.

Q: What did you do, Mr. Cox, when you had new teachers and I know that when you were at the old Gar-Field HS you had many new teachers? What did you do to induct them, to prepare them for teaching and make them eager to follow you?

A: I think the first step is to get to know those people, know something about them. But I always pride myself in any teacher we had that I could call them by name the first day and know something about them--where they went to school, something about their background. I worked at this particular aspect of it. When the people feel that you do recognize them, know them, and then the fact that you can give them a pat on the back, you can always find something positive in what they're doing and try to reinforce them to the positive things they do. Then it is much easier when you go in and have to make suggestions or correcting better teaching techniques if you've already reinforced it positively. I think the positive reinforcement has to come first.

Q: You seem to be a very positive person and in fact, Mr. Chuck Edwards said, "Mr. Cox was the most humanistic, caring person I've ever known. He was respected by the students and the faculty." What did you do, however, when you had to correct a teacher, when you had to make suggestions for improvement? How did you go about handling that because you are a caring person?

A: I think there's always, these are things that have to be done low key and in private. I've always told teachers that if you make a mistake, I'll not publicly make a statement about that. Just if you make a mistake with a parent or the student, I'll back you with the parent and the student to the end. When we get into my office and we start talking about it, then I'll show you where you made your mistake but I'll never, I'll always back the teacher in view of parents and students. Today the philosophy of education seems to be more that the parents and the students override; the teachers are more often wrong. Later in my career when things were passed on to my evaluation, they said, "You were too much of a teacher's principal." To me that was the highest compliment to be paid, but it just seemed at one time to be derogatory because I was not always as receptive to suggestions with students and parents but I would back the teachers and I think that's basic.

Q: And that is perhaps why I've received the comments that I have in support of the teachers. How did you handle parents and students when they came with suggestions?

A: I think one of the primary rules of the principal is being involved in many times disputes between both parents and students versus the teachers. It's been a philosophy of mine that I would always support the side of the teacher in these interviews and later I would tell the teacher in private where they were wrong and quite often teachers are wrong in these instances, but I think once that in the presence of parents and students that if you criticize a teacher or don't back them, that you've lost something because of the loss of respect by the student for the teacher. And I think that is basic. It's a very delicate situation to handle at times and I know today it seems to be more that the school administrators expecting to back the parents and students more than their teachers. I said in one of my later evaluations which was derogatory in my respect to say that "you were a teacher's principal" and to me that was a very fine compliment, but it was not meant to be that in my evaluation.

Q: Did you find teachers in your career did have problems?

A: Oh, yes. I think that anytime you deal with several thousand different personalities you will have people and there are difficult times when you have to "fire teachers" which is part of it because they have not done the job and it is very heartrending at times. I've always felt too that if professional educators are not doing their job it is not fair to the rest of the staff or to the students they are teaching to allow it to continue.

Q: Did you see any changes in the manner in which hiring and firing was done from your early experience to the later years?

A: Oh yes, very definitely. The teacher evaluation process became much more complicated and as you know teachers' rights, which is as it should be, teachers now have tenure which makes for a lot of documentation if you have teachers not doing their job. It has to be very definite, documented and followed through with that procedure. Many years ago if a teacher was not a "good teacher," you just told them,"you're not being re-hired the next year."

Q: Which do you prefer and what do think the advantages and disadvantages are?

A: It's much fairer to go through a detailed evaluation process and to document things. I think there's no doubt about that. I think we're continuing to raise the quality of teaching through teacher reputation, teacher preparation, the new BTAP program which makes, it much more difficult for teachers to get their teaching certificate. So I think in the long run we will raise the level of quality of teachers.

Q: So you think that the BTAP program then is a positive move toward improving teachers?

A: Yes, I think it is. Certainly the teachers I don't think are very positive about it because of the additional year of work is being observed by people not in the system. I think that most people prefer to be observed by their own administrator rather than an outside person. I think that's been the one criticism with BTAP. But I think in the long run it will certainly improve the quality of teachers in education.

Q: Do you see any other things that you would suggest that we might do in education in order to improve teaching and the quality of teachers?

A: I think that in the past few years that the level and quality of in-service training has certainly helped. Many years ago, 30 years ago, there was very little in-service. You went to a teachers' meeting one day at the beginning of school and that was your in-service for the year; the teachers were given their keys and went to the classroom. It's a much more professional approach.

Q: In in-services on "teacher work days," do you feel that those should be left for actual working or should there be specific in-service?

A: It should be separated. I think there are times at the end of grading periods--mid-term, end of school, where there should be time to "clear up the year's work." I think there should definitely be set aside some days for in-service and that's all that you would have would be in-service programs of a worthwhile nature and as a principal and as many teachers say, sometimes they are a waste of time because of the volume of things that are put together. But I, have gone through some very fine in-service programs also which were very beneficial to people. It should be more practical things. To cite for example, in-service training in the recognition of drug problems which as an example can be very helpful.

Q: One of the things that one of the other teachers, Ms. Linda Little, said about you was the fact that not only were you ... she mentioned the fact that you were the first principal she had and she also mentioned that you were encouraging but she said in retrospect she realized that probably your greatest strength was the fact that you were flexible, and you coped with changes in curriculum and in the school plant, and you did so with ease. She was talking about, I believe, a change you went from what is called the old Gar-Field to the new Gar-Field. Can you describe the old Gar-Field and then the transfer to the new Gar-Field?

A: Gar-Field HS in the '60s and early '70s was a very traditional school, six-period day, very few innovative classes. We did have a few innovative classes that we came up with. But then the transition to the new building there was entirely different philosophy. Such things as modular scheduling, the attitude towards students that there was not really compulsory class attendance. As long as students did their work, and this was the vogue in the mid-70s, whereas students could, as long as they could complete their work ... we did have some things that I thought were positive. We had continuous progress programs where the student could start in a program and with the program's instruction could finish two or three classes in a year. I can recall students finishing 3 years of math in 1 year and there were programmed instructions in social studies and math. We started an elective English program which I still think is one of the best English program's going although it too has fallen by the wayside through the years but I think we've met the needs of more students, but we went from a traditional school into one with flexible scheduling.

Q: What problems did you have? Let's start with, I know that there were many, but what problems did you have? First of all--could you describe the old Gar-Field as far as the physical plant? I remember reading something about trailers.

A: Yes. At the time the school had a ratio of about 1000 students, and we were housing on a split shift around 2700 students. I think there were 11 or 12 temporary trailers, Quonset huts; Mr. Greer taught in one of those I remember. We were really overcrowded but it was a very traditional program. The new building was something like seven or eight acres of floor space, open space school in which there were side barriers but no walls, and teachers literally tore their hair out because they could hear the noise. But the students, I think they adapted very well because they can cope with noise and outside distractions; teachers couldn't. They just started building walls in the school shortly after we went in. But that was the difference--not only the physical structure for them, but also the program by their scheduling and continuous progress.

Q: What did you do to prepare your students and your teachers to go from that very traditional school to this large, open innovative school system?

A: I think perhaps we pleased the teachers better than we did the students, and I think the students found out that this new found freedom worked to a detriment and student discipline there was a problem because of large numbers and your lack of traditional controls because there were problems. That was... in the post-Vietnam era in which students were very... looking for the word-they were not very militarialistic but, they were certainly full of ideas and anti-Government and, of course, the walk-outs and the protests and so forth that we had during that era which you probably would not have had in your day--a really tight traditional school. I'm not saying that a traditionally strict disciplinary school is the best approach. I think you have to give students some latitude and sometimes we go too far( and I think of our philosophy there we went too far, and a lot of students missed a good education., others achieved a good one, but a lot missed in education.

Q: Let me clarify this. Are you saying that the combination of the era plus the freedom extended to them in the school system then allowed them... they took advantage of that freedom?

A: Yes.

Q: What all did you have to do as a principal in order to try to gain some control on that situation?

A: At that time too the teachers' association had just negotiated no duties. That is, teachers did not have to have hall duty or anything so there were a few people who were attempting to cover all this area. Thankfully a large number of the teachers saw the problem and volunteered to help so we did get supervision. But it could have really been a disaster; it was a bad time. But it was a plus for the day throughout education. I know that the people who were responsible for developing this philosophy of education...of course, they left Prince William County about the time I did. But as I said, on paper it looks beautiful but there are so many things, particularly student control.

Q: You mentioned also about split shifts as a method of dealing with over-population, and I know that in several school districts, especially in Prince William County, they are again facing over-population. What was the problem with split shifts?

A: I've gone through split shifts both in Prince William and Stafford because of overcrowding. Basically, you had to shorten your school day. Most of times the class period was 45 minutes instead of 55 or 60 minutes. It gave less time for instruction. Students who were coming to school at 7 o'clock in the morning were leaving at noon. Others were coming in at noon. You had problems out in the community, particularly some of the areas where students in school in the morning were out in the afternoon, and there were problems in the community because of students being home without parental supervision. They were truly latchkey kids. On the other hand, the ones who didn't go to school until 12 o'clock quite often got involved in other things and didn't get to school in the afternoon so there were problems there.

Q: Did the community come to you with concerns or did you have to deal with those concerns? Were those considered the school's concerns?

A: They usually came back to the school because they felt that they had been in school. Instead of going to the parents they usually came to the school which as a school person I felt they were parental problems rather than school problems.

Q: How did you deal with that as far as with public relations? Did you try to reach the parents?

A: Yes, we attempted to reach the parents, and it didn't come too bad except for two or three areas which I won't mention in the interview. Many times in the most affluent parts of the community we had is where we had the biggest problems. And we found the same thing at Stafford. The one salvation that people realized is that this was a stop gap until we found a solution to housing students. It is interesting, this over-crowding also brought in year-round school in Prince William which survived for several years. Just recently I heard that one of the school districts in California was reviving year-round school, 45-15. Like I say, everything goes around comes around, so here years later they're picking it up again. I helped to organize and set up year-round school at the high school level. I left Prince William County before it was implemented, but I know that some of the teachers it was very difficult at the high school level with year-round. It did work beautifully at the elementary schools, I think, where the students and the teachers "in 45 and out 15 together," and had vacations together but at the high school level it amounts to the fact that every 3 weeks 1/3 of your class was changing.

Q: Many people are not completely aware of the year-round school trend and since it is coming back or at least it's being ,'started again" in LA, maybe it would be a good idea since you were one of the organizers, to fully explain the philosophy behind it, and then exactly how it was supposed to work.

A: The Prince William 45-15 school plan, year-round school, was basically four color codes and theoretically the students would be in school for 45 days and would be out 15 days. That means that there would be four 60-day cycles through the year. That is 240 days of school. In areas where there were enough students to have a full class, then the students would be in class for 45 days and out 15. But in other areas where classes were not enough to make, the teachers would teach more than one color code. That means that after 3 weeks another color code would come in and then have some remaining. In the next time another 1/3 would come in and another 1/3 would leave. It's very confusing now. The planned way of handling this was continuous progress in programmed instruction with every student working on a different level. But as a teacher and administrator we know that this doesn't always work, and you always attempt to get everybody as close together as you can as far as instruction is concerned. As I said, it did work very nicely on the elementary level and was successful. The 45-15 plan in Prince William lasted 4 or 5 years, I guess, in the high school level and then was abandoned. But the real reason for it, when you could get away from all,,the rhetoric, it was the fact that you had 1/4 more capacity in your buildings than you would have had on a normal school operation and you're using it during your summer just as you would in the winter. If you had student capacity of 3000 students and had 4000 students, you could handle those 4000 on a 3000 level.

Q: You mentioned two of the disadvantages. The main disadvantage, the fact it was almost impossible to keep the curriculum going because all the students were not on the same level at the same time. And you also mentioned the fact that it was difficult to make all those changes. What were some other problems with 45-15?

A: I think the thing that finally "killed" the 45-15 was student activities because if you were in the band and you were out on 15 days, you still had to be there to play in the band. If your football teams are on 15 days, you still had to be there to play football. So instead of parents being able to plan vacations at different times of year, they would be off 15 days that they're involved in student activities; they had to be there all the time.

Q: What about school services such as bus services and the cafeteria and the school building itself? How were they affected?

A: The color codes were geographical. That is, one geographic area would be out at the same time so as far as your busses were concerned, you just didn't run busses in that geographic area in that 15-day period.

Q: But then were parents responsible for getting the students to school?

A: Yes the parents were responsible for getting them back for after-school activities. Yes,,and in the long run that's what was the downfall.

Q: How did the teachers feel about this plan?

A: I think some of the teachers who had 240 day contracts liked it. They taught all year and nice salaries. The ones who were on a true 45-15 kind of liked it. But the ones who had the rotating classes, I think that was a killer. I think there was a burnout which after so long you just couldn't face it. Burnout factor.

Q: By rotating teachers you mean the classes where they had mixed color groups they would come and go?

A: Yes. It was almost impossible.

Q: Since 45-15 or year-round school started in Woodbridge, and now we're hearing that they are starting in Los Angeles, is there any possibility that Los Angeles or California heard about it from Woodbridge, Virginia?

A: The 45-15 had its roots in several different places. At the same time in Prince William County, VA/had 45-15; there was one in Virginia Beach. There was, I think, an attempt in Loudon County. There were several other places and other places around the United States. But at that time Prince William seemed to have the lead in 45-15 and was the largest school division at that time to fully adopt it. I know that back in the late '70s and Dean Kilby, who was at that time middle school coordinator for Prince William County schools, and myself went to Anaheim to the National Principals' Association and made a presentation on 45-15 schools which was something fairly new on the national level at that time. I don't know that LA had picked up from Prince William County and there were several other sources/but we were probably the best known for the 45-15 school.

Q: If you had to compare the two evils of split shifts and 45-15 for overcrowding, what would you say you would select as the better of the two?

A: Certainly there are advantages to both. I think probably from an instructional standpoint there was better instruction in 45-15 because of the time element. As I mentioned earlier one of the biggest problems with splat shift was the short class periods and less time in actual instruction and then odd hours you have from early in the morning and late in the evening. Kids are going to school until 5:00 or 5:30 which is very difficult. It's hard to keep their attention span late in the afternoon. That's why we always say first period in the morning is always the best teaching period.

Q: How did you get people to take those different split shifts and how did you get people to take a 240 contract or a shorter contract?

A: There were some volunteers, but I think more of them were assigned. I think 240 contracts were people who volunteered, but most of the others were just assigned as far as the teaching contract. I'm trying to think. We had one teacher who for a year was , just a coordinator for 45-15 plans and who helped with the development of it.

Q: Was that an appointed position or was that a volunteer?

A: It was a staff position that we had selected from our staff.

Q: You mentioned that you left Gar-Field and you went to central office. When you went to central office, how could you affect the high schools?

A: I was in charge of special programs. Actually it was alternative education. I had the responsibility for working out individual educational programs for the students who could not cope with the regular school life and these were discipline problems or various others but I worked a special program for them. Such things as, I had been working with teachers' aides in elementary schools, I had been working on jobs and doing programmed instruction for their classwork. Just a variety as truly alternative education.

Q: But not an alternative education as we see it today as merely a more homebound teacher?

A: These high school students, most of them would be in school one or two periods a day and then would go onto another working experience type thing. There were some who because of emotional states and so forth could not cope with the regular school so all of theirs was at home.

Q: That brings another thought in my mind that today we have all these teachers of the EMR and LD. How many teachers would you say you had in the schools at that time to support the emotionally disturbed and the students with the learning disabilities?

A: It varied between one to none. I can remember years ago we had one "special education teacher" who dealt with all levels.

Q: Was there paperwork involved that we have today?

A: No. That was more or less on a local level. You know the severely mentally retarded or severely handicapped weren't in public schools at that time. Our "slow learners," most of our EMR's were in regular classes. People like Tudgy Turner taught them.

Q: And did so very well. How did that change from the time when you first became a principal until the time you retired?

A: Today our special education programs are very extensive. Of course, when you get into the degrees of handicapped, autism, and with physically handicapped, and you know the trainable students, the EMR'S, the emotionally disturbed, there are a wide range of special education programs now in schools. I think they've done fantastic with them. But those kids were just not getting an education. Maybe the slow learners were getting something/but as I said, I remember at "old Gar-Field" we had one classroom and one teacher who taught all the special ed kids and they were just basically the slow learners.

Q: You had mentioned earlier when we were chatting about the major problems in being a principal and how they had changed from the time when you first started, to being a principal until the time before you retired. What were those problems and how did they change?

A: I think the bureaucracy, the paperwork, the reporting, as the years went on more and more programs and justification for them you had to be able to give background material, records and everything. The attitude of the public of litigation toward public schools put us on the defensive and we had to be prepared just in case. We went through reviews by HEW, by the Office of Education for alleged discrimination. These things you had to be on your toes, have all your records in order in order to go with this.

Q: What did you have to do in order to defend yourself in those cases?

A: We just had to show that there was not discrimination involved.

Q: Is there a case you can think of that you can talk about?

A: I think to over-simplify this the one case that I remember so well was the matter of discipline between a black student and white student and there was an alleged charge that the penalty for the black student was enforced and it wasn't with the white. I remember the family very well and this thing was appealed to the Philadelphia office of HEW. I remember we came in with a long review and many hours of interrogation and everything.

Q: How were these charges brought about?

A: By the parents.

Q: At what level? I know where you said it ended up. How were they brought about originally? To whom did these parents appeal?

A: They went straight to the US Office of Education or to HEW directly. They hadn't contacted us.

Q: They did not go through the school system?

A: No. We heard about this later. I remember the family very well.

Q: Let me see that I am clear on this. These parents did not come to the teacher or to you as a principal, they went directly?

A: No, they did not come to us. They filed a charge against us for discrimination. That's usually the way it happens in discrimination cases.

Q: And then you were told by the Department of Education?

A: Right. The whole school division, they came in and interviewed teachers and so forth. In factI remember what had occurred. Basically they were skipping classes, I think. This one young lady did not go to class period, and I think I ended up suspending her from school.

Q: And then the charges were brought up?

A: Right, discrimination.

Q: How long did that, what period of time did that take?

A: Probably a year after it happened.

Q: What was the result?

A: The charges were dropped cause I was in central office when the investigation was finally terminated.

Q: And the charges were dropped?

A: Right. You go through a lot of hassle. We found the same thing in special education services. Quite often the parent will, you know you go through a screening process and you declare the child eligible or ineligible for certain services. If the parents disagree with this then they will appeal to the authorities.

Q: We've discussed your career from one side to other but I think that one thing that we, have not really discussed is your basic philosophy of education and the philosophy of being an administrator, and I certainly would be remiss if I didn't ask you for that before we concluded this conversation.

A: I think my basic philosophy of education, and this is perhaps over-simplified, is to have as many people involved in the operation of the school as possible--parents, students, teachers, and fellow administrators. And if I may digress just a moment, when we talk about some of the problems, the new Gar-Field, one thing that I felt was on the right track, every person in that school had a home room or an advisory. I had my home room in which I had 10 or 12 students that I was kind of a mother hen, that I checked their grades and called their parents, and I think it was in the right direction. Perhaps it was not fully implemented but in the right direction. We also involved students a lot in planning--curriculum development, to make them feel a part of it and also the teachers as much as possible. When we planned that school, the teachers had the privilege of picking their own furniture and what they wanted in those rooms and everything--that's the involvement of it instead of someone just making arbitrary decisions. I think they felt more a part of it. My philosophy as a principal was working with assistance of sometimes four or five. I was not a principal in that term where we would have five principals who were part of a team and each of us had different responsibilities. I always liked to operate as a team administrator rather than principal of the system, and we had sub schools in which that principal was basically responsible for the operation of the sub school. As a team we got together and made decisions. Of course, the buck passing always stops in one place; even when you have a team, you have to have a captain. I think that involvement of parents, the planning councils, students and so forth, I think that is the key to it. People need to be involved and certainly we would be happy to satisfy.

Q: Is that your advice that you would give to any people who would be preparing themselves to become educators to involve all different aspects?

A: Yes, you cannot do it alone, particularly in large schools. A small school many years ago you had 100-150 students, 10 teachers, and the principal could pretty well run the show. I mean, he could make the decisions and go on. With a large operation it's just like a large corporation. You're talking about 3000 students and 200 teachers and all the staff, and you have to have people involved and that is the key to good morale, I think is to have them involved in the process.

Q: Well, you certainly did do that and that's why Mr. Greer and any number of the other teachers said that you were personable, supportive, and you were certainly the best administrator under whom they've worked. I want to thank you for taking all this time. I know that you have given while you have guests in your home so that you could talk to us tonight, and I appreciate very much having the opportunity to finally meet you, Sir.

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