This oral history interview of Mr. Harold Cullar was done in Boardman, Ohio, on January 29, 1993, at 4:20 p.m. Mr. Cullar retired in June of 1989, as principal of Stadium Drive Elementary School. He spent thirty-five years as a public school educator; first as an elementary teacher in Greenford, Ohio and then as an elementary school teacher and principal in North Lima, Ohio. Mr. Cullar's career continued as an elementary school principal in Canfield and then as an elementary school principal at Market Street Elementary School and Stadium Drive Elementary School in Boardman, Ohio. He resides with his wife at 2320 Lynn Road, North Lima, Ohio. He is presently employed by Option Care.
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Q: Mr. Cullar, would you begin by telling us about your family background--your childhood interests and development, examples such as your birthplace, your elementary and secondary education, and some of your family characteristics.
(Streamed audio file of interview for this question using RealPlayer)
A: Well, I was born in North Lima, Ohio, began my education in a one-room school, born and reared on a farm, still live on the same farm sixty-five years later. My parents finished their school at eighth grade. I graduated from high school at North Lima, took two years at Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana, in liberal arts, took three years at Ohio State University, took a B.S. degree in horticulture. I then began teaching on a temporary certificate at Greenford, moved to North Lima as a teacher for two years, became an elementary principal, moved to Canfield as an elementary principal, and then moved to Boardman as an elementary principal. I was at Canfield two years and finished out my thirty-five year career in Boardman.
Q: Would you discuss your college education, perhaps a little bit more in detail, and preparation for entering the field of teaching. You mentioned that you spent two years as a teacher and again thirty-five years as a principal. Would you describe the thirty-five years in Boardman also as the number of years specifically in the field?
A: Upon using my B.S. degree for a temporary certificate, I started taking education courses at Youngstown State University which was then Youngstown College. I found out that by reading the catalogues carefully that you could get a teaching certificate by also getting a principal's certificate. So I transferred to Westminster College and got an administrative certificate which said I could be a superintendent, a principal, anything that I wanted to be. So I never really had a teaching certificate other than my first temporary. At the time that was an economical thing for me. I ended up with a master's in administration which gave me the privilege to teach and any other job in the school system. Ended up going to Kent for some superintendent courses, probably ten or fifteen hours, also took a guidance master's at YSU, at that time, after the change. So I have a master's degree in administration as well as a master's degree in guidance.
Q: OK, discuss the experiences or events in your life that constituted important decision points in your career and how you feel about them.
A: Let me back up and say that of all the certificates and all the education that I took, I found early on that guidance courses were as much of importance to me as administration courses. In fact, more so. I found myself using the guidance background more than I did the administration background and I think, looking back, that it would have been very difficult for me to be a good administrator just on the basis of administration courses. But the guidance master's was tremendously helpful to me. I think also of help to me was my family background and being taught to be service-oriented. I had many choices upon graduation from Ohio State to earn big money, but I chose a service-type occupation because that was something that fit me and fit into my family background. Now, I'm not sure I answered your question.
Q: I think that was fine. Could you give us a little bit of background about the circumstances that brought you into administration. You said you had been a teacher for two years. Why did you decide to go into the principalship? What motivated you?
A: Well, it was a long thought-out process. It happened one morning. I was ready to leave for work and I told my wife, "We're not making enough money." So, in the next five minutes we made that decision.
Q: That's the way I understand most of us make that decision.
A: It simply was a matter of economics and that's when I made the switch from Youngstown College to Westminster College. And it was strictly financial.
Q: That's interesting, the principal that I interviewed last quarter said exactly the same thing. I think that's probably...a lot of people don't like to admit that, but it's probably a really strong underlying reason for entering administration.
A: I made a call that very morning and a week later I had a new position.
Q: Those things don't happen quite as quickly any more.
A: I'm sure they don't.
Q: OK, could you take us on a walk through your building, and you can choose the building, but I might suggest maybe Market Street since you had been there for such a long period of time. Sort of describing the organizational nature of it, how was it set up, what was its appearance, and what were some features that were important there.
A: I said many times that Market Street School is one of the finest architecturally designed schools in the state of Ohio. You could walk out one door of the office and see one whole wing. Thirty steps the other way you could see the rest of the building in another wing. The only thing it did not have, it did not have a library as such when I went there because that was strictly high school stuff at that time. But, very easy to administer, it had a gymnasium as well as an all purpose room so the cafeteria could be going on and still be having gym classes. And each of those two rooms, the cafeteria and gymnasium, could be made into four rooms, well each into two rooms, so you could have four rooms instead of two. It made it very functional, and it didn't take us too long to get the library that we needed by converting a room. Just a very, very well designed building.
Q: Were the classrooms all the traditional closed classrooms?
A: All traditionally closed and when I got there they had all the first grades together, all the second grades, and had a kindergarten room that was designed for early childhood education, a fantastic room. It was just excellent for the five-year-olds and early childhood education. One of the changes we made as teachers left us we didn't always put a first grade teacher next to a first grade teacher. And we found that the intermingling of age groups was a healthy situation.
Q: Let's go to a little bit more philosophical kind of question for a moment. Could you describe your personal philosophy of education and how did it evolve over the years?
A: I wanted to be a good school administrator but I learned early on I could only be as good as I would let the teachers would help me be. So we had a lot of staff development. And I was fortunate in the early time of my career, we had money. We lost that later on, we're still looking for that. So we had a lot of staff development money and when there weren't local funds available we wrote grants. We wrote grant after grant after grant. And so my philosophy was to help teachers be as good as they could possibly be, a little selfishly that made me look good, but really the overall effect was it helped kids and families tremendously.
Q: So basically you were an advocate of empowering the teachers.
Q: Before the word empowerment became fashionable.
A: Yes, we didn't know what it meant, right.
Q: What were some of the techniques that you used to create a successful climate of learning in your building?
A: Well, we would take teachers, and I tried to make sure that the entire staff would get out on an equal basis, to visit new things that were going on. Sometimes it meant a trip to New Orleans. Sometimes it meant a trip to Chicago, or wherever the exciting things that were happening. We had a staff committee and I would go and we would come back and we would share that. So it was a matter of giving them the freedom and the desire and the interest to be out on the cutting edge of things.
Q: I'm sure there are probably a lot of schools that would welcome an administrator that would have that kind of a thing in mind in today's schools.
A: I think it's more important now than it was then.
Q: Definitely. And probably one of the biggest constraints on it now is the financial situation. It's not feasible to do as much as it maybe was several years ago. OK, let's move on a little bit here. A great deal of attention has been given to the topic of personal leadership in recent years. Could you please discuss your approach to leadership and describe some techniques which worked for you--and maybe perhaps an incident if you could remember in which it failed, if you have one.
A: Again it was providing the opportunity for staff to get in on the know on a certain way that we wanted to go, sort it out together, to make sure that was the right way. I have a guilt feeling about one of the things that did not work out as well as it should have. That was Individually Guided Education. One aspect of IGE was you put the child through this step, this step, this step and all day long it was moving from one ditto sheet to another. And it was very individualized. I think we are paying for that now in our society. Our baby-boomers, they think first of all for themselves and they don't think of the other person. I feel responsible that the schools had a lot to do with that. And I think there are some changes being made. But that was one of the mistakes that I have felt guilty about.
Q: How long did that process go on?
A: I was involved with it for ten years. And I still see the results of it in communication with adults.
Q: OK, there are those who would argue that, more often than not, central office policies hinder, rather than help, building level administrators in carrying out their responsibilities. Would you give us your views on this issue. And then, sort of as an aside, if you were king, what changes would you make in the typical system-wide organizational arrangements as a way of improving administrative efficiency and effectiveness?
A: I agree with your first part of the statement there wholeheartedly. Central office can really screw up the works.
Q: We've all had experience with that sometime or another.
A: And I could give you some good examples of that, happened real close to home here. I think too often central office wants everybody to be on the same path, going the same direction. And that stifles competition, that stifles initiative, it stifles the desire to want to learn, and to grow and to put into practice things that you feel comfortable with that they're going in the right direction. Individualization, where individual students can work with other individual students, to work at things on a team effort, well, what's the word I want...homogeneous grouping, is for the birds. Heterogeneous grouping, it just has to be a must, if you want to really get the most potential out of all the kids. When I first came to Market Street it was homogeneous grouping. You had five sections. You had the two top groups, the two bottom groups, and the middle group that everybody wanted to be a part of and everybody wanted to teach. The top group couldn't stand the bottom group because they were too sophisticated and they knew it all. It just was so evident and it was socially unacceptable in my book and we changed that as quickly as we could.
Q: Let's go back to the second part of my question. If you were king, OK, or maybe we could say superintendent I guess, what change would you make in a typical system wide organizational arrangement to improve the efficiency that administrators could have and the effectiveness they could have in a building?
A: One of the things I would change would be that homogeneous grouping to heterogeneous grouping and have students more involved in teaching each other. That was something that was taken away from me as a principal. I had to kowtow to central office and have homogeneous grouping and I felt very, very strongly that it was not the right thing to do. So if I were king, I would have students learning from each other, I would have teachers planning their day with that in mind knowing that it takes more work on the part of the teacher. Homogeneous grouping is the easy way to go. Yes, you had more lesson plans, and more plans that you needed to plan for each day. But the benefit for the kids is fantastic.
Q: There are those who would argue that the principal should be an instructional leader, and then there are those who suggest that, realistically speaking, this person has to be, above all, a good manager. Would you give your views on this issue and describe what style you think you were.
A: Well, I'm not above giving consideration to having a teacher-leader instead of a principal. I think there might be some good merit in that. I think that's what I tried to do. But because of the hierarchy and the way the administration team was put together I'm not sure I did that as well as I would have liked. But I think a good leader will empower his teachers, give his teachers every chance to learn, to help them learn, and help them feel good about what they're learning and then support them wholeheartedly, as you work on the educational process, improving it.
Q: Do you think the curriculum as we have it today is too complex for a principal to really be an effective instructional leader?
A: I can get very radical here. If I had the wherewithal, I would make a school without music, a school without athletics. That doesn't mean I wouldn't have phys ed, I'm talking about the K-12 system. And I'd have every parent support the educational process, be behind every teacher 100%. And then we wouldn't have the problem that we have across the world of being second-best, third-best, and so forth. I have live experiences with grandchildren in the German schools. And my oldest granddaughter, who's in sixth grade, is on her second year of Latin. They don't worry about music, they don't worry about athletics, because the village handles all that. They have them, we know they have them because we get beat in the Olympics. So they have them. And they have music. In fact, our music graduates from this country find jobs in Europe playing for the cities and villages that they can't get here. So it's all there, but it's handled in a completely different way. And school is reading, writing, and arithmetic. And my granddaughters can do in their heads mathematics that our freshmen cannot do. It's just amazing what the difference is because of the emphasis that is placed upon supporting the school as a family and then supporting the teacher.
Q: Do you think maybe we've become too involved in trying to make the schools be a surrogate home for the kids? We try to be a part of everything.
A: Right. And we do that for the sake of a few students. And the other students suffer.
Q: That's where all the money goes. Any phone call you get as a principal invariably deals with a problem with the sports or with the music or with one of those things that's not a part of the curriculum.
A: Right. I was on the North Central evaluation team here last fall and it was so obvious to me that sports and music determined when English would be taught, when math would be taught. It all had to do with the coaches and the players that they could be available at certain times. And the prime time for teaching, that teaching should be done, that time went to music and athletics.
Q: Well, I'm an administrator in an 800-student high school. When I build a schedule every spring, the very first thing I put in is band. Right smack in the middle of the day and everything gets built around it.
A: That's right.
Q: And it's a shame because that aces those students out of some things that they could get into if they wanted to.
A: Now the students that I'm familiar with in Europe, they get their music. In three weeks I'm going to take a clarinet over for them. They've got all kinds of opportunity, but it's all handled in the home and in the village. So they don't lack for it at all.
Q: Your information that you had given us mentioning about the home really leads into the next question. It's been said that there is a home-school gap and that more parental involvement with the schools needs to be developed. Would you give your views on this issue and describe how you interacted with parents and with citizens who were important to the well being of the school?
A: Something that we did early on in my career was to involve parents as much as possible. We had parent volunteers. You know by the end of the year we had thousands of hours that parents were in that building volunteering. Teachers were aware of it and they had to be on their best behavior, quote, whatever that means. But it was a very valuable thing, it really did good things for teachers as well as for the students and the parents. Because they knew what was going on and so we had no linen to hide. They knew what we were all about and I think too many administrators really worry about those parents. And I'm thoroughly convinced that for the educational system in this country to change around to what we ought to have it to be and want it to be it has to have as much parent involvement as possible. Without that it just won't happen.
Q: How do you think that can be done in our society today where we have many, many dysfunctional families? Many families with just a single parent and a lot of working parents. How can we bring that back into our schools?
A: It's very, very difficult. I'm not sure I have all the answers. I just know that without that participation it will be very difficult. When you start talking about parents on crack, et cetera, and so forth, it's...I don't know if it's possible. But I don't think you're going to reach the potential you would want without that happening. So if you can't make that happen, there's going to be potential missed.
Q: We almost would need an entire restructuring of how we view education. As administrators right now, 99% of the time when a parent comes to the building or calls you on the phone it's with some complaint or problem or something that is not exactly right. When I get the occasional phone call of someone calling and saying "I'm really glad about the way you did such and such" or "I love what just happened." That's really unusual for those kinds of things to happen. I think because of that we view parents almost as adversaries rather than team members. You know, we really need to try and work on that. But that's a whole philosophy that has to be restructured.
A: I learned that very early on, that parents are not adversarial. And if you let them be, you're just changing the whole course of education to a negative way.
Q: Let's shift gears just slightly here. Would you describe your approach to teacher evaluation and give your philosophy of evaluation.
A: If there's a place that administrators fall down, that's one of them. I think you always have to be positive and approach things in a positive way. But, many times there are negatives that you need to deal with. And I go back to, if I want to be a good principal I have to have those teachers behind me. So I have to handle those people in a way that they feel good, they have to feel that criticism is encouragement rather than negatives. I just learned early on that the better the school would be the better I could handle teachers. If you handle teachers right, the rest will come. But if there's a teacher that has to be removed from the profession, we don't do it. We can do it, we need to do it. But as administrators we don't think it can be done. But it can be done.
Q: We did it with one. And that's unusual.
A: You have to know how to do it. The law's behind you and it's not as scary as we make it out to be. But it's a must that we do that.
Q: It's uncomfortable. For everybody. It really is.
A: It's uncomfortable, but you've got to think about the kids. And when you do it you gain respect, you gain more power as an administrator, and that's really respect that I'm talking about, rather than power.
Q: As you view it, Mr. Cullar, what characteristics are associated with the most effective schools, and what characteristics do you think feature less successful schools?
A: Caring has to be one of them...caring on every school employee's part. Not just a teacher, but from everybody. From top to bottom, whatever bottom is and whatever top is. That has to be, and if that's truly expressed, each and every day to each and every student, that building will be a successful setting for education. The opposite, if the administrator is afraid of parents, if the administrator is content to do what he's done for the last number of years and not want to grow and not want to investigate, and not want to visit, and have seminars, it can be very, very negative. It's extremely important that the whole staff works together as a unit and if you lose that, it's really tough. The staff has to all feel from a caring position. But if half of them care and the other half don't, the principal has to change that. And it can be changed, but it has to take a lot of work in changing.
Q: During the past decade schools have become much larger and you worked in a large school system. Discuss your views of this phenomenon and suggest maybe an ideal size for a school in terms of optimal administrative, organizational and instructional activities.
A: Bigness is not better. Very clearly in my mind, bigness is not better. I was on a school board for four terms, helped put two districts together. And if I had to do that over again, I would resist it. I think it worked out fairly well in those two districts, but a school district has to be the size so that the administrator can know every child by name, and by family, and what makes that family tick and that child tick. If the administrator doesn't know that, it's too big. A school district has to be the size so that every child has the chance to participate in any or all activities. If there's only ten percent that can be athletically involved, it's much too big. Involvement is the name of the game. Research shows very clearly that kids who are involved in extra-curricular activities, who know each other, they are successful as adults because of that social interaction. And bigness can destroy that.
Q: On an elementary level, what would you say maybe the largest an effective elementary school could be?
A: Three or four classes at each grade level if you're handling them heterogeneously. I wouldn't want it any bigger than that. I'm saying five, six hundred, depending on how many grade levels are involved. I feel very strongly about size.
Q: Mr. Cullar, there has traditionally been a commitment in this country to the principle of universal free public education. Would you give your views on this concept and indicate your feelings on the practicality of such an approach in this day and time.
A: If there's been a fault, it's that we've been trying to be all things to everybody. And as an administrator, towards the end of my career, I was saying to parents, "Your child can no longer come to school, because your child takes away from the rest of the kids in that room." And I think that we're way past the time when we should have done that earlier. Being all things to everybody, we pay a tremendous price with the child that has tremendous potential but does not have the resources behind him because we spent our time on dealing with the misfit. Part of that goes back to helping the parent understand, you know, your child cannot be in school because he or she's not doing what ought to be done. And that's part of the process of bringing parents around to supporting school, from a positive point of view, because we're showing them the negative.
Q: How do you feel about the European view of high school education in particular, that that's really an optional choice for students, not...
A: My granddaughter, at the end of fourth grade, the decision had to be made, which tract she was going to end up four years later. And she ended up going to a language school, and she could have gone to a science school, or she could have gone to the vocational aspect. Now, if she wouldn't have been able to go to the language school that she wanted to go to, and the teachers decide this, not the parents, the parents had the prerogative of letting that child continue for another year and then seeing if it happened. Or even two more years to see if it would happen. The neat thing is that the kids who end up going to the vocational aspect all get certificates that are very meaningful. They're not looked down upon at all. If you are a plumber you make excellent wages and you've got your license. And there's just no discrimination because you didn't end up with a doctor's degree eventually. And somehow or other that atmosphere pervades that you don't lose by not going to the school that you would like to. But if you're a doctor, a professor, or somebody with that kind of training, you want very much for your child to follow in your footsteps. They can't always do that. But they will do extra things to try to make sure that happens until they find out that, well, that just won't happen. But I have no problem with making that decision early on. We don't do that here. Everybody gets a chance to change their mind in high school. And I'm a prime example. I hadn't planned on going to college and I had fun in high school. I really enjoyed it. That means I didn't get enough out of it as I should have. But I got to go to college and change my ways and achieve. That's really difficult to do in Germany. But society there says early on, make up your mind. And so they do it early on. I should have done it early on, too.
Q: Mr. Cullar, administrators presently spend a good deal of time complaining about the amount of paper work and the bureaucratic complexity with which they are forced to deal. Would you comment on the situation during your career and maybe compare the problems you encountered with your perceptions of the situation at this time, even though it hasn't been that long ago since you've actually been in that situation.
A: I think much of the paper work could be done by secretaries, by people trained to handle it at a lesser salary level. And principals should be much, much more about the true educational process, true leadership, curriculum development and that sort of thing. And I think part of it is our own fault as administrators, we don't delegate like we should. We get caught up in it, central office keeps us caught up in it, but I think it's extreme amount of money wasted. Any time that you can have a job handled by somebody that's at a third, or a fourth, or a fifth of the person that's doing it, it's money well spent. And you have to redirect that money that's being paid to the high paid individual. It's something that ought to happen, that doesn't happen. Good administrators can make it happen, but it's just something that we've learned to grow with it and haven't corrected it.
Q: You mentioned that oftentimes this comes from the central office. Even I think today it's coming more from the state, the fact that we have the EMIS and a lot of the accountability things are coming, and you probably see that some changes are going to have to be made. Because there are not enough hours in the day to do the things and we are ending up not really being administrators. We're being basically...
A: I think that has to be resisted. Somebody else can do that. Data input into computers, doesn't take a masters' degree.
Q: I agree, the whole idea of accountability we're really struggling with right now in administration, because the community and the state wants us to be accountable for everything that goes on, which well we should be. But at the same time the way they judge accountability is with just a myriad of papers. They need to come up with a more succinct way in which to judge whether or not a school is in fact doing their very best rather than looking at numbers and data and measuring things in that way.
A: I hear what you're saying. But there's no doubt in my mind that their sole purpose is to put down on the front page of the Vindicator this school did this, this school did that, this school did this, that's going to tell the parents, hey, things have to change in our school district. And it's tough on the staff, it's tough on the principal, but in my mind it has to happen.
Q: Now next week there will be an article on the front page about the new proficiency test results because we just got ours today. So next week it will be published, then you'll have the comparison of one school with all the others.
A: And that's why I would favor letting the family have the choice of where to send their kids to school. School districts resist that. But until parents learn to know which is the good school and have access to the good school, the other schools are not going to be good schools. You're still going to have that hierarchy. But once the competition is there, hey, you'll see a lot of big changes in administration and in teaching.
Q: I think you're right. A lot of people are very resistant to that, but I think it's going to come. We've seen in Arkansas, Bill Clinton's state, that it really did work, the idea of choice made a huge difference in the schools.
A: To me it's very simple why they want to do it. They're trying to tell the community what kind of a school you have, and what kind of a school you ought to have.
Q: Well, let's talk about that in just a little bit different format. Given the presence of administrative complexity, if there were two or three areas that you could change in order to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of educational administration, what would they be?
A: Again some lower-level salary people to help do the mechanics, work with the paper work, that administrators could really be about administration. I would have administrators understand very clearly that their responsibility is evaluation of staff and do it the way it needs to be done, not just passively let it happen. Because that's again one of the big things that hurts education, is administrators really don't grab the bull by the horns and do what needs to be done. My experience in private business, if you don't do what you need to do evaluation-wise, you just go under. You can not have people around that don't give you their value for the job that they have to do each day. And if we would look at schools with staff the same way, and change what needs to be changed, they would be clear different. I wish every school principal could have the opportunity to work in private business for at least a year and they would look at things so differently. Because when your house is on the line, you do what you have to do. And as a school principal my house was never on the line; my reputation was, but my house never was.
Q: I think he would enjoy the book by Warren Bennis. It's called On Becoming a Leader and it's an interesting book because it talks about some of the concepts we've talked about here. Let's just expand that just a little bit. Can you think of some areas of the curriculum or maybe overall operations of American schools maybe we haven't touched that really we need to change? You did mention curriculum without going into just the basic curriculum.
A: Well, the way you handle that curriculum I think is so important. Again, the team concept, the heterogeneous class setting with a rotation of who works together with who as students. I went for four years in the one-room school. I guess in my book that ought to come back into vogue, at least to a certain degree. Kids have so much to offer other kids and the teacher just needs to be a facilitator. It's amazing what can happen.
Q: Strangely enough, although we call them different things and we give them different names, your concepts are now called collaborative learning, kids teaching other kids and whole language having the kid be part of their curriculum and choosing what they want to do and those kinds of things, the one-room school, looking now, you know a lot of research is being done and multi-grades or non-graded, having first, second, third graders in the same classroom, so basically, everything that goes around comes around or whatever the saying is, something to that effect.
A: That's right. And any of those things don't make teaching easier. It requires more expertise, more time, more management on the part of the teacher.
Q: I'd like to finish up my section of the questioning here with one final question. Would you describe your relationship with the Superintendent in terms of his demeanor toward you and your school. Now I know you worked under a couple of superintendents, you don't have to give somebody by name, you can just sort of make a general answer to that statement.
A: I was very fortunate to work under some tremendous superintendents. Extremely fortunate. And I'll never forget that. I learned in my first year of teaching as a person working on my B.S. degree in horticulture that the boss is always right, no matter how wrong he is. And as long as you keep that in mind, and start from that premise, you can work with superintendents, no matter what. You need to be a diplomat, you need to understand what the thing's all about in each and every situation. But that was one of the biggest helps to me that I could have learned, that the boss was always right no matter how wrong he was and from that point move on whatever had to be moved on and persuade whatever had to be persuaded.
Q: How many different superintendents did you work for?
A: OK, I worked for one, two, three, four, five, six. I. J. Niswonger of Boardman was one fantastic superintendent. C. M. Johnson of Canfield was just a fantastic superintendent. The others were good, but I would single those out as being really, really good.
Q: Did you ever have designs on becoming a superintendent yourself?
A: I made an application for one now or then, but I had family goals that we were going to live, we were going to bring our kids up in a farm setting, in a rural setting, and in the size of a school setting where they could all participate and all be on the first team if they wanted to be, or could be with a little bit of effort. And that meant either driving a distance to be superintendent; I learned early on that I wasn't going to work any harder as a superintendent because I'd put in the same hours as a principal. They would have just been different kinds of tasks. And as I look back I wouldn't have changed it because we have four kids. There's six in our family, five of us are educators and the other one is a pharmacist and I wouldn't have it any other way.
Q: You seem to be a person who really enjoyed as an educator being with the children. And, you know, as you move up and become a higher and higher position in education you become more and more removed from those children that you're really there to help. A lot of people feel exactly as you do.
A: In education I had the best job anyone could have. You cannot beat the elementary principalship because of just what you say. The contacts, and what I didn't realize while I was going through it is how much it came back. Now I'm in business, and it's amazing, just today, got an application from an ad that I ran two weeks ago, former student, needed money to start the business, I knew every banker in town. And it was amazing they said, tell us what you need. And other people trying to start businesses...all we had to do was sign our name. So, the elementary principalship, being involved in education, you just make contacts by the hundreds, by the thousands that are so rewarding down through the years, if you do the job right.
Q: Now it will be my turn to take over for a little bit. Would you please discuss your general relationship, pro or con, with the Board of Education, or several Boards of Education under which you have worked, and comment on the effectiveness of board operations in general.
A: I think they were very pro. I was a board member for four terms, twelve years, North Lima, South Range, Greenford, and I helped bring those two groups together. As a board member we tried never to leave that room without having a unanimous yea. We would wash and rewash and do everything that had to be done in private so that when we left and went public with the issue it was all together. I have been involved in some board meetings that were very divisive, not as a board member, as an administrator. And those are sad, sad times. And that happened here in Boardman a number of times. But again, the boss is always right no matter how wrong and you work around it and you keep your position positive and you don't destroy, you build upon the positive. Accentuate the positive and try to eliminate the negative. 504
Q: I think that's good. The only problem is that sometimes there are board members who don't want to be board members for the reasons you do, you know. We're going through some really difficult times in my district right now for that reason. All it takes is one person who's on there for the wrong reason, it makes for a very difficult working relationship. No matter what you do you're wrong in his eyes.
A: As an administrator you have to go to work each morning knowing that you probably are going to make a decision and half the time you're going to be wrong and half the time you're going to be right with that decision. But you learn how to do those in a way that keeps things on a positive level.
Q: OK, it has been said that the curriculum has become much more complex in recent years. Would you comment on the nature of the curriculum during the time you were principal and compare it to the situation in today's schools, citing positive or negative aspects of the situation then and now.
A: Seen a lot of changes happen in curriculum. I think it takes a lot of sifting and sorting as a leader, as a teacher, and authors like to recycle things. You have your new math, your old math, and that's where money's made. You write books. One of the things that I think is not realized, nowadays, as a principal, and as a teacher, you're confronted with issues, that fifteen, twenty years ago, you could wait until the professor wrote the book, published the book, and started to teach the book in his classes. And then you had the answers to it. Nowadays you've got to have the answer the next day or the next week. And so I think principals, the staffs need to be involved thoroughly in the curriculum. Sifting it through, checking it out. How much of it is putting money in the pocket for somebody? How much of it is really working for kids and needs to be used with kids?
Q: Right now we have a new curriculum being proposed, especially on the high school level that deals with what is called tech prep. And its sort of another curriculum, not so much the academic and not vocational, it's a meshing of those two areas, to be done in the home schools. And it's dealing with getting students ready for the work force rather than college and rather than labor. A different kind of work force, sort of a middle ground. We're all struggling with that right now. Teachers are not real crazy about it because it's new, it's very different, the names of the courses sound funny. They're called integrated math, integrated algebra, and so on. And the state is telling us that this is what we have to do. And it's really difficult, I'm sure that's going to sift down into the elementary schools eventually.
A: You have to look at it and evaluate it and make sure it's just not a bunch of gobbledygook, that it does what it's supposed to do. An administrator can get caught up in his pride of his building and not wanting things to happen educationally that ought to happen because he works with numbers, and he works with positions, and that has destroyed vocational schools. When home schools really wanted to protect their turf, at the expense of students. So what do our vocational schools do now? Work with the handicapped, don't really help do what they were designed to do in the first place. And I think a lot of that's about because of pride and protecting my turf. They weren't thinking about kids.
Q: There are those who argue that standardized testing can provide a way to improve instruction. Please discuss your experience with such testing and provide us your views on its effect on the quality of the instructional program.
A: That's a tough one. You have to have testing. I think that, here again, I think the standardized testing is being used as a tool by the powers that be in Columbus and others along the way to create an awareness that's going to help parents understand a little bit better how their kids stack up with other kids in other districts, in other buildings. I don't know the real good answer to that other than I know the parents need to learn to know that somewhere or another. And maybe that's one of the vehicles, one of several vehicles that does that.
Q: I think standardized testing has its place as far as helping to identify certain decisions each of the children have and ways that we can deal with those. But sometimes we get so caught up in the numbers of, again, comparing one school to another and one student to another, that we lose the value or the insight that that testing can provide.
A: Here again, if you have the size and the right numbers, and the right relationships with teachers and families so that that can be handled automatically in conversations, so much more can be done. As an elementary student, having the teacher home for supper, having relationships all through the year, my parents knew what I was doing and what I wasn't doing. Nowadays you have to have standardized testing for them to find out.
Q: So then, almost all of your career was in administration.
A: Yes. Yes, I'm unique. I taught three years and administered the rest of the time.
Q: You are unique. It took most of us a long time to get into administration. Well, women especially, but that's another matter altogether.
A: That's something else I feel pretty strongly about.
Q: We didn't ask a question about that but let's go ahead and talk about that.
A: There ought to be more ladies in administration, especially at the elementary level. They attend to detail. A lot of my success early on I attributed to the fact that I wore pants. And I'm being very honest, you know, I just wore pants. And that was the way people looked upon me. I think later on I earned my value and my reputation properly, but I know very few women administrators but those that I know have been fantastic people and have taught me tremendous things.
Q: I think in particular, and it may not be fair, that women administrators really have to be good or they don't stay administrators for very long. Whereas a lot of men who are administrators, that are marginal, they just sort of get shoved along and they get jobs and jobs, but women have to really prove themselves early on or they're just not going to make it. That's what makes us work so hard at it.
A: That's right. You're very right.
Q: I appreciate your comments, that's really nice to hear. Because on the high school level, as well as me, I think there are maybe two other women that I know of on the high school level. There are hardly any on the high school level. This area's very traditional, yes. There are very few women, in this area.
A: That's unfortunate.
Q: It really does not take too well to the idea of women in those kinds of powerful, high school level, whether it's because they can't be athletic directors or what I don't know, but that's the premise that some people go by and the view some people have.
A: I would support women administrators one hundred per cent.
Q: Well good, we'll just ask you... We'll call you for recommendations. Right! OK, could you describe the organization or your work day? That is, how did you spend your time? What was the normal number of hours per week you put in?
A: I always tried to be at work by 7:15, and I seldom got home before 6:00. And I guess if I did one thing that helped me more than anything else, it was family contact. A made a lot of calls after everybody was out of the building to parents, and calls at home in the evening to parents. Because, this isn't going to sound so good, but that's where my power base came from. That gave me the power to do what I wanted to do as a leader because they were working and they understood I took the time to involve them and I think that's extremely important.
Q: I think you're right. Do you have any idea about how many hours a week you might spend on the job and off the job doing school types of things?
A: Well, that 7:15 to 5:30, 6:00 was all school. How I divided it up depended upon the day, the situations that came along and...
Q: Did you very often have evening things that you had to do?
A: Not as much as a high school principal, but I tried. I attended everything that we had. And tried to have things that involved parents. It just has to have a lot of parental involvement. When no matter when it happens, but you do when it has to be done, as best as possible, and that's what helps tremendously.
Q: Would you describe some of the pressures you faced on a daily basis and explain how you coped with them. Describe your biggest headaches or concerns on the job. Describe the decision or decisions that you had to make.
A: I moved to a new building, Market Street. A teacher came in, before school had started, and sat down in the chair opposite me and said, "I'm not happy that you're here. You'll never be a Paul Huston." And I just looked at her and smiled. But that was my cue for what I needed to do with that particular staff. First week of school, a parent came in. Stood across from my desk and said, "You will never fill Paul Huston's shoes." I said, "I don't have any intention of doing that. I've got my own to work on." At the end of that year that same parent was one hundred per cent behind me, but those kinds of things, if you're new on a job, you have reputations to live with of people before you that were fine and tremendous people. They make it really tough. My first administrative staff meeting, I probably shook and shivered, my voice quaked, because those people before you made it tough. I'm not sure if I'm answering your questions, but that gets at the crux of what I had to do to sell the parents, to involve the parents, sell the staff, involve the staff, let them know that I was as professional as could be and that they were also that kind of people and help them be that way.
Q: Would you be able to tell us what you feel is the key to your success as a principal?
A: I think we've said that a couple of times. A listener, a listener. You've got to be a listener. And a long fuse, a long fuse. Don't react, don't jump, even though you know when you leave the house that you've going to make fifty per cent of your decisions hurting somebody, you do it slowly and thoughtfully and listen, be a listener. Then react after you've heard everything.
Q: I think that's good advice, not all of us follow it all the time.Especially the long fuse. Right. Please tell us your views on forms of team teaching. How did you prepare your staff to successfully integrate new teaching formats over the years?
A: Team teaching doesn't mean all first grade teachers working together as a team. It can mean a lot of different things. It can be built around personalities, and I think it has to be, many times. But that takes us back to involving teachers in seminars, bringing people to the building and writing projects, bringing awards to them, citations, recognition. You build teams by getting people to work together and feeling good about who they work with and that means knowing your people before you put them together as a team. Or if you make a mistake, that means correcting a situation, but normally every person has a right to be respected and to be a part, a valuable part of the team. And that takes, administratively, a lot of forethought and a lot of insights.
Q: What is your view on the "mentoring" program for new administrators, in which an experienced administrator is paired with a neophyte. What experiences have you had with such an approach? Was there a mentor in your life?
A: Never was a mentor. That's not quite right. When I came to Boardman we had a lady administrator, one of the boys, who helped me tremendously. Because we shared together, we had a very closely knit group, the elementary principals and the middle school principals, there were six of us at the time, we were mentors to each other. But they were more mentors to me than I was to them. But I think it's important that somebody needs to be there that you can talk to. Today I saw two teachers down there unloading, which has to happen once in a while. And that was mentoring going on, and they were two career teachers who had been in the business a while. But, mentoring is good. It has to be lined up right, handled properly, and make sure that it's done in a healthy way.
Q: I think your comments are really good. Mentoring is good, not just for the person being mentored, but good for the mentor, too. Because it gives you a different perspective on what's going on. We have a mentoring program in the high school for first year teachers. We pair them up with experienced teachers and my experienced teachers end up learning just as much during that whole year as the first year teachers do, because they find out some really new, neat things to do that they didn't know of before. And it just gives them a feeling of self-worth, self fulfillment that's really important.
A: A good administrator will make sure that the quote old staff will learn from new staff and you have to have the right setting. But a good administrator will make that happen in a comfortable way, and it's very important.
Q: Principals operate in a constantly tense environment. What kinds of things did you do to maintain your sanity under these stressful conditions?
A: I rode a motorcycle. I just quit riding a motorcycle a couple years ago.
Q: Did you really? Did you ride it to school?
A: Yes, I parked it in the kindergarten room or wherever. No, you learn to do those things. We did a lot of traveling. A lot of interactions with fellow principals. I see less and less of that happening and I feel sorry for principals nowadays that don't have a close-knit group to work together and talk about problems and that sort of thing.
Q: I think that's very important, too. I belong to an administrative group in the Mahoning Valley, it's actually, it's almost all Mahoning County administrators, high school administrators, but there are a few of us from Trumbull County also that belong. And I find it to be a really good place to go and just sit and say, "Hey, what did you do about such and such?" How did you deal with this problem when it came up and I know I can call them up on the phone or they'll call me if they need something. And it's really nice just to be able to do that. But I don't think we do it enough. Most of the administrators' groups around are basically for administrative purposes, like county groups and so on, but this is a real social organization and we just enjoy each other's company, and...
A: That can be most helpful.
Q: Yes, it's really helpful to me, it always has been. What's really good about it is most of the guys in this group, they're all men and a couple of us women, most of the guys were administrators when I was in high school or whatever, you know. So it's kind of interesting, because now we're all on the same level. It gives us a whole different way to share with each other. Would you discuss the circumstances leading up to your decision to retire at the time that you did, giving your reasons and the mental processes you exercised in reaching the conclusion to step down.
A: In my last ten years I saw people retire but they kept coming to work. And I vowed that that would never be me. That when I was going to retire, I was going to pick a date and I'd be gone. And I wasn't going to make a big to-do about letting people have a year to figure out that I was going to be leaving. But that really disturbed me to see people retire and still come to work. That's not what education is all about. I also learned, again from talking with fellow principals across the state, that, you'll know when the time comes. I didn't know quite what that meant, but they said, you'll know. And they were right, I knew. I knew one, I think it was May morning, April morning, that this was going to be my last April or May in school. And decided, well, I'll sit on this a little while, then make it known a week or two before school was out. And that's the way it happened. I was a very intense school person. I gave it all I had and I enjoyed every minute of it. Almost feel guilty because I don't miss it. Because I thought, how can I ever quit doing this, that I enjoy so much? But I was fortunate also in having another job to go to, having bought a business. And I think that's important, that you don't go from the principal's chair to a rocking chair. I saw at least four of my friends, superintendents and principals, die, one as early as six weeks later. And I think you have to plan your retirement just as well as you plan your work. And you have to figure things out and make sure that you maintain an equilibrium and do what needs to be done.
Q: How many years ago did you retire?
A: I think this is the fourth year now that I've been retired.
Q: Still enjoying it?
A: I enjoy it immensely.
Q: Despite our best efforts to be comprehensive in questioning, there might be something we have left out.
A: There was a minute ago. What was I going to tell you?
Q: What have we not asked you that we should have? If anything.
A: I just loved education, I could talk for weeks about it. Oh, I know what I was going to say. We had the glory years when we had money to do staff development. And that was fantastic, but then those glory years fell on hard times and money was not available. I personally chose a route to go that would help me. I became very active in the principalship. In the county, in the region, in the zone, and then the state. And I went through the chairs as president-elect, president, past-president of the state elementary administrators association. What that did for me was to provide interaction to learn things all across the state that was happening that I could take back to my staff, to our staff. And that's the way I got around. We still could do things. But that was my vehicle to make it possible to do those things.
Q: Without a great expenditure of money.
A: Right. I spent hours on the road. But I was learning so much that I could share and that kept the vim and vigor of the whole staff going. That was my way around the lack of money.
Q: Is there anything else you can think of?
A: It's been fun.
Q: We've really enjoyed it. We have really enjoyed it, Mr. Cullar, and we'd really like to thank you for taking your time in giving us the opportunity to ask you these questions. It doesn't appear to be a task for class when you can enjoy conversation like we've had today. We really do appreciate the time.
A: Glad to help, we'll like to see what happens.
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