This is February 15, 1995 and I am speaking with Dr. James E. Calkins at his home in Martinsville, Virginia. We will be talking today on his experiences as a high school principal.
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Q: Good Morning, Dr. Calkins.
A: Good Morning, Joan and Ron.
Q: I'd like to begin by asking you some questions about early influences in education. Would you mind telling us about your family background, your childhood interests and development, maybe to include elementary and secondary schools, some things about your family?
A: O.K. At the onset, I want to make clear that I am not an expert on anything. As a matter of fact, I am reminded of my grandfather's definition of an expert, as a damn fool away from home, and I certainly can't qualify in that respect because I'm at home right now. In any event, I was born in Norwich, Connecticut, in May 28, 1925. Norwich is in the Southeastern, I beg your pardon, in the Northeastern part of Connecticut. It is located at the headwaters of the Thames River. The Yantick and Shantuckett Rivers come together to form the Yantick River at that point. The Thames River empties into Long Island Sound and New Loundon, Connecticut. So I am a dyed in the wool Yankee. But I had the good sense to come South and get educated, so I guess that qualifies me as being reasonably intelligent. My parents were relatively poor, I guess, although we didn't know it. My dad was a policeman, my mother went to a business college, and she did work for a number of years at least part-time. She raised three children, one of these children, my older sister. is dead. My Mother is dead, and my father is dead, as are all of my grandparents, and uncles and aunts, and everything else. They're all gone. We are the last of a long tribe. I have a sister and one aunt who is 95 years old, and that's all there are of the Calkins crew. The area that I grew up in is not far from the ocean as I explained earlier and is a, it is and was a beautiful area. As a matter of fact, I consider myself very fortunate to having grown up where I could walk about a mile or so and go swimming in a creek or fishing. There were woods to go hunting in, although I wasn't a hunter. There were places to play ball, although not the manicured places that are available to kids today. We had to go out and cut grass down and make a place to play. But it was a wonderful area. It was a wonderful time to grow-up even though I grew up during the depression years. As I said, we were poor, but we didn't realize it. I know my father never made more than $3500 a year in his life as a policeman and when he retired, by the way, they had no pension system, so he got no pension when he retired. It was a good time nevertheless. It was a time when so called family values that Congress seems to be enamored of these days, were truly enforced. I often said to classes that I have taught that it was impossible to run away from home, because if you went down the street and somebody saw you where you weren't supposed to be, they would give you a shirttail run back home and then you would get another boot in the tail when you got back home. There was a reinforcement of the family group and family values by your neighbors that doesn't exist today, in my opinion. It was a good time to grow-up. I went to two elementary schools in Norwich. One was grades K-3, I guess it was and the other one was grades 4-8. I went to Norwich Free Academy which has a strange name and it was a very unusual high school because grades 9-12 are in a private school. All of the students in Norwich, Connecticut went to that high school even though it was a private school. So all public school students were there. As a matter of fact, that's all there were, were public school students in it. But the local City or Town of Norwich paid the tuition for the kids to go there. So that's the way it operates. So the Board of Education of Norwich has absolutely nothing to do with what's done at Norwich Free Academy except pay the bill that they provide for them every year. It's a very interesting place. The high school now I think has more than thirty buildings to it. It looks more like a good size college than it does a high school. It has its own museum, art buildings and a huge brand new library. It is just a very interesting place. Growing up in Norwich, I think, I had the best of everything, even though we never had much. We, as a family, did a lot of things together until I was 17 years of age and I enlisted in the Navy. I never really had traveled anywhere, but spent three years in the United States Navy and went to just about every island group in the South Pacific all the way down to Australia and then to the mainland in China. The experience in the Navy was a good one because I grew up and you just grow up in a hurry when you are with a group of men whose lives depend upon one another. You either do or you fall by the wayside very, very quickly. It was an experience that I will never forget, and .......
Q: Did that lead you into education in any way? What events lead you into education?
A: Well yea, what happened I think, I remember sitting, and I mentioned this in other places and in my writings and my talks, I was sitting in a building just outside of Cavitie City, which is really the seaport of Manilla, and that, at that time I was, because I was an aviation radioman, and I knew Morris Code exceptionally well and I could send blinker signals and all kinds of other signals, so I was talking to, using the blinker system, to some people in the ships in the harbor and we were asking one another what we were going to do when the war was over with and I remember just spontaneously saying that I was going to become a teacher.
Q: You never thought that before?
A: No. As a matter of fact that was the farthest thing from my mind. But it seemed logical to me because a war is a terrible experience for anybody and a war is an absolute absurdity because one side tries to convince the other side that they are wrong by killing them. That's a pretty serious learning experience, especially if you're dead. But the point is, that it seemed to me that you ought to be able to do something to eliminate that process, that ultimate stupidity, and the only thing that came to my mind, and still does, is that we've got to educate people, to know one-another and care for one another and have some kind of a loving relationship with one another. The rest of it doesn't make an awful lot of sense. When I came out I went back to school under the GI Bill and I am eternally grateful to my country because they gave me an opportunity to become educated, and I went to the University of Connecticut and spent, actually I graduated in about three years, of necessity. I was married and children were coming in a hurry and I had to get to work, couldn't afford to live on the GI Bill. But just one experience and I remember very vividly.....
Q: Did you enter teaching right after getting out of college?
A: Yes I did. I want to tell you about one experience. I was in an extension program. There wasn't room on campus for all the veterans that had come out of World War II, so I had to go to an extension service until baseball season came around, because once baseball season came, if you were a good baseball player you went to campus right away, fast, so that's how I got to campus. But the story I want to tell you is about an economics class that I was in, and a big lecture hall. There must have been 800 students in there and the professor was lecturing away. I see Ron is grinning. I probably told him this story at one time in my life, but all of a sudden this voice came out of the audience saying "You're full of..., you-know-what." I mean, and he said it very loudly and of course there was a silence in the auditorium and the professor looked out and he said "If you were, if you weren't hiding in the anonymity of this large group, you never would have dared to say that" and this guy stood up and I knew him, very well, he was a former Marine, and he had a what they call a colostomy. He had all kinds of honors that he had won in Europe fighting for us and he stood up and said "My name is ..." and he told him his name. He said "My serial number is ....." told him that, "My address is ....." He told him that, he said "My telephone number is ...." and "You're still full of ...., you know-what". Well the professor to his credit, laughed and he said "You are entitled to your opinion and I admire you for having the guts to stand up and say it." and I've never forgotten that and I asked the young man.....
Q: Did you admire that?
A: I sure did, I did, because you know the way I had been taught to go to school was to be a receptacle. You know, you sit there and you take all these words of wisdom from people and you never question it, and he did and he told me later he got an "A" in the course, which he should have gotten because he was a very bright young man. But the point is, that started me thinking about really what should be the learning, the teaching and learning experience. Shouldn't it be something more of the collaborative type rather than somebody telling the other person everything they're supposed to know? And you know, you stop to think about it for just a minute, you can't learn how to drive a car by reading a book. At least I don't think you can. I sure as heck can't. Some drivers look like they did, but the point is, you got to get out there on the road and you have got to be taught how to do it and you do it by being taught. The analogy that comes to mind quickly is, if you drive a stick shift, there is no way in the world you can tell somebody how to release the clutch, take your foot off the brake and give it just the right gas so that car won't stall. You have got to feel that and until you can feel it, you can't do it.
Q: Do you think your college days preparing for teaching prepared you for that or did that just come to you on your own?
A: No, I think that's just something that it makes sense to me. I have often thought of a lot of the things that my grandfather used to say. He had many, many favorite aphorisms. I remember once I was, I had come home from taking a psychology I, of basic psychology classes, and I was telling my grandfather about "Boy this is how you do it with children" and what have you, and he said "Well", he said," how do you, how do you discipline children" and I said "Well, Grandpa, the authorities say that you should always wait until you have cooled down yourself. Never, never, punish a child in anger" and my grandfather looked at me and he said "Well", he said, "I'll tell you about how I feel about that." He said "anybody who waits to punish a child, physically punish a child until he is completely cooled down and not angry, is a cold blooded wretch" and I've never forgotten that. And you know, I began to think that, well you know everything that is written in a book, everything that a professor tells you, isn't necessarily gospel and there are probably lots of other ways you could do things and manage them just as effectively and get kids to learn. That's where I really began to think more and more about what ought to be done in a school system.
Q: Tell me about your teaching experiences. You went from college right into doing what?
A: Well, I went, I worked at a, first worked at a rural junior high school in North Stonington, Connecticut. It was the only one in Connecticut like it. I didn't know that when I went there and I taught grades 7, 8, 9. I taught Algebra, English, and Social Studies. I didn't teach that long, about 2 years. I finished my teaching experience at Roger Level High School in Fairfield, Connecticut, then I went into guidance, in guidance and psychology, and then ultimately into educational administration.
Q: Did you go into guidance on your own?
A: Yea, I got into guidance because the more I thought about, first of all, if you look at the prerequisites for a good educational program or to run a good high school for example, you first must care for the physical and mental health of the students. If you don't do that, learning is a joke. I mean, the teachers may be going through the learning process but a kid who is hung up on drugs, he isn't learning anything. If he is, it will be a miracle. It will have to be by osmosis from what I have observed in many of the kids over the years that I have known who have been on drugs or if a youngster is experiencing severe emotional problems at home. Then you get them into a classroom and you treat them like everybody else. That's ridiculous! I mean, you cannot expect that child to perform like all the others. Now I don't think you can necessarily take care of every problem every child has, but you ought to at least make the effort and until you can get that taken care of, you're kidding yourself about what you think the child is learning and I think that's crucial to any learning situation.
Q: And those feelings led you into guidance? How long did you do that?
A: Yea. I was a guidance counselor, let me see, I was a guidance counselor at Manchester High School for three years, at Garden City High School for four years, and Syossett High School for one year and I left Syossett High School because, these were, Garden City and Syossett were on Long Island, two excellent high schools where the large majority of the kids went to four year colleges. They were excellent in that sense, I guess, whether or not they were excellent in the sense of every attribute that I think is desirable is another question. But I enjoyed those experiences. They were some wonderful kids. Well they were all wonderful as far as I'm concerned. It's just a matter of where they are, who they are and what experiences they've had.
Q: We're real interested in knowing about how you got into the principalship. You have an interesting story, I know about that. Tell us how you entered that.
A: Well, I had become a director or assistant superintendent for guidance and special services in Norwalk, Connecticut. I had decided at that point I could influence more children or provide for them better if I got into a position of responsibility of that type. Just for the heck of it I said, well I'm gonna see if I can't get such a position and I applied for one in Norwalk and it's the only one I ever applied for and I was appointed. I still don't know why, but I was and it gave me an opportunity to do things that few educators I think really have. We developed the first programs in the state of Connecticut, and I'll get to the high school in just a second. We developed the first programs for emotionally disturbed kids. That was a fascinating experience because the gal I hired to do the job, her name was Eleanor Craig and she wrote a book about her experiences called P. S., You're Not Listening. I still remember Eleanor asking me " Well, what do I do?", I said "I haven't the faintest idea," and I said " You are a very bright, sensitive, caring educator," and I said "What ever you do is right." And she did an outstanding job. But, we had the first work-study program in the state of Connecticut. I had to integrate. I was responsible for the integration of the Norwalk Public Schools at a time when the black parents, almost to a man and a woman, did not want their children to be moved into white schools. They did not. I remember I must have drunk 20 gallons of coffee, at coffees where I went into peoples' homes and tried to convince them that this was a good thing. And God bless the white parents also, and God bless the black parents, because they finally, when they got together and finally began to meet with one another, they are the ones that brought it about. All I did was act as a catalyst and it finally worked out very well. But all of a sudden I was in charge of a program, pupil personnel services, where I had, you know, 20 some thousand students and I had a force, a work force of over a hundred people. In retrospect, I still wonder why the devil I got hired to do it, but I did it and it was fun. Anyway, I left Norwalk and went to Westport, same position. Westport is right next to Norwalk on Long Island Sound and I worked there in central office for a year and it was in August before school was to open and we had no principal at the high school. Nobody would apply for the job. You have to remember that this was back during the 60's and in 1965, in retrospect, I wonder, I really question my own sanity in some respects, in terms of applying for that. I didn't apply for that job. What happened was the Board was sitting around, we're having lunch at the Red Barn Inn which is on the Post Road, or just off the Post Road in Westport, Connecticut and everybody was looking at one another saying "What are we gonna do, we don't have a principal?" We had three of them in a row inside of a year. They all quit. They quit because the kids, they couldn't handle the kids, and you have to......
Q: How large a school was that?
A: About 2500 students, grades 10, 11, and 12, and you have to understand, the mean IQ was pretty close to 130, so I mean they were bright kids. We had anywhere from 50 to 60 national merit semi-finalists and finalists every year. They were just an extremely bright group of kids. Both of you know from your own experiences, to take a relatively low IQ youngster who is bad, it's easier to deal with him than a kid who has a 150 IQ who is hell bent for election on taking the school apart. First of all, a lot of those kids are a lot smarter than I was and the faculty too and there was no way in the world you were going to browbeat them or to out think them or outsmart them. You couldn't do it. There was only one way to do it and that was to co-op them into something they believed in. Well anyway, back off just a second. We couldn't find anybody to go up there so I said to the chairman, I still remember talking and at that time saying to Bob Onstead who was the Chairman of the Board, I said "I'll go up and run the school for you till you find somebody." I said "It'll be a lot of fun. I would enjoy that, because I like the kids." Then as they said "You would?" I said "Yes", so up I went and I became an assistant superintendent of schools and a high school principal together. They got me real cheap, because they didn't give me any extra money.
Q: Did you have assistants, I assume?
A: Yea I did, I had two assistants and the, I went up there and I remember one of them was a fellow by the name of Bill Murphy who worked here in Martinsville for a while. Bill, I told Bill I was going to go speak to the kids and I said "We have got to get them on our side. If we don't get them on our side", I said "I'm gonna be run out of here and so are you and everybody else." So anyway, we set up a meeting in the gym. I was in the middle of the gymnasium floor. We couldn't put the kids in the auditorium because there wasn't enough room for them and we had 2500 youngsters, all spread all over the floor and the bleachers, and what have you. And I remember Bill asked me "What are you going to tell them?" I said "I'm going to tell them that I love them, and that I care about them and that I'm going to do everything in my power to bring about the kind of school they would like to have." And he said "They'll laugh at you." I said "No they won't. They won't laugh at you if you mean it." They didn't. There were a few snickers. But, I got going and told them exactly what I planned to do and that we were going to end up having a school that we could all be proud of and enjoy. They accepted that. We went on from there and we led to and developed a collaborative system of government, actually shared government, called the Staples Governing Board and....
Q: Let me back up a minute. I'm real interested in the student body there. Tell me about what kind of period of, what was going on. Tell me what your student body, what the building was like, what the students were like.
A: Well you have to remember it was 1965. In 1965 there were, there was student unrest in the United States at the college level. There were all kinds of sit-ins, sit-downs, and all other kinds of things and because so many of our kids went to college, actually 98% of them went on to four year schools, so everything that happened in the colleges and universities, immediately would happen at the local level. So, these youngsters were very much tuned into the protests. The thinking of the day was anti-Vietnam war, and so forth. Our youngsters were as involved as any college group that I knew of in the United States. I think I may have told both of you at one time, I had over a hundred students who were card carrying members of the Students for a Democratic Society, which is an extreme left-wing group. And one of our kids, I remember a parent sent me a picture from the Chicago Tribune, in the Democratic Convention and one of my students was in the picture taking the American Flag down at the convention, for the Democratic Convention. So that was the kind of youngster that I had to deal with and the question was how to get them co opted, if you will. How do you bring them into the fold? How do you make them become responsible citizens, taking responsibility for themselves and responsibility for others? We did it through the concept of the Staples Governing Board. We sold that idea and then we....
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about that?
A: Well yea, the Staples Governing Board simply was a, well first of all, when I went there, we didn't have a student government, because nobody would run for it. The kids rejected it. They said it was "sandbox government." It was a waste of time. It was an insult to their intelligence, and they were right. It was. I mean, big deal. They would decide which band they were going to have for the school prom and stuff like that. They never got involved in meaningful decisions. So I said, O.K. let's construct something that we can provide, which we could provide meaningful decisions for kids and they came up with this concept. There were 10 kids elected by their peers. There were 7 teachers elected by their peers and there were 3 administrators that the principal would appoint. They could decide anything in the school, anything, unless it was contrary to school board policy or state law or local law. You know you couldn't break the law. The principal had 2 veto powers. He had a substitutive veto power and an absolute veto power. In other words, I could take and decide this wasn't appropriate and I'm going to veto it, but you can vote on it and if you override my veto, it will go in. Never had that happen. I never had it happen once. It was absolute vetoes I did utilize on more than one occasion, because they would come up with something that was contrary to board policy. That was the general problem. But the fascinating thing was, that of the 10 students who were initially elected, 4 of them, maybe even 5, I don't know about that 5th one, but 4 of them were card carrying members of the SDS and one of them came in to me, I remember, after he got elected and he said, he was a smart kid, he came in, he said "You got me, didn't you?" I said "Yea, I think I have." He said "You know, I've got to either be responsible or I have got to get off this board." I said "Absolutely. You can't be both." And so anyway, he changed completely and the others did and the fascinating thing was our entire school, of their on volition appeared at a series of school board meetings before the public, because the town wasn't exactly enamored of this idea and our board was, and our superintendent was. They all had guts. They were willing to take a risk, a calculated risk. These kids went down, you should have, if you could have been there you would have been so proud of the kids because they stood up and they defended this concept, how they worked it out and how they wanted to try it and how the townspeople didn't need to worry about them. They would be responsible. Anyway, it was voted in unanimously by the board and finally approved and we worked at it for 9 years, 8 or 9 years, and when I left it was going strong. They decided all kinds of things. Well, just as an example one time, they wanted to have, they wanted to be able to select their teachers. Yea, they wanted to be able to select their teachers. So I said "Sure" and Bill Murphy, who I mentioned earlier, he devised the cafeteria system of selecting classes the way you do in college and what we did was we....
Q: They wanted to select the class, not hire teachers?
A: No, No I mean, I'm sorry, to select the teacher, although we did that too. No, this was to select the teacher that you wanted to teach you and so we did this in the fall. The first 2 days of school we did this. That's what we did. We did nothing during the Summer time and the reason we did it then was because you could look at all the changes you could take care of immediately by following this process. I knew I had 3 or 4 teachers that were going to be very nervous and I couldn't have cared less because they were lousy.
Q: I was going to ask you, did you have some that the students did not choose?
A: Oh yea, and we finally had to put some people in there. Seniors got their first choice, juniors had the next priority, and the sophomores better take pretty much what was left. But the good thing about it was everybody knew that they would get their shot sooner or later when they wanted and it worked out fine because of the computer system we had with the punch cards and all that. You probably know better than I do how it was done but the kid would finish and he had all these cards and he turned them in, then the computer guy ran them all through and we had the class list prepared. We did it in 2 days.
Q: Now I'm interested in how the teachers felt about the students running the school like this? Did you have some resistance from them about it?
A: No, no because they had 10 people themselves on the thing. The fascinating thing to me was never, never was there a block vote by the teachers or the administrators or the kids. In other words, what they, they were individuals. They looked at the problems individually and they voted individually and I, and to me that was a wonderful thing to happen. The .....
Q: We were talking about your student government or governments at your school and I can't get past this without asking you, do you think it could work in this day and time, you know 30 years later or so, could it work in a high school?
A: Let me ask you this. I shouldn't do this but I'll ask you a question. Well no I won't ask a question. I'll make a statement. If it won't work here, some variation of it, then this country is doomed.
Q: Why do you think we don't try that kind of thing in our high schools now?
A: Very simple. Most adults don't trust kids and they haven't got the guts to do it. It takes courage to do this and the, hell, I could have been fired at any moment. I told the school board, I said to them on more than one occasion, "Look, I want to do these things. I take complete and full responsibility for it. If it doesn't work, then you know, you do what you have to do." I said, "You won't even need to fire me. If it doesn't work I'll quit and get out of here." But I said, "I trust these kids." Incidently, that's what a lot of administrators are not willing to do. The kids want to see you get up on the cross. They really want to see if you'll suffer for them or take risks for them. They really do and if you don't they say you're a phony. They're asking, you know you ask a kid every day in class to risk something. Learning is a risk taking experience, whether it's in a class or it's in the cafeteria, or it's down the hallway where you're meeting a girl for the first time, if you're a young fellow and you don't know what to say. You're taking a risk. Every single time you turn around growing up in adolescence, you're taking risks and we very blithely say to these kids, "Oh, try, you know, just try" but then we have a system that makes an ass out of them if they try and they don't succeed. What's worse we even fail them and that's why I despise percentage systems of marking so much, and I'll get into that later. In any event, the point is, the kids want to try, but they want to be treated fairly and they don't want to be humiliated. They don't want to be treated inhumanely. By and large, the schools in the United States have been, traditionally have been inhumane places. You know, what are the functions of a high school anyway? First of all, there's a, there is a confinement function. That's what you do, you confine them. You got, it's the "if you can't catch them, you can't teach them" function. So we got to get them in here, we have laws that make them come in here and so on, and so forth. Then you're going to try to indoctrinate them into some kind of a system. Yea, we're going to give them a value system. People say there aren't any values taught in the public schools today. The hell there isn't. There are values, I don't like them necessarily in some cases. Then you got a training function and you're supposed to take and train these kids to be students. Well, how do you do that? Well, you do it by and large through threats. (in punishment) In punishment of course, that's what we do. There are a couple of other functions too that I just want to mention briefly if I may. There's a sorting function. We got to sort these kids. We got to sort them so they go into college or junior college or they go to trade school or they go to work in the factories locally and so on and so forth. That's another pet peeve of mine. ( Better known as tracking, perhaps somewhat) Well whatever, you know we said we don't really track anymore, but we do. The school, the high school has a sorting function that is terrible in my opinion. Finally, there is the self-actualization function. Which is stolen from, the concept is stolen from Abraham, Dr. Abraham Mazlow and there the kid is supposed to, and this is where education could be at it's best, the kid is supposed to be like the Army says "Be all he can be" and unfortunately that's probably the weakest function of the public schools. We're great at it in the kindergarten and then as you go through the grades, we get worse at it, worse at it, worse at it.....
Q: Why? Who's responsible for it being worse higher up?
A: Well, I think it's the system. I really do and it's the system that has evolved over the years. If you look at, you know you look at kids. Go to a kindergarten. You were an elementary teacher. If you wanted to be reassured about the future of education, just go in there and watch those little kindergarten kids. They're quivering with excitement. They're enjoying what they're doing. There's no threat of any kind. It's wonderful. Go and look at them as seniors at the high school. They stopped quivering a long time ago. By that point they are jaded. They know that it's gamesmanship. They know that it isn't what it's supposed to be and they're self-actualized. Unfortunately at a level that I think will keep them forever in a particular place that is not necessarily to their advantage. I think that's one of the real failings of the public schools and of course, immediately I would say. And this is really the Staples Governing Board. Unless we give kids practical, meaningful experiences in decision making as citizens in school, how in heaven's name, where will they learn it. They're gonna learn it on their job? If that's true, how come only 30 some percent of all the eligible voters in the United States voted in the last election. I mean, that's tragic. That's terrible. I mean, people, I have friends who are forever 19 and 20 years old, they're dead. They're in the Philippine Islands buried there. Guys that were in the plane crash with me that nobody will ever see again, only remembered by their families and friends and those people died for the privilege to vote, among other things and when I see people who just say "the hell with it" in effect, "I'm not going to be bothered", that really saddens me and angers me. And the problem is as a school we don't do it. A high school, a public high school is probably the least democratic institution in our society, short of a jail, a prison, or something like that, you know, or the military.
Q: And we're training them to go out and think on their own.
A: Well, you are. Well look, I remember the first thing I did as a principal of the high school, I've told both of you this. I took and I pulled all the wires out of the damn bell mechanism and stopped the bells forever at Staples High School and you might ask why did you do that? Because it personifies, it exemplifies everything that I think is wrong with running a high school. We rang a bell to tell everybody that we were going to ring another bell, to warn them, then we rang that bell, then we rang a bell after that to say you missed that second bell, if you're not already in class. We rang 3 bells. Now the point is, when you get to high school, at least in the high school that I was in grades 10, 11, and 12, we had many 18 year olds. You got 18 year olds who can vote, who could be drafted and go fight in Vietnam or as our beloved president did, find some other way of avoiding it, you know which was fine, but the point is that those kids were suddenly going to be expected to be responsible. You don't learn responsibility the day you graduate from high school.
Q: But some would argue this, that kids are different now than they were when you were in high school, (I don't believe so) that their influences are so different now that they're not as responsible, that they are not, that they don't have the caring, nurturing environments at home. How would you argue that?
A: You know Joan, I read something not too long ago where a couple of ancient Greeks were arguing the same point. Those kids are just not responsible today, and that's a fact. Now the, you're going to have peaks and valleys of behavior. If what you're saying is a legitimate argument, then maybe we ought to throw away the democratic system in this country, any small democratic system in this country, because, hell it's not working. If you were running a business enterprise and you were only being 30% successful, you wouldn't be in business very long I don't think. It's only the federal government, which can keep making endless amounts of money, that can afford to do things like that. We can't. The point I'm trying to make simply is that, I think that any approach you use, it doesn't necessarily have to be the one I use. What I did, I went into a high school in a situation, assessed the situation, what was happening to these kids and I applied what I thought was the appropriate management technique. Now, I'm not saying this would work today. Maybe it won't, maybe you need something else. But the point is, what you got isn't working. So somebody's got to have the guts to come in and dream and dare and take a risk.
Q: There's a lot out there about creating a good school environment, in the school. Now what did you do to create a good school environment for not only your students but your staff members and how, and can you relate that to what principals can do now?
A: My office was on the ground floor. I had a big window that went down to about a foot off the ground and it was very easy to step in and out the window. So I used to open the window and that's what I did. I opened the window and the door, so the kids could come right through, and they did. Sometimes they'd walk through ( Through the window?), oh yea, and they'd come in and sometimes they would stop, sometimes they would go on through and I was available all day long to kids and to teachers and to parents and they didn't have to have an appointment. They could just come, but they had to wait their turn if somebody was already there. This was symbolic of what I was trying to communicate to them. It was just a symbol. After a while I didn't even notice it. It didn't bother me. Lots of times I'd be working. I never had a desk, I had a table and because I didn't want my office to look like an office, it really didn't, it looked like, well I got a lot of criticism from some parents who said "You don't even have a desk." I said, "That's right, I don't and I don't intend to have one. I don't need it because I got a table. It's got more room, it'll be wide open and I can put all kinds of stuff on it." "Yea, but you're supposed to have a desk." I said, "Where is that written down that you don't need a desk." But the point is though, ....
Q: But you had a seating area out there?
A: Oh yea. Mostly they sat on the floor. They liked to sit on the floor. That was the time when kids loved to sit on the floor. In the halls, everywhere. So I let them. You know, we gave the kids complete freedom of campus and what we did was, for example, if you had the first period free you didn't need to come to school until your first class time. If you had the last period free, you could leave. I told them that we were going to continue to do all these things as long as they made it work. You have a drug problem in the schools today. We know that. Interestingly, we had one back there then too. Not to the degree of severity that it exists today I don't believe. But the problem is, you know, it's not, it used to make me angry when TV and our cameramen, what have you, would come into my office and stick a, NBC would have a camera in my face, asking what I was doing about the drug problem at Staples High School. My reply was "I'm doing the best I can, but the problem is not a Staples High School, it's in the community at large. These kids just happen to come here, but you're not going to find the root cause here and you're not going to be able to solve the problem here." But one of the things, when I made that issue, talked to the kids about, I talked about drugs and when we got to know one another real well, and they trusted me, one day a group of them came in, all the big hulks and the jock girls and everything else, and a bunch of them. It must have been about 30 of them crowded in my office. I said, "Uh-oh, what's going on?" "Not to worry," I said. "O.K., what do you want?" They said, "we want to tell you that you don't need to worry about drugs on campus anymore." I said, "Oh?" I said, "what do you mean?" He said, "we've taken care of it" and he said, "there will not be anymore drugs on campus as long as we're here." And as far as I know, we had the state police....
Q: What did they do?
A: They intimidated, I guess. They did things I didn't approve. I said, "Now look, you don't hurt anybody." "Oh no, we didn't hurt anybody." But you know if you get a couple of 270 pounders of muscle, telling you that this isn't going to happen anymore, it's very effective. I told them, "Never hurt anybody." I said, "I don't even like you to intimidate people. Make your feelings known, but don't...." They said, "Nope, we don't." I said, "O.K., well, I believe you.". But anyway, we had a police informant who was a young looking guy enrolled in our high school. I didn't know that and he was there for 2 years and he came to me when he left and he reported that was in the papers that and everything else, he could not find drugs on the high school and he was never offered any and as far as he knew it wasn't being sold. I don't, you know the conditions may be completely different today and it may be a real problem, but the principal has got to be the personality of the school. He's got to be or she's got to be.
Q: Well, that leads me into my question about leadership. A lot has been written in recent years about, a lot of attention has been given to the role of personal leadership within a school, a leader versus a manager. What was your approach in leadership? Describe some techniques that you used that worked for you and maybe some that didn't work for you.
A: Well, I want to begin by saying that if I could go back to that talk that I made to the kids that very first day at Staples High School, I would have included my affections of love and care and concern to the faculty as well as the kids, because I felt that way about them. Now, they learned that I did because I went to bat for lots of them and thereafter and did the same things for them as I did for the kids and I think that they came to believe that. But I should have included them in my first message and I didn't and the reason I didn't is because I just assumed that they felt the same way that I did and that was, and most of them did, they really did. I think there were maybe 2 or 3 out of 120 that didn't really feel that way and we soon lost them. They weren't, by the way, both of them were not old people or they were relatively young teachers, but they didn't belong in education. They had made a mistake and they came and told me that this was not for them and I said, "Well, good luck," and both of them went into, one went into social work and one went into business. But I should have included them and the reason I mention that is because I think that is part of how you lead. You convince people that you are genuinely interested in them and concerned about them and you believe that they will do the things that provide a loving, caring relationship for kids and you have got to sell yourself in that respect and then you have got to get the teachers to do the same thing. You know a genuinely good teacher feels that way. The problem is, they have been conditioned over the years to think that's, you don't treat kids like that in high school. You're supposed to treat them like adults. That's bologna! Yea, you can treat them like adults in terms of responsibility. They should be more responsible than a kindergarten youngster and what have you, but the fact of the matter is, they should know that their feelings and care and concern for kids ought to be out in the open. You don't mother them in the same way in high school, but there are lots of ways that you can show your concern and once the kids believe that and that you're gonna be on their side then everything, I think will work its way out. I tried to do that from the very beginning and I worked at it very hard all year so I was there and I think it paid dividends. Every once in a while, I'll still get a letter from one of the students who was at that school who tracks me down and I don't know how they do it, because these kids, our kids at Staples High School are scattered all over the world. They came from all over the world, as a matter of fact and they scattered all over the world.
Q: I know you was a real team person, did you do .....
A: Yea, I was coming to that. The next thing that I had decided to do was to incorporate the management team concept in the operation of the school and really it was a very logical extension from that to go to the Staples Governing Board, made sense to do it. It wasn't any brilliant concept. All it took was a little courage. By the way, back, there was a fellow, I think his name was Shmerler, did a study in the United States in the 1960's to determine how many high schools in the United States really had any form of shared governments. There were 7 of them that he found. Seven! Now that's fascinating. Seven schools in the whole United States that were willing to take a step toward learning participatory democracy as a meaningful experience. I mean, it's crazy but that's the way it was. O.K., what you do in the management team concept is very simple. First of all you've got to hire the best people you can get, the smartest, the one's who question the most, the doubters, the people who are willing to create and try things. I remember I hired a drama person that used to drive me nuts. We had 6 full-time drama teachers there and this guy was in-charge of the program. He just ignored every law relative to how you wire things. We'd go there and it would look like a Roube Goldberg contraption on the back of the stage and the fire Marshall would come in and I'd say, "Oh my Lord, I know what he's here for." And we would have a big production gonna go on and he'd say, "Well, you can't do it.", and I'd say, "What are we gonna do?" He'd say, "You need to get an electrician in here real fast" so we would get it straightened up.
Q: So you didn't hire followers necessarily?
A: No, but he was creative. God, he was creative and the kids loved him and they learned and it was just wonderful and the people that I hired as administrators were really great. I hired the first woman administrator in high school in Staples history and it went back, Staples goes back to the 19, well back before the Civil War and incidentally, I was, I think, the 3rd or 4th principal that ever existed at the school that stayed there any length of time. So it's an old school. The whole notion of corporative, challenging, enthusiastic relationships. These are fundamentals to the management team concept. Everybody's got to feel they've got a stake in it, a genuine stake in it and they've got a responsibility for it. So you hire these best people, turn them loose and get the hell out of their way, let them go and if they need to be check reined occasionally, fine. That's the job of the principal and if the principal doesn't do it, the superintendent sure as heck will and the school board will get you. But these concepts are relatively easy to implement and I enjoyed watching people perform. The next thing you have to do is make absolutely certain that everybody gets his share of the lime light. They have to be given the opportunity to do, Ron knows, I would call on him all the time to do his thing. You were there, that's why I had you all at the meetings because I, first of all, you knew more than I did about your schools or if you didn't, we should have fired you and you were the best person to answer any questions about it, plus you gained recognition for it and I know it hasn't hurt him and it hasn't hurt you. That's how you grow. The interesting thing also is you try to train the people, give them every opportunity to learn everything about your job. If you're the superintendent then your assistants ought to learn how to be a superintendent. If you're an assistant principal, they need to learn how to be a principal, and so the management team concept is a natural for doing that and all you have to do again is give them responsibility, turn them loose and say, "Ada Boy and ada girl" and go to it and you know, it really isn't very hard, that's what we do in athletics all the time. You know, you don't, well, I had a superintendent once who, two fellows and one other guy and myself, we put together a federal grant for a work study program and I'll tell you where it was, it was in Norwalk, Connecticut. The man's dead now so I can talk about him I guess, but anyway, the thing is, he was against the idea. He said, "This is not good enough, not good enough," and we came down to a deadline. We had to have the proposal into the office, an office in Hartford, Connecticut, and Westport is a good two, two and a half hour drive from there, so it was on a Friday afternoon. I went in to see his secretary, the superintendent's secretary. He said, she said, "he's not here," and her name was Mildred. " I still remember", I said, "Mildred", I said, "give me that thing," cause he hadn't sent it in. She said, "Jim", she said, "I don't think I should do this." I said, "Mildred, give me the damn thing." So she gave it to me and this guy and I we took it to Hartford. The thing was accepted. The superintendent was so mad I thought he was going to fire me on the spot. I said, "Go ahead and fire me." I said, "If you want to. I don't care." I said, "I know we're right and you're wrong." And I didn't give a hoot who he was. Anyway, at that point because I was mad, cause we had worked hard to put this thing together. The thing was implemented and not only was it good, it won a national award, the program did. And they had a program in Miami, Florida for the people who put this together. He went and wouldn't let us go, and I've never, ever forgotten that. I said, "by God if I ever become a superintendent of schools or principal," I said, " I will never do that to my people." I mean, that's a terrible thing to do. Can you imagine the hypocrisy of damning this project from the word go and after it went, now it gets recognition so he goes down and gets the paper? The guy's name was Sal Doleberg that did it with me, Sal came in to me and he looked at me and he went like that, he threw his arms up he said, "What the hell's the use?" I said, "hey, the use is that we did it for the kids." I said, "this jackass did it for selfgrantisment." As far as I'm concerned that's a whole different story, so if you get back to this notion, and get a management team, you pat them on the back, you encourage them and you don't browbeat them if something goes wrong. You simply say, "Hey look, I've made mistakes like that or worse, so how do we correct it and let's go on from there." You don't, you know, you don't stand around commiserating with one another or saying, you know, you're an idiot and what did you do that for. The only time I would ever get after anybody in a management team concept, if they, and the same thing with teachers, if they get to the point where they insist on being a damn fool, then I part company with them because, well I can be a damn fool all by myself, I don't need the help of people around me. Hopefully, those people are gonna help me stay out of trouble.
Q: Well, let me ask you. Here's a pretty broad question. You may have touched on it. Looking at schools now, the kind of students we have, as you view it, what characteristics are associated with the most effective schools and what features make it an effective school? Is it the people in it, is it the programs, would it be the students, what, or all of those? What would make an effective school in your mind?
A: Well, I think it's all of the things that you touched on when you were speaking, but I think you determine the schools' effectiveness by looking at what comes out of the school. I mean, what's coming out of there? I mean that has to be the litmus test it seems to me, for the success of any school. What are your graduates doing and the fundamental question to me is, what kinds of human beings have they become? Because......
Q: You're not talking about test scores?
A: No. No, hell no. Test scores are ......
Q: Because so many people think that's what, that's what determines a good school.
A: No. I have known, as a matter of fact, I'll tell you about a young man that I know. Ph.D., he was a, the director of placement at a major university in Ohio. Got to know him real well. Bright as hell. He once told me he had nothing but A's all the way through and I said, "Well that's wonderful" and he had all kinds of test scores. He had a Phi Beta Kappa key and the whole business and just before I left Connecticut, I hadn't called him or talked to him in a long time and I was looking for a certain kind of teacher. It was a science teacher as a matter of fact, so I called his placement office and asked for him and they said, "Oh, he's not here." I said, "well, where is he?" There was silence for a while. I said, "well, where is he? I know the man real well." He said, the lady said, "he's in prison." I said, "why is he in prison?" "Because he molested children and he was convicted." The point I'm making simply is, he's got all of the right badges. Now you can be an Eagle Scout and still be a S. O. B. You can be the best student in the world and still be a lousy citizen. If we don't teach or provide opportunities for kids to learn about one another as human beings. At Staples High School we had one small group of townies. They were kids who grew up in Westport. Incidentally, at our high school, grades 10, 11 and 12, you had a complete change over in student population from grade 9 to 12. Complete!
A: Tremendous movement on the part of the parents. These were executives, show business people, all that sort of thing. You know, as I told you before, I had Paul Newman's kids in class, Harry Reasoner's, Darren McGavin and so on, you know, all very famous people and, but they were constantly moving and so, but you had a net increase every year that I was there. By the way, the high school, when I was there was 2500, is now 600, no, 900 students, yep and that's in grades 9-12.
Q: Is that because of the community or ....?
A: No, it's because there, you're getting more and more people in that particular community where they're not having children or they're only having a few children. But the, I think that kids, I think that kids are the same everywhere. There are different climates in which they're growing up and I think that's basically what you've got to understand. That's the only way to understand why kids are behaving the way they are and you've got to analyze that and you've got to sit down and figure out what you can do to co-op the students into the kind of concepts that we've been talking about that will improve citizenship and if you can do that, you're the kind of person I'd like to see be principal of the high school.
Q: This is tape two, side A. We are continuing our interview with Dr. James Calkins and the question that we were discussing on the last tape that we want to continue on this tape is: What makes an effective school? Do you have some other comments that you'd like to make on what, what, to you, makes an effective school?
A: Well, I think you can only determine the true effectiveness of any school, any public high school particularly, and I think it's true of any school for that matter, is to find out exactly what students who have graduated think about the school, as it affects their lives, their jobs, the way they feel about themselves, their feelings about responsibility for self and others, and so forth, and the only way you can do that in my judgement effectively is to do follow up interviews. But you just don't take and track down your youngsters who have been extremely successful in college for example, or even on the job. You really need to talk to everybody and when you, or at least a good sampling of everybody who graduated from your school, and really ask them the hard question. Among other things, I would start with: What did we do wrong? What really was wrong with what we tried to do for you? What didn't we do that we should have done? What would you offer as a suggestion to improve? How could we have made your school experience more effective? Were you treated humanely? Why not? What did we do wrong there? What could we have done better, and so forth. Then you need to take all of these things and put them together and see what kind of groupings you get and then look at these groupings and say, "O.K., what can we do about that administratively and as a faculty?" and you got to have guts enough to look at it. If all you're gonna do, and we did it in Martinsville when I was Superintendent and we used to do it back at Staples High School. We had these wonderful reports that went to the Board. We had, at Staples as I told you, if we didn't have fifty national merit semi-finalists and finalists every year, the community thought we had failed. Well, that's absurd! To think that is the answer to effectiveness of a school. What you've got to really do is find about what kinds of people they've become. How many of our kids end up in jail? How many of them end up with an attitude toward the law that maybe we helped condition them with, when they were at our high school? We have to look at every negative aspect that we can find in order to make corrections. If you ignore them, then I think you're missing the boat. An effective school really is one that has the courage to look at these things and then do something about them and that's where I would begin with effectiveness.
Q: I want to talk with you just a moment about curriculum, particularly since your experience is at the secondary level, particularly in high school maybe. It's 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 that you were principal and compare it to what it is now and what are the positive and negative aspects of then and now.
A: Now, when I went to high school, and I, you'll notice I always like to tell a story, I discovered that the older you get the more stories you tend to tell, some of them might even be true, in this case, in this case this is a true story. When I went to high school we had a classical diploma, we had a scientific diploma, we had a general diploma, and we had a commercial diploma, and an agriculture diploma, believe it or not, that's true, oh yes, and if you took classical you had to take four years of Latin, at least three years of a foreign language, and you had to have a year of Greek. Then you had a bunch of other things. As a matter of fact, I got an elective I think it was in my senior year. It was kind of like being in a military academy in that respect. But that's the way it was and that was what we were modeled on, our curriculum was modeled on, the theory of education according to, to Plato, where you divide the people into the gold, the silver and the lead. Well obviously the lead were down there in the commercial and agriculture end, the general people they were, they were the silver and of course those of us who were so brilliant we could become, we were the gold and I have often thought about that and it really hasn't changed...
Q: Have we changed really....
A: No, really it hasn't ....
Q: I figured it had. Have we changed that much?
A: No the labels have changed, that's all. But the philosophy and the psychology behind it, exactly the same. Exactly the same and that relates to that sorting process that I mentioned earlier and we still, and we still do it that way.
Q: How about subjects that we teach now? Is that very different?
A: Well, yea, well I don't think they're that different, you know I honestly believe and I've sat in and observed a lot of classes in my days and if I close my eyes, I could have been back at the Norwich Free Academy. I had a teacher at Staples High School, for example, his name was, well I'll put his name, no I won't say his name, he may still be alive...(
Q: He may be teaching at VA Tech right now.), no, no, no I doubt it, but anyway, he taught economics and he, he used to describe his teaching this way, "I'm the best teacher in this high school at my desk." What interpreted, what that means is he never got off his rearend. He sat at the desk all the time and he lectured. That's what he did. Now, that's a pretty narrow way of teaching in my judgement, but that's an interesting, it's an interesting way to look at it. Now this was not that long, well it was a number of years ago but I'll guarantee there are people like this still around, and there always will be. Now the, (
A: yes), let me tell you another side about curriculum. I remember I had the department chairman of the of the foreign language department of the high school, came to me and she said, "We have got to make a change.", I said, "what's that?" She said "we, we have got to set a line below which, an IQ line below which we will not allow students to take foreign language.", I said, "really, what is it?" She said "a 120 IQ." I said, "now wait a minute." I said, "you know, have you ever been to France?" She said, "Oh, yes." I said, "Have" I said, "Have you ever, have you ever met a mentally retarded child in France?" She said "No." I said, "but I'll bet you if you did, that child can speak French," and she said, "well, but that's different." I said, "what do you mean it's different? If a kid who is acutely mentally retarded can speak French, why can't a kid who has average intelligence in the United States learn to speak French? I don't understand."
Q: Do you think we're beyond that now? Do you think that teachers think differently?
A: I hope not, but I gotta tell you the truth, I think there is, there still are traces of that kind of thinking and not just in foreign language but in a lot of different areas. You probably get the same argument from math people. Look, look at some of the dumb things we do in education. For example, we know for a fact, now, that there are some kids who can not learn to spell. They just can't do it. It's a scientific fact. We've discovered that. Now, what do we do with those kids? Do we cast them aside? No, we try to bring them along. But, but the fact of the matter is, what do we do to help them? Do we treat those kids like they're, they need special education? No we don't. We don't do that. What do we do with a kid who can't learn the multiplication table? Do we cast them aside? Oh, no! We bring them right along. The fascinating thing is you, in this school, right now, in this school system, well, I shouldn't say right now, but it was going on because I talked to teachers about it, we had kids who didn't know the multiplication table but they were taught to divide. Now, you tell me, how can you divide....(
Q: Oh, I'm sure we still have that going on.), yea, how do you teach a kid to divide if he can't do the multiplication table. Ah, but there is a way. You can let them use a calculator or a hand calculator. So why don't we do that? You know, it's fascinating....Which brings up technology.
A: Yea, but you know the interesting thing is, if you go to VA Tech, in the School of Engineering, what's the one thing you got to have when you get there? Epperly: Computer. A computer, and they tell you the kind that you're supposed to have too. Now the kid isn't told, you can't use that computer, they say, "No, this is wonderful. Look at all the things you can do. You can do them faster, you can learn more," and so on and so forth. But we don't do that at the lower levels.
Q: If you were a principal now, would you be, would you be a proponent for technology, as much technology in school as you could get?
A: Hell yes! Absolutely! Because it broadens the horizons of kids. I would love to see a kid have access to a computer that does, they do wonderful things. You can have the Encyclopedia Britannica on it, a computer. I think that's wonderful! Push a button and you got it right there. For anybody who's done research and labored going through the stacks and you know, fighting all the stuff, I mean, to be able to do this. I remember when I did my dissertation, my wife came with me. We went to the library down at the grad, down at UNC-G and I just stood there and for the computer thing, got all these different things, and she would trot off and pick'em up and bring'em back, then we'd make copies of them so I didn't have to do them. So I ended up with a, really a box of stuff. But that's wonderful.
Q: Why do educators resist that?
A: I don't know. But you know, I would not throw out the baby with the bath water. I would insist that teachers in every field, have blackboards and use them. But, not you write on them, get the kids to go up there and do it, because there is no substitute for being able to watch a kid perform a function on, whether it's writing a declarative sentence or it's doing a problem with mathematics. Instantaneously you can see and a good teacher knows what's wrong by watching what the kid's doing. But if you sit at your desk and do nothing but homework and you turn it in, most of the homework by the way, related to curriculum, is a waste of time.
Q: Do you have any comments that you want to make about homework?
A: Yea! It's a waste of time. In my judgement, unless it is a legitimate and logical extension of the teaching/learning process in the classroom.
Q: Isn't that what it's supposed to be?
A: Yea, but it isn't, and you know, I've two, three grandchildren, and I'm fascinated by what they're asked to do.
Q: So what is it then if it's not an extension? What is your opinion on what we give as homework now?
A: Well, let's go back for just a minute where, where what's done in the classroom comes from. Who provides the curriculum? Textbooks, by in large. One of the things that I had to do in teaching doctoral students at UNC-G, was to provide an overview, a detailed overview every year of what I was going to teach and why and what the students would have to do and this was required for certification by the university. We don't do that with teachers in the high school, for example. We don't do that. What we do is we issue textbooks. Some jerk somewhere, and I say that with emphasis, because some of the textbooks are terrible. They really are. You read the accounts of the Second World War, you end up with idiots like those jerks down in the Smithsonian Institute, who were going to have an exhibit of the Enola Gay, saying in effect, we did a terrible thing. That's what they're saying. Listen, as I flew in the South Pacific, if I had been captured by Armasheeda's troops where I had crashed, you know what would've happened to me? They would've beheaded me! Right on the spot! They would have cut your head off. That's what they did to our flyers. Hey listen, I don't regret dropping that bomb on Japan. I have friends who are as I said earlier forever young. They're dead! They're gonna be there forever. If we had gone into Japan, millions of people would have died on both sides. Well that's neither here nor there. The point I'm trying to make simply is that I really think that there is, everything is subject to interpretation, but I really believe that we have (
Q: Textbook driven curriculum.), textbook, yea fixation that I don't understand. Who writes them and who said they were experts? Well they say that they get teachers on these committees and that we choose, and then you have a state approved....
A: I know, and then we go locally and the parents can go in and look at (
Q: Right), I mean, hell they don't know what they're looking at, I mean, anymore than I would right now. I mean.... How would you do it differently?
A: I'm, I think one of the things that I would do would be to check and see what exactly was being done around the country. I would try to find teachers who have developed their own curricular locally and see if there wasn't some way to apply or adapt what they were doing to what I'm doing locally. You know, I don't distrust teachers, I really don't. I think that one of the problems in education today is that we don't trust them enough about a lot of things and unfortunately they haven't got the courage of their own convictions. That's why they have, that's why they like a percentage system of grading cause they can point to a number and say, "Ooo, that's what it is!". who the hell said that was you know, right? Nobody. Nobody said it was right except the teacher and the poor parent comes in and shakes their head, they don't know. They don't know what a percentage is, they don't know what a percentile is. They don't know what a stanine is and they don't, and they shouldn't have to know. But we should be providing them with proper leadership. Curriculum. The, sometimes I think that if we took and taught the Bible as a piece of literature in the world and let kids take it from it what they would, if we taught certain documents like the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and pick things from the Magna Carta and so forth, we just pick these things and taught them to kids and why they came about, we'd be a hell of a lot better off than a lot of the things that we do. I'm appalled too, to see in the newspaper not to long ago, kids in high school were asked about the Holocaust. They really didn't know what it was. They said a lot of people got killed. Well yea, men, women and children were literally butchered, I mean.....
Q: So you're saying that some of the things we teach are not important?
A: No. Not important at all, as a matter of fact, to me the Holocaust was important. The war is important, any war is important. Killing is and teaching the evils of it are important. Our democracy, learning meaningful experiences making good judgements is important. Doing something about the status of welfare in this country, the status of poverty, the status of homelessness, the status of the stupid income tax and so forth, things like that. Those are what are important. I, I wish that we could, one time, I was an exponent really of expanding the curriculum. Expanding it and you know, just let it mushroom and knowledge explosion and all that sort of thing, and now I'm not so sure that's the best thing because it's gotten out of hand and I don't know how you encapsulate what's happened in technology alone. How do, how do you really explain what's really going on in space today? My son-in-law is graduating from the University of Virginia, Ph.D. in Astrophysics. I don't understand him. I mean, I don't know what the hell he's talking about. You know, that's just an example. I'm sure you can do the same thing in medicine and in other areas and....
Q: But not in education.
A: No, well the point is, we, we stand down here, the platform, the platform he's on is way up here someplace, and we're on this platform way down here and we're trying to get kids to be able to come in and function in our society. To get society, if curriculum isn't meaningful for the kids, it isn't meaningful for society. For example, I tried for years to get local personnel directors in industry, in local industry, to demand that our kids have a transcript sent from the school when they graduated. To me it's just as important that a kid's gonna work in the mill, have his transcript sent as it is for a kid to have his transcript sent to the University of Virginia. Just as important. Because what you're doing is you're giving this, this personnel director a meaningful look at what he did. This is reality. This is why he was in school. Now you may say, "Well, I don't care," but you ought to. You ought to know what kind of a person, at least it will give you insight into what kind of a person he was or she was, and you ought to be interested in that. You ought to be asking for information about what kind of human being is this individual. Just as I think the, I've said this to college admissions committees I've served on, you know we don't ask the right questions. I mean, who cares whether he's got 1400, you know, SAT score. Once you get up beyond a certain point, they're all good. I mean, you go to Yale, for example, and I sat in on an admissions committee meeting one time because Hal, a guy by the name of Hal was the director and he was a friend of mine. He said, "why don't you sit in?" He said, "tell these people what you think." So I did and then I said, the music department guy was on there and he wanted a cellist. You know, he didn't give a damn if the kid could read or write. He needed a cellist and you get all this stuff going around the table and the admissions guy is shaking his head and he said, "but you know, we got standard,." and they don't care about the standards when it comes to specialties. But all of a sudden, though, you know you're looking, the kids, they're all 1200 IQ's and above, I mean SAT scores and above. All, they were all, I mean when you got maybe a hundred class presidents, you know, from high school, outstanding, and they're all applying, which ones do you take? The Amherst director of admissions told me, said, "I look for the one who's got the outstanding butterfly collection.", I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "my point is, I'm looking for a unique individual. All the rest of these people homogenize to the point where it's sickening," he said. (
Q: They have all the right answers.) Yea, sure and they're all smart and he said, "most of them are smarter than I am." He said, "but when I find one who's willing to stand up on his feet and tell me about this or some other strange thing, you know, the guy might like to go, he might like to go searching out bats in a cave." You know, that's not my thing, but the point is that he's looking for unique individuals. People who are not afraid to do different. My mother said it best. She said to me, "Don't be afraid to be different. Don't ever be afraid to be different." What she meant was, you don't go along with everybody. If somebody smokes, you don't need to smoke. If they have, she never, she never ever said the word sex, but if somebody has premarital sex, you don't need to, you don't need to, and so and so forth. That's the way she was and anyway, curriculum, I don't know. I don't know what the answers are to curriculum today. As a matter of fact I know one thing. Curriculum has lagged behind, whatever it is we're supposed to be doing, tremendously. I just don't know how far behind it is and I think that unfortunately it, as long as the teachers are back here somewhere, the kids are in, and what's happening is up here. (
A: It's a problem.) You're going to have this curriculum lag, and I think that's what exists right now. A curriculum lag and I'm not faulting anybody for it, I'm simply saying that it exists and I don't, honest to God, I don't know what to do about it. I wish I did. I think though technology has got to be used. It's the only way to catch up. There is no other way. You can't catch up the old fashion way.
Q: Which has a money ticket to it.
A: Oh yea. Yea.
Q: We, Ron and I, could probably spend several days talking with you and would be happy to do that, unfortunately we're going to have to.....
A: Let me talk about marking first.
Q: About who?
A: Marking. Grades.
Q: No, wait. I'm going to let you talk about that at the end. Let me ask. I want a little self-reflection here for a moment. Ron and I have known you for a number of years. We think we, in some ways, know the answer to this question, but we'd like you to think about yourself for a moment and you've had time to reflect on your career. You've been a principal, you went from that to a superintendentency and you've run the gamut of going from teaching to a retired superintendent. Share with us what you consider to be your administrative strengths and your administrative weaknesses over all.
A: Well, I'll, start with the weaknesses because I think they are generally the hardest for most people to discuss. The older I get the easier it is to talk about them I guess, but I think I have, I've been lucky, as I said earlier. I've been pretty much able to do what I wanted to do in education. Most people in education can't do that. My aunt who is still alive, 95 years old, and she taught for sixty plus years and she stayed in one place, did one thing all her life, and I admire her for that. Don't misunderstand me. She's a wonderful lady and a super teacher, but I've been fortunate. I've been able to move and do what I wanted to do. I, in some respects I feel that's kind of like, kind of a weakness because I feel that I left some situations that I probably could've influenced more positively if I had stayed there, and the, I was seeking, well for a long time frankly, I was seeking a livelihood and you know, when I started in education I made two thousand dollars a year, two hundred dollars a month for ten months and nothing in the summer. I actually worked in a thermos bottle plant in Norwich, Connecticut. It no longer exists, but, making thermos bottles from 11:00 at night to 7:00 in the morning, went home showered and shaved and ate breakfast and went and taught during the day and then I went to school afterwards, graduate school and I did that for a considerable amount of time. They, the night work is, well, that's dedication. Well it was I guess, but frankly it was necessity. We started having children and I kept telling my wife, I said, "You know, what the hell's causing that?", and she said, and she told me "You know what's causing it." But anyway, the point is, I think economic necessity is something that drives people in education to the extent that it becomes a kind of a weakness and I admit to that. That's the way I look at it and it's a weakness, and it's hard to fight and I've tried to all my career, as a matter of fact. I could have given up at the beginning so it's once a strength, I suppose, and it's once a weakness, but I could've quit very easily and as a matter of fact, had lots of opportunities to go do other things. Hell, I could've gotten into selling books. I did that part-time for a while as a matter of fact and I was offered the opportunity to take over a region and, all of New England, and made a lot of money, a lot of money, but it wasn't what I wanted to do. I still was driven by the feelings I told you about at Cavitie City right after the war was over thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, but I still have feelings of, I guess guilt, about leaving some places.
Q: Not staying there long enough?
A: Yea I think, for example, I probably should've stayed at Staples High School a while longer, but, and I probably shouldn't have left Norwalk the way I did because, one of my weaknesses is I have a temper. I don't go blowing off steam all over the place very often but when something is wrong, (
Q: We didn't know that, did we Ron?)
A: no, but when something is actually wrong and I know it's wrong, then my temper comes up. That's why I get angry, real angry about a percentage system of marking. Because it's wrong, it's immoral in my judgement. I'll talk about that in a minute, but, another weakness, I have a tendency to talk too much I guess and the, if it's a weakness I plead guilty, and I really care about people and I find it very difficult, very hard to sometimes do the things that need to be done to correct people or to fire them. I don't enjoy doing that. I've done it and I will do it and of course what helps sometimes is if I get mad enough about what they're doing it's easy or relatively easy, but again it's, well I told you earlier, if someone insists on being stupid, then you know, I believe you're stupid. Related to that is, I remember when I first came to Martinsville, Doctor or rather, Mr. Richmond worked with me a few months before he retired and I was in his office one day and this teacher came in. This was in August just before school was going to open and she threw a letter on his desk and he said, "What's this?" She said, "It's my resignation. I'm leaving!" He said, "Well, where are you going?" She said, "Well, I'm gonna go to Greensboro to work" and I said, "You know, you really shouldn't leave like this. This is a bad way to leave. You just don't throw the thing on the desk and in effect tell the superintendent to go to blazes." And I said, "I've got to tell you something, lady", and she said, "What?" I said, "Who hired you?" and I said "Was it Bob Newton?", and she said, she looked surprised, and she said, "Yes." I said, "Well, you know, Bob Newton is a personal friend of mine. I've known him a long time and if I get on the telephone and tell him what you just did, I'll guarantee you, you won't have a job in Greensboro tomorrow. Guarantee you." The point being simply that I think that many of us, I've done that myself when I quit as the Superintendent of Schools. I never should have done it that way. That was a weakness and I admit it. But I figure that over the years, whatever volatility of temperament has existed as a weakness has been, I hope, over compensated, at least by what I think I have done right. I think it's fair to say that you can, you can be pretty rough on folks sometimes if you balance it with really lavishing a lot of love and affection on them too. It's kind of like raising kids, and maybe I've never grown up. Maybe I'll always be a kid. In that sense, as far as strengths are concerned, I think I mean what I say. I think I have some very strong beliefs that are right about what we ought to do, be doing with kids. I think that I keep my word. I don't lie to people and I've, and I never lie to kids. You just can't or you won't be successful in this business, and you shouldn't be in the business as far as I'm concerned, if you lie or deceive kids. You have got to tell them the truth. I think I have done that and I think I've been very fair to the, to the Boards I've worked for. I've never lied to them, always told everything that they should know, tried to give them credit for everything that I thought they did that was commendable, some of the things I didn't give 'em credit for because I didn't think it was right. But, you know, the Board got a lot of credit for a lot of things that they, they really didn't deserve the credit for. We did it, you know, the administrators or, we did it, not Jim Calkins, but we did it. Even the, even the cuts at the "Big M", academic award. I remember one time there was an editorial about our departing board chairman. They gave him credit for that. Well he didn't do it. All he did was vote "aye". But that's all right. There's nothing wrong with that. The thing that bothers, bothered me about it though, the people who really should have gotten credit, it was not just me, was, for example, Joe Finley worked hard on it, other people on the committee worked very hard on that and those are the people that should get the credit, and I think if I have one strength it has been the ability to coordinate the activities of .......
Q: O.K. I want to, I want to kind of wrap up what we're talking about today. We're talking about your strengths and weaknesses as an administrator. I'd like to know, if you could give some overall advice. I assume this tape is going to go into some archives where someone else will seek out your advice or whatever information you, you can give to administrators. Give us an overall comment of the pros and cons of your administrative service. If you could give any advice to a principal now, as to what they should be or do, what advice would you give to, to a person who's considering that or is in that profession right now?
A: Well, well I would, I would tell them that, particularly if they, if they listen to this, if they listen to this, to this tape, I know I've meandered all over the place and I haven't been as accurate perhaps in saying all the things I wanted to say, certainly didn't cover everything that I would love to say, but if you listen to it, I think there is a constant theme that runs through all of these comments and it has to do with the orientation of education, should be what's best for each child first, last, and always. I couldn't care less where a faculty member parks in the parking lot. Now to a lot of people that's very important. As far as I'm concerned, it's ridiculous. The best parking spaces ought to be for parents. I mean, hell, they're the ones who are paying for it, not the teachers or the principal. I never had a parking space when I was a principal of a high school. As a matter of fact, I used to pull up under the, on a little plaza right beside where I went into my office. I had a little Volkswagen and it fit in there just right. But the point is that we sometimes, I think, emphasize the things that are really not that important. What's most important is the kid. Anything that you can do to help that youngster become a better person, a more effective person, that's, that's what your emphasis ought to be. If you can do that, you're going to be a very, very successful administrator. You're gonna make mistakes and you're gonna alienate some people. You probably will make some faculty members unhappy and, but, but the final, in the final analysis, teachers will respond to this as quickly as anything I can think of, cause they wouldn't be there if they didn't care about the kids. It's hard though when you, when you've been in a particular pattern of behavior for a very long period of time, to break off that pattern of behavior and change.
Q: You've, you've recently, we, we here in Martinsville are getting ready to hire a high school principal. (
A: Yea.) You've recently written a letter to the editor about what you think that principal should be. ( Yea.) Tell us some of those things for the tape, I think, (Well.) because you made some awfully good points. Well, I think that I emphasized some things about, well basically what I was trying to do in the letter was to say, look, the standard things that you do, you check scholarship experience and references and all that sort of thing. That's fine, but you really need to look at your unique principal ship because every principalship is unique. None of them are the same. Even in the same high school where you have more than one, I mean in the same city where you have more than one high school, they're not the same. They're very, very different. So you need to try to match some pretty unique characteristics with some pretty unique talents on the part of the person coming in. You need to ask questions like, you know, "How do you feel about, if, if you really believe as I do that the percentage system of marking," and I'm gonna get it in, (
Q: Go right ahead, go on an tell us about that.), "is evil and immoral and stupid.", then, then you want to hire somebody that believes that. And tell us why you think it's evil, immoral, and......
A: Well, all right. Well to begin with it makes two assumptions that are absolutely ridiculous. No where in the scientific world do they, do they believe this or practice it. But we educators do, just like that all the time and the assumption is that you know something perfectly and you can sample it perfectly and then, number two, you can measure it perfectly. I mean, that's absurd! No where in the scientific community would they, they'd look at you and say you're crazy. I mean even that metric yard, the silver one wherever it is someplace, has got an error in it. So, anybody who tells you that they can do these things perfectly has got to be questioned, I think. That's not only what's wrong with it but look what we do. We have a marking system at the high school where we ultimately convert percentages into letter grades, then we take the letter grade and we convert that into a one through whatever it is, one through four or five numerical system. Then we rank the kids. then we take and, we have a situation this past year, but it was where we had three kids separated by a thousandth of a decimal point. (
Q: This current year.) Yea, and we're gonna decide that one of them is a valedictorian and you know, two of them aren't. That is so ridiculous it isn't even funny. We had a situation similar to that when I was Superintendent and I remember telling Virgie Hobson who was our guidance director, I said, "Hell, make'em all valedictorians." I mean you, we can't,
A: Why not?) we can't differentiate among them, and so we did and nobody said "Boo!" But lately we tried to do that and there was a big, I mean we considered that and there was a big brouhaha about it which I don't understand. The assumption is again that we can do this, this accurately. You can't. You just can not do it.
Q: Why are we so reluctant to get away from that?
A: Because it's easy. It represents... I'll tell you. I sent in a letter I wrote that I think that we should be sued for malpractice for using that system. If a doctor did that, I mean, hell, he'd get sued. He'd get sued in a heartbeat and he would lose too and I think we would lose too if a suit were possible because we can not justify what we do. For example, if you take and say that a ninety-three percent to a one hundred percent is an A, who said so? Where is that written down? Where is it proven? Statistically is, is that, is that correct? There is no evidence that it is. Somebody got together and said, "Let's make it ninety-three to one hundred rather than ninety-four to one hundred." I mean, that's about as scientific as it was, I'll guarantee you cause it doesn't exist anywhere and we shouldn't do that to kids and the percentage system dooms somebody to failure. You have got to fail. If somebody gives a kid a zero, how do you recover from a zero? It's kind of like recovering from a bullet through the heart. You know, the effect is gonna be just about the same. You're dead!
Q: And how long have you been fighting this cause?
A: A long time. You know the fascinating thing, Joan, is that when I came to Martinsville, we had a school board policy that forbade it.
Q: Is that right?
A: Yes, we did.
Q: I didn't know that.
A: Oh, absolutely.
Q: And, so when did we institute this new one? How many years ago?
A: It was instituted when a, when we got a certain principal (
Q: I didn't realize that.) who, who really believed that the teachers needed to be mollified. See the teachers like it, (
A: I know that.) cause you can hide. So you can say, "Well wait a minute let me get my book." Lady, my grandson Matthew, at Albert Harris Elementary School here in Martinsville, got a grade and so I called the teacher on the phone, and I said, "How did you get this?" She's got a wheel. (
Q: I've seen those.) No, have you seen them? (
A: Yes, yes.) She's got a wheel and all you do is put the numbers in it and it comes out with the percent, and then you look at the grading system, (
Q: How precise.), and "Oooo, it's ninety-two instead of ninety-three, so that's a B rather than an A." I said, "how do you justify that?" She said, "do you know anything better?" I said, "you bet your life I do. I know lots of things that are better than that." I said, "to begin with, let's use the percentile system rather than a percentage system." She said, "what's that?" I said, "that's where you rank the kids. That's what you're trying to do. You're trying to sort them. O.K., if you're trying to sort them let's use a process that's statistically sound and you can justify." You can't justify percentages, it's ridiculous.
Q: Do you see any hope for changing this?
A: I don't know. Probably not. This is probably one of those things that I'm gonna lose. But see the teacher likes to be able to say, "Well Mrs. Jones, let me look in my book, and see how they add up and it comes out here and look over here and my wheely did that and I come over here, and I'm sorry the poor kid fails. It's not my responsibility." See the problem is the teacher forgets that testing, it's like, it's dipsticking, it's taking more than one of those over a period of time to see what kind of improvement there's been. They do that when they chart your temperature, your blood pressure in the hospital. But what we really want to do is to evaluate. Now evaluate is a global concept. It takes it, it takes in account testing, measuring and who the hell the kid is, and what he does as a human being, not just as a number. Now you're in an area where teachers don't like that because, "I don't think Johnny is such a good student and maybe I'll give him this," so the teacher comes in, I mean, a parent comes in and challenges it. They can't hide behind a number.
Q: So people say it's teacher power over students.
A: Of course it is. That's exactly what it is and I've, it's the, it's the, I've gottcha concept and you better do what I say. You better do or this is it.
Q: I see a stack of papers in front of you there. (
A: Yea.) I see some writings that you have probably done. ( Yea.) Anything you want to share with us before we conclude what we're, or that I haven't talked about? You have a number of things there. Well, the, there are a lot of things, Joan, but maybe, maybe what I'd like to end up with is something that, the author is unknown and I've seen, I've seen it over the years and I've used it in talks a lot of times. It's kind of, you probably have heard it, but it's kind of nice to listen to, if you will, and it pertains particularly to my situation because I'm doing my best not to grow old. My Dad always said to me, "If you can possibly avoid it, don't grow old." Unfortunately he never gave me a good alternative and a friend of mine here in Martinsville used to say that he was anxious, he wanted to go to the House of the Lord but he was unanxious to get there and that I understand full well. Before I read this though, if you ask people what they're doing in a public school, teachers, they will give you a list of things that really are what we ought to be doing, not what is. The "is" are the functions that I mentioned earlier, the confinement function and so forth. The, but they'll tell you all these wonderful things. The way you can get a teacher angry is, is to say you're not teaching them anything about living in a democracy. Oh, social studies teachers will get indignant, because that's what they do. But they don't. They, they are making an effort at it, but it's at this particular level, it's not at the meaningful level that it ought to be and it's not the fault of the Social Studies teacher, it's the way the whole thing is geared. Well, let me read this to you cause, it's, when you get older you'll think about it. Youth is not a time of life, it is a state of mind. It is a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over love of ease. Nobody grows old, merely living a number of years. People grow old only by deserting their ideals. Years wrinkle the skin but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. Worry, doubt, self distrust, fear and despair, these are the long years that bow the head and turn the growing spirit back to dust. Whether seventy or sixteen, there is in every being's heart, the love of wonder, the sweet amazement at the stars and the starlight clings and thoughts, the undaunted challenges of events, the unfailing childlike appetite for what next and the joy in the game of life. You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt, as young as your self-confidence , as old as your fear, as young as your hope, as old as your despair. So long as your heart receives messages of beauty, cheer, courage, grandeur and power from the earth, from man and from the infinite, so long you are young. When the wise are all down and all the central place of your heart is covered with the snows of pessimism, and the ice of cynicism, then you are grown old indeed and may God have mercy on your soul.
Q: We don't think you're old.
A: Well I don't feel so. You know, it's funny, I was talking to a friend the other day and the person was saying, "You know, it's tough to be old.", I said, "I really don't feel old inside. My mind is exactly the same way it was when I was seventeen years of age.". I'm convinced of it, and I probably act that way too sometimes, but......
Q: I think that anybody listening to this tape will, will find it hard to believe that you're retired and besides you're....
A: Well if, if I had my rathers, I wouldn't be. I would rather work. If I could go back to work in a high school tomorrow, I would do it. I loved high school.
Q: You ought to think about it.
A: Well I thought about, I thought about the, the kids and I miss them, I really do, and I think these kids here in Martinsville, I think would respond to certain messages and techniques, and approaches, similar to what we did in Westport. I think they have to be couched in different terms perhaps, and the approach might have to be somewhat different. You might not be able to go, for example the SGB route, but there ought to be some other creative way to reach these kids, to get them involved with one another. Now we have the very special problem of the racial division of this community, you know, and I'm not, I'm not saying that's a negative, I'm simply saying that's the way it is and it's a very difficult problem. (
Q: It's a unique problem maybe to us.)
A: Yes it is. But it's a challenge and I really believe that kids can respond to it, just as, as kids emotionally and intellectually responded to the Vietnam War. I think our kids could respond to what's happening here at the local level in a way that might surprise everybody and I think fundamentally, kids want to do right. I don't think they're any different today. There are a number of them that are getting into trouble, but the opportunities for getting into trouble are greater than they were. When I was growing up, what could you do? You know, there were too many people watching you. There was not much you could do because first of all, we didn't have cars. That's one of the evils of today's society and drugs were not available. I mean, hell, I remember hearing about marijuana and I thought it was some crazy thing that only musicians had anything to do with. Really! And as a matter of fact that was pretty true. But today look at the challenges and the temptations for our kids. I am surprised they're as good as they are. By the way, I didn't mention it, but one of the things that I would like to add as a post script is that kids need to be taught that the schools are not sanctuaries from the law. They're not. They have to obey the law. The principal has to obey the law. One of the things I told the kids at Staples High School in that first speech was, "I will uphold the law. If you do something that's illegal, I will testify against you. I will be a witness against you. I will help you all I can and I will do everything in my power to prevent you from doing that, but if you break the law, God help you because I will come after you with the same vigor that I will in showing that I love you and care for you." And you have to understand that. That's the way democracy is and the kids bought it. They really did and I think these children could too if it were brought to them in the right way and you really, you really worked at it. It would be interesting to see somebody come in who had the guts to try it. Might not last too long.
Q: We'll see what's going to happen with our new principal. We want to thank you so much for talking with us today. Ron and I have known you for, I have known you for almost twenty years, (
A: Too many.) and we think you're a great leader. ( Thank you.) You're a great example for us, as, as administrators and we thank you for sharing your time with us today. We know that this tape will be of value to, to people for many years to come, we think. Did you see on TV the series Lonesome Dove? Well the fellow, one of the fellow's great friends was dying and he said, "It's been a hell of a party!", and it was.
Q: Thank you.
A: You're welcome.