Gilliam Cobbs, Principal. Lynchburg City Schools (Retired). February 20, 1995
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Q: Would you begin by telling us about your family background, birthplace, elementary and secondary education, family characteristics, that sort of thing.
(Streamed audio file of interview for this question using RealPlayer)
A: I was born in Forest, Virginia, just a few miles from here, on July 1, 1933, just after the depress ion. I was the third in a family of nine children and my moth er and father lived on a small farm very close to my grand parents. We all went to a one room schoo l whic h had been donated by a General Munf ord. That' s about all I can tell you about him, but he donated the schoo l for a one room schoo l. The schoo l was demolis hed in 1981 so the schoo l is no longer on the site. I was there until 7th grade and from there I went to Bedford Train ing Schoo l, not Bedford High Schoo l, but Bedford Train ing Schoo l, and I graduated in 1951.
Q: Would you describe your college education and preparation for entering the teaching field.
A: Well, my preparation for college left much to be desired. As you know, I went from a one room school to a high school with limited options, limited talent with respect to staff. I am not talking down to staff but this was the 1950's so there were limitations on both fronts. I was lucky in that one of my school counselors came to me one day nearing the end of my junior year and said that there were a lot of colleges in the mid-west that had not had an experience with African American students. We called ourselves Negroes at the time, or blacks at the time, I do not know what was in during that decade. They asked if I would be willing to go to a college like Blackburn College in Illinois, or Bereen in Kentucky or Antioch in Ohio. I said absolutely. I had been working at a County Club and had only saved a few nickels and dimes, and as interested as my parents were in trying to help me through school, their resources were very limited at that time. As I approached graduation time in 1951 I signed on at Blackburn in Carlinville, Illinois. It's a small town south of Springfield, Ill. and north of St. Louis, Missouri. I would go in by rail to St. Louis and then ride an electric trolley. They were in style then and are starting to come back in style. I have just come back from England where most all of the rapid transit is electric. I was just thinking about the 1950's, riding back and forth in electric cars and didn't know that I was a little bit ahead of my time.
Q: How long were you a teacher once you finally became one?
A: When I first moved to Blackburn College, I had the notion that I wanted to major in History with the idea that I might write history at some point in the future. I guess there is still time. Quickly I found that you had to be exceptional in capabilities and circumstances in order to make a living, writing or assisting someone writing history, just out of college. So during the 4 year period I decided that maybe teaching was a way to writing. I would not give up my hope of writing history at some point in time so I switched over to a major in History with a minor in English. I decided that I would teach for awhile, received my teaching certificate. I did my intern teaching in a little school in Carlinville. I graduated with a major in history and when I got out I was lucky and unlucky. I wanted to teach in Lynchburg, but I could not find a job at the time, 1955 it was. I had a friend in Petersburg, distant relative, who was looking for a job for me. He found one in a little town called Disputana. Highway 460 runs right through it. The population at that time was about 200. It's probably less now. It is east of Petersburg by about 15 miles. I taught there for one year, the 7th grade. I didn't particularly like the location although I liked the children. I wanted to be in Lynchburg and it seemed that every month I was getting something from the Selective Service about military service. Near the end of that one year of teaching in Disputana I received a notice saying that I was to report for active duty in the Army in the summer of 1956. I jumped the gun a little bit. I wanted to go into the service and be of service to my country and it was time for me to give something back to my country, so I volunteered for the Navy for several reasons. I wanted to become a Naval Officer, maybe for a few years, come back out and teach history, but as I looked at the skills needed for a Naval Officer, i.e., a strong background in science and mathematics, which I did not have even with the college. So I decided that I would volunteer for enlisted personnel. I could do something for my country, travel around the world, have a girl in every port, like they are always saying. I was not quite so lucky here again. I was lucky that I worked during my two years in the Navy for the distinguished surgeon, Frank Bryan Clair and five other officers, I was their office manager. I was unfortunate in that I did not see the world, I only saw Bainbridge, Maryland and Portsmouth Naval Hospital.
Q: So how long did it take you to get back into the teaching field?
A: I left the Navy just before Christmas in 1958. I came back home and went immediately to the Lynchburg Public School Administrative Office. The Superintendent then was Dr. Paul Munro. The school was named for him, Munro Elementary. I said to Dr. Munro that I was just out of the Navy and I would like to teach in Lynchburg since I had family in the area. He said that he did not have anything available at the time, but to stay in touch and do so substitute teaching and that eventually I would be hired. I tried this awhile and was getting impatient at the rate of being called as a substitute teacher. I was then asked by the Public Health Director, Dr. John T. T. Hundley, to come to work at the Health Department because I had some experience in immunization, first aid, that sort of thing while I was in the Navy in the newly annexed territory of Lynchburg in 1956. I went to work in 1958 in the Health Dept. and was with them for 3 years. I then left, got married, and came back and worked another 3 years with the Health Dept. for a total of 6 years altogether. I started to work at E. C. Glass of 1966 and stayed in the Lynchburg educational system until August of 1989.
Q: How long were you a teacher before you moved into administration?
A: Three years. I was a teacher for 3 years at E. C. Glass and one year as an asst. Principal at E. C. Glass. Then came along a school for "at risk" students, an alternative program for those who were not doing well in the school program, lacking in success. The school had not been going very well and I had a reputation for being able to get along with the students and that sort of thing, so they asked me to leave the assistant principalship at E. C. Glass and get ready for the principalship at this alternative school. I eventually became the principal of this alternative school which is very much like the alternative schools which are popping up all over the country now. I was a little bit of a forerunner in that regard.
Q: What was the name of that school?
A: Lynchburg Learning Center. It was housed at the time at the old Robert E. Lee School which is now the Lynchburg High Apartments.
Q: What motivated you to enter the principalship?
A: I never dreamed of being a principal. I was perfectly satisfied at being a teacher. I never thought about going into school administration. I have always said that I will do whatever I can do to make the system work. I will do whatever I can to make life better and create better learning and teaching situations for teachers and students. When the opportunity to become a principal came along, it was just a natural thing to do that. Whatever you ask me to do, I will do it. When I was asked to be an administrator I kept that in mind. Plus there was always that incentive of a few extra dollars and the incentive of managing people. I think those of us that have bits and pieces of leadership in our bodies, that when opportunity knocks, we will take advantage of that.
Q: The Learning Center, you were there for a few years. Then you go from there to Sandusky?
A: I went to Dunbar. I was only at the Lynchburg Learning Center for 1 or 2 years. There was some opposition from the community and the board members that children who were on drugs and who couldn't behave and who couldn't manage in a normal environment, that we should not be doing these special things for them. That we shouldn't have these very small pupil-teacher ratio and these extra administrative services just for them. These people can get along, all they need is a good paddling and back to the regular school room. We don't know that we need this. Business are always complaining that they are not coming to class, that they are coming in late and leaving early, so we are not going to live with this and so the school was closed. At that time I was asked, this was 1970, to become the principal of Dunbar High School. We called it High School then because this was in the midst of desegregation days still continuing so there were an unusual configuration of the grades in Lynchburg. I think I can recall it for you. Kindergarten through 7 and then 7 and 8 in Sandusky and Link Middle, and then grades 9 & 10 for all of the school division in Lynchburg, these were considered high school grades before, so we called Dunbar High School, and E. C. Glass was called E. C. Glass Senior High School. I was principal of the high school for 2 years. Then the grade configuration changed again. In 1970 or 76 we adopted the middle school concept. And so now we had how many middle schools - Dunbar, Linkhorne, Sandusky. I become principal of Dunbar Middle School for thee years and I left in 77 to become the principal of the Sandusky Middle School for which I stayed eleven years till just prior to my retirement.
Q: Take us on a walk through Sandusky.
A: Sandusky was designed and built in 1965. It was in full use by the late part of 1966. It was and still is for its age a very modern school. It was only twelve years old when I went there to be principal. I went there in 1977. It's still like brand new. Very bright and cheerful. All on one floor. There was only one step in the school and I been accustomed to a school with up and down staircases. Dunbar, nothing but stairs all day long. Sandusky was basically one floor. Very modern. Well lighted. Lots of parking. Lots of playground. No interference from the neighborhood for passersby like we had at Dunbar. Just a marvelous place for a school. Just a wonderful school plant. And it was that type of quality of construction like you'll find at E.C. Glass that is serving the community very well today. In fact I would say with the present day construction techniques and quality of materials, you could build a school today and it probably would not have any more useful life than Sandusky still has. Or E. C. Glass still has with a few upgrades and renovations.
Q: At Sandusky, besides what you mentioned, having one step, everything was on one floor -- another distinguishing characteristic was the curvature of the inside building where you have a good view of the halls; especially in the back, in the library, in the center. Were those interesting architectural features?
A: Not only were they interesting from an architectural point of view, but this design lent itself to easier supervision. And I credit part of my success at Sandusky for a well-run school, an award-winning school to the fact that not only did we have good staff people who were interested in doing the right things, but the school is designed in such a fashion that it made supervision easier. It created more safety for bus unloading and loadings. You could line buses up for as far as you can see. People could walk out to the bus with no traffic interfering with them. No traffic guards. No nothing. And I "knock on wood" can say I was extremely luck never to have had any serious accident at that school or any school for which I was principal. And you know we always fear the most - bus accidents, somebody getting run over in the school grounds - things of that nature that are just gonna seem to happen just by the nature of the odds. I was lucky enough to escape anything like that. And here again, you have to credit the school site, the school architecture, the school plant. Another thing we hadn't been use to, too, was that the school was climate controlled - air conditioned. And that created an environment more conducive to teaching and learning. None of the business of yanking windows up and flies coming in. Cats and dogs coming in from the street. You could keep your doors shut and feel pretty much self-contained.
Q: What would you say would be your personal philosophy of education?
A: So that everyone can learn. Everyone has a capacity to learn. And learning is never ending. Learning is a continuous process. And we can enhance that process by our own efforts, but its going to occur naturally and we can enhance it with our own efforts by giving it time and creating strategies for rapid learning and for retention and for all these kinds of things that are necessary for learning. But the basic premise is that everyone can learn. Some faster than others, more than others, but everyone can learn and that it is a continuous process, basically from birth to death.
Q: How did that view evolve over the years for you?
A: Well, you know, some of it evolved from teaching I had. We all remember our professors, parents, ministers, and those of us who said you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and having an education can open many doors for you. Not having it can, conversely, close many doors for you. And so people that I associated with - family members, ministers, teachers all kinds of somehow or another articulated this philosophy and its just something easy for me to grasp quickly to become a part of my own thinking. And so I can't tell you how I came upon that much more than what I've said.
Q: Would you describe the instructional philosophy of your school, telling how it was developed over time?
A: The instructional philosophy of the school is a complex matter. First of all, no principal or set of teachers go into a school and say we have the complete latitude, we have the complete privilege of designing a school curriculum that we think is the cutting edge, we think is the right way to go. You have the school board, the hierarchy, parents out there, PTA, school administration, the state department, state, federal government - all of these entities play a role with what happens in schools today - whether they are private or public. And they play an even greater role in the public schools as we know them today. And so I didn't have the latitude of saying that we will have one year of English and that we could have a right to decide whether we want English and social studies and science and woodcarving, whatever. The curriculum is basically set. What you do have as an opportunity though is to, and you can make a difference this way, you have a lot of latitude as to who you put in classes and with who (of the students I'm talking about) with what teachers. You can have some classes with larger pupil/teacher ratios than others. One example, a good administrator, I can say, would realize quickly that the brighter the student the higher the pupil/teacher ratio can be. And the slower the student is in grasping educational matter, then the smaller the pupil/teacher ratio. Even when you get down to the point of a very, very handicapped learner, you may not be able to do more than three or four students to one adult. You can make those decisions, we could make those decisions at that time. You could fine out who's interested in doing what. Who had a little extra in a given area. And so you could shift and place staff in such a way as to maximize their interests, their efforts, their preparation and so on.
Q: What experiences or events in your professional life influenced your management philosophy?
A: Well, my management philosophy I think you'd say is quite participatory. I like to involve as many people as possible in the decision-making process. I've never been a person to just hand down a decision. It's mine. Do as I say. That to me never worked. You can never get people to have ownership in a decision unless they were involved in it. And students alike. So parents and students and teachers were always integral parts in planning. And finally the buck stops here, and you have to say after consulting with everybody, hopefully on an equal footing, that you do these things in this fashion. And I found that strategy yielded better results, then have just say one of the components making the decision, whether its just administration or just teachers. Some people yield in that fashion. Or just parents coming in and say we're going to do it this way. The principal hell with you, teachers hell with you. We do it our way. But getting them all to work together to iron out, to come to some kind of a consensus over what's best for everyone involved. I found that kind of participatory management style to be more productive for me. To be less problem-ridden and absolutely more productive. And so what works, you just do. You don't spend a lot of time thinking about it. It's like hitting a golf ball. You don't think about how far you take your club back, and how far you go through. You might think about that sometimes, but when you're hitting the ball and playing, you're just thinking about striking that ball and going on and playing golf.
Q: What techniques did you use to create a successful climate for learning?
A: I tried to provide incentives and recognition for almost everyone. And sometimes this could happen with grades, and pins, and buttons, and special privileges, trips, and I had one thing going at Sandusky that was kind of an attention getter. Not just to get attention, but it was an attention getter. For those who had perfect attendance, I would take them to lunch at intervals during the year. I would have a school bus to drive up. Have school funds to pay for their lunch at some of the smaller restaurants, and some of the finer ones in town. The same thing for those who had all A's. Perfect grades. Perfect grade average. They looked forward to having this lunch at the Piedmont Club, or at the Hilton, or the Radisson. Not often, but every quarter I would take a group out with the highest grade point, but I made certain that I didn't fail to see those who made great efforts. Who had lesser success. So I tried to do some things for those who had the most noticeable improvement over a given grading period. Over a quarter or a six month period, or a year. So I tried to set the climate by catching flies with honey I guess you'd say. Recognition, incentives, and for teachers it was different, but some of the same philosophy went into that. For example, I tried to reward teachers by standing in for their classes when they had emergencies, when they wanted to make a telephone call, when they had a sick person at home. Maybe they would go home and come back. A little bit before our time because now we're taking abut family leave, and all those. I couldn't get that far, but I was moving a little bit in that direction. And when a teacher was expecting a child, or pregnant, I would always ask if you could do all your duties today. If you want to stand up and man the lunch room, or if you didn't feel like doing it, I'd get somebody else to do it. I couldn't do it all. Sometimes we had six pregnant at a time. I couldn't be six people. But I'd get somebody else who many have been sympathetic to fill in. And when they got back on their feet and felt better and more able, they could come back and pay them back. Also, I had a thing going that just before the beginning of every holiday I would permit all the teachers in the school, whether they had done well or not, just as a "thank you" giving away my time, I didn't pay for their salaries but I was in charge and so I said, when the students leave and you have done all of your work, you can leave today one hour earlier than you would normally. And they were forever grateful for the little things. This little consideration. An hour wouldn't do so much for a person, but it would let them beat the traffic. It would say that somebody appreciated the fact that they had a difficult job, difficult role, and was sympathetic to their need to get home and to do some things to get ready to go shopping, to get home just to get off their feet, because its very emotional. They are draining. It's very demanding working with youngsters when they are in the midst of a lot of excitement. And so the teachers pay a big price for them emotionally, so they appreciated that. Also some of the kinds of things I think that set the tone, and I was strict in some ways, you know we wouldn't tolerate fighting, and bringing weapons on the school grounds, and leaving without permission. All these things had something to do with safety, and liabilities, and responsibilities in my judgment. And so I didn't want to bring anymore risk on myself and on the school, and on the school division than I had to, then I could prevent, or to prevent all that risk if I could. And so in some way it was very, it was kind of a tight ship, if you will.
Q: In your view, what kinds of things do teachers expect principals to be able to do? Describe your views on what it takes to be an effective principal, for example.
A: Teachers expect principals to be knowledgeable, first of all, and they expect them to be the principle teacher. In that sense, they don't expect a (principal) to be an expert in every discipline, but they expect you to be an expert in some disciplines, and to show that you can teach as well. That's one of the things I think that teachers do expect a lot of principals, and should. Because if you've never been in a classroom, if you've never managed a bunch of students, you've never had successes from them in a subject matter, and if you can't do it at any point in time, I think teachers will loose respect for you. I think teachers expect the principal to assist in creating a safe climate. And a climate for which learning is expected and respected. Teachers expect principals to be fair in terms of extra duties and responsibilities. And consistent, if you will, in expectations of them. Especially with respect to the evaluation of their performance. Teachers expect you to be consistent from one to another. Not to play favorites. And also to recognize what they do above and beyond the call of duty. Those are just a few. You could go on all day talking about what teachers expect of principals but that's the gist, perhaps.
Q: As a follow-up questions, would you describe the expectations, both professional and personal, that were placed on principals by their employers and the community during your period of employment, realistic, for example?
A: I thought they were realistic. I've known of a time when a teacher could not marry, and when a teacher could not smoke, and when a teacher could not wear shorts. A teacher could not play with children. I didn't find any of that to be true in my tenure as a teacher or principal. I guess I knew some things to do and not to do. I always went to school dressed for business as I encourage students to come dressed for business and behave like I was in a professional setting, and a professional environment. And I asked and insisted upon them doing the same things. So maybe that stood me in good stead with the parents, but I never felt parents to be unrealistic in their expectations. I got a little close to that one time when I was not attending every ballgame, and every play, and every event of the school. And I got a little criticism that you ought to be there at every one of these. And I said, well you know I've got a son at home and a wife at home, and I just can't be gone everyday. I can't come to every event, but I've got three assistant principals. I had three most of the time that I was principal. And one of us will certainly be there. And I will certainly be at every possible one. But every band practice, and every band performance, and every basketball game, and every football game got to be very demanding and I would miss a few and I was reminded just above every time. That was bordering on the unrealistic, but basically I never had any real problem with that.
Q: Do you thing it's much different today for a principal?
A: Well, I've been out of the principalship now for about five years, and I think the expectations are still about the same. I don't spend as many days in school houses that I would like to. I still spend a few. I'm involved in a college setting, the Saint Paul's College Economic Development Cluster and its working with students to prepare them for the job market. That's a college group. And so I'm in school in that regard. And I'm also a member of the board of the Appalachian Educational Laboratory, Inc. And so that has a lot to do with schools, and classrooms, and teachers, inservice activity. So I'm still (being), but I don't spend as much time as I either would like to with students in the classroom. Getting back to your question, though, I don't think the expectations are much greater on principals then they were when I was a principal. Maybe a few more risk out there in terms of the demands dealing with reluctant learners. Those out of synch with learning perhaps because of the involvement in drugs. And I think this whole business of firearms availability is making the school climate more difficult to manage. That and drugs. One can't exist without the other. It creates a greater demand and more stress on teachers and principals today. We didn't have to deal with it as much.
Q: A great deal of attention has been given to the topic of personal leadership in recent years. Could you discuss your approach to leadership, and describe your techniques which work for you. I know you touched on a few earlier. Is there anything else that might fall under the category of leadership in general, which would be applicable to a school setting or another setting, for example?
A: Leaders I think have to go an extra mile in expressing or conveying their own industriousness, if that's the right way to put it. You have to show that you're industrious. You don't mind working. Your work is long and it's hard. As anybody else, you will lead in that direction. And you won't just sit back in your easy chair and let things happen as they may. So I think you have to prove first of all that you're committed. You're forever trying to learn new ways, new techniques for improvement. And you can not settle with the status quo. You've got to continue to be pulled and pushed, and stretch yourself. And expect that same kind of thing to happen to those around you.
Q: There are those who argue that more often than not, central office hinders rather than helps the building - level administrator. Would you give your view on that issue?
A: I don't agree with that. I guess it has a lot to do with my orientation, but those who say that if you carried that principle far enough you could say, send 300 students over to the school and leave them alone. The teachers would be their most immediate administrators in that regard. And so they'll do alright. They'll do fine. They can learn. They can protect their own safety. They can make and abide by rules and regulations. But it just doesn't work that way. Look at any company out there today whether it's IBM, or whether it's Union Carbide, or whether it's Ford, or Chrysler, or General Motors. Somebody out there is in charge. And you can't expect, because people don't like the pay sometimes, for administrative services in schools to think that you will get a multitude of teachers and students and no kind of administrative efforts. It just won't work. It doesn't stand to reason. I've given you some. You know people say they want less government. And those who say it would never say you need a part-time governor. Those who say that we need less government from Washington. You never heard a senator say or a congressman say we'll cut our pay in half, and we'll work half-time and we don't need so much time to wrangle and bicker and play partisanship. I think that's just an excuse that people like to say. Nobody likes to be directed. People don't necessarily like to be directed and lead in lots of cases. And so they've come up with this idea that oh, if we didn't have this administrator, we didn't have all this paperwork, oh, we could just make so much more progress. But I don't believe it.
Q: If you were advising a person who is considering an administrative job, what would your advice be?
A: I would advise them to think long and hard about it because it is extremely demanding. There are a lot of risks out there today. There have always been, but they may be getting greater because of the things I've just mentioned. I would remind them that the tenure of a principal and college presidents, and administrators is getting shorter, and division superintendents, shorter and shorter. I would say, I'm just guessing now, but the tenure of a division superintendent may be about six years now. Maybe less. Most of them get a four year contract, but very few make it through a second four year period. And so I'd say, think of what you're, make sure you're committed. Make sure you're committed to a life of great sacrifice, and hard work, and never-ending search and strategy for continuous learning. Make sure you're committed to that. Because if your going out of high school or to graduate school, saying "I know it all, I can handle it from here, I'm situated for life in this career," they're dead wrong. They'll be unsuccessful, and unhappy.
Q: Would you describe the ideal requirements for principal certification and discuss appropriate procedures for screening those who wish to become principals?
A: I'm much in favor of the assessment center process by which those aspiring to be principals would be put through a simulated leadership role and a simulated environment and give them specific problems and situations and challenges to deal with to see how they handle, how they come up with, how they come to answers for different problems, how they come up with different solutions. I think that principal assessment center concept is one that can be improved. We need to continue to work on it. And I think that's one of the things that I would consider a must to select principals. I would also say that every principal still ought to be a teacher. There's a philosophy developing right now, I think, that school teachers and principals don't have to go through a formal process. Somehow or another you can take a retired person from G.E., from B & W, and put them in a classroom and they're going to be highly successful. They're going to be most knowledgeable about their subject, and they can teach anybody at any level and any interest in learning. I think that can happen, but I think that's basically a rare phenomenon. So teachers have to be taught like surgeons to operate, like lawyers to practice. The have to go through a formal process, and once you have been, had a tenure, a short tenure teaching, I think those with interest in administration ought to begin to study various approaches to leadership. Ought to become more knowledgeable about curriculum, student management, business affairs as they relate to schools, athletic programs, tough programs. They are to get beyond just a certain subject area and get some experience in all these areas... finance, accounting, budgeting, management, public relations, human relations, the whole bit. So yes, I think the principals need to be taught. You just don't take a good teacher, and put them in a classroom and say, look, nothing else, you are the principal, you ought to make, have a success at it. I don't think - you might get some, but here again, that's a rarity, that's an exception, rather than the other way around. So, I guess what I'm saying is that additional education in a school administration program, and those who continue to aspire to be principals ought to go through an assessment center where they can be screened for the likelihood of success and, you know, they ought to be exposed to the good, the bad. Be told the truth about what to expect. And those who would like to try it, I think they should only try it with a probationary period like you do when you're beginning teaching.
Q: Do you know of any assessment centers as you describe them, for educators?
A: Yes, there are a number of assessment centers. I believe the Virginia Association of Secondary School Principals operates one now. And where, would this not be required for school division to put a principal through this assessment center, but I think there are opportunities all around the universities, in the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals, Virginia Association of Secondary School Principals. I believe, I think I'm right in that they run an assessment center where principals can go through and divisions can pay for them to go and to get an assessment. Give the division superintendent, those who do the placing some feedback about their lack of success.
Q: It's often said that the principal should be active in community affairs. Please discuss your involvement with and participation in civic groups and other community organizations. And which had the greatest influence on your work?
A: I would definitely agree that a principal ought to be a visible person in the community. I think being involved in social and civic affairs in the community. Obviously you can't be involved in all. But I think you ought to, I think there are enough of which a person can make some sensible choices, and not to become overburdened in the outside arena so that he or she cannot be, would not leave enough time to manage, to administer, if you will, the school environment. The school role. I don't know that I would have any magic mix for those, but I think if I were just to give you my personal biases, I would think the principal ought to be, should be involved in some kid of a religious organization; church synagogue, mosque, whatever. I just think, I don't know. Don't tell me why, ask me why, but I just think that's good discipline and it shows regard for somebody, some being, and some philosophy a little bit higher and greater than your own, if nothing more. And, obviously, you can't be in one that all of your students are in, or the maximum number of your teachers are in. But that's not necessarily the point. I think if you're disciplined enough to have that support group, that supporting philosophy out there that your religion brings to you, then you'll be a better person for it. And I would say so far as a community goes, that a person can make some good choices in civic and social clubs. There are plenty of good ones out there -- Rotary, Ruritans, Lions, Exchange. All these clubs, I think, speak volumes. They are certainly support groups and you can covey the good work you're doing. And people can see you as a real person and not as some name that flashes on the screen when something goes wrong, obviously, sometimes. As for me while I was in it, it was probably a fault of mine, I tried to become active in too many things. I was a member of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools which took me away from my own school for a number of days during the year. For ten years, my last ten years in school, I served on the Virginia committee, and I was involved in evaluating schools all around the Commonwealth. And when you're in that group, then you have a national tie, or a regional tie. This Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, is made up by, serves eleven states, southern states, southeastern states. And so it takes one away from school quite a bit. I was involved in the Rotary Club. I was involved on a leadership level while I was still a practicing principal, and involved in a lot of Chamber of Commerce Activities in my town. In this town. And so you have to be somewhat careful that you don't get overburdened with these outside of school activities. But you must, I think it's almost a must that you have a reasonable mix.
Q: A good deal of attention has been give to career ladders, differential pay plans, and merit pay in recent years. Would you give your views on these issues and describe any involvement you had with such approaches.
A: Merit pay for teachers and for anybody, I think, is a wonderful concept on paper, but a less wonderful one, still wonderful, still meritorious, but less so in action. It's just like, I'll give you another example of something I think relates to it. The concept of an elected school board is something that almost nobody could fight. But it's a wonderful idea in philosophy but in practice it's not so good. Appointed school board members, in my judgment, are far superior than elected ones. And so I'd say merit pay sounds good on paper but in practice it doesn't work all that well. Although I'm not necessarily against it. Let me say this. I'm a firm believer that those who produce more and those who give their all and who accomplish the most ought to be compensated the greatest. There's nothing wrong with that. Where the problem comes in is how do you evaluate all these loose ends and all these hard to measure activities and contributions to the extent that you can make a differential in pay. Evaluation, pure evaluation, if you will, that's concrete as opposed to abstract, you know, is awful hard when you get there. And you're going to make some mistakes. And when you make mistakes, you know that kind of undermines the whole scheme. It's just so much easier to say that you got 100 teachers in school, and you pay them by the, give them all the same pay. It's easy to know how many years they've served, so you pay them, you make the differential according to the years. In philosophy I don't like that. I would much rather have it so that you would have teachers and administrators and all of the employees paid on a multiple point system that took almost very phase of their activity in consideration. That would be the fairest. That would be the best one, in my judgment. But getting to that. Making that a science as opposed to art is just nearly impossible. And so I'm somewhat satisfied to continue with the old system where you part company with those who don't perform. It's almost better to say those who's performance is borderline, to try to replace that person if you can't improve that person, if all efforts fail to try to bring that person up to par, up to standard, up to acceptable standards. Try that first. If that doesn't work then dismiss that teacher, but continue to pay all the others on the same scale with the years of service and hopefully their growth as the biggest factor.
Q: Real quick. We have time, I think for one more. So as a follow up to that (teacher evaluations), describe your approach to that and your philosophy of evaluation.
A: Well, I've tried to encourage everyone to first of all develop and design a process of self-evaluation. That self-evaluation should take place almost on a daily basis. Beyond that self-evaluation, that's not nearly enough, you have to be evaluated, in my judgment, by the person who does what? Who pays your salary. Who compensates you. And who is in charge of supervising your daily accomplishments, or your daily contributions. And so after that self evaluation process for which an evaluator ought to take into account how one feels about him or herself, and how that comes into play. Then I think the evaluation ought to be done at a full evaluation by some administrative or some person in higher authority - higher authority now - ought to be in place. And that ought to be as methodical as possible. Ought to be as fair as possible, and the teacher should never be evaluated on the basis of hearsay and third party input. But principals or those with the evaluation responsibility ought to spend some significant time with the person evaluated to try to track their performance. And they ought to not use any one criterion, but multiple criteria ought to be used. You know the feedback from students, grades from the class, unbecoming incidents from the class, feedback from peers, feedback from parents, just dozens of criteria ought to be used.
Q: As you view it, what characteristics are associated with the most effective schools, and what features characterize less successful ones?
A: Goal oriented schools have the most success. People need to know - students, and teachers, and parents - where they're going, which direction, which course they've charted. If they don't know that, they might end up in the right place and they night not. So goal first, resources, (unintelligible) you've got to have money, you've got to have materials, supplies, and equipment. You've got to have investment in your school plant. You can't learn, we once thought we could learn well enough in a store front building with cardboard walls and broken windows. But we found that we need some more controlled climate to maximize learning.
Q: During the past decade schools have become much larger. Discuss your view on this phenomenon, and suggest an ideal size for a school in your view.
A: Well, I have a very set viewpoint on this matter. Schools can be too large for efficiency and they can be too small for efficiency. In other words, if a school is very, very small, you can not get the comprehensive offerings into that school on a cost efficient basis. If you have a school of 300 students and some of them want to take, for instance, Spanish and Latin, well, you can't get enough people to make the class and you've got to have students transferred in, or teachers transferred in to make up the right matches. And so I would say that I think elementary school of somewhere between 300 and 400 students would be ideal. And for middle school 800 to 1,000 is ideal. In a high school 1,400 to 1,600 is fine. Of course you could make up a lot of different athletic groups. You could have enough people to sign up for classes to make them work. And I think the efficiencies are created in schools about that size. Somewhere in that range that I've given you.
Q: In recent years, more and more programs have cropped up for special groups; special education, for example. Please discuss your experience with the special populations and your view on the trends we're experiencing today.
A: Special students are going to always be there and I think we probably don't have any more students with special needs than we had when I was in the seventh grade. But we have come out of the closet. We have begun to treat those students in an effort to treat everybody the same and to maximize everybody's learning. We have come a long way in providing special programs for those with special needs. And I think we ought to continue in that fashion. I think we have developed a pretty sound concept when we said that students ought to be taught with special needs in the least restrictive area; in the least restrictive environment. There's nothing keeping a student in a wheelchair from going to a normal class; what we call a normal class today. But if the child is grossly autistic, you know, to mix him in a class of 19 or 20 other peers, I think is grossly wrong. I think it impedes the learning, hampers the learning for everyone. And so those people have to be drawn off at the special needs classes, with special teachers, with special training. And I think I would go that way. But I believe this beginning new trend that I see developing to mainstream everybody, no matter how gross the disability is, no matter how disruptive they might be, is ill-placed. I think it's just a method to save money and not to look out for the best interests of the handicapped or the normal, so-called normal student.
Q: There has traditionally been a commitment in this country to the principle of universal free public education. Would you give your view on this concept and indicate your feelings on the practicality of such an approach in this day and age.
A: I don't think its ever been in practice universally free because I've never known a situation where a student didn't have to buy something - band instruments, pay a certain portion of fees for their books, spending their own money if they wanted to pay on football, basketball teams - these kind of things. So, if you ask a parent how free is public education today, they would tell you it costs them a heck of a lot after that free gift. I think they would have told you that in 1950. That I don't send my child to school and it cost me nothing other than what I've already paid in taxes. So universally free in that sense, I don't think has ever been universally free. But when we look at it in a more general sense of universal free education, I think that's the most American thing about America. And I would say that we have made more progress in this country in educating all people. Although we don't educate some of the top, the elitist, the cream of the crop as well as Japan and some of the other countries. This country ought to be held up as a model for doing the maximum, education to the maximum number of people. And I'm a strong believer in the so-called universal free education. And I hope that nothing will ever interfere very much with it. I do see some efforts to undermine it a bit - tuition tax credits for private schools, tuition tax credits for home schooling - so I see a big effort to say let's make public schools not so public. Especially in the financing of them, and the management of them. And I don't agree with that trend. I think it's going to hurt America.
Q: Given the presence of administrative complexity, if there were three areas of administration that you would change in order to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of that position, what would you do?
A: I would say give the principal and administration a little bit more (not complete) autonomy with respect to financial resources. You know, say that experience tells us that the per pupil costs for education over many, many years and many, many tests happens to be this amount. And so we'll give you that and we might see how effectively and efficiently you can use that. So freeing up the strings, I said you can't get along without a strong education, but freeing up, making the latitude a little big greater especially with respect to hiring practices and to the use of your financial resources.
Q: Would you describe your general relationship pro or con with the Board of Education and comment on the effectiveness of school board operations in general when you were in the position of principal.
A: I think Virginia can pride itself as one of the stronger states with regards to effectiveness of school boards. You know there is that fine line for which school boards become micro managers of schools. Or they can become general overseer of schools. And I like the role of general overseer as setting the stage and the goals, and corralling the resources, if you will. And setting the basic guidelines, rather than micro management. And, I think it happens in Virginia and oddly enough is happening in that state which was the last state in the union to have the latitude of elected school boards. And so I thought it was so strange that we had such a wonderful history of committed and competent school boards, and would change the process for something that other states have been doing for so many years because we thought it was better. Already, in two years we found that in a number of cases where there have been elected school boards, they have not gone nearly quite so well as the appointed ones have. It's still too early to tell if I'm absolutely right or wrong on this. I think I'm absolutely right. I thing appointed school boards, elected school boards make it too political. You get elected from a certain vantage point and you're supposed to serve that vantage point, all else be dammed - you know, so to speak, if you're going to get re-elected. And I think those who have made the appointments have been sensitive to needs for diversity, and for a certain strength in school boards - this five or six members school board, eight members school board, somebody with expertise in it all, somebody in finance, somebody in education, retired person in education. So they've always kind of thought of this kind of a diversity as strength on a school board. Now you might find fifteen people on, eight people on a school board and all of them with a special education child in school. My child! You know. That's why I'm here. They don't tell you that. I'm here because Mr. Tannenbaum won't let my child go in the mainstream classes. And all of us parents out there, we're vocal as hell, and we're going to get together and we're going to probably, first thing we do is throw Mr. Tannenbaum out. That's kind of the way you get, that's kind of the way school boards, elected school boards behave. I don't think it's in the best interests of good education.
Q: Would you describe those aspects of your professional training which best prepared you for the principalship. Which training experiences were least useful, as well.
A: Practice teaching was by far the best experience I had. I had a wonderful experience in practice teaching, or in intern teaching. And I guess the other experiences, I've had some success in the teacher training courses. You know this philosophy 101, classroom management 303, all of these, I haven't had a course that I didn't think was valuable to me. And so I think I would probably be in the minority when I say that I was lucky enough at University of Virginia and at Blackburn College and Virginia State College and some other places I've attended - Lynchburg College where I picked up classes here and there. A lot of them in administration and in pure teaching. I was an "A" student and in very good stead to becoming what I will say if I don't sound like bragging, to have been a successful principal.
Q: What suggestions would you offer universities as a way of helping them to better prepare candidates for administrative positions? Comment on some weaknesses you might deem exist as well.
A: There are not very many administrative internships. And I'd like to see the universities do more with placing a person in the university level who's an aspiring principal to go out and work a year side-by side with a principal. It's almost like a medical internship.
Q: Like a mentorship.
A: Yes. And like an internship, or a mentorship, would be kind of a cross between a mentorship and internship. And place that person with perhaps 2/3 pay in an office with a practicing principal. A principal who had been identified as being very successful, and go from there. And I think that's a weakness in the training programs of colleges. And that kind of a training would also stand an aspiring principal in good stead in these assessment centers. And I don't think in the future that we can, or we should even put a principal in a school without having gone through an assessment center project.
Q: Would you give us an overall comment on the pros and cons of administrative service, and any advice you would wish passed along to today's principals.
A: I think, well I don't know what would be pro or what would be con, necessarily, but let me say that I think anyone who is going to serve in the role or is serving in the role of the administrator, has got to look at the ethics of it. We are under higher scrutiny, all professions than they've every been before. And the liabilities can sometimes be shattering, because the least little thing that happens that's out of synch with the expectations can be shown on TV and written-up in papers and a person's reputation (whatever is left if they are innocent of charges) can be devastating. And so we've got to keep the character, the ethics issues always before us. And other than that, just do what you know is right. And most of the time when we all get 15, or 16, or 17 we know what's right.
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