Today is the 29th day of March, 1995. This is an interview with Mr. Mel Cartwright, retired principal of Patrick Henry Elementary School in Martinsville, Virginia.
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Q: Mr. Cartwright, would you begin by telling us about your family background and your childhood interests; historical developments; something about your birthplace, family characteristics?
(Streamed audio file of interview for this question using RealPlayer)
A: John and Harry my parents were tenant farmers and I'm quite proud of the fact that they were able to pay two-thirds rent over a period of twenty years and buy their own farm. They had the educational background of fifth grade each. I had a sister who graduated from high school and she was the valedictorian of her class. The class consisted of two people. I started out in a one room schoolhouse for the first three years. The best part of my education I think I ever had. I think I learned more in a self contained classroom in which all six grades were in one room and I learned from other classes as they were taught. I think that's a great experience for me. I'm very proud of that fact. I was not able to attend college because my parents had saved every dime to buy a farm during the depression years. I went into the military and spent six years with the military and then got on the GI bill and gained my degree. I had a great interest in education through those years, I think my parents worked very hard to get me through high school under those circumstances. We always had beans on the table, enough food to eat, but never any money. They had such an interest in the kids getting at least a high school education and wanted to provide college but were unable to do so. So I do thank them for steering me on the right direction.
Q: You mentioned that you used the GI bill? Was that for your college education?
A: Yes, yes indeed.
Q: Tell us a little bit about that education and your preparation for entering the field of teaching and then preparation later for the principalship.
A: I think gentlemen I had great interest in sports all during my high school days and played all sports. I think that and the fact that I had some coaches that I was very especially proud to know and be under their tollage. I believe that started my interest in becoming a teacher and a coach. And through those factors I got the idea that I would like to be a teacher.
Q: Where did you go to school?
A: I got my undergraduate school work done at Western Illinois State College in Illinois. After two years of teaching I went back and got my masters at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
Q: Would you mind discussing experiences or events in life that constituted important decision points in your career and how you feel about them.
A: Spending numerous hours in gun watches, I was able to develop several philosophies. First of all I knew that I wanted to get out of the North Atlantic, and the Pacific and all the other places I had been. I looked forward to the day I could work with youngsters. I thought that would be one of the greatest things I could ever do in my life and it has been true. I think the fact that I had a chance to work with youngsters throughout my life has been an experience I shall never forget. I believe that it's helped keep me somewhat sane through the years. Sometimes I felt like I was insane too.
Q: I know you taught and you coached for some years. How did that tenure as a teacher turn into a principalship and what maybe motivated you towards being a principal.
A: Money! Money had something to do with it. Really. I had taught for two years in Colorado as an elementary fifth grade teacher. Then I came to Martinsville and became a physical education teacher for one year and then became a Social Studies teacher. The next year I was forced to becoming the assistant principal of the high school. I'm not sure that I had any qualifications that gave me that position. It seemed like our principal, the great white father, decided that he needed some help and I was always a pretty fair disciplinarian. I think sometimes size and an innocent look may have something to do with that but I did and was able to work with children and able to get along with children very well.
Q: Who twisted your arm? You said you were forced.
A: John Richmond, the principal at that time who later became superintendent.
Q: Now what's a little unique about this interview is that you served in the same school that I serve in now. Would you take us for a walk through that school and describe its appearances and any unusual features that you saw as you were principal of the school.
A: Gentlemen, I liked that school so much that I got a place across the street, that's number one. Number two is the adjoining park which I think is a lovely area. I think that park is one of the most beautiful parks in the area and I dearly love to walk through the park and walk the school grounds. The school is sitting or setting, I beg your pardon, in a location that seemed to give grace and beauty to the park. It became a part of it. It was an old building I think built on WPA Funds. I think the laborers were perhaps paid so that they could have some money and have some self pride. The building was well done. A little bit lacking perhaps in the fact that the building was not built in a manner that might have made it cooler. It didn't have enough insulation in the building to prevent the sun from heating it. But other than that, the corridors were conducive to education, a nice auditorium, and a gym was added which gave us a chance for physical education classes.
Q: Was it added while you were there?
A: It was added just before I came. Just before I came and I understand that since I have left they have rebuilt the gym and made it an even nicer area. The school is a two story building with some rooms in the basement. I think it's an attractive building yet it may not meet all the needs of today's educational standards. It may not be as nice as some buildings, such as Druid Hills which is considered one of the upper echelon schools in Martinsville; but it has enough class. I would say I prefer that building over any building in the city. I'm very proud of that building. I think it has all the characteristics that enhance an educational situation for children.
Q: I agree with you.
A: Thank you.
Q: We are going to shift gears a little bit and give you the age old question that most people ask educators. How would you describe your personal philosophy of education and how did it evolve over the years during your tenure as a principal?
A: Again it goes back to all the hours I spent on gun watches and all the time I had thinking about education. I don't know that my educational philosophy has changed all that much and I say that for a good reason. We had the McGuffey readers when I was in school and it talked about pride, it talked about character, and it talked about some of the things we need to develop a whole lot more in our school system today. I'm not sure we can do that as well as we could then because we didn't have all the freebies in this world. We didn't have free lunch, we didn't have special education, we didn't have any of the things that kids expect today, I think perhaps. We didn't have all the children who didn't know who their fathers were. I think the idea that you may not have anything but you made out with what you had in this world. I'm a history buff, and I think I was influenced early on by my father who, notwithstanding his lack of education, knew his presidents, he knew how many years they served. He loved Roosevelt with a passion because Roosevelt seemed to save our country from the depression. So I think we had heros, Lindbergh was my hero for goodness sakes, 1927 you folks ought to know this. None of you in this class or other classes would know about Lindbergh. Well he flew a plane across the Atlantic; the biggest hero that the history has known in many years. Then I loved Babe Ruth; good night I reckon, the man hit all those home runs, 60 home runs, in one year. And I think there is a lacking in the school system today of pride and heros. You know the presidents, if I may diverse on this just a second, two presidents were asked who are your heros and you know neither one of them could come up with a hero. Don't you think that's unusual? So I thank my family, bless their hearts tenant farmers that they were, and I'll go back to that a hundred times. I guess because I think that education is not all done in the classroom, it's got to be done in the home. I don't care what you put in the classroom; if they don't have some character and don't have some heros and somebody that they are proud of then they are not going to learn anything. So I don't think my educational philosophy has changed a darn bit. It's the same ole thing, what you see is what you get with me brothers.
Q: Yeah, makes a whole lot of sense. What experiences in your professional life have influenced your philosophy of management? I know you went from a teacher/coach to a principal, so there were some changes there in management styles I'm sure. What experiences helped you?
A: Again gentlemen I think the fact that I was head of the gunnery department in the Navy gave me a good chance of working with people, putting people in certain positions, certain places, and that enhanced me a lot as far as my personal philosophy of management. Then I was with John Richmond who is a mighty powerful manager. I learned some things then. I changed some of his philosophy, he was rather dogmatic if I may say that and I think I shall. If he were here I would tell him the same thing. I wouldn't be afraid to experience what I thought about our philosophy there. So I was under the strong philosophy of the navy and that carried over in my philosophy with the school system. It is, you tell people what to do and they pretty much do it. I've also changed some on that. I like to bring people in and give them the chance to voice their opinions on how they think things should work. We have chairmen of various grade levels. Just sit down and talk to them with a philosophy of what we thought should be done. I've changed a lot in my philosophy, in the idea that; let's give people a chance to work with you rather then tell them to do this, do that, and that's the end of the rule.
Q: When you started your principalship do you think it was more of a telling and then it evolved into a showing?
A: Right, I think it was more than that.
Q: Cooperative, collaborative type of leading?
A: It was more telling, but that was what I was taught.
A: Especially since I was in the Navy as well as my first experience in the administrative field. We told people what to do and then I learned one thing. You can lead a horse to the water but you can't make him drink. I think we changed in that philosophy, yes.
Q: What kind of things do you think that teachers, in your experience, what kind of things do they expect from principals?
A: One word gentlemen, I think they look for, they want support. They want and expect support from you. The idea that if they have a problem in the classroom they want you to help them with disciplinary reasons. If they have a problem with the parents, they want you to at least listen to what goes on and try to figure out a way to solve this dilemma. So I believe they want help in solving their disciplinary needs, their parental problems. The fact that I didn't do a very good job on some things, I did know that they want to be involved in all the decisions on what the curriculum needs of that school are.
Q: Mel, you mentioned about teachers wanting support. What things did you want as a principal from your teachers? Let's reverse that situation.
A: John, a good teacher will come to the class well prepared they'll work on their lesson plans that afternoon before they leave school. They'll know exactly what they need to do. The classroom will be well organized, the kids will know what to do when they come in, they'll know what time they're going to lunch, what time they're going to the playground, and each list of their studies will be outlined on the board. There will be no question about homework. A good teacher will have everything prepared in such a way that when you walk into that classroom you'll see a model plan of operation going on in that classroom and you don't have to worry about those teachers. The teacher that does a good job will not need much supervision and I had a number of those great teachers. I had teachers that never had a disciplinary problem, never raised their voice, never had to arch an eyebrow, and could silence the biggest loud mouth in their classroom. Most of the older teachers that we had in the early 60's were teachers that were dedicated and hard working. They worked hour after hour after hour planning and getting their classroom materials ready. So in that self-contained classroom where I first started, I bet I only had one percent of teachers that needed some constructive criticism about getting some plans and getting their classrooms in order. There just wasn't that problem. I believe the older teachers had work ethics that goes back to my father. They worked hard, they were diligent, and as a result I think their classroom work was exceedingly well done.
Q: Now you mentioned about teachers maybe having some problems that you could help deal with. We have teachers that continuously have problems in the classrooms today. I mean that's obvious. But now we've shifted to the topic that teachers have the grievance procedure in our school system. At that time, did you have any such procedure and then how about giving your viewpoints and describe your approach into handling teacher dissatisfaction.
A: I don't know what grievance means. I didn't know the word. Ya'll will have to explain that to me so obviously I don't know much about grievance. We didn't have any grievance. If we had, it was well hidden from the public view. No the teachers didn't grieve much. They would come to me and say why didn't I get such and such kid in my classroom and I said one day to the teacher, I said because the parents don't want you. She said what do you mean? I said because sometimes you have had some problems in the classroom in which the children didn't learn. The parents weren't satisfied with the kind of instruction you were giving, and neither am I. We've had that form of grievance but there was nothing going on. No sending word to the school board or the superintendent that we had a grievance. It was done internally and that's why I say I don't know the term grievance, obviously I was fabricating. But what I am saying is we had very little of it. It was handled in the principal's office. Occasionally the teacher's were dissatisfied with what's going on. I would meet with the teacher and the parent and we would talk about our problems and see what we could do to solve them.
Q: Along the same lines, your involvement with teachers in such activities as them having problems. Did you have any dealings with teacher dismissal?
Q: Did you have to dismiss a teacher?
A: Yes, I did.
Q: How did you go about that?
A: First thing, this involvement I had was a librarian that I had to dismiss. I began to document things the teachers said. I got a good documentation of what the problems were. She had problems with the kids coming in. She was treating them unfairly, yelling and screaming at them, leaving them nervous and they didn't want to go to the library. Anytime you have a situation when they don't want to go to the library you've got a deep problem. So I first called the librarian in and said how I'm getting complaints about the way you're handling the library and I am seeing also that you are having a lot of trouble with the kids. They don't want to go to the library and we documented all of these things that I had down without mentioning any specific teacher. And that went on and nothing improved. As a matter of fact, they got worse apparently. So the principal wasn't doing a good job. It came to the end where I submitted that she should be dismissed to the school board. Well it made alot of ruffling of feelings but because I had documented so well the many things that had happened she was dismissed. And she was a tenured teacher. That was early on. That was about the middle 60's I would say.
Q: That is very unusual. In our day we feel that a tenured teacher couldn't possibly be dismissed but yet she was.
A: She was dismissed. And I think perhaps it was easier to dismiss her because she decided to quit. That always helps, so I'm not so sure that my documentation was that good or whether I was that persuasive. She decided to resign but that's the only one I had that was dismissed. There was no ruffling of feelings and she was a tenured teacher. Again, as I look back maybe I didn't do a great job. It's the fact she decided to quit period. It would probably be in the courtroom today.
Q: It probably would. I'm going to shift a little bit in what we talked about teachers and shift it to something about schools. You hear a lot of things about public schools. As you view, it what characteristics do you think are associated with effective schools and maybe what characteristics are associated with ones that are not very successful.
A: Successful schools first of all will have parents that are satisfied with the type of education their child is getting. I think parents know and parents get together and talk about what their children are doing in school. I think if the parent is happy probably the school system is doing a good job. I think again test scores will play a part. And I don't think test scores are the only means and modem of predicting what is happening in a school. I think where you attract your children from, some schools have the appearance, of maybe it's more than appearance, of getting the better type of students. When I say type I mean ones that are not all on free lunches and I'm not against free lunches. I'm not talking about people that have unfortunate experiences in life to have to have free lunches but I am saying that it's more difficult to work with children that come from broken homes, and come from homes that they don't know who their fathers are. Sometimes they don't know their mothers, living with their grandparents, but I'm saying very definitely that the type of school you have is sometimes not the principal you have, it's not the teachers you have, it's the type of students that you have gotten in your school. I could be for various reasons, drawing lines from various districts, and I'm saying that has a part in the school system. I guess it goes back to pride, if money is not the root of all evils, the lack of money is not the root of all evils. It's the type of training that you have in that family. If you don't have a dime you can be as good a student or better than those from the more prestigious homes. I'm not saying that, all I'm saying is that if they don't know a hero and they don't know their father, don't know their mother, and live with their grandparents, are shuffled to aunts and uncles; how in the name of goodness do you expect a person to be a good school citizen. I don't think he can. I don't think he ever will.
Q: So success maybe, is a harder thing to reach in some schools than it would be in other schools?
A: Definitely, very definitely and I don't care what anybody says. I would stand up and fight anybody that says that isn't true. It is the only way that you can discern what the problems are in the schools is who do you have. And that's why I guess private schools started. Some private schools started because I want my children with more gifted people. Everybody wants that I suppose, but gifted doesn't mean rich, rich has nothing to do with. The family life has a lot.
Q: I'm going to switch. I'm going to piggyback on something that you referred to. In recent years more special groups of students have been developed. Now we have gifted and talented students, we have handicap students, we have physically and mentally challenged students, we have students that English is their second language, and the list goes on and on and on. Discuss your experience with special service students and maybe your views on today's trends in this regard.
A: I'm not sure I can follow everything you say. When I was principal we did have the gifted and talented. We just started that in the end of my school career as a principal. I saw some good from that. I think gifted and talented has a place in schools. I think magnet schools, if you're going to put them all in one house, perhaps the magnet school would be the best way to handle this rather than putting gifted and talented and making it look to some people, oh well, a step above anybody in this school. I'm not so sure that's the best way to do it. I'm not sure I know the best way. First of all let me so that, but I can see that the LD students who started early, I do think occasionally an LD student felt so badly about himself that he could never recover from the LD class. I'm not sure that's good but I think special classes have a place. I think your grouping that you do in all schools and we did in the last two or three years in my career, is a problem. We grouped the students and I had some problems with that. I had some parents from the supposedly well-trained parents, the people who took care of their kids, worked with their kids, and I had them in a lower group. I had one gentleman come and spend several hours with me, walked through the school and talked. He said you mean to tell me it's good for my kid to be in a class with average students just because you have labeled him average. He's got it on his test scores. Is that good? He said I will show you study after study that shows that is not good. I'm sure all of you have seen those studies.
A: Again I go back to the one room school . By golly there's more education going on I think in that one room school sometimes than I think is going on in some of these group schools that I see running today. There is no all included solution to any of these problems. I think we can see some good; we can see some bad. I dare say I see good and I see bad from the groupings that we see in every school.
Q: Now you mentioned earlier about a teacher that you dismissed had tenure and most school systems that we know of have tenure. How about commenting on your feelings about the strengths and weaknesses of tenure?
A: I think, first of all, tenure has a place in some school systems where politics raises it's ugly head in boards and supervisors and what have you and that's good. To support a teacher that gets in a political situation and somebody wants to fire her. That's fine and dandy. In a case where a teacher gets tenured and decides to quit working, bad news. What are you going to do, are you going to go fighting DEA, NEA, and all the lawyers and creating a lot of problems. I understand that in some places when you dismiss a teacher, I know one principal dismissed though it has never been publicized but he got a ton of money out of his deal. So it costs money, it destroys the tax base of the city and it's good and bad. The bad is when you keep a bad teacher who was good at one time and decides to quit working. What are you going to do? Are you going to fight all these things, bad news.
Q: Do you think just tenure in general is that a good thing to have. Some of the private organizations continuously gripe about teacher organizations having this?
A: I have some qualms about tenure. I think tenure in a lot of areas is a bad thing for schools. Get teachers that are medically unfit and you still got tenure and you're going to keep those teachers on. Frankly, I'd rather if I were doing it, I'd say let's move tenure out of the school system and let's get on merit pay alone. We don't need it. It's a political issue which is getting worse as the years go by.
Q: Right. Now being a principal I know you had to spend a lot of time on paperwork and bureaucracy. We've talked about that already. Would you comment on the situation during your career and compare then to your perceptions of the situation at this time? What headaches or maybe not headaches did you have from paperwork and bureaucracy?
A: I think that all paperwork is a headache. I think we have an unnecessary amount of paperwork. When I was a principal all that paperwork wasn't necessary. I think a certain amount of paperwork is necessary to build a school system. When you run a system you need to report to the state, you need to report to the school board, and you need to report to the parents. Most of all to the parents, that's good. But some of the extra work that you had no part in developing; some of the paperwork and we got to do just because they wanted to give something to the school board. Bull! We don't need it and we resent it. I did and I know you do, all of us do.
Q: If there were three areas of administration that you could personally change in order to improve effectiveness and efficiency what would they be?
A: I'd like to pick a good school board. I think some of the school board members we've gotten in the past didn't care what was going on and became school board members through friends in the political field. I don't know whether we should elect them, whether that's a good way, but I don't think the City Council always knows who's a good school board candidate.
Q: So you'd like a part in the process?
A: I would like that.
Q: Whatever that would be.
A: Listen, anybody that has anything to do with the school system ought to have been qualified through the administration. Principals ought to have a hand in selecting school board members. We've got to work with them; they don't know what they're doing in many cases. There have been some good ones. Listen I don't want to say this is a case in which there are never good school board members. There obviously were some great ones. But there were so many sorry ones that developed problems for the school system that I say anytime you hire a new superintendent the principals and teachers ought to hire him. They ought to hire him not the school board. Hell they don't know what they're getting. We've got some that certainly didn't work out very well. I didn't have a hand in picking them. They came in my system; superintendents that didn't know what they were doing, didn't care. Came from another area, didn't know this area; didn't care about the area, and therefore the school system had problems. So I'm very adamant when I say this. As a matter of fact I'm foaming of the bit. When I see what's happened with some of the school board members we have had that I occasionally stood up on my hind horses and said I don't like what's going on. Of course, they didn't want me there either after I said that.
Q: I've pushed a button I see.
A: You certainly did.
Q: And that's one area of administration that you wanted to change?
A: I would.
Q: Give me two others.
A: I would say make sure that I had a chance to hire the teachers too as principal. Listen if we've got to work with them we ought to hire them. I gathered a number of teachers that came to me, and they said, I'm sending you so and so, and I said what, what's going on here. Did I have a chance to interview this teacher. No you don't have a chance and you won't get one. And I said well thank you a lot, you're certainly helping our school system. But the principals should pick the teachers themselves. This is a must. No question.
Q: Can I say an amen to that.
A: You certainly may. I believe it sincerely.
Q: What would be the third area then possibly you would like to be able to improve?
A: I got so wild on the other two areas I don't think I can think of another area.
Q: Well then we can move on. We'll just leave it with two. As a follow-up question to what I just asked, what would you change about the curriculum or the overall operations of your average schools in Virginia?
A: You're putting me on the spot here. I may say some things that might frighten public school systems.
Q: I want you to be candid.
A: I will be candid on this. I think magnet schools are a good thing. Rather than having so many things in a school system that makes people think they are different. The gifted for example, I'd like to talk on the gifted just for a second. I think when you have a gifted class in a school, I think it encourages a bit of snobbery and if I were picking something to do I think I would change the curriculum. I would have magnet schools for the really gifted and talented. Having them go to one spot which would be with their own people.
Q: Sort of like a magnet school?
A: A magnet school. A magnet school for the gifted. I would try to do this if I were running the school system. Second thing is discipline. I would do something especially at the high school and even maybe in the junior high. Certainly say for those thugs that are uncontrollable. That even the good teachers can't handle them. I'd probably have a school that had a fence around it and I'd have a military basis for a school system. I'd put all the malcontents and the ones you couldn't handle in this school. Lock them up for the time being. We'd have military discipline where we could isolate our problems and we'd try to also teach them a trade while we're doing this. Firstly, of we've got to get their attention and you know about the old mule that couldn't get his attention, you hit him over the head with a two by four. Get their attention and then go from that spot on. I've even picked a school out. It's outside Martinsville, it's got a fence around it already. I'd put all those people at that one area and go from there. I'm not so sure that I don't believe in another facet in public education. A change I'm not so sure that I believe. I'm not sure what the term is that slipped. It's not the word where you can go to a private school. What is that called?
A: No, it's not a charter.
Q: You mean that you can be compensated.
A: Yeah, compensated you're compensated.
Q: A voucher system maybe?
A: A voucher that's it. I couldn't think of the word but I'm not so sure I don't believe in the voucher system. Now does public schools have them? I'm a public school person. I taught three years at a private school right after I came back from a job in Maryland and I'm not all sold on private schools. Don't get me wrong, you know I'm dedicated to public schools no question about it. But I do see some good from some of the private schools. When you get a voucher system that's worked right, the state runs it not the federal government. I don't want bureaucracy to control anymore than they're already controlling. I don't like what they're doing with my income taxes. I know they're doing a poor job but I do believe that perhaps some sort of voucher system worked by the state in the public area could be a help to the school system today.
Q: What advantages do you see in the voucher school?
A: Well now one very good reason is that it's more like a private school. The good situation about a private school is you have more children that are of the same abilities in that school; more than likely. I didn't see any disciplinary problems that's why. Hey you teachers, you principals, and teachers in this day and age it's one of your biggest problems obviously and there's no question in anybody's mind about it. Especially in most schools. I know one person sitting to my left who doesn't have quite that much problem because he has more of the same type students. But those who don't, who are not fortunate to have all of the same good students, good parents, good parental backgrounds; do have a problem. So I see that private schools could help.
Q: They do have their choices.
A: They have their advantages.
Q: I have to agree with you. Now I'm going to get into a question that I know I touched a button with a few minutes ago; but we're going to jump right in again. Discuss your opinions about school boards and their effectiveness with the general operations of schools. Now I know you've had some particular instances which you had to deal with forums directly as is kind of the history with Martinsville administrators anyhow.
A: I certainly have and I don't mean to demean school board members but by enlarge a number of them were in it for personal prestige, I believe, in my opinion, and they didn't do a very good job for our school system in hiring, in supporting, in developing the type of schools that this system deserves. So I think a study of school boards and what they've done in the past in this city would be merited. I don't think we have any reason to put people on the school board who don't have a background and don't have the interest and don't have the desire to improve the school system. I'm not sure that electing school board members, as I said before, is the right thing, but by dang, I think before a council elects or appoints a school board member they ought to come to all the principals and say we've got so and so what do you think of them. Let's see what they have to offer. I think you ought to interview the school board members by gollies. Teachers and principals ought to interview the potential school board members to find out what they are going to offer this city and if they don't have anything to offer I don't want them. Let's get rid of them before we even start.
Q: Do you think we could as administrators, the two of us or some of our peers, could have any influence at promoting that idea because I agree with you 100 percent. I think it's time to turn the tables. I have been interviewed by the school board twice for administrative positions but I've never had the opportunity to put that shoe on my foot.
A: Turnabouts fair play, John.
A: It's long overdue and why they haven't done anything in past on that is beyond my thinking. I can't help but think that City Council is amiss in anything they do about appointing the school board. They do it on politics. It's who my wife thinks would make a good member. A nice looking person on the school board but effective, no. Are they really interested? I doubt it. Do they do a good job? Negatory. I'm really disappointed in the school board situation in this city and many others that I've seen.
Q: I'm going to do a real drastic shift here now. Would you discuss your involvement in integration whether it was as a principal or a teacher?
A: My involvement was as a teacher. I didn't have much involvement in bringing it about. John Richmond said we're going to integrate the school system and not much was done, not much was told how we should treat this. I think this was an area where we didn't do a very good job in really developing a real program with integration. We said we'll do it and by golly we did it. And as a principal, Patrick Henry was the first elementary school to be integrated and they brought 200 the first year. First of all let me take that back. The first two elected to come freedom of choice. Two elected to come and then 200 came freedom of choice and then it was complete the next year. And we had some great kids that came in the integration system. We had some kids that weren't very happy about being in that former all white school or mostly all white school and we had some tough problems, some were angry. They took any form of control of their behavior as being a black and white issue and certainly I didn't feel that way. It developed some problems. I don't think ya'll are allowed to spank anymore are you? That's pretty much out the window. Back in those days, in the 60's, those parents who didn't show any support of the school, we took it in hand. As one of you principals has said, we don't want some of the parents in schools because they cause more problems than the kids would. They might even have a firearm in their hand or in their handbag. But we had spankings and quite frankly I got into a bit of a problem there. I was threatened by the NAACP, I was threatened by the American Civil Liberties and lawyers and everything, from a spanking case. I know. Hey talk about experience. I went through about a year of that in which I was threatened with everything but the kitchen sink, with what they were going to do to me. I was saved by another situation where a black teacher hit a white kid with a meter stick and cut their back and that ended that situation in a hurry. But, I needed frankly, I needed more training in integration of the city schools. I wish I had it. I would probably done things differently. I know I would. I never would have suffered for a year in which I was served with lawsuits and threatened. The kids thought I was cruel, mean, and inhuman. Some of the parents projected that and I had a situation which my career was about to go down the tube because of a spanking and of course what caused the spanking. If I told you that you would say, hey spitting on the cafeteria table, a spanking and then another spanking when the kid came out running and a kid walked into him, he hit him and split his lip. It took five stitches in his lip to cover it up. So another spanking pursued but hey it's sad.
Q: But you recovered.
A: Yeah, we recovered and after the year
Q: Picked up and started all over.
A: Started all over again. I'm not to say we didn't spank a few times but I made dag on sure I didn't leave a blue spot on the butt. And you know, talking about high rise butt, if I may say, some would turn a lot bluer than others even if you weren't mean. But this is a doctor's opinion here, so I really don't guess I ought to get too much into that. But I did have some problems with integration and I mean there were some that kept me up at nights. I didn't take it lightly and I certainly, I never tried to, I tried to treat each kid as an individual and not as a race or a racial problem and I think that's the way it should be.
Q: Let us jump from that issue back.
A: I don't think that we can talk anymore for a few minutes because I remember there were some sad experiences there.
Q: Yeah. We had mentioned earlier about the curriculum. I had a question that concerned the curriculum. Our curriculum at this time has become a little bit complex. Could you comment on the nature of the curriculum that you had when you were the principal and maybe compare it just a touch with what we have today.
A: You have now?
Q: We have now.
A: Let's start with that self-contained classroom. You put in 22 kids, you pick the teacher, and it took some thought when you were picking the teacher. You the principal had to know the kids. You knew the kids and you knew what teachers couldn't quite handle a certain type of kid. And I don't think that's completely changed all the way.
Q: No it still happens.
A: You know your teachers gentlemen that doesn't change and you know the parents. As important as the teacher, so is the parent that the teachers has to deal with. I dealt with some that came from the old school that hey they went right down the line you knew exactly what they could do. All principals know their teachers better than they know their wives sometimes. Sometimes they're a lot easier to work with than their wives too.
Q: Do you think?
A: But anyway, let's get off that subject
Q: Yeah, do you think it was more of a general curriculum than it is now? Do you think we are complex or do you agree with that theory?
A: I think we are much more complex than when we started that self-contained classroom. The only thing you had to know was what mix you were going to put in their classroom. That was the difficult part of that. Now I guess you're grouping. You have grouping through all your elementary schools as of right now.
Q: Yeah, we have different types of grouping. I guess it just depends on the school.
A: Ability grouping. Is that what you're going on, what you're trying to do.
Q: We've gone through that already and come out on the other end of ability grouping. I think we just group all types of children together so you have a mix.
A: A mix?
Q: Yeah, they're kind of mixed together.
A: Well that's what I talked about earlier.
Q: What provided services are there that maybe you didn't provide when you were a principal. They're being pulled out for various things.
A: That they need help in certain areas, like for math let's say, or language, or what have you.
Q: In my school we have reading Chapter I services that they actually get pulled out for. We have enrichment classes, gifted classes, and the list goes on and on and on.
A: So a child really has something to go through during the day. It's a lot of movement.
Q: A lot of movement.
A: I think that's good and bad. You know, when you have the self-contained, if you have a great teacher, I don't think you can beat a self-contained classroom. I don't care what you do, what you try to do, if you have the right kind of teacher; you got the mix there you need. A great teacher can take that class and mold them. She can put them into little groups herself. She could steer them where they ought to go. Hey, it was the best thing I ever saw. He said, can you prove to me this is the way for my child to stay in this average grouping. And I couldn't answer that. I sort of swallowed my tongue and listened because I let him talk. But this is what we are told to do. We were told this is the answer and I didn't have much choice as the principal but to follow what we were told or to leave anytime. But this is the way it is done. So I think what you're doing certainly is an improvement to what we did. I'm not so sure that, as I've said, if you have the right mix with the teacher then students that self-contain is a good way. Maybe putting several one room schools in the building wouldn't be a great way to still do things I'm not sure. I would say one thing about the curriculum, I don't know what you're doing about it. I know I didn't do anything but I know a weakness and I talked about the McGuffey reader teaching character. Some of these children don't have a hero. Their parents aren't the heros and as a little kid you love your parents. But what are we doing to build up heros? Someone like Lindbergh. I talked about how proud we were of Lindbergh flying across the Atlantic and when two presidents get up and don't know a hero, it makes you wonder even if the people with more advantages have the answer on that. What are we doing to teach character? How do you teach it? I'm not sure I know a way of teaching that. McGuffey readers had heros through it. Do you remember? It was great for the country who did a great thing and so on and so on. I'm not so sure that even at an early age we ought not be teaching something about what our government is doing. How do we teach that? Are we doing a good job? I know now you are just K through 3. This is more difficult to teach. I was thinking about K through 7. But certainly in the junior high. Why aren't we teaching something about the importance of appreciating who has done something for this country like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, and the philosopher Plato, Socrates? Are we doing anything about that?
Q: I think we've gone down a different path and that path is we wind up teaching more about self-esteem.
A: Oh, okay
Q: We spend so much time teaching about self and teaching about others. Not putting down others and making that important. But we've spent a lot of years now teaching them that they're important. Now whether that's right, I think it's good. I think that's just the path that we have chosen to take.
A: With the heros?
Q: The things you're saying would be a little bit different path and who's to say whether or not it would be better.
A: If I were running things, if I were on the school board I'd want something to give me a chance to talk about people who were important to this country. I'd talk about philosophy and I'd say, how do we get people to read the great books? You know there are a hundred great books in the country everybody should have read, of course I haven't read the hundred, I've read some. I wish I would have read more and would still like to read more of the great books. And I think we had a little start, we tried something with the great books when I was principal and I thought it was a great idea. We had some for the children, you know mini-versions of the great books which were easier for them to read and that sort of thing. I thought then and I think now where have we missed out on our reading? Television has taken over our minds. It's much easier to sit back and listen to somebody do the talking than it is for you to put your mind at work and do some reading.
Q: You mentioned about improvement because we are definitely talking about improving instruction and many people argue that standardized tests provide you with a look on how to improve instruction. Let us know a little bit about your experience with standardized testing within that elementary school when you were there.
A: Well, we had the normal state test but you still have it I guess. You had an intelligence test and you started to think about grouping from the intelligence test and you had the state test in reading and math and history. And I think all these things played a part in the philosophy of standardized testing. I saw some good things and I saw some things that I didn't think were so good in standardized testing. It put some people that didn't really have a chance as far as a child and had intelligence but never had a chance to show any intelligence because they never had the advantage of reading in a home, a parent that read to them for example. They didn't have these things and so their testing scores were down.
Q: Lack of experience?
A: Lack of experience. So I'm not so sure that standardized testing always can provide a way to improve instruction.
Q: Now can you describe your workday as a principal when you were administrator. How you spent your time, and maybe generally how many hours you spent working a week or a day?
A: It would be difficult to say how many hours. Let's say it was a full-time job no question about that. I went to work at 8:00 and usually the meetings I'd finish at 4:00. As a workday I tried to visit classrooms, talk to teachers, and be with the students. I think any principal that is worth his salt in the profession has to have a love for kids. There's no way that you can be in a school and not be interested in what the kids are doing, what achievements they've made. Be a part of their achievements, and spend some time talking to the kids that may not be problems but what their successes are. They've been successful in some things you want to be a part of that. I think a good part of the day is spent with parents. It doesn't have to be a problem, something good that's happened to their kid they want to come in and talk about it. That's the important part, I noticed when I was in one school they were trying to save the rain forest and I thought this was a great investment of the teacher's time. It was nice for the students to bring in money to save something maybe more important than we could ever know. So I think all these projects that you do, the plays they're in, you have to be a part of each thing that goes on in that school sometimes you never know how much time you're spending really and truly. It may be one day it could be 10 hours, the next day it's 8, next day it's 7, so it's something that varies.
Q: What could you tell us that would be the key to your success?
A: I didn't know I had any gentlemen. Uh, I'll give you one example. I stayed 17 years at Patrick Henry. I had some longevity along the way. I don't know whether I was doing anything right or not but at least in time I was successful. Other than that, if I'd say anything successful about what I did, I think I saw a lot of fine young men and women come through that school system and go on and become very successful people. I think if I had a key to success I did support the teachers. I was interested in what they were doing, working with them, listening to their problems, and they have problems. Good night not only in the classroom, they got problems out of the classroom and you gotta listen to that. I had one come in had broken an engagement she couldn't teach. I had to take her for coffee at Shoney's. Is that part of my job? I guess so. I was able to comfort her. She said a statement that I never forgot that is certainly true. She said all coaches are crazy and having been a coach and was coaching at that time as a principal, I was taken back and couldn't say a word. As a matter of fact, I remember not being able to answer that question because I happened to agree with her in many ways. So when you're successful as a principal you gotta be a father figure, and be able to support their problems and offer some suggestions that might help to alleviate their problems.
Q: Could you discuss your professional code of ethics? Did you have an inner code that you went by? You mentioned work ethic I know before and that's probably a part of it but what would you describe as your code of ethics?
A: Naturally, I think work is so important. I got a statement I keep on my desk and had on my desk for years "The Harder I Work, the Luckier I Get". I guess you know that in work ethics if you don't work at something you're never going to get anything done. I don't care whether it's in teaching, business, or what else. I have another statement I'd like to use "Do it right or don't do it at all." And when you do something, a teacher does something my code is that you ought to do it right. I believe in that so I have a code ethics. I want people to try to be honest. I'd like to see people treat their fellow students in a positive manner. I think each person has a right to walk on their side of the aisle and not be subjected to somebody pushing and making you go another way. So I do believe sincerely that a child should come in a school system and should be safe to learn, to develop to the best of their ability.
Q: What parts of your training, school or personal, benefitted you in your principalship and what experiences were least useful?
A: First of all I think teaching, the fact that you were a teacher before you were principal gives you some insight on how you wanted to be treated by a principal and in turn when you become a principal you try to remember those things you expected from a principal. I think you learn from being a teacher. You know that an autocratic principal, who's his way is the only way, is certainly not beneficial to a school system. So I think that part of my training as a teacher helped me to understand how I ought to treat my fellow teachers. By all means you wouldn't want to go in and be like someone you didn't like and that hurt you in your teaching profession. What experiences were the least useful? I don't know but what I think that some of the board meetings I attended where nothing went on, some of the staff meetings I attended were a waste of time. Words were plentiful as the old saying goes but the deeds weren't there. I have a lot of feeling that a lot of my time was wasted with meetings that were meaningless.
Q: If you had it to do again how would you better prepare yourself or maybe just change your preparation or maybe you don't think you would need to?
A: I think all of us would have to change some things. I'd probably spend more time than I did being in the classroom itself. I think that is something I was amiss in and spending more time in the classroom rather than running some errands that were not nearly as important as classroom instruction. I think as a principal you ought to be able to go back in the classroom and teach facets of the subjects that are in elementary school. I believe that is a problem that I didn't address as well as I should have. I should've spent more time and more effort in improving instruction than I did.
Q: Now days in some of our classes we discuss having a mentor and they use a lot of programs that you'll appoint a mentor to a teacher or to a administrator. Who was a mentor in your life?
A: I had several mentors. I'm not sure that they're all the right ones for me. Of course I spent a long time with John Richmond and being his assistant and I learned, of course, an autocratic way of dealing with things. Usually my way is the way to do things and I think I learned one thing from that. I would try to treat people's ideas with a little more appreciation than I would have done it if I had it to do it over with autocratic method. I think I learned that to try to be more compassionate to other people's ideas.
Q: You mentioned something to us though about your family and you really project a pride for your family. Are there any mentors there?
A: I'm not so sure that I could always answer that one. In dealing with my family it is certainly my father that I admired. The fact that he had such a positive outlook towards education and reading. I think that would be of all the mentors I've had. I thank my father that I have the pride in owning land. That he worked 20 years to own a piece of land. Pride in seeing crops grow, now the pride I see as I look out and see trees, and a nice lawn. I appreciate nature. I think I learned from him the gift of the rain forest you're saving. Hey, those kids develop that sort of pride in saving lands that may be so beneficial to the weather that we're having or not having. It may be those things. If I were to go back, I would say my father was the greatest mentor I had. He taught me things about nature that I still have. I'm planting trees like mad. Personally, at my ripe old age you'd think hell you're never going to see an apple grow but I planted about 35 fruit trees in the last year and whats more, my wife was raising cain saying what are we going to do with this? I said we're going to enjoy it. Hey, I saw some guy smoking recently. I gotta plant a tree for every time I see a guy light a cigarette. Maybe I can help him. Someday he'll stop because he'll know that I don't need to plant a tree and wear my back out.
Q: So you've had some experience with nature. Principals and I know you know this, as well as the two of us do, you operate in a constantly tense environment. What kinds of things did you do to maintain you sanity?
A: I don't have any sanity after all that. It's all gone now.
Q: What did you do then?
A: I tried to take some hobbies, reading. I'm always interested in reading some good book. I'm interested in politics. I never knew I was so interested in politics. I went to the University of Maryland and had to take recruits to all the places in Congress and I saw how little congressmen work. I said, how in the devil. I know why this government is screwed up, they're never there. They say they're on the committee working but I have some doubts on that. I just think they are not doing their job. But I have an interest in what this country's going to do to save its self from the debt we're having. Whether the term limits are the right thing. I think those things haven't been a great part of my life and I've been able to read and study and try to understand politics. I don't think I understand it. I don't think anyone can understand it but some of the selfish things they do for their constituents that are not helping the country. But I think again to visit the museums that are in Washington was a great thing to do. I was able to take students there to visit many times and I always enjoyed that and I think that's a way to alleviate some of the tenseness of a principal's job.
Q: Since you've had some time with us this morning reflecting on your career, could you share with us some of your strengths and I know you mentioned some already and weaknesses?
A: I think I mentioned those pretty much in the other things. I really think that the fact that I did enjoy youngsters. You better make darn sure when you go in a school system that you enjoy youngsters. And I don't know now whether you can do the things I did. The little girl that who would come up and hug me every morning, I loved that. I don't know whether you feel like now you're afraid that you're doing something wrong. You know things have changed in that aspect. The pride in seeing a youngster develop and improve their educational standards and go on to become a successful citizens. I think that's a great feeling for anybody in education. I think I had compassion for teachers, I wanted to do everything I could to help them make successful.
Q: Were you supportive?
A: I was supportive in everything I did. I liked to have teachers go out and have fun. As a matter of fact, I got chastised soundly for this. I was sort of a rebel sometimes with a cause. End of the year we decided we'd take the coke money and take all the teachers to the Showboat Theater in Greensboro, which is now closed, and do it in style. We decided we're not just going to ride in a car, let's be together, let's take a bus so we did. We chartered a bus from Winston-Salem. Took all the teachers, had refreshments of course and had a grand ole time. One teacher didn't want to ride the bus. She said no I want to ride my car, fine I told her don't ride the bus with us and be a part of the team. So we did go to Showboat Theater and we came back and had a workday the next day. We were kind of tired but we worked and the next week one of the other principals said John (John Richmond, Superintendent), did you know Mel took his teachers to the Showboat Theater in a bus and paid for it with the coke fund? He called me in and said this is the last time you'll every use coke money to take teachers on an outing. But I did want to do something for the teachers and it was a great experience and I guess this is the sort of thing, if I had administrative strength, that was it. I wanted to be part of success for teachers and to have them feeling good about themselves and for the children to be a part of the school system and feel good about themselves. My weaknesses, I have many. Sometimes I'd like to take a vacation during the year. I'd like to leave on Friday sometimes I shouldn't, I admit it, I told the truth. I once went to England, it was educational I thought. I left two days early. John Richmond thought I was sick and I was in London, England. He asked somebody where's Mel. He said he's in London. He said London, Kentucky? He said no London, England. But I thought this was a nice educational trip and it helped my mental thoughts a great deal. Uh, weakness are I didn't do enough work in the classroom. I wasn't aware of that. I would have certainly tired to improve that.
Q: Another question that kind of piggybacks on all, you have probably already answered it actually. Would you give the pros and cons to your administrative service and what advise would you give today's principals and there are two of us here right now?
A: Look for another job. That's a joke. I'd certainly hope that you could work with the school board and the superintendent and try to improve the way we're bringing in teachers; hiring teachers. I would hope that you could work with the political establishment in saying let's have more of a hand in what's going on in our school system. We think we know more than they do, if not, we should be fired. We should be let go. We ought to have more of an opportunity to develop some things that would be beneficial to this system; whether it's about the system in offering different schooling for children or it's the special schools that may need to be developed. I'm not sure of all the answers. If I knew all the answers, I'd certainly be up in Washington helping them but I would want principals to have a chance to help to run this system and not be told everything they should do.
Q: When you were thinking about retiring and mulling it over in your mind, can you share some of your thoughts with us? Some of the things you thought about, mental processes you were going through, and in your reasons for exercising your decision to step down?
A: There were a lot of reasons for that. I thought 17 years it's time to make some changes. Once you've been in a job 17 years you haven't done something worthwhile during that time you better leave period. If you've done a great job, maybe I didn't think I'd done the greatest job. I'll be perfectly frank with you. I thought it's time for a change and bring somebody else in and I decided I'd go back to teaching and it just so happened that I decided to give up the principalship because one principal, they closed his school, and one principal was going to have to be assigned somewhere else. That wasn't the job for him. I said, I'll volunteer to go back to teaching and they said fine. So went back for the high school. I stayed one week. Meantime, I'd been offered a job at the University of Maryland and turned it down and said no I think I'll stay and end up my career here in Martinsville. I taught one week and it taught me a whole lot. I learned more in a week than I had learned in some other weeks and months that had been predetermined in other jobs. So I said, hey things aren't looking like they used to, things have changed in the classroom. And I thought after that week was over and I had five classes and about 1500 papers or so to grade over the week, and I was sitting down Friday night grading papers when the phone rang. He said I'm going to offer you the job one more time and I said I'll be there Monday week. So I resigned on the following Monday, retired from the school system after 30 years and took a new job in a new city. And that's about the size of the story. Unique isn't it?
Q: That is unique. Despite all my questions that you've answered and in my efforts to be thorough, I'm sure I've left out something, what have I not asked you that I should?
A: Yes, there are so many things, John, that I can't remember what I said. You know I wasn't born yesterday and I didn't come down yesterday's raindrops.
Q: Could there be something that you could comment on?
Q: Or something we haven't touched?
A: I think we've commented on just about everything. I think I've tried to tell my weaknesses and I've tried to tell, if I had a strength, I've tried to say what that was. I think we've pretty much covered it. I certainly can't think of anything that I wouldn't have wanted to have said if you hadn't asked the questions and what I've said I believe very strongly. I believe I answered every question as truthfully as I know how and I've been honest so that's about all a man can give in this life. To be honest and try to be a part of this community. Martinsville has been so good to me that when I left and worked four years in another place I came back and decided to leave again. I retired in another area, bought a home and yet I still gravitated back to Martinsville. So it has something to say that I have a lovely community. There is no question in my mind that this is a great community to live in, that it's a great place to work in, and it's the community I chose to return to and be a part of.
Q: Well we want to thank you today for all your comments.
A: Well gentlemen that's all I have to say . It's been different for you I'm sure, to spend your morning with an old man who's been around a few years and still enjoys this community and enjoys the school system, and who visits each of your schools now on a regular basis.
Q: Sure do.
A: Yes, what can I say.
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