Interview with Jean Crockett


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Q: Would you begin by telling us about your family background, your childhood interests and development. (Birthplace, elementary and secondary education, family characteristics.)

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

A: Well, I was born in Bayside, NY, which is in Queens County, part of New York City. I went to elementary and secondary school in the county of Queens. I went to a parochial elementary school and Catholic High School, which was an all girls' high school. From there I went on to college in New York City, but you don't need to know that because you asked about elementary and secondary education. Hmm, my family characteristicsŠI was the baby. I am the youngest of four and my two brothers and my sister are significantly older than I am. By the time I came along, my mom and dad were established in their lifestyle and my mother was the educational researcher for the Queens County historical society in NY City and my dad was the Vice President of Marketing for the New York Telephone company. My dad was the developer, the inventor of 911Šwhich is something I'm proud of because I remember as a teenager hearing him coming home and describing this and his excitement at the fact that the concept of a centralized number that would provide safety was going to adopted, at least in New York City and I have lived to watch it grow. Those were things that were very influential to me.

Q: Well, I wonder if you would discuss those experiences or events in your life that constituted important decision points in your career and how you feel about them now.

A: Well, I'm very glad I made the decision to teach, but I did not make it until after I graduated from college. I was never going to teach, no sir, not me. I majored in history, and minored in English as an undergraduate. I took no education courses. I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to work for a publishing house, but I was married quite young, while I was still in college, and had my first child two months after I graduated from college. So, I went from college to motherhood. So, here is the kicker. My husband and I went on a television show where we won a piano. And I had always grown up playing the piano and I starting giving piano lessons in the local community and that is how I starting teaching. I was home with my little baby, fascinated with how she learned and started teaching children in the neighborhood. Within, about three years time, I went back to Stony Brook University in New York and got my masters in Music Education and along the way picked up my certification to also teach elementary classroom and Social Studies in middle school and high school. And, from there I made the decision that I really liked to teach, and thought I was pretty good at it, had success with it. I taught music for seven years and then taught elementary classroom for seven years. Both of those were good decisions as an educator because I got to have my own class and know what creating your own learning environment is like. But, I also knew what it was like to be a special teacher and inherit everybody else's class and have to modulate my discipline approaches according to what those students were used to. After teaching for fourteen years, and being asked to do more outside the classroom, I decided to go part-time for my administrative work. I'm grateful for the fact that I was given opportunities to teach and then I was given opportunities to lead. My entry into leadership was invitational.

Q: Interesting. Hmm, Please discuss the way you were chosen being an invitational, describing...excuse me. Discuss the way in which you were chosen for your first administrative role, as well as any subsequent assignments.

A: My first administrative role was to be the director of student activities at a school that served children from preschool through 9th grade. It was not a special education school at all; it was just a regular general education school. Huh, I was selected for that, I had been teaching in the music department and assuming more and more responsibilities for coordinating the music program. A new headmaster came to this particular school, and the assistant headmaster, who would be like the assistant principal had nominated me to coordinate student activities. Huh, I stepped into that position and was responsible for organizing all of the co-curricular and extra curricular activities that happened all the way from the little guys straight on through ninth grade. I was the advisor to the student council, ran the student newspaper, it was wonderful experience. Huh, that was largely what prompted me to go through my administrative training because I thought if I am being asked to do more leadership tasks, I really should have official preparation in how to do it and also I wanted to have certification so that I could be paid do it. Huh, when I had completed my administrative coursework, a parent of a boy whom I had been teaching in the school contacted me and said that "I understand that you are looking for administrative employment. I have a job that you might be interested in." He didn't know that at that point I had already been offered an assistant principalship and I was deciding whether or not to take it. The offer that he made to me was to be the Director of Community Services at the National Center for Disability Services, which was about a mile away from the school that I was serving at in NY. This parent was the superintendent of the school run by the National Center. I went for my interview. I found the work done there with children and adults with severe physical disabilities, and adults actually with a range of disabilities to really be fascinating. A colleague of mine said "Jean, you can probably always get another assistant principalship, but the opportunity to work at Henry Viscardi School, which was the school component of the National Center for Disability Services was unique and he said "you can always go back in two or three years to general ed. and think how much richer your experience will be and the information about special ed. that you will bring to your general ed. teaching or administrating." Well, the upshot was I thought that sounded like good sense to me and besides it was something I had never done before, and so, I took the leap. I took the job as Director of Community Services and after three years I was asked to be the principal of the school, which is really what I wanted to do when I grew up anyway. What I had not imagined was that I would be hired to work at a Regional Special Education School because of my general education teaching and administrative background, because this school was going to be returning children whom it was educating back to local districts in regular classrooms when those children had met their goals. Conversely, the school would be welcoming in, from local districts, children who had incurred disabilities through accidents or illness. No matter how you cut it, what was needed was someone who had a sense of both environments, of both the general education environment and the special education learning environment in Henry Viscardi School, and who knew about the culture of disability, which I had really learned so much about as Director of Community Services. So in that way, I see having been invited into leadership at Buckley Country Day School by the new Headmaster as significant. I see being invited into a leadership position within special education at Henry Viscardi School as a privilege and significant invitation that altered the course of my career. I went from Viscardi, 8 years as a full-time administrator to (instead of finishing a doctorate in educational leadership, which I was close to having achieved all I needed were my research courses) to switching programs and completing my doctoral degree in special education. This is something that would have never happened without those invitations.

Q: There are those who argue that more, often than not, central office policies hinder, rather than help, building level administrators in carrying out their responsibilities. Would you give your views on this issue. If you were king, what changes would you make as a way of improving administrative efficiency and effectiveness?

A: I think I would answer that question rather specifically by saying I would call for contextual respect. Let me tell what I mean by that. I think what I learned, both as a teacher and as an administrator was to respect the fact that those who are closest to the particular decision that is going to be made -- that decision is going to affect them -- those people should have influence and give input to the administrator. It doesn't mean that the administrator has to, huh, give people their way. I believe it does mean that the administrator has to give people a chance to throw their two cents in and that the best decisions are made by respecting the contexts in which those decisions are going to play out.

Q: It has been said that there is a home-school gap and that more parental involvement with the schools need to be developed. Would you give your view on this issue and describe how you interacted with parents and with citizens who were important to the well being of the school.

A: To me this is an extremely important topic. My preparation to be an administrator was a combination of 66 graduate credits, this was before I had taken my doctorate in special education. Neither in my masters degree in education nor in my administrative preparation which represented 33 credits beyond by masters was there any coursework that addressed the administrative role with parents. There might have been aspects that dealt with the community, but the response to the community was more to the community of taxpayers, it wasn't to the parent who is in the principal's office, often concerned for their child's well-being, either emotionally or intellectually or in some fashion. So, my concern with the home parent gap, in my own principalship, was to set up structures within the school that we could involve parents in as much as possible. We had a large literacy program and we had a newsletter that had parents on the editorial staff. We called the newsletter, "Partners in Print"; it was called the PIP newsletter. And it was a very popular vehicle, because lets face it, in an elementary school parents may disagree about a whole lot of things, but they all want their kids to learn to read. So, it provided a common vision and the PIP newsletter was an artifact of this culture that was focusing on literacy. We also had 200 volunteers from the community who served in our classrooms. I just wish when I look back on the principalship that I had had better preparation for work as the principal that dealt with managing the emotions of adults --both my teaching staff and the parents of the children whom we served.

Q: In recent years more and more programs for special groups of students (LD, Gifted and Talented, Non-English speaking) have been developed. Please discuss your experience with special school services and your views on today's trends with this regard.

A: My experiences with special school services were incidental for the 14 years of my teaching career. There were children who had disabilities who might be in my classes. There was never any real sense that I, as the regular education teacher, held the final key to these children's success. I did not become really involved in special services until I was a school administrator in special education and had to learn the world of special ed. by the hem of my skirt. In my administrative preparation at least I had one course under my belt in administrative services for students with special needs, but that was it. I had no exposure to special education law and even more significantly, I had had no exposure to instructional support or positive behavioral support to children with exceptional learning needs. I think that the issue of inclusion misrepresents what the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act calls for us to do, which is first and foremost provide students with disabilities a free appropriate public education and in so doing that we provide that appropriate education in the environment, the least restrictive environment for that student, which is to say the environment that brings most educational benefit to the student and still allows some socializing and, more than socializing learning along side nondisabled peers to the maximum set appropriate to that student. As far as gifted and talented programs, and the programs for children who are Non-English speaking, I think two things come to mind. First, we have to keep in mind for students: Who needs what? And under what circumstances? Who will benefit from learning in English speaking classes, even though they speak another language at home? And, who can respond to the challenge of that? And, who are the children who are really going to be held back if they don't have bilingual intervention? Should we make a blanket statement and say, "Bilingual education is a bad thing" period, Amen...or should we be a little more discerning in our responses and say for whom is this appropriate and under what circumstances?? One last word in regard to gifted and talented, I ask that you do not look at this issue from a meritocratic stance, and we not say, "This is a very bright student, but he is not working up to capacity, so we are not going to have him served in gifted and talented because he hasn't earned the privilege." Is gifted and talented education a privilege one earns, or is it an instructional response that an intelligent student needs to support his or her productive adulthood?

Q: Given the presence of administrative complexity, if there were three areas of administration that you could change in order to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of educational administration, what would they be?

A: Well, it would be really fun to kind of reconfigure the school day of the school principal. I think there are many principals who would agree with me, that when it comes to the paperwork part of the job, the time to get that done is either before teachers and children come into the building in the morning or to stay after work and get it done in the afternoon. The upshot of that is as a principal you have a really long workday. And, the average workday at the elementary principal is 10-1/2 hours! Boy, I wish there was a way to make that a little more reasonable. So, that is one thing that I would look at. The other is, when staff and students are in the building, you probably shouldn't be doing your paperwork and you probably shouldn't be in office a whole lot. You probably should be out in classrooms. You should be talking with people, your observations and drop-ins of classrooms should not be seen as punitive or surveillance. It has been my experience, and I think the literature supports it that teachers want to share a good thing and that when you visit a classroom, drop a note in the teachers box and say, "That was really interesting what you had up on your bulletin board", or "Thanks so much for showing me that new technique". So, I would say get out of your office and get into classrooms. And, the other is to deal with issues face to face and immediately and not put them off, because most people who are coming to a principal are coming because they've got something on their mind. Being a principal is an extremely responsive role and you have to be ready to catch the concerns of others who may not be able to see the problem as objectively, as hopefully, you are. You are a part of the problem solving process. And, problems are just solved better when people are face to face and put their heads together.

Q: Would you describe those aspects of your professional training which best prepared you for the principalship? Which training experiences were least useful?

A: When I look back on my professional training, the principalship, it began by taking part time coursework, one course a semester. The courses were unevenŠI was lucky to begin with an intense one and maybe that was a good thing. It began with a summer course that was 5 days a week, for two weeks with a wonderful professor. And, it was an Introduction to Educational Administration course. I'm glad I began with that course, because it set my sights in a direction...I'm glad I didn't step into the training, like in school law, because legal thinking causes you to think in a different way. So, as I went through the coursework, I thought, oh, some of this is just grueling and boring, and other courses were good. At the end of coursework, we were required to take this obnoxious cumulative...huh...comprehensive examination, where we were given a series of questions and had to respond to them. It was the preparation for that exam that pulled my administrative preparation training together. I tend to be an organized person, and I pulled all of my notes and all of my papers from all of my courses into a big fat loose-leaf binder and labeled each section. That way I had a study guide right in front of me. It was a very valuable summative experience and it brought credibility to my coursework because I could see right in front of me how much work I really had done... how many papers I had written and how many journal articles and books I had read. I don't necessarily support that type of examination for a doctoral program because to me I experienced it in a training program to become an educational administrator, (my program prepared me through the superintendency, it wasn't just for the principalship). I think it was very appropriate at the training level to synthesize all that information and to pull it together. We did not have formal internships in our programs. And I did mine part time. I was fortunate enough to be working as a part-time administrator, along with my teaching, the whole while I was taking my administrative training. The experiences that were least useful tended to come from professors whose materials were old and whose offices when I stepped into them had yellowed paper on their shelves and an absence of books and articles that were current, or whose conversation revealed little involvement in the current life of schools.

Q: What suggestions would you offer to universities as a way of helping them to better prepare candidates for administrative positions? Comment on weaknesses in traditional programs of training for administrators.

A: Well, I like to look at things in multidimensional ways, and as I mentioned before, when we were talking about students with special needs and gifted and talented, limited English proficiency, my brain tends to go to the two questions that I mentioned earlier, which is...huh...for whom is this appropriate? Two questions, what were they?, let me think...hum...who is this for? and why is it appropriate? So, I like to think of things in a multi dimensional type of way. So, when I think about university preparation for leaders, I want to see a few things. I want one dimension to be "how do we differentiate preparation for different leadership roles?" How should the preparation for superintendent be different from the building principal from the supervisor; from the director of special education? That would be one dimension. Another would be where are the linkages? I mentioned Special Education Administration in there, so, then, what elements of special education administration need to be integrated more finely with the elements of general education administration because kids with or without disabilities, regardless of where they are being served, we have to respond in such a way that the superintendent provides and the principal will ensure.. Well, how are we providing for that integration in the leadership prep? Two other elements that I would like to add to this multi dimensional model, would be modules that set out problem cases that individuals could either work on alone or maybe better than that, work on problem solving teams. The work of the university professors maybe solitary and targeted toward singular lines of research, but life at school is collaborative and problems are solved better with more heads on them from different perspectives. So, I would want to have the opportunity in the training to have folks work work on problem sets. And, I say modules because I think those can be put online to access and address different topics. And, then the other component of that multi-dimensional model would be internships and practica and having folks working in either schools or agencies or leadership shadowing. You could even have a differentiated level of internships that began perhaps with shadowing -- something we use when we help kids make the transition from middle school to high school or elementary school to middle school...You know, it might not hurt to use some of those good teaching elements as we prepare people for their leadership roles. The typical internship of serving for 90 days or more at the arm of practicing administrators and actually taking on administrative responsibilities, I think, would also enhance leadership programs.

Q: It has been said that good leaders encourage their subordinates and peers in staging celebrations of their success, no matter how small or insignificant. To what extent did you engage in this practice during your tenure as principal, and to what extent did it improve morale and organizational effectiveness?

A: Well...for my own purposes, I really like to have fun and it is absolutely essential for me to laugh...and, I found that it tended to help me in my job as principal and that sometimes it could be kind of contagious and people wanted to participate in things that might have...just wanted to have a little bit of fun. I always made it a point, if someone had achieved something professionally or even designed something for their classrooms, we had structured ways of celebrating this. We had weekly faculty meetings, and the elementary faculty and all the paraprofessional and special subject faculty met, people who taught music, and who taught art, along with computer folks would come together. It wasn't just the elementary teachers. Often times at these both sessions there would be a celebratory breakfast to acknowledge an achievement of a staff member. But there were certain times during the year where it got to be a tradition that as principal I would have a certain gift for everyone on the staff and we had certain ways we did it. The most popular one tended to be a tradition that grew out of my own family growing up at Thanksgiving. And the tradition was this: The Thanksgiving tradition was that a basket was placed on the table near the end of dinner and in it was a little gift, just a silly little something that looked toward might be tape, it might be a little piece of wrapping paper, might be tags that you are going to write gift names on and such...and every person at that dinner table would know that there was a little gift for them in the basket. Each gift was attached to a ribbon and at the end of the ribbon sticking out of the basket was a nametag. But the way it started was with the oldest person at the table. My grandfather got to pull his gift out first and it went all the way around the table and I was the youngest in this family and always had to wait...I was the last one, but there was great delight and glee when you saw people pulling things out that always were brought with them in tried to find something quirky between this inexpensive little gift and the person who is going to be pulling it out of the basket. It was a way to help the children in the family sit tight during the Thanksgiving dinner. Well, I adapted that when I was principal...And, we would do this the end of the first...I guess it was at the end of December before we would break for the holidays in I would find a little something for each staff member. It might be a bookmark, it might have been those little sticky pads that have the goofball things on them, and I tried to match them with the different staff member and attach it to the ribbon with the nametag. The teachers who taught the sixth grade, pulled first and the teachers in K had to recreate my role and wait until the end. Well, the espirit de corps that came about as people watched to see...What did you get?...What did you get? and the fun of seeing whether it really caught the spirit of the person who pulled it out. It was things like that that may sound like, "Oh, my God, why would you go to the trouble" Well, I would go to the trouble, if it's going to make a group of people have a singular focus that is supportive, that's going to let them laugh together and its going to break down the barriers and help them be more appreciative of life together.

Q: Some writers recommend that principals adjust their leadership styles to meet the individual needs of their staff. How did you feel about that idea and to what extent did you practice individualized leadership?

A: Something makes me think the example I just gave...One of the things I really appreciated as a principal was that folks were really vocal about saying that they felt I was fair, and I appreciated that a lot. They might not have always liked what I had to say to them, but they felt I was fair, that I wasn't being discriminatory or that I wasn't making a big case out of nothing. If I was making a big case out of it, it was because I felt it was important, and that would be proven out to be the case, so there was the credibility factor and the fairness. You run a risk when you say that you have to take into account who your staff members are and how you are going to respond to them. It doesn't mean you have to shift your standards, but it means that you can be discerning without being discriminatory. And, if that's what being artful at individualized leadership is, then I would support that.

Q: Some principals hold the view that teachers and other staff members are, in general, well motivated reliable self-starters. Other principals feel that they must closely monitor the activities of their employees to insure that they are performing "to standard". What supervisory approach did you customarily use during your career as principal?

A: I think I used a differentiated model of supervision. I did not expect all my teachers to have similar skills and all be capable of the same thing. But I think I tended to use the same approach that I used often when I was teaching, which was...I would go in with the notion that folks are going to be able to do this job. Then at the second time if was getting the feeling that maybe things weren't going right here, and maybe I was...I would go in and say, "You know, you might want to try it this way," and give some more support. If that second level was not helping to direct the teaching activity or any kind of professional behavior, it would in my mind go to a level three where I had to up the ante and put some kind of structure into place...and say, "Okay I think maybe we need to take this approach" So, I think that would square as an open-minded willingness to assume that the capability is there, but building in a structure...a level differentiated structure to support it.

Q: Some models of leadership describes people as either assertive, supportive, or contemplative. Would you please categorize yourself and give reasons for this assignment.

A: I had trouble with this question, because like anything else I'm not so sure that I could say any of us are all one or all the other. I think my style would be described as assertive, but not aggressive. I think my style could be described as supportive and I would be teased about my office being the therapy office and I was called kiddingly "Dr. Crockett", for providing psychological support rather than for having the doctorate which I subsequently achieved in special ed. But, there is a very contemplative side to me that allows me to be socially responsive and it's what got me through, I believe successfully, being an administrator in a highly charged atmosphere. (All of the children in the school where I was principal were severely, physically disabled or medically fragile. You can only play out for yourself -- the staff responses to children who were so fragile; the parental anxieties surrounding the future for their children). This was not an easy job and, to boot, these children were cognitively capable of addressing futures for which academic education was important. So, what I would took me two years to get my rhythm on this...what I found after two years was that I got up in the morning an hour earlier then I needed to, and I made a cup of coffee and would read things that were totally different from work and had little to do with people and lots to do with ideas. They were essays...they were reflective essays....they were metaphysical essays. Writings of Thomas Merton, who was a rather metaphysical soul, I found fascinating because they were at once very human and talked very, very much about the joys and sorrows and difficulties we all face, but in an abstract way. So, that when I got to school and was sucked in to what my sister, who is also a school administrator, describes as the vortex of the school, I was padded. I had this contemplative hour; I was the only one in the house that was awake at that time. I had the warmth of my coffee cup and the thoughtful words of these reflective essays that really became a wonderful someways a shield, and in other ways a tool that allowed me to catch the emotions and difficulties of the day.

Q: Despite my best efforts to be comprehensive during my questioning, there is probably something I have left out. What have I not asked you that I could or should have?

A: Well, I don't know that you have been lacking in comprehensiveness, but I think one thing that I would like to have a chance to say is that educational administrators having gotten in to their business, one would hope, because of heart and soul they're educators and in being educators (from the Latin root, educari, which means to call forth from someone) that we are still motivated by wanting to pull forth from others the best that that person has to give, so that we can catch it and know what to do with it, and give back to that person new information or slants on problem solving that they haven't had. Being an educational administrator, in many ways, is an extension of the educator's world at any other level. There are some people who help children learn to read, to learn to dance, to learn to sing, but a good educational administrator creates an environment that lets people flourish just as the teacher helps students learn to read, to dance, or to sing.

Q: Thank you Dr. Crockett. We greatly appreciate your insights.

A: You're welcome, Mike.

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