Today we have Mrs. Collins, she was an elementary principal in Blacksburg. She served as a principal for 14 years, and she was, she retired maybe two years ago or maybe this year. As you know a principal are the school leader, and they should be known and appreciated by the community.
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A: How are you?
Q: Fine thank you, how are you? There are many things I would like to ask you about your experience in the school. So we will go and start the questions. First of all, can you tell us about yourself and your family background and your educational background?
(Streamed audio file of interview for this question using RealPlayer)
A: I will be glad to. When you ask me to talk about myself thats usually easy. I was born in eastern Kentucky, I was an only child, and my mother valued education a great deal. When I was growing up, my step-fathers work required that he travel throughout the United States, and I attended over 21 different schools growing up, so schools, I knew a lot about schools when I decided I wanted to become a teacher. I ended up going to St. Cloud High School in St. Cloud, Florida, and I wont tell you when I graduated, its more years ago then I care to remember, and from there I attended Auburn University where I received my undergraduate degree, and thats, after I finished my degree my husband I were married, and we moved to California. He was in the military, and then after he left the military he went back to graduate school and received his Ph.D. and then we moved here to Virginia, and I began teaching, my teaching career here really. We have two grown sons both attended school in Blacksburg, graduated from Blacksburg High School, and they went on, both received their undergraduate degrees from Virginia Tech. And the oldest one then did his graduate work at the University of Texas in Austin, where he now lives, and hes an environmental engineer there. And our second son after finishing his military service, which both of our sons did by the way, he attended school at Auburn University and got his Ph.D. in Poultry Nutrition, and hes now working in north Texas for Pilgrims Pride. So education has been very important to our families, and my father-in-law happens, he happened to have been an elementary, I mean I am sorry secondary principal, and was my high school principal. So that was sort of an interesting little twist in my history, but as I say school has always been an important part of my life.
Q: Yeah, I mean, yeah this is give me question about how many years do you serve as a teacher, mentor "supervisor," assistant principal and principal, can you talk about, go ahead
A: Yes I was going to say in your introduction you had said I had been a principal 14, actually I was a public school teacher for 14, and I was an assistant principal for two years and then full principal for nine years. Before that, before I became a public school teacher, we did not have public kindergarten here in Blacksburg, so I became private school kindergarten and first grade teacher. So I actually had more years in the classroom than just the 14 in public.
Q: You work as mentor did you know did you like first year teachers?
A: Oh yes, yes. I guess I always saw myself, as a mentor even when before mentoring became a prominent feature in schools. I really enjoyed working with young teachers, and also when I became a principal I encouraged other teachers to go back to school to become certified as administrators. And as a matter of fact, one of the highlights of my career was to have a former teacher of mine become an elementary school principal in Montgomery County, and that was a great joy.
Q: Yeah, it would changing
A: And I did retire less than a year ago, so I am fresh out of principalship, and I miss it.
Q: Can you talk about the experiences, events and important decision points in these positions and how you feel about them now?
A: Actually it sort of ties in I guess with number three, our next question on the list my reason behind my becoming a principal. When I became a teacher I, well actually in my opening statement I should correct something, I did teach, the first year my husband and I were married I taught in Occoquan, Virginia, and I had no children at that time, I only taught one year there, and then we were transferred to California. But, when I came back to full-time teaching I had children of my own, and that made I think made me more cognizant of what was required to be a good teacher, because I had my own children, and I wanted to do for other children what I wanted teachers to do for my children.
Q: Yeah you would like to share.
A: Thats right, thats right. And as far as the experiences, there have been so many over such a long period of time. I have seen education change so drastically in the time that I was in, the pendulum is constantly swinging back and forth. When I began, phonics was the "in" thing, and then we became more, we moved more into the whole language experience, and then we evolved into the more eclectic approach to total language experiences, and we got away from the whole language into a more well-rounded approach to teaching reading and writing and all the communication skills. How do I feel about some of these events and important decision points? When I left the classroom, I felt that I had accomplished everything in the classroom that I wanted to accomplish, and I wanted to work with mentoring teachers and that was my vision of the principalship, I was very naïve to think that thats where my energies would go because once I entered the principalship, I found that there were many, many demands that didnt allow me the time or the flexibility that I needed to be the type mentor that I truly wanted to be with teachers, and that was very frustrating, that was probably the most frustrating revelations I had.
Q: This came from your moral responsibilities
Q: The accountability thing.
Q: Thinking you know you share with other what is good, thats good, you think its good program, I think its a good thing. So lets go to, lets get to know your school, can you describe your school and talk about anything in the building that might make it unique?
A: I think probably the most unique thing about our building was that we adopted the motto about two years after I was principal at Harding, we adopted the motto, Harding Avenue Elementary where each child matters, and its amazing when you have a motto that everyone believes in how that can change the way people think and react to their world of work. And I felt that when I left that teachers really were making each child matter and one of the things that I really believed in was that you do not retain a child, its our responsibility to teach those children and its up to us to find their own unique learning styles and how to reach that child. And, often times children come to us and they are in kindergarten. They have had no background of experiences that are educational in the manner that we think of education, like learning letters or sounds of words, I mean the letters and basics of beginning reading, those kinds of things whereas other children have come from rich backgrounds education wise, but its not that childs fault, there is nothing wrong with that child, that child still had a world of experiences and a wealth of information we just have to be able to tap into that. So that was something very hard for most teachers to accept the fact that we did not retain children, but that was just a personal thing through research that I felt was not right for children, and when I was getting my Masters degree, I did a little study that showed that I believe it was I came across the statistics that children who are retained are seven times more likely to become high school dropouts than other children even thought they catch up academically, they always have that stigma, something was wrong with me, its not wrong with the child, its wrong with our educational system, not the child.
Q: Yes, so, yeah I mean I agree with you about those things and thats my belief to know what is your educational philosophy?
A: And that ties right into it, that children, all children can learn, and its up to us as educators to find out what their strengths are and to teach to those strengths to pull up their weak sides. Adults, I think we should treat children as we would treat adults, you are not always telling an adult whats wrong with them, you accept adults for what they are and you learn to work in that respectful manner of accepting them for what they are.
Q: Yeah, yeah thats, I mean when you talk about children in connecting with separate between regular children or special education children.
A: Thats right, thats right.
Q: What factors or events that affect your leadership style? And who is the leader that you admire most and why?
A: OK, I admire Mother Theresa because she had unconditional love and respect for everyone, and she would do anything in her power, she was hardworking, she would do anything to build self esteem and to life people up and to me thats the most wonderful gift in the world.
Q: What a great example.
A: But to have, but to have the ability to carry out what you believe as your lifelong work, I just think that shes a marvelous example for everyone. And what my leadership style was I really tried to encourage teachers to be totally committed to their profession and to keep current, to go to conferences, to become leaders in their field. And I think if you really believe in your profession you are going to be out there and you are going to be working hard to stay current and to constantly be rethinking what you are doing, you are a learner, you have to be a lifelong learner.
Q: Yes. What factors, what kind of factors or events that affected your leadership style?
A: I am not quite sure the question.
Q: Yeah, what factors that, I mean help you to choose the leadership style?
A: Because I really believe sort of in the golden rule you want to treat others as you would wish to be treated, and I always wanted a principal who would help guide me, encourage me, and just keep me motivated you might say, to be my cheerleader.
Q: Yeah, theres no events like anything happening, yeah I am going to be a leader in this style?
A: No, only that I had. I had become restless in wanting to learn more, and I had been in the classrooms for so many years doing the same types of things, changing the presentation, never using the yellow notes approach, but wanting to learn more, curious. I was curious, what does a principal do? How could I affect the total learning process? And, I felt I could reach more people if I were in the principalship than just in the classroom.
Q: Yes, a unique and difficult task to be a principal because there are lots of things you have to be accountable about.
A: I was very idealistic that changed once I became a principal, and I learned the reality.
Q: What was your, I mean lets go to seven, what was your leadership style and personal management with your teachers?
A: I am not sure I am on the same
Q: Yeah what was your leadership style with your teachers, what kind of style you used with your teachers, democratic or
A: Yes, yes, I tried to involve teachers in decision making as well as parents and in the elementary school its very hard to often involve children although if I were to go back I would look at that more carefully and try to involve more children in decision making, but it was a democratic process. I would get input from all the parties involved that I could, and then I would try to build consensus once all the information was in and a decision had to be made. And sometimes, there were times when I didnt have time to get everyone involved that I would like to have had, and a decision would have to made right away. And, I wasnt always comfortable going ahead and saying OK we are going to do this, I always tried to get as many peoples opinion as possible in it.
Q: You dont delegate?
Q: But you, I mean you acted as a seller, I mean you sell your idea and you know make the participants and then involve them to make the right decision (Tell who you involved in the process of decision-making and how you made decisions?)
A: Sometimes I delegated, sometimes I would say we have to make this decision, and we would have a committee and I would say its your responsibility to bring back to us whatever we needed. It just, it depended on the amount of time really that was involved, but as far as involving other people in the decision making, I learned right away that I couldnt possibly make all the decisions nor did I want to.
A: And when I first entered the principalship, I was more inclined to say well I can do this myself, then I realized there were other people who had wonderful ideas that I wasnt the sole inventor of ideas and so forth, and so as I grew in the principalship, more and more often things were delegated to folks as committees and so forth.
Q: Yeah, some people say that the principal should be a good manager instead of instructional leader. What do you think of that?
A: I think they go hand in hand, I think its like saying a horse and a carriage, one isnt good without the other, you have to have both. And, I have had instances where people who are in specialty areas such as music or art or PE or counseling who want to become certified in administration, I urged them to go to as much in-service as they can get on curriculum because once they get into that position they need to have some background in curriculum or how can they be helpful to their teachers? They have to have a working knowledge of some kind. And the management, that was the part that I disliked most of all as I said earlier when we began, I wanted time to spend with students, I wanted time to spend with teachers, but you have to do those management things or everything becomes chaotic, you have to be a good manager, you have to learn to use your time as efficiently as possible. And that was probably one of my weakest areas was not saving time maybe in ways that I could have to have more time in the classroom, to have more time one-on-one teachers or in small groups.
Q: Yeah you told us that you involved teachers in the decision making and sometimes you delegated it you know when you have committee and they are knowledgeable you know they are generating alternative solutions. So, what did you do when teachers made a great effort to find a solution for problem that might have arisen? And, how did you make your staff feel more important when they achieved "small wins?"
A: Actually I sent a lot of personal notes to staff thanking them or congratulating them. In staff meetings I would make it a point to share with staff what others had done, and at the end of the year we always had a little school awards assembly, and I tried to recognize people at that also. And if it was something that they had worked hard on. They had say presented at a conference or whatever. I tried to see to it that their names and a little write up would appear in our school system newsletter that went out from central office. And we had a little bulletin board in our hallway that said "school spotlight", and people who did certain little things their names or whatever they had accomplished would go on that board too. But, I think its really important to acknowledge what people have accomplished whether its small or great because I think some school communities seem to think that if they highlight any one person that it detracts somehow. I on the other hand relate it, a school to being a family, whenever someone in your family accomplishes something you celebrate.
A: And I feel that thats the way a school should be, that we celebrate what our individual people whether they are students or teachers, whomever, you celebrate that.
Q: Even I mean smile on their face.
A: Yes, little notes in the box or, and I would often to if someone had done something put a little candy bar or some little something like a little mint saying, this is meant for you in appreciation for whatever, sort of corny, but
Q: Yes because you just said that personnel managers encourage their subordinates and you know and by staging the celebration on their success. To what extent you engaged in the practice during tenure or principalship? What extent did improve the morale. I mean the morale of their lives? We just talk about it.
A: Well when I started recognizing people in our awards assembly, the first year the teachers, they were somewhat upset because they werent accustomed to being singled out, but the following year I noticed there were more and more people doing more and more things, and the second year when we recognized people, nothing was said, it truly had become a celebration. And I think it encouraged more people to do more things and to talk with each other and get involved together in doing things and working out problems or presenting programs and coming to me and saying could we do so and so? Like I remember one year, one grade level wanted to have a parents night every six weeks and they would share something in the curriculum, that came from then and that was wonderful.
Q: Good idea.
A: But I think it encourages people first of all not everyone may know what someone has accomplished if it isnt celebrated.
A: And that gives an ah ha to someone say, oh I didnt know you were doing that, could we do such and such? We have a lot of collaboration between specialty area teachers and classroom teachers because often times those folks dont, its like the right hand doesnt know what the left hand is doing.
Q: So you recognize their works?
A: Oh yes.
Q: Thats wonderful. How did you share your vision for the school with your staff? If you have a goal in your mind and you would like to share it, how would you go for that?
A: Probably more on a sharing little ideas one-on-one with people and then in small groups and then in staff so the word had gotten around through you might say just gossip, did you know Belva was thinking about so and so, and then when we finally get to the staff meeting its not a surprise to anyone. And also there were some things that I just, in the way I live my life daily was a vision, such as every child matters.
A: I really spent a lot of time trying to get to know my kids because they were important to me, and I think whatever is important to the principal comes across in their daily lives and in staff meeting, in fact we were just getting ready when I retired to go through new accreditation, and one of the things you have to do there is to develop your vision statement and your mission statement and so forth.
Q: So you know when you shared, how did you inspire your staff toward the vision of the desired goals of the school?
A: Well first of all I made sure that we were sharing that same vision, and we would have staff meetings, and we would talk about ways of meeting our goals and teachers would bring ideas to me, and I would suggest that we bring them up at staff meeting and that we share, it was a lot of discussion, and just, I think one of the ways that principals communicate the most what they believe is when we are in the hallway and someone stops you for a moment and you have just a little conversation about something, its amazing how much is transmitted just in those brief conversations.
Q: Yeah its very good to have conversation with your people in your community.
A: Thats right, and also parents have to be involved, it cant be a vision of just staff, and as I mentioned earlier, I wish that children had been involved more.
A: I think its important if its age appropriate that the child be involved.
Q: Because school is for all kids.
A: Thats right, and I have an open door policy, in fact during the day my door was always, I had two doors, one from one hallway into the inner office and then one from the office out to the hallway, so literally it was a two-way street, and I would have kids just cut through my office and say, hey Mrs. Collins, and that was wonderful. I also had teachers who would pop in and just share an idea or something. And, the only time my door was closed was when we had confidential things that had to be discussed or I had a confidential phone call to make or something. But there was a lot of sharing just in that open door policy, there again I probably didnt manage my time as well as I should because there were times when I should have closed the door and done some things, but I didnt.
Q: Yeah I mean so, you like your school and you like to share vision as you mentioned by one-on-one and small group (End of Tape 1 Side A, Side B begins) and large groups. so how about you know when you, when you see like routine in your school and you dont like. How do you go about changing the school routine if you dont like this routine?
A: There again change has to come carefully and sometimes slowly, change is one of the most feared things by a lot of people, and you have to be very cautious. I happened to have walked into a situation where I was only the second principal ever to be in that school. The school had been opened and run by the same teacher for 18 years, and most of the staff had been there with that one principal so change had to go very, very slowly. And I think you look for key people who share your vision when you first go into something and parents and you slowly begin to make changes. Sometimes if the change is. I mean if the situation is really detrimental to children, no you do not go slowly you just, you approach whoever is involved and say we need to talk. This is what I am observing and tell me more about this, and as you dialogue about it then you start asking what, how is this helping children? Is there a better way of doing this? But you bring the people into discussing whats going on and you dialogue about it. If its something that detrimental to children, it has to be stopped right away, but even so there are ways of going about it that doesnt tear a school apart, and there are ways of going about it that would just really add to the detriment.
Q: So what techniques and strategies did you use in order to create a successful school environment for teaching development and student learning?
A: OK, there again trying to be very open to ideas, and I think I made some notes on this, which number is that?
A: Thirteen, yes, I became very well acquainted with central office curriculum supervisors and directors, and I would encourage them to hold workshops in my building, which made it readily available for my teachers. I also read every report card every grading period and made personal notes on every report card of every child. And, I would keep up with those children who were maybe falling a little behind, and I would directly talk with them. And I thought for a while, here I am doing all this work is it really paying off? And one day I had a fifth grader come to me and say Mrs. Collins I am really making all As or Bs, whatever it was, this report period. He took my little note to heart because I had written to him saying I really dont think this reflects this report card reflects what you can really accomplish. So then that told me if I reach one child then I have succeeded in writing these notes, and I had probably more response from parents about writing those notes on the childs card than anything else I did in my principalship, but it kept me connected with the children. And I also gave out honor certificates, honor role certificates to 5th graders every six weeks, not to any other grades, but only the fifth graders because
Q: The transition.
A: The transition.
Q: It is a good thing to reward not only the teachers, but also to reward the kids because all of them in the school.
A: Thats right.
Q: So, what can you say about the importance of the human relations within the school?
A: Oh, thats the sole of the school. Thats what schools are, we are a human relations, thats whats its all about. You have to deal with human relations everyday in everything you do. And when you ask a person what is the most important to them, usually its going to be something to do with human relationships. Its not how much money they have, and I had a little quote that was in my office, and I have it hanging here in my home office that 100 years from now. It will not matter what kind of car I drove, what kind of house I lived in or what my bank account was, but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child. And thats what its all about.
Q: You can make that a good change in their lives and you make them like the school, they will like (they will be succeeded otherwise we
A: And there again with that little quote, I have had it for years and years, I started getting gifts from children, from parents that had that quote on it, and that said to me that we are making a difference.
Q: Yes, definitely. So how did you go about implementing you know where again talk about now as principal you might receive daily or some regulations or some rules from that school division or school district, how did you go about implementing those rules and regulations that came from the central office? And how did you deal with teachers when they did not follow the rules and regulations?
A: First of all when, in our school system, when you sign a contract you are signing a contract to uphold the dictates of the school board, which in turn filters down through central office. Now sometimes things come out of central office that may not come directly from the school board, but I always felt that it was my responsibility to follow through with whatever came to me from the school board or from central office, but if I did not agree with something I knew there were channels to go through. I did not believe in just blatantly saying, I dont believe in this, we are not going to do this, I felt that contractually, I had signed an agreement to uphold this, but I also knew there were ways that I could go about possibly changing. If a teacher was not fulfilling some of these things, I felt I personally should sit down with that teacher, listen empathetically, and well listen with empathy not sympathy, but empathy, and try to figure out a way that this teacher could adhere to whatever policy it was while also being true to their beliefs. In other words it wasnt just yes we are going to do this no matter what, there were always ways of circumventing things in a way that you werent blatantly saying you werent going to do something while working on a way to change the situation.
Q: Yeah I mean because you know some, you know principals believe that teachers and other staff members are in general well motivated and reliable starter you know you just said that you feel that you must closely monitor the activities of their employees. What approach did you use during your principalship? I mean its not included, but I am saying I mean some people believe that teachers are started motivated, and other principals say NO eventhough we have to work close and we have to mentor what they are doing.
A: There again having been a teacher for so many years, I think teachers knew that I knew what should be going on and what should be happening in schools. And this may lead into the question about evaluation, when I, we were required to observe teachers so many times out of so many years, but I tried to be in and out of classrooms on a regular basis, not to do a formal evaluation, but just so I would have an idea of what was going on in that school and what was going on in that classroom. And I always told teachers if you have a problem or if something comes up, dont leave me blind sided, keep me informed of whats happening. And as we all know every profession has, you have gifted teachers, you have star teachers, and you have teachers who have been there a long time or maybe not so long, but they are just seeing it as a paycheck, and that comes through. And hopefully those people eventually tire and will leave the system. But its, I think you have to monitor whats going on in a school not that you are spying on the teacher, but so that you can support that teacher when theres a parent conference and a parent has questions or so you can help that teacher grow. I think its very important if you are in and out of that classroom you can congratulate them saying you know I saw you doing something, that was really great, or if you see someone who was struggling with something you can say, I am glad you were trying that and hopefully that teacher will admit they were having to struggle and then you can say, have you thought about ..and you can give them suggestions. Thats why it all comes back to having, you have to know curriculum, you have to be knowledgeable about the teaching side, you cant just be a manager.
Q: Yeah, I mean as you know you mentioned to me the school is like a boat and you have to be one hand, and you will be all in this boat you know if there is any problem with this boat all of you will (die). So this is like you know
A: Of all the things that I can say about SOLs, the one good thing I can say about it is that I think it is causing teachers to dialogue more across grade levels and to hold each other responsible for whats happening in the classroom because at certain grade levels these are accumulative tests and certain teachers know that when they teach in those grade levels the years that they have to administer those SOLs, its their name thats on how the children are doing, but in reality its what has been taught in the years ahead of them too, so I hope you will see more teachers helping each other in strengthening whats happening in the classroom, but hopefully it wont be just drill and wrote memorization.
Q: Yeah. So yeah what kind of things do teachers expect principals to be able to do?
A: Oh I wrote in big capital letters under that question, EVERYTHING. Its amazing what teachers expect principals to do, if there is a problem with the building you have to know how to fix it or know who to get to fix it and you have to get it done right away. If its a matter of cleanliness, you have to know whats going on and keep that, its amazing everything. We had a consistent problem with dogs using our playground as their bathroom, I cannot tell you how many times teachers would come to me and say you must go see the owner of the dog, and I would have to go find the owner of the dog and say would you please clean up after your dog. So everything, I have even had to when our crosswalk guard didnt show up, I would be out directing traffic, its everything.
A: As I look back its amusing, but everything.
Q: So can you describe your view on what it takes to be an effective principal, describing the personal and professional characteristics of the "good principal?"
A: Right at the top of my list would be you have to have good counseling skills, and thats something most principals have not been trained in, but every, almost 90% of your time is used in solving problems, problems with staff, problems with parents, problems with children, it runs all through your day, you are a problem solver.
A: Oftentimes these problems deal of course as we said before with the human relation aspect and the more counseling skills you have the better you will be at making or helping people work through these or making decisions, also it saves your own sanity, you learn right away not to take everything so personally. And I think thats one of the hardest things for a new teacher, I mean a new principal is not to take things personally. You have to love children.
A: If you dont like children or you cant relate to children then dont become a teacher, please.
Q: You teach with your, with goals of being a teacher.
A: Yes, and if you dont love children dont become a principal.
A: Same thing.
Q: One depend on the other.
A: Thats right.
Q: Its like you know they are related.
A: And you have to be a learner, and you have to constantly be open to learning, and you have to be hardworking and never ask anyone on staff to do something that you yourself would not be willing to do. Now sometimes I had to ask people to lift objects and things, which I couldnt lift, but from helping in the kitchen when needed to helping set up chairs, sweep the floors, whatever, you have to be willing to do those things.
Q: And have to be more than
A: Yes, yes, absolutely. And again you have to know curriculum, you may not have been a teacher in the classroom, you might be a counselor or whatever, but if you want to become a principal you have got to get in there and learn something about curriculum matters.
Q: Yes. So you know as an elementary principal personal leadership now is considered like hot topic in recent years, can you discuss with us I mean your approach they would like to revisit your approach to leadership and describe some techniques that worked for you and an incident in which your approach failed.
A: OK. I think you have to keep communication open at all times with all groups that you serve, and you have to listen carefully, and thats sometimes very difficult for us to do, we are in a hurry, we dont want to take time, and one of the things that I think all of us should do is to remember that if someone stops us in the hallway or stops us at a time when we are in a hurry, instead of giving that person a short answer or brushing them off, I think its better to say you know I really want to talk about this, but I have to be in Mrs. Jones classroom in about two minutes, could you get back with me and lets set a time aside when we can really sit down and talk about this without either of us having to rush. And I think thats really, really important, and I probably didnt do that as much as I should have and oftentimes people can get the wrong idea when you are in a hurry. Also ask teachers, what do you expect to be doing in five to ten years from now? I think that really gets a person stop and say what do I want to be doing? Oftentimes they will open up to you and say you know I would really like to try teaching, if they are a first grader teacher say third or fourth grade, and thats a time for you to say well why dont we work on that? I had a teacher switch from first grade all the way up to the upper grades, and it all came about because I asked her that question, and it was amazing, she was really, really truly well suited for the upper grades and found out she loved it. And again make attending conferences and doing professional reading an expectation.
A: And some of the things, probably one of my greatest failures, I never did learn how to deal effectively with teachers whose personalities clashed at a given grade level. Thats extremely difficult because once the year begins and everything starts off well and then suddenly you have these complicating factors that come in with personality clashes, someone could do a nice dissertation on helping principals with that little problem.
Q: Yes thats true.
A: It will happen.
Q: You, I mean go to your school. Can you or will you describe your workday? That is, how did you spend your time and what was the normal number of hours per week you put in for your school?
A: I would usually go in at 8:00 in the morning, and I wouldnt leave until 6:00 or 6:30 and oftentimes had to come back in the evenings for evening programs. So I would put in easily 10-12 hour days. Most days I spent in and out and around about in the building, as I told you earlier I had an open door policy, my door was rarely closed only when I had conferences and so forth that were confidential. I, my paperwork was usually done, the kind of administrative paperwork that you always have to do, that was done at the end of the day after the children left, and my secretary, she was my administrative assistant, most wonderful person in the world and you have to have a good person helping you in the office too. But thats basically, I rarely had time for myself, I didnt realize it, but I probably was a workaholic.
Q: Yes like your heart.
A: Thats right. If I had students leaving at 5:00 in the morning on a field trip, I would be there at 5:00 to see them off, if they arrived back at 11:00 or midnight, I would be there to greet them. So I felt that I had to be there, I greeted the students every morning when they got off the bus, and I always saw them when they boarded the buses in the afternoon, I always said good bye to them.
Q: Thats good.
A: And when I didnt do that it was because I was away or I was at a meeting and couldnt be there, and I saw to it that someone was there in my place.
Q: Yeah and thats understandable. So what about the teachers? Teachers still talk about everyday about issue of curriculum. What would you say about the nature of the curriculum during the time you were principal? And can you compare it to the situation in todays schools, citing negative and positive aspects of the situation then and now?
A: When I first began teaching over 27 years ago really, I think schools at that time, we were more group oriented, children were at the same level, we really didnt teach to different styles in learning, we didnt know as much about brain research and that kind of thing, and gradually I saw the evolution into more creative, more open type teaching and more individualized instructional things. Then along in the State of Virginia came the Standards of Learning tests, and I saw when I retired last year, I saw the pendulum swinging back to more group instruction, learning basic facts for memorization to pass a test. And to me thats not good, that probably had a big influence on my decision to retire because I dont feel that the SOLs are necessarily good for children, I believe in high standards, but I believe children need to be taught how to solve problems creatively, how to access information and not necessarily to just regurgitate memorized facts. I hope the SOLs will evolve into something that will be good for children. I also saw teachers becoming more frustrated in that they had to cover certain things by a certain time in a childs life, and sometimes you miss the teachable moment because you dont have time to go off and if a child brings in something that they found in science say a humming birds nest or whatever, sometimes you dont have time if its not in the SOLs for that grade level to learn about that particular thing because you have got to rush and cover the things that the SOL covers. So I just felt I saw a lot of teachers being frustrated.
Q: Yeah and this question might be the question you just answered about whats your idea .or you don't like the idea of this oral test because its memorizing things instead of learning or how can we make them prepared for the access to the information. (What is your point of view and experience concerning standardized tests?)
A: And that was the SOL test that I was mainly referring to because they are not diagnostic test, they were not designed to be diagnostic test. Now the standardized test, yes you can use those for diagnostic purposes as long as they are one test among many criteria that you are using to assess where a child is. Teachers can also use standardized test as a diagnostic tool for their own teaching because when I was in the classroom we were given at that time the Iowa test of basic skills I believe, and over time I would look at my childrens scores, and if my children were doing beautifully in language arts, which was the area that I loved, and werent doing quite as well say in math, which was not an area that I was most fond of, then what I did I switched the time of day when I was teaching these subjects so that I moved my math to the beginning of the day because then I had all day long to work with my children whenever the opportunity presented itself if they didnt get something in the morning. Whereas, and the next year my math scores were up along with my language arts scores. So I used the test as a diagnostic tool also for the teaching.
Q: Yes. And as you know some teachers believe that these tests can help them in teaching and instruction what do you think about these things?
A: Can they help with, you mean with the child?
Q: I mean some teachers you know agree, but so test might help them improve their instruction of teaching. Some people just agree and some teachers don't like it.
A: You are talking about SOLs?
A: I dont see the SOLs as helping a teacher because you dont know when the test comes back, you dont know which questions the child missed. If its on the section in social studies, they either pass or fail, that doesnt help you do anything.
Q: Yes, thats true.
A: And the scoring has to be improved as far as the, what you get back on a score, the old standardized test told you the specific questions a child missed and what area it was in. But, the SOLs when I left the system did not do that, you either passed or failed, it told you nothing, it just, and remember the teacher could not have access to those questions. It sort of, well its just remarkable to me the way they are designed.
Q: lets go I mean from the school and problems and you know its very hard to think about some problems, you know as we talk why that school is serving the community, the community serves also school. Can you talk about it as a principal play key role in serving the community that you belong to. Can you talk about or tell us about your participation in the community organizations or community affairs? Which community organizations also or group had the greatest influence as you see it? (End of Tape 1, Side B, Tape 2, Side A begins).
A: Very much so, and here at Virginia Tech, I was also involved with the YMCA (Young Men's Club Association)at has young students part of the YMCA program is to have young students from the University come in and work as tutors and mentors for the young children in our schools. So you are getting, two groups are being helped in other words, you are building civic leaders for tomorrow in the young people and you are also providing help for children in the school through this program. Of course I was involved in my Church, I often served on committees and so forth that had to do with education such as our pre-school, we run a, excuse me a Church sponsored pre-school program, and I was on that board for many years. I belong to the reading association, the New River Valley Chapter of the reading association, and Phi Delta Kappa. As far as my school, the most influential groups that I belong to would have been the PTA and the YMCA program that provided many, many hours of volunteer work from Tech students.
Q: Yes its a good thing I mean about, about community and you can do something you might be rewarded. So principal is a difficult task and you might face many pressures daily if I am right, what kind of pressures did you face on a daily basis? Can you explain how you coped with them? And describe the biggest headaches on the job and describe the toughest decision you have made?
A: OK. Probably pressures to me are administrative deadlines or administrative dictates, like we discussed before sometimes you dont agree with some of the things that you are asked to do and you have a deadline by which you have to do them. Those kinds of things often times you had no one to vent your frustrations to. The principalship is a very lonely place truly because as they say (the buts stops with you), and you really dont have time to meet with other principals and share feelings and so forth. You are really out on a limb by yourself, and sometimes you feel that someone is over here sawing madly.
A: And everyday you had to deal with parent concerns, not, sometimes they were very minor, but sometimes they were quite serious. Not only concerns about school, but here again your counseling skills come in, personal life problems that that family is having, and they are coming to you asking for help, it can be financial, it could be anything.
Q: Yes. And also teacher concerns, student concerns, as I had said earlier, you are dealing with solving problems almost all day long. And, probably the most difficult thing I had to deal with, well actually two things. One was with parents who are defiant, who come in with sort of the chip on their shoulders saying everything is the schools fault and never recognizing that their family is in need of some coping skills and so forth. And, the other thing that I felt was sometimes feeling that you did not have the support of the central office, and that you were sort of left on a limb by yourself.
A: And one of the coping skills is hopefully to have someone in your life who will let you vent to them and help you think through things on your own. I mean you have to make your own decisions, but having someone that you can trust and can discuss things with in a professional manner where sometimes just to vent you need that in your life.
Q: whats your professional code of ethics, and how did you apply it? Can you give us an example?
A: I think first of all, you have to live your life in an exemplary manner. As I said before, you are not going to ask staff to do something that you cant do, and I feel like that the way you live your life is a testimony to what you really believe. And there are certain things in my life that are just not negotiable, such as honesty, confidentiality when you are dealing with people, respect, professionalism, these things are just not negotiable, and there are other things in your life that you hold dear, thats what makes you who you are.
Q: It is very, you know, things you have to carry and shoulder.
A: And trustworthy, all those things, sort of like a good scout in many ways.
Q: Because you know a principal should. Its like moral endeavor that people describe it and there is many things I mean regarding this thing, especially with principals. If you have got a principal you have to be honest because you will be the one who serves the community, you have kids and if you do not have the honesty so .
A: And, you have to have that trust so that people. You may not always do things the way people want you to do them, but if you have an honest and open relationship with that person then they know that you are doing it in the best interest of their children or their profession or whatever.
Q: lets go back a few years ago, what are your comments about the weaknesses in traditional problems of training for administrators?
A: Here again, when I began working on certification for the principalship, I honestly wanted to get an advanced degree, I wanted to go for Ph.D., but at that time you could not mix curriculum and administration, now thats what they are doing. But at the time that I was going through there wasnt enough emphasis on the curriculum aspect, the emphasis was on managerial skills. I think also the lack of training and conflict resolution, thats a big one with a principal, and of course the older the children you are working with I think the more difficult that can become, and counseling training, I really think every, every training program for the principalship should include a lot of counseling courses. I just cannot tell you how beneficial I think that would be. I had to learn the hard way too many times.
Q: So thats, you know you just mentioned that. What kind of suggestions can you give to new principals?
A: I would say take all the counseling classes you can manage or in service or whatever.
Q: what is mentoring programs in your opinion for new administrators, principal positions?
A: I think they are critical, I think they are definitely needed. When I was an assistant principal, I had a principal who was a great mentor, very, very good in talking with me and helping me work through things and letting me find my own way, but cautioning me about pitfalls and so forth. On the other hand when I became a building principal, I had no mentor, and I was in a school that was the farthest from central office or any place that was, we rarely saw anyone, and that was very frightening in many ways because at that time I did have a situation one day and because we were out in the county, the Sheriffs Office had to respond to my call, and my superintendent got to the school before the Sheriffs Department could get there. And that was very frightening, but everyone needs a mentor and someone close by if at all possible, or someone to check on your at least once a week to say how are things going and so forth.
Q: So if I asked you does anyone, if anyone was a mentor in your life, you just mentioned one.
Q: So can you tell us about him?
A: Well as I say this mentor, he was the head principal when I was the assistant. He allowed me to do whatever I wanted to as long as it was sensitive you know educationally sound realms. But, he would also support me and encourage me to try new things, but he would be there if I hit a snag to back me up or to say this is what I have experienced and so, because he had had lots of years of experience.
Q: if you were in the board of education, what kind of qualifications would you require for the principal, a principal should have to get a principalship position, and how would you screen them in order to ensure that you have a good selection?
A: Thats a really, the second part is the tough part, I know what I would like, but in the period that you have to interview people time permitting, I would like to have a scenario type questioning, you set up the situation and have that person tell you how they would solve it. And in doing that I would want to cover again counseling skills, how they would approach, how they react under pressure, how their human relation skills, how do they react to people who are defiant or Yes, threatening or whatever, and what do they know about curriculum in whatever field they are going in. Now I understand that at middle and high school a principal cannot know every single discipline, but at least be current in teaching philosophy for instance, at least know something about the presentation of lessons and that kind of thing.
Q: Yeah thats important about so lets go, you know we go back and forth like a swing whats you opinion about, we talked about I think the involvement of students and teachers, what about the parents with the school? Can you describe how you interacted with the parents and with citizens who you believed were important to the well being of the school?
A: I attended all PTA meetings, board meetings, general meetings, helped them set up programs so forth, I was always very open with my PTA, if I perceived a problem developing I did not want them to hear it through the grapevine, I would present it to them and let them know right away this is whats going on, this is what we are going to try to do about it, do you have suggestions? Can you help me squelch rumors and so on. I made myself available at all school functions and activities, and I was always visible, always, I was, if we had a school program and there was a reception afterwards for the parents, I would make myself available to the parents, and I would get to know the parents, speak to them and so forth. And I sought out the opinions of parents and tried to do even the negative, sometimes the negative, we dont want to face it but in reality it can get us moving in the right direction. You need many years, you need negative people to keep you on your toes.
Q: Yeah because you need both sides
A: Absolutely, everything is not always perfect, and we need to just know that right up front and get on with it.
Q: Yeah others to say this is good we have to say whats wrong.
A: Thats right. Thats right so we can correct it, and I always encouraged parents dont let things simmer, lets get them out on the table and talk about them so we can, we cant do anything about it if we dont know you are hurting or you are concerned. Thats right, lets get on with it.
Q: So when you know, this hard thing. I mean might have been when you talk evaluation, so can tell us about your philosophy on evaluating teachers, how did you implement them? And how did you implement it, this evaluation, teacher evaluation?
A: Every school system I imagine will have a certain type of evaluation that must be done. With our evaluation as I mentioned, teachers were fully evaluated every three years, which meant you had to be, you had to do two formal observations and then a summary conference. As I mentioned earlier, I tried to get into the classrooms often, not on a formal evaluation, but just so I would get a feel of what was going on, what was happening. Then when we had a formal evaluation, I did do one formal evaluation on every teacher every year. But, those on full I had to do the extra formal evaluation, but for those evaluations I would have a pre-conference with the teacher and ask them I am going to be another set of eyes and ears, what would you like for me to look for? And the teacher hopefully knows enough about their own teaching style that they can feel free to tell me what they want me to look for that will be helpful to them. Then afterwards, we meet and we go over the observation and the teacher can tell me what they thought went well with the lesson, where they thought they might want to improve. And during the observation, if I walked into your room and it was prearranged, now some observations, they would know are in proper way you know. I would tell them. I will tell them that I will drop back in at a time when you dont know I am going. But for the prearranged ones, I would always tell them. if I come into your room or if I drop in for an informal just observation, you have the right to say, Belva could you come back another day, this really isnt a good day, my dog died last night, and I am feeling miserable, and this isnt the best day to observe me. Or the lesson isnt going the way I thought it should, you are welcome to stay and maybe help me work through this or could you come back on a day when the lesson is going better or something. And, I felt that that was perfectly legit because I am in and out of that room enough to know if that teacher has really got a problem that day that I shouldnt really hassle them about or whatever. So, I respected that.
Q: So I mean to me I mean like you know its like theres any problem that cant be solved it will be your problem because the matter is school and evaluating the teacher, you are not concern, but more concern about the learning.
A: Thats right, thats right.
Q: So if you still have continuous that he need to talk about and there is no, hasnt been solved it is your problem.
A: Thats right, and thats, I feel fortunate in my experience. Most teachers if you bring up something, you make a suggestion they will try to follow through, thats been my experience. But one of the things and one of the most difficult things again that I had to learn was that not everyone is going to teach in your preferred teaching style. But as long as learning is occurring, it doesnt matter, its like different road maps, different routes get you to the same destination, but learning is the ultimate goal.
Q: Yes, .. what do you believe the key role of the assistant principal, was his role should be in the school business?
A: I think having been an assistant principal, again I was another set of eyes and ears and hands and hopefully a heart to help that principal. Things did not stop with me. But, I could help that principal lighten the burden a lot with discipline or conferences, working with special education teachers. And in the principal that I had, his background was not as strong in curriculum as mine. So, I did a lot of curriculum work with teachers, helping them get workshops, find resources and that kind of thing. I think the assistant principal can be a great resource person for teachers as well as for a principal,. But I never had the luxury of having an assistant principal, there were days I wish I had.
Q: Yes, yes. So you know there is you know, as you know I mean a principal should do many things in the school and they hire teachers and you know contract with teachers, can you describe tenure or continuing contract system for teachers at that time that you entered the profession? Talk but the strengths and weaknesses of such a system.
A: When you have an excellent teacher, they are not so concerned about tenure, tenure for those teachers isnt going to change the way they do things. With some teachers, however, tenure is a license to become mediocre, not to do maybe as much as you really should, and I am afraid that when I left the profession I was beginning to really question tenure. I am not sure that its rewarding, its not rewarding the really good teachers in the way that they should be rewarded and sometimes I think its only condoning poor teacher and mediocre teaching. Its a tough one, its a tough one.
Q: Yes, so you know sometime you know school needs maintenance what would you say about the bureaucratic complexities that you encountered when you were a principal?
A: Sometimes it was a nightmare because some things had to be done so quickly, and you really didnt have time to reflect on what you were being asked and why they were being done. Frequent changes of school boards you know every four years we are going to have new people coming aboard and everyone has their own agenda, and you are constantly on a change it seems. There again going back to the SOLs, the one thing that will stay consistent will be the SOLs. But, every superintendent that comes in and Montgomery County has had quite a few superintendents. I have forgotten how many I have worked under. But its been probably at least five in 26 years or 25 or 26 years. They all come in with their own agenda and then you start over again, you know they have certain ideas what they want emphasized and certain ways of doing things, so you are constantly in the flux of change you might say, and that was very difficult.
Q: What could be done to change the system to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of educational administration?
A: This is pie in the sky maybe or wishful thinking. I think it would be great if principals and teachers and parents and students could sit down and develop their own teaching/learning environment. And, maybe have, and of course these would be within standard guidelines from your system, like we were talking about the road map, you can go any road you want as long as learning occurs according to these guidelines and so forth. And to have someone from your school system who could sort of be an overseer with just your school or maybe two or three schools that could check with your periodically or come in and oversee and say, well this looks great, you may want to work here. In other words to give ourselves the gift to see ourselves as others see us in other words. But to have someone sort of mentoring your whole school to give you insight into what you are doing, a committee maybe or something. But, I really think every school is an individual learning community, and yes you have to have certain guidelines to work in, but I fear becoming standardized, that every school has to perform the same way and do things the same way. I think that would be real detrimental, and I would like to see us continue to keep autonomy perhaps within each school, but to have that outside person looking in, in a non-evaluative way, but a mentoring way.
Q: What does, what was your relationship with the superintendent?
A: Well, with one it was excellent, with two not so good, they were politicians.
Q: Its understandable I mean, they have something in their minds human are different and so some people, we are all human so we might you know prefer to work with someone because we share some ideas
A: Thats right.
Q: We might not work with someone because, not because we dont try to, but you know we are in different, we use different approach.
A: And unfortunately superintendents become political people, thats just a part of the business, they become part of the political system you might say because they have to please an elected board and many different people in the community.
Q: Since you have now had some time to reflect your career, I wonder if you would share with us what you consider to be your administrative strengths and weaknesses? And I think you mentioned one thing you know a few minutes ago when you talked about the things that you can manage as I think when you talk about,
A: The defiant parent and time.
Q: Yeah, I think yeah, the time and managing your time.
A: Well I think some of my strong points. I truly believe that I care about people, and I have good human relation skills. I am dedicated to students, wholeheartedly, and I have always been hard working. And I was a teacher for many years before I became an administrator and that was a real plus because I could understand a lot that the teacher faced and could share with them in an understanding way.
Q: So your strength is you get an idea of understanding teachers and share their values and their concerns in the school system like that. (End of Tape 2 Side A, Side B begins) And what, I mean you find something is really you know a weakness in your
A: Oh I had plenty of those too. One of them at times, I was not forceful enough, and I think because when I went into administrations there were not that many women in our system. Therefore perhaps I wasnt as straightforward and forceful as I should have been, assertive would be more the word, I tended to take things personally when I first began, and that was detrimental to me.
Q: Thats natural though.
A: And thats something that I had to learn to overcome, and I spent too much tie on my work and didnt leave enough time for myself and my family. And, that leads to the question of why, why I retired, mainly it was because of the continuous stress and my age and my need to spend more time with my family.
Q: I think you still, you have or you can set great effort to the school in my opinion. As we understand you know we are human and there are circumstances that we see about people so that my, not enforce them, but you know make them think that you know we have to have another life or to spend some time with whom you miss them. (A retirement is not the end of world. Would you discuss the circumstances leading up to your decision to retire at the time?)
A: Thats right, thats right.
Q: So you know we talk about the circumstances and about the reason that you made and go and decided to try so you know its a great thing to be a principal and remember your old days and being now free you know. I am not sure if there is anything to see if or what I have forgotten any question to ask about what should be discussed?
A: No, the only thing that I can think of was just to share with you some of the highlights of my work that I felt I. I was not one of these people who got awards or recognition from the community or whatever. But I feel that my greatest rewards have been the fact that I hopefully have positively touched the lives of a lot of young people in my community. And, its a great joy to me when they come back as adults and say they remember me, and they remember me in a special way, that warms my heart. And also, the fact that I have been responsible for hiring some very fine teachers who will carry on wonderful work with children and some of them have also moved into the administration and others are in training now to become administrators. And, I hope that I have had a positive impact on a lot of folks, and I also hope that I have helped teachers along the way make more of their potential and to be happy in what they are doing.
Q: Yeah its a good thing I mean when you miss this position and retired, you are thinking to go back and do something, but thats a natural feeling it comes from your heart because that school was yours.
A: Thats right.
Q: And you know its still difficult to, I mean even if you had a car and sold you know, remember all the nice things
A: Thats right, but you cant go back.
Q: Yes, you cant go back.
A: You have to keep moving forward.
A: And so my next step will probably be in the field of family literacy with the Literacy Volunteers of American. They have a program now that I understand they work with the entire family, and that would be really something that I would enjoy doing, so I am giving myself a year to goof off, and then I will go into more teaching again.
Q: Is there anything or?
A: No, I think that does it for me, and I appreciate this opportunity.
Q: Thanks, thank you for sharing with us your experiences and your views as a retired principal whose heart still belongs to the school that you served. We would like to say thank you so much, and hopefully we will see you in the near future.
A: I hope so.
Q: We would like to think Mrs. Belva Collins for the great opportunity and the time that she give us to discuss with her about her views about principalship.
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