Interview with James Delliner


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Q: How many years were you in education as a teacher; as a principal?

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

A: I was a teacher for 10 years and a principal for 17 years.

Q: How many years have you been retired?

A: I am going on my third year of retirement.

Q: Describe your school.

A: My last school Was a largely self-contained, or what I consider a rather small school about 350 students. There was a maximum of 400 students. At that time we had three classrooms of mildly mentally-retarded students.

Q: This was at Fairfax Villa?

A: Yes.

Q: Why did you decide to become a principal?

A: I wanted to change. I had been in the classroom for 10 years as a mostly 6th or 5th/6th combination teacher and I was ready for a change. If I had not received the appointment as Assistant Principal when I did, I was very seriously considering asking for a lower grade level a change to 4th grade. I don't know whether I would have received it or not, because you know they seldom want 6th grade teachers coming in at the elementary level, but I was very seriously thinking about that. When I was appointed Assistant Principal, that changed all that. Plus I was interested in the increase in salary. But mainly I wanted a change. I was ready for that.

Q: Back 17 years ago, did you need any special courses to become an Assistant Principal? Now there is a certification program.

A: At that time, I had my Master's degree. There were some teachers who were appointed to assistant principalships and principalships who were working on a Master's, but who weren't quite there. But when I came along, they said you pretty much needed the Master's degree, so I had to have that, though nothing much more specific than that. I have taken a lot of seminar courses-- administrative seminars.

Q: How long were you the Assistant Principal?

A: I was only Assistant Principal for 3 months at that school. I was appointed in March and at the end of the school year in June, I was appointed to the principalship. It seems they had their eye on me for a Particular school, and they wanted me to have a little experience at least something. So that is why I was just in there 3 months until I was appointed Principal at Walnut Hill. Walnut Hill has since closed as a school because of low enrollment.

Q: what was your school's philosophy?

A: Our school's philosophy was pretty much to get the maximum amount of effort out of the children while they had an enjoyable experience in school. I wanted the students to have fun and yet get the most out of it.

Q: How was your school's philosophy developed?

A: Cooperatively with the staff. I worked democratically due to democratic process involving all the faculty staff in our school.

Q: How did you create a climate for learning?

A: By establishing a pleasant classroom atmosphere. Teachers would feel comfortable teaching in their own particular teaching styles, knowing that I would not be breathing down their necks if they were doing their jobs well.

Q: What leadership techniques did you use while creating a climate for learning?

A: I dealt with teachers in a democratic fashion, and I had them involved as much as possible in the decision-making process, especially in things that concerned them. I always tried to get them involved. If my superiors mandated something, I got input from them regarding the ways we would implement that mandate.

Q: Which leadership techniques were successful and unsuccessful?

A: I felt those things were successful when the faculty members were most involved. And the opposite was true those things that were not successful were often the times someone would come in and say, "Hey, folks, this is coming from up there and this is what we have to do , and we have got to do it." Those things that they did not have their heart in and those things in which they were not a part of the decision-making process those were the things that did not go as well.

Q: What role did you play in public/community relations?

A: That was probably my area of greatest strength--community relations. I don't know what else to say. . .

Q: What kinds of things did you do; such as neighborhood chats, a strong PTA?

A: yes, a good, strong PTA; and I guess one of the biggest things was my open door policy. My door was always open to everyone, whether it was the students, the teachers, or the staff members, or the parents. Prior to my coming, the secretary guarded the Principal very well and would not let anyone come back unless she came back and said "so and so is here, can you see them?" that sort of thing. you always had to make an appointment. Even the staff members had to make an appointment. But when I got there, I changed all that. I even had a coffee pot in my office and I made the coffee. It was one of those big, commercial types. And I encouraged the teachers, all staff members, anyone and everyone to come on in even school volunteers, anyone to sit and chat. A lot of things were done informally. A lot of problems were avoided because things could be discussed in a pleasant atmosphere. So I think that the open door policy was one of the things that was most successful when I was Principal.

Q: What do you think teachers expect principals to be?

A: Was I everything that the teachers thought I should be? I'm not sure. I had a good rapport with my staff, and I liked them and they liked me. I was supportive, and that is what they wanted. I was caring, empathetic, sensitive and I was available. I realized that when I was a teacher, these were the kind of things that I wanted in a principal and I tried to be those kinds of things.

Q: Was the evaluation process the same when you were a principal?

A: When I was a Principal, was the evaluation process by and large the same when I left the principalship? Yes, there were very few changes up to that point very much the same. But, of course, that has changed tremendously as of late.

Q: Did you try to evaluate all of your teachers at least one time during the year?

A: I think the way that it had been set up for years was that when a principal went into a new school for the first time, that principal had to evaluate every, single person on staff that first year. And the second year, it was half. Then the third year, it was the other half. That was the way it was you alternated.

Q: What techniques did you use to make teachers feel important?

A: Little things like notes-- I was a big note writer. I used to write little notes and put them in their mailboxes all the time -- notes that were not critical. I would not put negative notes in the boxes so that if they saw a note in there, they were not threatened and think, "Oh, what's in this note now?" The only time something like that would have happened would have been if there was a problem with a parent. In that case I would put in a note saying, "I need to talk to you about a problem with such and such a parent." Even then, I would always try to soften it and say, "no big problem," so they wouldn't be too apprehensive about it. Again this goes back to my open door policy encouraging them to come in and talk about things at any time on their breaks or whatever. I don't think I had any specific things other than that, but those proved to be successful.

Q: would you say your philosophy of education was pretty much in keeping with the school's philosophy?

A: Yes, I think so. It was to get the maximum amount of effort out of the children so that their achievement levels were commensurate with their ability levels in a pleasant, happy atmosphere.

Q: What is your philosophy of teaching?

A: My philosophy of teaching is to be able to teach in a supportive, non-threatening, pleasant atmosphere. Being free to use one's own, unique teaching style without feeling like you had to do it someone else's way.

Q: What is your personal leadership philosophy?

A: My personal leadership philosophy was having the teachers involved as much as possible in every aspect of decision-making and in anything that directly involved them particularly in PTA functions. For example, if a parent at a PTA meeting should say, "Let's try this and let's try that," I would always try to keep the teacher in mind. I did not want to over-burden them with things just because some parent said, "Hey, this would be nice-- let's do this and let's do that." I was always supportive of the teachers and very protective of them because I knew what it was like in the classroom and I knew what it was like trying to put on a performance for people, so I tried to protect them somewhat in that respect. When it came down to any problems we had, I always had the teachers involved in that problem-solving process so they would feel they had a hand in making the decisions that affected them.

Q: What does it take to be an effective principal?

A: Empathy, perseverance, determination, diplomacy, a bit of Solomon's wisdom and some of Job's patience.

Q: What pressures did you face as a principal?

A: Our School Board and the Central Area Offices continued adding on things that were expected of teachers without taking anything away. The principals that I have always had chats with had the very same feelings. They were continually complaining about that. They would talk to people in a position of authority, clear up to the superintendent's level, but they would never listen they would act as though they were listening, and like they were sympathetic, but they just never did. They would just continue to add things on and on. This causes a decrease in the instructional time that a teacher has, as you know, and it is very frustrating because these principals know that the parents out there continue to want and expect quality education, quality instruction. And on the other hand, they are adding on this program and that program. Every time you add on a program, you have got to cut down in some other area, and that was very frustrating for me as a principal-- maybe not the pressure so much as the frustration in that I knew what was expected of the teachers and yet they continued to cut in on their instructional time and that bothered me. Everyone always talks about the basics, and we didn't have much time for the basics because of all of that. Another thing was that I had some pain-in-the neck educating kind of parents who wanted our school to be like another school, not taking into consideration all the different things we were doing. There was always someone saying, "well, I was over at this school the other day (a neighboring school) and they were doing such and such in their library and it would be nice to have that here." That kind of thing used to bother me.

Q: How did you handle the pressures you faced as a principal?

A: I did my best and held my tongue as much as possible, and I prayed.

Q: If you had to do it again, what would you do to better prepare yourself for the principalship?

A: I would like to be--I had not been at the time--but as I look back on it, I think I would have profited if I had been in an assistant principalship longer. Three months just doesn't do it. That is the only thing I can think of.

Q: you don't feel any extra classes, anything like that, would have done any more?

A: No, I don't think so because so much of what comes up can't be taught in class. Every situation that comes up daily is different and that is one of the things I liked about education there is never a dull moment. There is always something different-- no two days are alike. I don't know of anything else to prepare a person other than being in a classroom with children for ten years. I took classes for a graduate's degree and I really don't know how useful these were to me, specifically as a principal.

Q: How did you handle teacher grievances and discuss the issue.

A: That is an easy question to answer. In 17 years that I was a principal, I never had a single grievance.

Q: Did you ever fire a teacher? Discuss the issues.

A: There was one we had to dismiss, but she was one we shared with another school, and the principal of the other school actually had the greater amount of work to do in preparing to have this woman dismissed. But I fortunately never had to deal with a grievance. So, therefore, I really don't have an answer for that.

Q: How can we improve education, teachers, etc.?

A: 1 would hope that we stop trying everything that comes down the pike. We should benefit from what other systems have tried and the innovations they have tried. I know Fairfax County is big on being the first to try everything. It is a big feather in your cap to say, "Hey, we did this and we did that." But there are a lot of things that suffer along the way when we try everything just because we heard it was the thing to do. For example, we have all along had School Boards that were so sensitive to a few voters that they would give in to them and say, "well, let's do this we have a few People out there really yelling for this and that and so on." There are some things which we have tried that have taken a lot of instructional time from the teachers and that have been frustrating to the teachers and principals. I don't really know how much better we are for it. I mentioned we might drop some things in the curriculum and concentrate on what is really important; such as institute a policy whereby the teachers would be required and encouraged to change grade levels ever so many years I think that would be good and enriching for them and even change schools in many cases, though not all cases. I know there are some teachers who can teach in the same school for 20 years and longer and be effective. But there are also those that could be more effective if they were moved to a different school every five years. I think these things could be very beneficial. There were some negative things that were tried in Fairfax County while I was there, and one of the worst kind of things that I ever experienced was when I was a classroom teacher and the superintendent we had then was convinced that educational TV was the way to go and I'm sure it is coming eventually but he wanted to teach French at the elementary level by TV. That was the biggest waste of time and money that I have ever seen in my life. The kids actually got to the point where they hated French or any kind of foreign language. And when they got to the intermediate level, they didn't want to fool with any of the languages because they had such a bad experience with it from TV. And when they had the Open Classroom concept, when that came down the pike, they thought that was the greatest thing. Some schools adopted the Open Classroom, and the next thing you knew, they came in and had walls put up to close them. Then they tried the language experience approach to teaching reading. They tried the concept because someone had heard that it was successful somewhere else and then we ended up suffering from it as well.

Q: How did you handle the civil rights issue?

A: I can't even help you with this question because that was not a problem at any school I was with. Integration went so smoothly that you didn't even know there was a problem. So I can't even relate to that problem.

Q: Did they change neighborhoods for the busing?

A: No, I am not aware of that in Fairfax County. I don't think it was done in Fairfax County.

Q: What procedures should be used before a person is selected to become a principal?

A: I think the present system is adequate. I think a number of years as a successful teacher or supervisor are required, etc. I have no complaints with the way they are selected at this Point.

Q: How did you utilize your assistant principals?

A: This is not applicable to me. Both schools where I was principal were small enough whereby we did not qualify for an assistant principal.

Q: In the 3 months that you were an assistant principal, what kinds of things were you asked to do?

A: I was asked to do a lot of disciplining, which was the thing I liked to do the least of all. The principal was a good fellow in that he tried to get me to do a little of everything, but when you are there only 3 months, you don't do much of anything; however, I did deal with some parents. Most of my time was spent getting to know the teachers, and I did some classroom visitations, making some comments on the instruction. The principal wanted me to have some input on what I thought the person was doing kind of an evaluation. But again, I wasn't there long enough to do that very well.

Q: As a principal, what was your biggest concern?

A: The over-loaded curriculum, as 1 mentioned earlier. yet your superiors and the parents expect the very best from the children even though very little time is left to instruct them in the basics.

Q: As a principal, what was your biggest headache?

A: My biggest headache, in a nutshell, was keeping everyone happy -- all the different factions that you deal with, of course, the Central Office staff and Area staff, the faculty and staff, the parents and students all of these groups had to be kept happy. The students Were the least of my problems. This is a tremendous job and an impossible job, but it is something that is expected of you and you just have to do your best at it.

Q: what do you think of career ladders and merit pay for teachers?

A: I was never in favor of merit pay because I think it causes morale problems. And for the principals, it creates too much paperwork and takes too much time everyone's time. I just not in favor of it at all.

Q: Are you familiar with what Fairfax County is doing now?

A: A little bit, yes, and that is another reason why I am so glad that I'm not in there now.

Q: What do you think of the standards of quality, etc. established by the State School Board?

A: I was disgusted when I looked at this question in advance, because I was trying to think of some of those very things. I really can't think of anything specific at this time. Just that I think most of them actually worked pretty well and were reasonable. Still, I thought some were rather unrealistic. I wish I could put my finger on some of them. Some of these things applied when the State Standards came along some of the things applied more to the smaller school systems than they did in ours. And some of the standards set were ones we had already met. Much of Virginia is so dissimilar from Northern Virginia Fairfax County is so different from some of the other districts in the State that it is difficult to say this is the standard that everyone has to meet. I would see in some cases where some of the people in other Parts of the State would have a heck of a time with this because in Fairfax County, a lot of these standards have already been met and these other folks out there in Southwestern Virginia, or wherever, were only beginning. So you can see what a big problem that is.

Q: I noticed that when I first came into the system and looked over the POS for Fairfax County. I saw what the State required and what Fairfax County required, and I noticed that Fairfax County's expectations were higher than the Virginia standards.

A: Yes, that is the sort of thing I am talking about.

Q: What are the characteristics associated with effective schools?

A: I think you have happy students, you have well-disciplined classrooms and you have a happy, contented, self-assured staff.

Q: What do you think of the testing procedures, SAT, etc.?

A: I think those tests are okay. There are some things about them that bother me, but I think they are pretty good. The thing I guess I object to most the achievement test, especially is the publication of the doggone things. Not that you had anything to hide, but there are some communities around that are of a low, socioeconomic level and parents look at the scores of their students in comparison to some of those in the higher socioeconomic levels and there is a big discrepancy. Some parents cannot understand it they don't understand why their school isn't doing as well as another school. It is an unfair comparison. I guess it's the publication of the achievement test scores probably more so than the tests themselves in what they are trying to accomplish.

Q: What was the toughest decision you had to make as a principal and why was it difficult?

A: Well, we had mentioned this earlier trying to dismiss an ineffective, incompetent teacher. In this case, it happened to be a music teacher and I shared her with another school. That was a very difficult thing. This took so much time. You had to keep track of everything that she did. Keep book, so to speak, so that you had the records of what she was or was not doing. That was so time-consuming. Plus you had to keep those records and then you had to give notes or memos to her saying this was what we found and this type of thing. It was a terrible thing to go through. She was the only person ever to be dismissed from my staff at either school where I was. It was painful and difficult.

Q: Were you a manager of a building or an instructional leader?

A: More a manager.

Q: What is it about your personality that allowed you to be successful as a principal?

A: The fact that I am a caring, sensitive person.

Q: What advice would you give to a person who is considering an administrative position?

A: The first thing I would say is stay in the classroom because it is more fun and rewarding, with less pressures. You do get paid more in a principalship, which is the thing a lot of people think about retirement that is important, too. It is easier said than done, of course, but the best advice is to do your best and try not to let things get you down.

Q: Over the past decade schools have become larger and larger with student population at times exceeding 4,000 students. What do you feel is the best organizational arrangement in schools this large for administrators, teachers, and students?

A: I really can't comment much on that because I think that is related to a high school situation, and I had no dealings at the high school level except, of course, having gone there as a youngster. But I do have very definite feelings about schools that large. I do not like large schools I have worked, when I was an assistant principal, at a school of 5,000 students, and that was just too large. I am not in favor of large schools. I think there are a lot more disadvantages than advantages to this type of situation.

Q: What do you feel is the "ideal" size of a school for the best administrative instructional leadership?

A: I am going to answer that in relation to an elementary school. I think that of those schools I have been associated with, that 350-400 students is a good number. I think perhaps 400 may be even better because you have enough grade levels where you can move students around a little bit the same kids are not in the same classrooms from kindergarten on through sixth grade.

Q: All research points to the fact that excellent schools have administrators who are actively involved in leadership for educational expectations. What are some effective techniques or strategies you have used to help You involve yourself to the maximum in educational leadership?

A: I answered this earlier when I said that I involved to the maximum extent possible all staff members in the decision-making process in areas that concern them.

Q: Did you have a "model" you patterned yourself after?

A: Yes, I did.

Q: Someone from your elementary years?

A: Yes, my first elementary school principal. He let me alone to teach the way I felt comfortable and the way I was successful. He didn't breathe down my neck. He was a well-respected, well-thought-of person, and I tried to pattern myself after his methods of leadership.

Q: Over the past decade, there seems to be a "slippage" in the human relations training which went into administrative preparation. Do you note whether or not there is a "relapse" into the "insensitivities" toward minority students and minority appointments to administrative positions?

A: I don't think there is.

Q: Do you feel we need to begin again to re-emphasize changes in teachers and administrators?

A: I would say "no" on that one also.

Q: Would you like to discuss the 5 most pleasant principalship activities.

A: Relating to the children and relating to the faculty staff members, dealing with cooperative, pleasant parents and the fact that this is a never-a-dull-moment type of job.

Q: Now discuss the 5 most unpleasant principalship activities.

A: Asking teachers to take on added responsibilities; disciplining students I never enjoyed that; dealing with unreasonable and ignorant parents; and dealing with some of the Area Office personnel. Most of them were pleasant and knew what our situations were, but still it was rather frustrating at times knowing that whatever you did, there was always someone there ready to criticize.

Q: What prompted you to choose retirement when you did?

A: I had the age and the years I had 27 years of service and I was tired of the pressures trying to keep everyone happy, trying to walk on eggs I always use that expression so that is the reason I left when I did. I was sorriest to leave the rapport I had with the students and staff members, and happiest to leave behind the pressures.

Q: Is there anything that you do in your retirement years that keeps you at all involved with children and schools?

A: I am not involved specifically with schools or children right now, but I am involved in all kinds of volunteer activities, such as the Lions Club and Program FISH, which means lending immediate, sympathetic support for people who need shelter, clothing, transportation these kinds of things. I am also doing some recording (braille machine) for the visually handicapped. In conjunction with the Lions Club this coming Saturday, I am going to be in a march against drugs, along with some of our area students from the intermediate high school level, sponsored by the Lions of VirginiA: I have also been over the school where I was principal and brought along my musical instrument to play a couple of times with some of the individual classes. I have also been back there as a resource person when I have been invited. I enjoy staying involved.

Q: Is there anything I have not asked that you feel I should have asked?

A: Yes, if I had to do it all over again, would I have gone into the same field? I really don't know how I would answer that one. I enjoyed my work when I was in it, I enjoyed the classroom and I enjoyed the principalship. But, if I were to go into it today, knowing the kinds of things a principal has to do with merit pay and that sort of thing, I don't know that I would seek out the principalship. Maybe I would go into classroom teaching again, but I don't know that I would seek the principalship.

Q: Thank you.

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