Interview with Norman Dodl


This is October 11th, 1995. This is an interview with Dr. Norman Dodl on his experience as a school principal. The interview takes place in his office located in War Memorial Hall at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

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

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

A: O.K. You have to realize that at my age that's a long time ago and I don't remem ber it too well. However, I was born in Richmon d, VA. I attended element ary, junior high, and secondar y schoo l in Richmond and I attended 3 out of 4 of my college years at the Universit y of Richmond . My family was, I had one broth er, and I lived in an intact family with my moth er and my father, my broth er up until the time I finished college, so I lived in that home during that time. I was in element ary schoo l approximate ly a half mile from wher e I lived, I walk ed to schoo l and back. My junior high schoo l was within walking distance but I did not always do that, I often caugh t the bus or rode a bike to my junior high schoo l, and my high schoo l secondar y education was acros s town in the center of the city, and I rode a bus. Now these buses are city trans porta tion, not schoo l buses. I came up in what might be classified as a lower middle class family. My family did not own an automobile until I was in college. That will give you some idea of my family background.

Q: Would you discuss your college education and preparation for entering the field of teaching. How many years did you serve as a teacher ? a principal?

A: My college education, 3 out of 4 years, my freshman, sophomore, and senior years were spent at the University of Richmond. I graduated from there with a Bachelor of Arts degree. My major was music, however I really had a broad liberal arts background at that level. My junior year was spent at Ellon College in North Carolina, that's the only year I lived away from my home. During the period of time I was in college I taught piano as a way of earning my way through college. In terms of preparation of entering the field of teaching I took several courses in my primarily liberal arts bachelor's program that would be classified as education courses. I have forgotten what they were at this point, but I did most of my professional preparation after I started to teach. I went from my bachelor's degree to the military, so I was in the military for 2 years prior to begin my teaching. I thought, let's see I taught for 2 years at the 9th grade level, well actually I taught for 2 years in the high school. Some of my teaching was at what would have been now to date classified as middle school, but we didn't have a middle school at that time. Then I was a teaching principal for one year Which means I was the principal of a combined school, but I also taught. Then I was an elementary school principal for 5 years.

Q: Would you talk about sa circumstances surrounding your entry into the princi palsh ip. What motivated you to enter the princi palship ?

A: I am not sure I actually remember that, but I will take you through what was going on at that time. remember I came out of military, I did not have what was then called a collegiate professional certificate. I was given a collegiate certificate which meant that I had to earn certain kinds of credits before some period of time - I don't know what it was. But I immediately started upon coming out from the military into the graduate school working on a master's degree in education and that degree fairly quickly began to be pointed toward the principalship, and my master's degree eventually came from the University of Virginia two years later maybe, two or three years later, and my major in that master's degree in education was the principalship, I mean I was in an administrative principalship program. What motivated me I suspect was probably that I could increase my income significantly because I started teaching on an income of $2,700 a year, and that was one of the best in the state of Virginia at that time. That was not a lot of money as you can well imagine. I spent that much sometime in two weeks, so I suspect the motivation was money, I don't remember that at the moment, but once I did get into the principalship, particularly the elementary principalship, I really enjoyed that, it was a very rewarding job.

Q: Would you take us on a walk through your school, describing its appeara nce and any unusual features of the buildi ng.

A: Well, I will probably just talk about the school I was principal for five years, and my reason is the other school was a very small country school: it had an older building on one side of the road and a somewhat newer building on the other, and it was typical of little country school, and in those days I graduated 17 people from the senior class that year. The school that I moved to as principal was actually back in the same district that I had been teacher in. They had me to come back and do that particular job. It had been a six room elementary school, and during the year prior to my coming back here they had remodeled and expanded it to be about 30 classrooms, so it was essentially a new school. It was a multilevel school in that it sat on a site that was not level and therefor part of the building was at the parking lot level, and it stairstepped down to a level that had a multi purpose room, cafeteria, and so forth. Then stepped down another level to the working parts of the building which were the french room and all that kind of stuff, then down to the next level where we had approximately 24 classrooms,so it was, I don't know how unique that is, but I guess it gave the uniqueness of the building to me. My office was in the older section of the building, and it had been remodeled, and I had double doors as part of my office that had been covered up with drapes. It was very nice because if I had irate parents I could always escape through that door, and no one would know I was gone. My office also had a bathroom and the out office with the secretarial staff and general public was just off the office. The general purpose room was used for everything from cafeteria service during the day, and I had a large cafeteria staff with good food service there, and then it was used for wet weather play activity when you fold tables or whatever, used it for PTA meetings, used it for assembling, anything you had to do was done in that room. I think there were several classrooms on that intermediate level, and there were 24, so 20 to 24 classrooms on the lower level, lots of play ground area. The grounds of the school adjoined what is known istorically as "bullrun".Bullrun is on the edge of the manossas battlefield park, where the battle of manossis was fought. We used to take students down to the creek and you could find al kinds of civil war artifacts. The neighborhood my school served was a lower class neighborhood with very low income people, a lot of transients. I don't think there is anything else particularly unique.

Q: Could you describe your work day. That is, how did you spend your time ? What was the normal number of hours per week you put in ?

A: I don't remember exact starting and ending times, but let's assume the school day started at 8:45 I was generally in the building by 7:00, and the only person that might be there earlier than me would be the custodian. I would have approximately a hour dealing with matters that I needed to give some thought to, and then I would meet school buses at the door and greet children, and that kind of things. Once children were in the building and all attendance reports were in and the schedules will set up to teachers, everything was running smoothly I would typically go to town, we had a post office box in town, or principal meetings. Town was a 10 to 12 minute drive and sometimes I would visit another school in that area chat with another principal. I would spend about an hour doing that, I would be back in the building around 10:30 or 11:00. I would oversee to the extent necessary the lunch time. In the afternoon if I didn't have a meeting it was often spent observing teachers, assisting teachers with special projects, meeting with parents, and that type of things. School would close around 3:00 or 3:15, and again I was dealing with buses making sure kids were on the right buses and that they got home like they should, and I would usually live the building somewhere in the 5 or 4:45 to 5:30. Frequently there were meetings in the evening pertaining to school either at my school or in conjunction with general the school system, so maybe two nights a week I would have meetings related to the school. I worked occasionally on Saturdays, but not to often. So that's about the schedule.

Q: What kinds of things do teachers expect principals to be able to do ? Describ e the personal and professio nal characteri stics of the "good principal. "

A: Well, in those days teachers expected the principal to have the answers to all of their questions, to be able to assure that order was maint ained in the schoo l, to give them unqualified support, particula rly in dealing with parents and kids without any questions that even if a teach er make s a mistake. My philosop hy was and my practice was to back up that teach ers regardl ess and then deal with the issue even, like I said, the teach er made an error. I think teach ers grow to expect that and I think it make s a differen ce in your relations hip with teach ers and how they function if they know they won't be supported. They know they are not walking on shaking groun d. I think they expect you to make sure that the resourc es they need are available when they need them, that sched ules are fairly in tact, that they know when thing s are going to be differen t, that they are not left in the dark, and that communi cation is stron g, that you are available to assist them with thing s that they need help with instr uctio nally or otherwis e. Frequent ly I think they expect you to, like I say, act betwee n them and parents. Well, I thing that a good principal is a good instructional leader, and this is elementary school and I recognize that. I think in the elementary school the principal has to be an instructional leader. They have to know the curriculum, know instruction, know the program, and be available to teachers to help them teach better, they have to be a colleague to teachers, they have to be a good managers, they have to keep good records, in my judgement, they have to run a tight ship. They have to be very supportive of the teachers, they have to be recognized by teachers as being the main stay of the support system, they have to be friendly and cordial to parents and not be afraid to deal with parents and kids in a disciplinary fashion when necessary. I was a principal in a day when during the time when it wasn't inappropriate to punish a child which is gone from now but in those days it was permitted and there have been instances where I had problems to not handle in other way by took the parent was to invite if not required to come in and give the parent the option do it themselves or I would do it in the presence if they don't want to do it. I am using this as an example that the discipline was an extremely important factor in the school that time and it was the tone for that discipline set by the principal. So, I think that any kind of curriculum innovation or direction that the school chooses to pursue instructionally, academically, and even co curricular activities I think that the tone is set by principal and he has to provide the leadership directly or by selecting the right people to move those things along. A good teacher is available to his teachers, his students, and his parents almost day and night.

Q: Continuing this idea can you describe some techniques which worked for you, in particular ?

A: It depends on the situation, if a teacher is basically a good teacher meaning he or she is strong instruction ally and has a good report kids in terms of instructional leadership there is often finding ways to use those teachers special strengths to enhance the program of the school as a whole and that may mean teaming them in some way on curriculum development or instructional improvement, and so forth. If you are dealing with a week teacher instructional leadership involves coaching that specific teacher. If it gets to the point where that teacher is really on the ropes in terms of being very very week it involves coaching that person with goals and deadlines set that suggest that they have to be met monitoring those to suggest if you are even going to keep that teacher. I have had instances where I have even had to fine teachers. You don't want to do that unless you have strong evidence that you have done everything to remedy it. In that instance instructional leadership is quite different than it is with a good teacher. My management style was very authoritarian. I had just come out of the military and I did not expect to parcel off management to other people. Management has to do with fiscal management; academic program management has to do with building management including maintenance, bus schedule, and everything. My style was very much on organizing it and seeing that it was carried out. I had strong expectations that my management plan would be carried out.

Q: Did you take risks in your principal activity even when there was a chanc e you might fail ?

A: Yes, I'm trying to go back and remember some instances. Well, I can remem ber a couple of instanc es, no more than that wher e we had instruct ional supervi sors in our system; an instruct ional supervi sor was one who came from central office and who was available to help teach ers and to help the principal if need be. I had a very close worki ng relations hip with our two element ary supervi sors. In fact one of them was the reason I was broug ht back there to be a principal. A time or two, two at the most I had some what of a disagree ment with the supervi sor in terms of a particula r teach er who was not functionin g as well as he or she shoul d have, and get based on, I think, my intuitive sense about that person I felt they were salvagea ble and so the risk taking had to do with saying no I want to keep this person another year, I think I can bring this person out of that, so I took risks in other cases involvi ng parents wher e parents woul d like to have thing s going on that I didn't necessari ly see as desirabl e and I was willing to confront them, that's always a risk. I don't recall any other situations that I woul d categoriz e as risk taking, there may had been other instanc es, but they come to mind right this minute.

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

A: Well, first I agree with the home-school gap concept and I think with many school including the one that I was principal of there was a need to have more parental involvement. We had a very strong parent teacher organization, and I used that I think effectively, I promoted it quit a bit. My biggest success at parent involvement did not have to do so much with getting parents into classrooms as it did getting parents to support what the school was doing and be available for various kinds of school activities other than instruction. I used effectively all school programs that we did like at Christmas time. I happen to be a music person and so I gathered the kids together for a musical type program at Christmas, and we had a very large Christmas tree that we put in the multi purpose room. I had a custodian to bring it from his farm, and we made quite a community event out of that and what it does is having parents in and gets them supportive of your school. We did the same thing in the spring and in the fall. A lot of parental involvement since we were in the new school. Essentially I had a lot of parental involvement all through the 5 years in landscaping and getting the grounds to be attractive. I did a lot of home visitation. A lot of this was done on an emergency and as needed basis because I had a lot of kids who really needed the parents to be involved in what they were doing, and I would often have to go out to a home and meet with the parents to talk about the kid and what we might do together to help that kid prosper in school.This was successful sometimes and not successful others, but in many instances it did get the parents involved what their child was doing, if not in the school as a whole.

Q: Now, let's shift to the teachers. Would you describe your approach to teacher evaluation and give your philosophy of evaluation.

A: Do you want my philosophy now or do you want what I... ("both"). All right! At that time teacher evaluation was conducted by myself and an instructional supervisor, and we would sit down relative to each teacher that was being evaluated and reach an agreement. In those days I did not have a system wide evaluation process to hall back on, and I did not have any system wide instrumentation to use in evaluation. Evaluation for me at that time was based on an accumulated sense of what was going in classrooms because I observed in those classrooms very frequently. Seldom a week when I wasn't in almost every classroom at some point. I would interact with teachers in terms of their lesson plan and how what they were doing fit the curriculum. I was able to have many informal conferences with those teachers in terms of what I had observed. All that you call formative stuff. In terms of any kind of summative evaluation, and we only had to do this for those teachers who were probationary, or having difficulty of some kind it was done collaborato ry with the instructional supervisor, and I did not, at that time, do any specific assessment other than the accumulative. Evaluation was a informal process, and today I have since learned for more about personnel evaluation. I have done some of it, I have developed instruments, I have worked with various approaches to it, and my sense of it today is that it requires negotiated objectives on the part of each teacher, or goals if you want to put it in that way, and continuing discussions with those teachers in terms of what I would call the induces of success. What kind of things can the two of us look at or look for to indicate what you are trying to achieve has been achieved and the reason I say negotiated is because every classrooms is different, every group of youngsters is different, and I do not believe that there is a single standard that you can hold teachers to, it has to be negotiated to fit the circumstances and that's a time consuming process, but it is a professional one between teacher and principal. Today I believe the principal should be the primary person involved with teachers in that process. The only alternatives to that is, I think it is possible to develop a little broader system. I've never done this but I think it makes sense, a little broader base system where you have one or several master teachers in your building who form a part of a team with you to really look at each teachers I call that portfolio, and what that is referring to is to look at the evidence each teacher has put together of their success toward meeting the goals that they have instructionally. I think that makes some sense because it takes the burden off of you being the judge and put it in the hands of a group of people the staff respects as being their colleagues and good at it. On the other side of the coin I don't think there is time enough in the typical work day of an elementary teacher to have to have those people actively observing their peers. It becomes a nice deal to do that, but I don't think is practical in those situations, but I do think they can sit down and review evidence that a teacher has put down in a portfolio, and as a part of the evidence that might be added to that I think that as the principal who has done a lot of those observations you can put information in that portfolio based on your observations for the teacher group to look at as an evaluation process. I think I would do it very differently than I did it at the time I was working.

Q: How do you involved others in planning the activities you have taken ?

A: I think, if I understand the question, if I take several different categories of activity with teachers and in the school. Day to day instruction as far as I'm concerned is the domain of the classroom teacher. I think it is important that they have a mechanism to share with you what they want to do and what they are doing in terms of making changes, changes in curriculum for example. To me that is a shared activity. I don't think a principal should or even would change a curriculum or even rewrite a curriculum. You definitely have to have teacher leaders involved in that process in as broad base participation as possible. If there are extracurricular activities I think it is critical to have teachers support of those activities, and you are not going to get that unless they are involved in the planning of it or even the decision to do it or not to do it. Insofar as management and not near as strongly in favor of teachers participating in the management process in an elementary school. When you get into secondary schools it seems to me that there is good reason to have at least department heads or some other structure where there is a short management perspective, but I don't see it in a school with 30 teachers and all of it elementary. We did not have departmentalizati on at that time. When I was principal of the elementary school my school was grades one through eight, so we did not have a junior high or middle school environment. They went from there to the high school. This was somewhat different than the school structure that you have today. We had almost entirely self contained classrooms. We did a little bit of experimentation with subject area clustering for grades 7 and 8, or really grades 6, 7, and 8. There was teacher involvement in the planning and implementation of that, so anything that teachers are going to be central in the implementation of I think they have to be involved in the decision making to do it or not to do it, in planning of it. Anything they are going to be recipients of in terms of the management of the building, the process, etc. I don't feel near so strongly that they have to be involved in that.

Q: It has been said that good leaders encourage their subordinates by staging celebrations of their successes, no matter how small or insignificant. To what extend engage in this practice during your tenure as principal ?

A: I have to acknowledge that my normal personal style is to encourage people and praise them for a job well done and to try to give them recognition in other elements of the school system, or either write a letter of recommendation that goes to the superintendent, or speak of them favorably in principal's meetings and that kind of things. But on the other hand I probably did not do so much than as I would do today. I think I might make a more central issue of it and provide special recognition of special things at parent teacher association meetings and have it in the local newspapers. I think I would do a lot of that today that I didn't do then.

Q: Administrators presently spend a good deal of time complaining about the amount of paper work and the bureaucratic complexity with which they are forced to deal. Would you comment on the situation during your administrative career and compare the problems you encountered with your perceptions of the situation at that time.

A: My wording here is complaining to change to explaining ? I think it is natural for teach ers and certain principals to complain about bureauc racy. I think that's second nature. I've never know n a teach er or principal that did not have some negative thing s to say about the paper work that's require d. When you go back to the days that I was a principal there was a minimum of that. I do know that a lot of the thing s that are necessar y today have to be done to document, to file all kinds of reports, and used as kind of a computer ized attenda nce and record keeping system and all that kind oh thing s, and to the extend that it takes up large chun ks of a principal' s day to do those thing s I woul d be very negative, very opposed to it because a principal needs to be in classroom s, interacting with kids and teach ers, out in the communi ty doing those kind of thing s, and conseque ntly some small percenta ge of the time might need to be spent in that kind of task. I woul d say if it exceeds 5% of the principal' s time it's too much . 5% you can tolerate, you can do that after all of the kids and teach ers are gone, or you can do it before they get there in the morn ing, but if you need to do that kind of thing during the day you are not performing the task of an instruct ional leader.

Q: If you could change any three areas in the curriculum or overall operations of American schools, what would they be ?

A: I'm not really prepared for that question. My impression in that and this is coming from having work ed with inser vice teach ers in my classes over the last 22 25 year s, my sense is that teach ers feel they are under pressure to do thing s instr uctio nally in certain ways as an expecta tion or require ment of the system, and that often times they are require d to do thing s in certain ways that woul d not be their choic e of how they woul d conduct instruct ion. My position is one that I don't mind extricatin g because I feel stron gly about this. I think there have to be agree ment s probably in writing at the schoo l system level and to a lesser extend at the schoo l buildi ng level as to what needs to be include d in the curriculu m. To me curriculu m is a policy statement. It is a statement of what is going to be taugh t and expecte d of kids and teach ers within a system, that does not say the teach er has to implem ent that curriculu m by using a particula r approac h. For example over the last decade a lot of attentio n has given to thing s like direct teach ing, mode lyn Hunter's approac h and those kind of thing s and in my judge ment to expect all teach ers to do that and be evaluated on whet her they are doing it that way is highly inappropr iate. A good teach er shoul d have the freedom to develop their own strategies for teach ing the curriculu m and they shoul d be held account able for teach ing that curriculu m. Good teach ers will teach that curriculu m and also teach more, but they are not going to be able to do that if they are under some body thum b to do it in a certain way. So, if I could chang e one thing I woul d chang e that. I woul d also try to do everyth ing in my power as a principal, or as a citizen, or as some one in a schoo l system with some influence to move more toward profe ssion alizat ion of teach ing. Is in the same arena in that I think teach ers need to be able to have more autono my in making decisions about what they are doing in their classroom s. Autono my and professio nalis m go togethe r. I think you take away that autono my when you say do it this way. I don't have a lot of other sorts of thing s I woul d comment on.

Q: If you have to do it again, what kind of things would you do to better prepare yourself for the princi palsh ip ?

A: Well I'm not sure that I would do anything differently, but I do believe that I was very youn g as a principal and I honestly believe I was a very good principal, but I think wisdom comes with age and I'm not at all sure, it comes with experienc e and with age, and I'm not at all sure that decisions I made along the way not just in preparatio n, but as a principal, were made from a base of wisdom. Often times they were made from a base of what is taking place and I think I woul d probably function a bit differen tly. I woul d probably interact with disso dent factions differen tly, disso dent parents, disso dent teach ers in a differen t fashion that I did at that time. At that time my tendenc y was to squas h them, I woul dn't do that today. I woul d find some other ways to take care of it. I don't think you can prepare yourself to exercise wisdom, and I think that the biggest differen ce in a person with maturity and one without it. I don't think I had that maturity at the time I was doing the job.

Q: Cultural diversity is a topic of great interest and concern at this point of time. Woul d you discuss the nature of your student body and comment on the problems and challenge s in whic h you participa ted while serving as principal.

A: Well, I've already indicated that my school was in a low socio economic neighborhood. I do not believe that at that time there was any mixing of race in the school, and consequently it was all a caucasian population, but there were vast cultural differences among the student body and parent body that I had. We had some very small number of parents and students who were categorized as upper middle class, fairly affluent. We had a fairly large number of parents and students who were very, very poor. We had another half of the population at least that was kind of in the middle, but again below what would call typical middle class. Particularly these kids hold to be considered deprived. They lived in homes in many instances that had outdoor plumbing. I had instances of kids who when you go to the house where they lived at the moment they may have 2 rooms and there might have been 4 to 6 kids sleeping in one bed. Parents who were chronically unemployed, parents who were bill jumpers, meaning that they would be at my school about 4 to 6 months and then disappeared, which simply meant that whole family had accumulated so many bills that it was time to leave. They would go back from the Northern Virginia area to Southwest Virginia, or the lower part of West Virginia, to the mine, coal mine area, and what have you could almost predict when they would be back. We had a lot of healthy problems, I had to have the school nurse and the visiting teacher. We had to use those people a lot of work with kids who weren't coming to school, were having illnesses at home because of the insanity conditions. We had situations where I had to solicit groups in nearby communities to provide us with clothing for kids who did serve as a distribution point for clothing cloth banks and that kind of stuff, and at time food banks for people. Culturally we did not have tremendous diversity. We had tremendous diversity in the school system, in that particular school I'm going to say 80% was sub middle. The interesting think I guess you can expect that but my most involved parents, people who involved themthelvs in what was going on at school and helped us to put on various kinds of programs and activities and things to benefit community and the school tended to come from the upper portion. They were concerned parents who wanted to see improvements and so they were willing to work in the school environment to bring about those kind of things. I so far as activities and programs in the school itself we treated everybody alike. I think kids even from those environments felt comfortable in the school because they weren't singled out, they weren't in the minority and we tried to carry on a normal school with lots of fun activities and lots of things for them to do, and our attendance was fairly good. We did not have what you would call a multicultur al environment,such as multiracial environment. We had the normal amount for that kind of population, the normal amount of kids who would cause trouble primarily outside of school, on the school bus, or on the way home. We had those kind of problems, but we did not have distinctions made with problems of that kind occurring within the school context, which I think is partly the result of running a tight ship. They just weren't allowed to do that, and they knew that. I don't know how to deal with that issue in terms of that school environment. I do think that today is much more an issue, a issue how to build in and expect to deal with it.

Q: Principals operate in a constantly tense environment. What kinds of thing s did you do to maint ain your sanity under these stress ful condition s ?

A: I went to the hospital at University of Virginia in Charlottesville to be diagnosed and treated for un ulcer because my first two and a half years as a principal were extremely stressful. They were stressful in as much as I was trying to do it all. I was trying to make sure every little I was dotted, I was trying to keep up with everything all the time. You're are going to laugh at this but the advice that I was given at the hospital along with medicine was that if you want this to not end up in surgery or other things you will change your lifestyle, and so I had an enforced lifestyle change, and they focused as much as anything about having change my life style as it related to work. I no longer took my work home, so it would be finished in the morning. You can look around my office right now and see the pattern of how I handle things. If I don't want to deal with it I put it in a stack and if I haven't needed it in a week I probably forget it's there and the chances are that I don't need to do it anyhow. I changed my behavior. In fact I was under stress. I had a medically enforced policy of changing my reactions to stress. I did not just do it on my own the doctors said I had to do it, but in so far as my personal life is concerned, I took more time with my family. In those days it was my wife and my first child. I did things more leisurely even at work. I did not take work home when I didn't have to, and I instructed my wife not to take telephone calls for me, I just wasn't available. I did in fact change my posture about midway through my principalship.

Q: If you were advising a person who is considering an administrative job, what would that advice be ?

A: If they had a background for and opportunity to do so I would suggest they be an elementary school principal. As far as I'm concerned that is the best administrative position within the entire public school system. I don't believe there's another position or job within the public school system that I enjoy more that being an elementary principal. I was offered a middle school principalship because they changed structure while I was there, and that's when I made the decision to leave the principalship and go back to work on my doctorate. I decided that that was not I wanted to do. If I were to go back into the public schools today I would want to go back as an elementary principal. My advice would be to become an elementary school principal.

Q: Dr. Dodl I have to thank you very much for giving me this interview. The conversation with you was very interesting and I gained a lot from your answers.

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