Interview with Shep Elmore


We're in Woodbridge, Virginia, and I'm with Mr. Shep Elmore, who has been a principal and a teacher.

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Q: Mr. Elmore, thank you very much for agreeing to talk with me today. I think it would be a good idea for us to start with a little bit of information about your background. Where were you born? I can tell you have an interesting accent.

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

A: Well, first of all, I want to say that it's a real honor to be asked for an interview, and I hope that anything I might offer will be of benefit to you or someone else. Sometimes I feel very humble in doing something like this that maybe I have some experience that would be of benefit to someone. Let's hope so. Where was I born?

Q: Someplace in the South, right?

A: That's right, Southside, Virginia. I was born down toward Halifax, Virginia. But I went there to be born. My mother went there to be with her mother and the doctor across the street.

Q: And where was she living?

A: At the time she was living in a small town east of there, Alberta, Virginia. I say that this was on the right hand side of U.S. 1 going south between Petersburg and South Hill, about 18 miles from the Carolina line - about as far north of North Carolina as we are now south of D.C. I haven't travelled very far.

Q: So you think you've lived in a real good area if you haven't travelled far. Where did you go to school? What is your educational experience?

A: I, of course, went to the high school - the local high school, Alberta High.

Q: Alberta High. How big is Alberta High?

A: Well, I think there might have been 36 in our graduating class.

Q: O.K., and then from Alberta High, where did you go?

A: I went into the United States Navy.

Q: Oh, and how long were you in the Navy?

A: A very short while.

Q: Where did you go when you were in the Navy?

A: I went to Cambridge, Maryland, for boot camp, and I like to jokingly say that the war was over in Germany, and I like to say jokingly that the Japanese heard I had enlisted and they surrendered.

Q: So you were only ...

A: About 12 months.

Q: Twelve months - and then after the Navy?

A: I came back home and went to work in the lumber yards, the saw mill.

Q: Now was that in Alberta?

A: Yes.

Q: In Alberta - and how long did you work in the saw mill?

A: Not too long. It was too much for a small fellow. So, I went to ... let's see, that's not exactly right. When I first came home, I went to Ferrum Junior College for one year. My brother and I went and finished - he went to high school and I was first year of college. The next year I transferred to a school in Norfolk that the Government had set up for veterans called St. Elena which is an extension of William and Mary and V.P.I. I didn't do so well then - living in the dormitory and so forth. Following that, I kind of gave up for awhile and went back home to work and found that too much for a little fellow. One day I quit and started looking for a school. And now comes ... I was accepted at and graduated from Longwood College and that was, of course, before it was co-educational.

Q: Oh, I see. O.K. and then we'll start with that. Was that when you started your teaching experience?

A: Following that, yes, I went back home and taught 8th grade science and physics to seniors. Now we didn't have 8th grade at that time, so it was ... The school was on a 7-4 system - seven years elementary school, four years of high school so obviously a freshman in high school would be equivalent to what 8th grade would be today.

Q: And you were teaching science?

A: Eight grade and general science and taught chemistry and physics on alternating years to seniors.

Q: Oh, I see, and about how large were your classes at that time?

A: The size classes were 20 to 30 - the chemistry and physics were 25-26. But I also had a phys ed class for all the boys in the high school.

Q: In the entire school? And you were in charge of that - a man of many talents, right? So you had all the boys in physical education and then after you stayed there for so long, where did you go from there?

A: From there I went into administration. I moved to Orange County, Virginia, as principal of Unionville Elementary School.

Q: Unionville Elementary School. So that was the fist - the very first school. How big was Unionville?

A: Unionville had 14 teachers - 2 teachers for each grade, one through seventh.

Q: What was it like to start in Orange in a school that size, as you are reflecting now on other principalships you have had in other school that you have had. What were the advantages of that school?

A: The advantages to me were a lot of veteran teachers thee who taught me an awful lot. I remember distinctly one of them saying that I would think I was coming to an old-folks' home coming to that school.

Q: What were some of the things those veteran teachers taught you? Can you name one thing?

A: I liked that school very much. I considered it an ideal size. We had two teachers for each grade, and we could organize and do things with little children around. We had what we called a modified departmentalization. Teachers would teach subjects that they were comfortable with, with little children around in the grade level.

Q: So what they did then was sort of team-teaching approach. They picked the subject area in which they ...

A: We picked it together, I guess.

Q: Oh, and then after Orange where did you travel?

A: Eight to ten years there and I went from Orange to Prince William -- right here in Woodbridge.

Q: Woodbridge, and so you were here for a lengthy period of time.

A: Twenty-five years.

Q: Twenty-five years at one school or at several schools?

A: No, I was at several schools. I jokingly say they couldn't find anything I could do. I came and opened ... Well, we were still growing rapidly but at that time when I came to open an elementary school ... Potomic View. I stayed there for about 18 years and when the administration changed, I went back. Well, when I came here, the building wasn't there but we had school.

Q: What do you mean the building wasn't there, but you had a school?

A: We went to school on shifts. I don't know how long you've been here, but the other school would go in the morning from eight until noon, and then we would go from noon until five.

Q: How many students did you have from noon until five?

A: I'd say from five to six hundred.

Q: How did that affect those students? These are elementary school students?

A: Elementary students - 1 through 7.

Q: That they were still in school at 5:00 at night.

A: Well, we worried about them because of traffic on U.S. 1 - we didn't have Rt. 95. We had to transport them up and down by bus. We didn't have music; we didn't have art; we didn't have lunch. So we could work everything else into that time.

Q: How did it affect the students, physically, to be there starting at 12:00 and go ...

A: Well, they had all morning. I don't know if they slept late. It was good for me.

Q: What time did you have to report?

A: I usually reported around 10:00 and that's nice.

Q: Certainly. Then there were two completely different schools - two different principals?

A: Two different principals. Well, the buses would bring our children in. We would put them in the gymnasium and the auditorium. The other school would dismiss and put their children on the buses. They would go home, and then we would send ours to the classroom. Then his staff, principal, custodian and everything would leave, and we would take over.

Q: What advantages - can you think of any advantages?

A: Of course, people talk about the frills. We didn't have the frills.

Q: You didn't? O.K., so you were teaching the basics.

A: We were teaching the basics. I think we did a good job. One thing I can think about. We'd have staff meeting in the morning before school so teachers didn't have to stay late. They had the mornings to go shopping and all those things.

Q: Do you think the teachers enjoyed that schedule of twelve to five?

A: I think so, especially the ones on the morning shift. At noon they were through.

Q: Now were those people paid a regular salary?

A: Paid a regular salary.

Q: How long did that exist? How long did the situation exist?

A: Well, our particular situation was from the opening of school until February when we moved into the new building.

Q: This brings me to another point. Did you ever have to go back to split shifts again, or were you always in one building on a normal time schedule?

A: When we had year-round schools. The next step when we came over was year-round.

Q: O.K., so you were at Potomac View and then did you stay there? Where did you go after the new buildings were built and when you went into the new school?

A: I was there for eighteen years. During that time we were on year-round.

Q: I see, while you were still at Potomac View.

A: From Potomac View I went back to that building from which I originally came and was principal there, and then to another school, Elizabeth Vaughn. Potomac View, Occoquan and Elizabeth Vaughn, and then spent part of one year in administration at the school board annex.

Q: Let's talk a little bit about year-round school. Can we compare the split-shifts with the year-round school? Now you told us what you think some advantages of the split shift situation are. What, if any, did you see as advantages of the year-round school?

A: Well, in our particular situation, it worked out very well. The teachers and parents were in an uproar in the beginning. Then when we went off the year-round, a lot of the parents complained.

Q: O.K., now many people will not know what we mean by year round school. Can you explain the whole concept?

A: I doubt if I can.

Q: I'm sure I probably couldn't.

A: We were in school twelve months a year. The building was being used and the children were divided into four groups. Three groups would be in school at one time, and one section would be at home. They would go to school for 45 days and would be off for 15 days.

Q: Now how did that affect your instructional program? What changes did the teachers have to make and did you have to make as a principal in order to be sure that the curriculum was covered?

A: I loved it.

Q: Why is that true?

A: The hardest part of administration - the most frustrating time - is the opening and closing of the school year. We didn't have that, we just continued to go.

Q: Did you think it ran smoothly?

A: It ran smoothly for us because we were divided. We had one teacher in a grade off for fifteen days, and then she would come back and another teacher would go. At some schools it was not as evenly divided, and they had teachers who taught all twelve months - straight through. They had children coming and going and they had to adjust to that and that was kind of rough for instructional purposes, and I think on children and teachers alike.

Q: Physically was that probably very difficult?

A: Very strenuous on the teachers - and especially on the year round teachers. They complained about not having any time off, but they were compensated.

Q: So they received additional benefits as a result of that?

A: That's correct.

Q: O.K. Now we can compare the larger schools up here with the one that you said was ideal at your first school.

A: It was ideal for me starting out. It was rural and everyone didn't have a telephone.

Q: So what are you saying? What are you saying is the most difficult thing about being a principal? You said people didn't have telephones. Is that one of the things that makes it hard to be a principal?

A: You spend a great deal of time on the telephone.

Q: Do you think that's productive time?

A: Yes I do.

Q: What type of things do you have to deal with on a phone call?

A: Well, complaints, I guess. Irate parents are not a happy time but you do explain the program. You can get your story across.

Q: O.K. So that even though they were complaining or irate, at least you got to explain your side of the story.

A: But I might add you don't get very many complaints over the telephone.

Q: What would you say - what percentage of your time, just a generalization, any idea what you spent actually on the phone versus out in your school?

A: Well, I don't think it's that much, it was just taxing and distracting from when you could be doing things which would be more productive. But I don't know if that's correct or not. Enlightening the public, I think it's very productive.

Q: O.K. So maybe it would be a good idea for us to talk about some of the things. You think that one of the jobs a principal is supposed to do is enlighten the public. What is something else it is important for a principal to do?

A: I think staff morale is very important, and I think a happy student is going to learn more and a happy teacher is going to do a better job teaching. I guess in philosophy, that's my philosophy. There's an old saying that you can catch more flies with sugar than vinegar.

Q: O.K. Catch more flies with sugar than with vinegar. What were some of the things that you did to make your staff happy? What were some of the things you as an administrator did to make them happy about teaching at your school?

A: Well, I've been accused to becoming very involved with the staff and interested in their life and what they are doing, how they are teaching, what they need to teach, who the children are - same with the children.

Q: Getting personally involved in their lives.

A: Well, I did not get involved socially but I have become very involved with them personally, I guess what you're saying. Maybe that doesn't make sense.

Q: No, it does, exactly, because you got to know them and understand them.

A: I had confidence in them, and they had confidence in me.

Q: They knew who Mr. Elmore was. You mentioned something that I wanted to ask you about; you said that you were interested in what the teachers were teaching and how the teachers were teaching it. Did you have at that time, did you have formal observations; did you have any formal observations?

A: Well, I have had all the above.

Q: Oh good, tell us how the evaluation and observation system has changed while you have been a principal.

A: I remember my first observation. I would spend time in the classroom watching the children and the teacher, and we would talk about it in a conference. There was no formal evaluation at that time. I don't know when this came about. When a teacher would have problems they would, of course, come to me and then I go and do my observing. Then we would talk about those things, and see if the teacher couldn't come up with a solution - and they usually can.

Q: But there was no threat to that because the teacher came to you and requested your help. They said, "I have this problem" and requested your help, is that correct?

A: I spent a lot of time just walking around and looking in. The children would get to know me, and the teacher would get to know me and we would talk. I would ask other people to come in, the community to come in, then we would be comfortable when we had visitors in. That's the only way to know what's going on.

Q: The community. Well then, how did that change as you went to other schools and through other years? How did that evaluation and observation process change?

A: Well, it became a formal - you had to do - and it's still changing - it changes every ... Somebody comes up with a new evaluation form or a new process, new procedure and now a great deal of time is spent filling out forms pertaining to it. And I don't know if we do a better job than we did do.

Q: Do you think there are advantages to these forms that we have to fill out or do you see only disadvantages to that?

A: Well, I'm sure there are advantages. If we didn't have to do that then we probably wouldn't do it. It is a record - if I sit down and talk with you last year and come back and talk with you this year, if we don't have some record of improvement or what we are doing better this time from last time. Unless we have that record, it might not be as binding. I don't want to say binding, but we couldn't show the improvement, unless we had the written record.

Q: That's very positive when you're saying you want to show the improvement that the teachers have done.

A: But then, on the other hand, sometimes I think, and my colleagues thought too, that someone could give someone another position in the central office to take care of all these things and dream up new ways to do them.

Q: So it was a matter of giving someone else another job, is that correct? While we're talking about evaluations too, what were some of the methods that you used or what would you do when you realized you had a teacher that had some real problems? How would you go about talking to that teacher and making suggestions for improvement?

A: I thought we were going to come to that. You know, that's one thing that I think I've been pretty good. I had a part, most of the time, in hiring teachers, and it's turned out very well. But I had not always because when I'd go from one school to the other, I inherited a group. Getting to know them and finding out their strengths and then what can we do better. How can we improve on what you're doing such a good job on.

Q: There you go again. You're very positive. So is that the way you dealt with them? You tried to pick out their positive things and then work on those, strengthen those, rather than saying, "These things are wrong."

A: Well, that would work very well most of the time, but in my experience I had two teachers that it didn't. One just nothing worked and her contract wasn't renewed, and the other one I was working on I told him I was going to make him a teacher or die in the process. Before we did, I was transferred, and he eventually was also.

Q: But two, out of all the teachers with whom you dealt, I think that's a wonderful record. With a positive attitude and knowing your teachers, what things did you do and do you think other administrators should do in order to be successful?

A: What works for me might not work for other administrators. We're at different schools, and different schools have to be handled differently. But as we've talked before, I think one of the things that helped me was becoming sincerely interested and concerned with the individual.

Q: If you had a situation where you had to get something done and that conflicted with the needs of a teacher, how would you go about getting the job done without hurting that teacher?

A: As we talked before, we work from the strengths to that concern.

Q: And try to find a strength with which that teacher could work. When you were in these different schools, did you have assistant principals working with you?

A: I have had assistant principals.

Q: How did you decide what their duties were going to be and how did the duties of the assistant principal differ from your duties?

A: I was very concerned when I first started having an assistant because I had never worked with one before, and I didn't know what would happen, how it would work. We worked it out pretty much the same way. Maybe this whole story sounds rather haphazard, but we would together look at our strengths and divide responsibilities. But I always said that whenever he made a mistake, it was my responsibility. That was hard at the beginning. I would say a lot of the people that worked with me, I helped select, are now administrators.

Q: That's wonderful. Tell me, what did you look for when someone came and you were looking for an assistant principal? What did you look for? What characteristics?

A: Assistant principals were assigned. I didn't do much in the selection.

Q: What are some of the characteristics you think are necessary for assistant principals? You talk about a caring person - anything else you can think of, characteristics or education, that might be necessary?

A: Of course, an education is important, and they have to have certain abilities. There's a lot of business connected with schools. You have to be a business person. You have to be an organizer, you have to sometimes be hard-nosed, and you have to be a public relations, very much a public relations person. All those things are an assistant's responsibility.

Q: You say you have to be a business person. You have to know about businesses. What do you mean by businesses?

A: You have to budget and you have to spread the funds out. You never have enough, you have to put them in the right place. You have to raise money, scheme, think about how your program will improve by how much you spend.

Q: How do you see the changes in the curriculum from the curriculum that you know, let's say the curriculum when you first arrived in Prince William County? I know you're still very much aware of the curriculum today. What changes have taken place and do you think these changes as good or do you think they should not have taken place?

A: I don't know many changes that are bad. Curriculum-wise we have added the frills and I think it's great. I don't think we could exist with reading, writing and figuring. One of my greatest thrills is art. I derive a great deal of pleasure from art. Not much from music as I don't hear very well. But I love music. Without those, and without body building, these are the things we used to call frills and these are the things that I see added to the curriculum in a systematic manner. We had them, but it was done haphazardly by a compassionate teacher or in some manner that way.

Q: How do you feel about all the mandatory testing that is being done by the state and national testing also.

A: That's a hard one for me to answer. I guess we have to have something to use as a comparison but they are misused quite frequently.

Q: How do you think they are misused?

A: For instance, we use test scores only, and not using them in conjunction with ability scores. And we have communities quite different. If ability is low; therefore, test scores will be low. Quite often, I have looked at schools whose achievement is much higher than ability on these scores, and yet they get classified as not doing a good job because of their achievement scores.

Q: Now, what's going to happen, do you think, with some of the merit plan proposals when some of the teachers and administrators salaries are going to be tied to the scores on the tests?

A: I thought we would get around to that merit pay. I think that's good, but I don't think the administrator should be the single person. I don't think test scores should be unless a school has a lower ability score and their achievement score is high. Both should be used and then the school with low test scores ... they've done more than they were capable of doing. So they should be recognized in that manner. But I'm afraid that's not the way the scores are compared. They must use the achievement only.

Q: Do you think that merit pay is a thing of the future?

A: I do.

Q: You do?

A: The more you do, you should be paid better. But I don't know how your merit is going to be judged. I would hate to judge the merit of one teacher against another to determine what they are going to get paid. I can see that creating all kind of discord. A principal would be worse all the time. He would really be the old bad boy, wouldn't he?

Q: He would be. That brings us to something I just thought of. I'm sure there will be grievances filed in merit pay situations. How has the grievance procedure changed over the years as you have seen it? Tell us, what happened if a teacher was not satisfied with what was happening when you first started as a principal?

A: Too bad, I guess. They could either leave or continue and ... I don't know, that's a rough one. But if you're happy, your not going to grieve much.

Q: And that's what you try to do is make your teachers happy, right?

A: You know that I'm not trying to pull something over on you.

Q: I'm very much convinced of that. What are some of the things you would suggest to people who are thinking about becoming administrators. What do you think that they should do? Are there any special courses or is there anything in particular that they should do in order to become an administrator?

A: Well, the courses are outlined, and I'm sure they will all do that. But it is not a nine to five job, and going into administration, and if you ask me, you have to give a lot more and you have to become a part of that school and that staff. That's everybody.

Q: What made you decide to become a principal?

A: I don't remember. Probably because it paid more.

Q: O.K., that's a very honest answer.

A: Another honest answer was that I was offered this position, and it gave me the opportunity to leave home. I had been back living at home, teaching at home and it was time to leave. When I left, I thought it might as well be better than what I was doing. A principalship was better then. It was fun.

Q: It was fun. What made it fun for you?

A: People. I loved people, and people loved me. It was in a rural community. I heard say many times that if we had a dog fight that the whole side of the country would be there in force.

Q: What can we do? Why don't we have that feeling in our schools today? Or do you think that school and how much you enjoyed in the participation you had. Do you think that same type of fun and participation exists today?

A: It does to a certain extent, but I see it this way. At the beginning the teacher was like God, and everybody looked up to teachers. The teacher corrected the child. The teacher was always right. In most cases when the child went home, it was corrected again. I know in my last years, I've known many a time I would be very edgy from the time school was dismissed for an hour or so later. For the children would go home and say that the teacher did so and so and the parents would descend upon the school saying, "The teacher's wrong; the teacher's wrong!" I've seen that change and I tell teachers real often that it's our fault because these parents are given weak talk. When I'm saying that, I'm saying the school because I've seen several generations I can say that.

Q: I can say that too, certainly, certainly. But how can we change that? How can we get the support for schools today that we had when you were first an administrator?

A: I think we have support for the schools. I have seen that right here in our community in the last election. Local people supported, passed a law, for the bond issues for schools. Educators pay has gone up, benefits have been terrific - benefits that we receive today,

Q: That's true, but what about the support of the individual parents. You were saying how it's changed now that parents don't support the teachers' decisions.

A: I think I said earlier that we had a few good telephone calls in that a lot of ... good out there. Most of the people are good, but the one will spoil the whole thing. The one bad apple will ruin the whole barrel. I don't know about that, but I think that wee bit of bad put a cloud over the whole situation. Underneath it's much better. But people do find fault with everything anymore. I see that in this part of the country. People are in such a hurry, you drive down the highway, you seldom see anyone smile anymore.

Q: Because we are, as you say, we're in a big hurry. You're right.

A: Especially these fellows running up and down the road. Did you ever see one smiling and enjoying it?

Q: That's true. What do you think we can do? What can an administrator do to get the good side of the school out to the public?

A: The old thing we mentioned before, public relations. You have to work hard at that. The telephone is fine. I had a policy one time to call a parent a day and say something good about the child. I'd go to the classroom and I'd, of course, talk to the teacher. I'd go back and call the parent and say, "I was in Susie's room today", and say something she had done good. This kind of shocked the parent.

Q: Because parents are not used to good phone calls from a school?

A: Just like I never get good ones so I know someone else ... that's just one of those things. The school has a job not only to teach but to say it's good.

Q: And let the community know?

A: And let the community know. But I'm afraid we're always thinking about the dark side. Something went wrong. We work too long hours. They called me at home ...

Q: And do you think those are wrong? Do you think teachers shouldn't complain about those, that administrators shouldn't complain about those things in today's society?

A: ... these are things that I think that a good administrator and educator must do. You're not going to tell them what my address is, are you?

Q: No! Is there any question that I haven't asked you that you would like to say about being an administrator that we haven't talked about?

A: Yes.

Q: What?

A: If I had to do it over, I wouldn't change a thing.

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Q: If you could use two or three words to describe an outstanding administrator - what three words would you use?

A: Three words, three little words - I guess I'd have to say firm, positive, and considerate.

Q: Firm, positive, and considerate. How has centralized authority in a central office changed what an administrator can really do and accomplish within the school?

A: I think it has changed a great deal. When I first became a principal, I was THE PRINCIPAL. I was in charge of curriculum, the building, paying the telephone bill. hiring the cafeteria staff, buying the food for the cafeteria; the manager would do that and make out the menu, but I supervised that action. When we went into the book rental system, I had my own book rental. I had to charge enough to pay for the books, but it worked. Now, a couple of years ago for example, one of our parents filled out a little coupon at Roy Rogers, and it was drawn and our school won $100.00. I had to get three signatures in the school administration for our school to accept the $100.00. I can't buy anything. I can't. They've restricted the fund raising I spoke of before, so it's all controlled up there. I put it this way. We have all the responsibility and no authority.