Interview with Dr. Tom Estes



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Q: Tom, since I don't have your resume, I wonder if you would spend just a few minutes giving us a short biographical sketch so that we'll know something about your background. Include your educational and vocational experiences.

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

A: I graduated from the University of Colorado with a Bachelor's Degree in mathematics. After starting my career in Lafayette High School, Lafayette, Colorado, that is, teaching and coaching, I went to Michigan and subsequently from Wayne State University got a Masters and Doctorate in counseling. I spent about 13 years in a junior high, teaching, coaching and counseling. I went to a large district, a suburb of Detroit in Royal Oak, and was director of pupil services for about 12 years. During that experience I was the principal of an alternative education experiment which turned into a full time program. I was a principal for about 7 years of a summer school for disadvantaged and handicapped children from ages 4 through 8. I have been a principal at a vocational/education center with my main responsibilities with disadvantaged and handicapped children. During that time I have had almost complete responsibility for recruitment, for hiring, for training, for releasing teachers.

Q: With those kinds of experiences, too, that would be very important with the kinds of people you have working for you.

A: Yes, and as with any job, you tend to gather the people around you who think like you do. And I was very fortunate my style of administration lent itself well to the persons that I hired. That's why I hired them.

Q: We might stop and have you interject in here just a little bit about your family background and a little biographical --

A: Okay, I was born and raised in Longmont, went to the Longmont schools. Went to the junior high, which was then called Bryant, for one year, which was always on the wrong side of the tracks - because anything which was east of Main Street was and it was quite an experience going to Bryant. I graduated from Longmont High School. Spent almost 3 years in the service. During that time I drove a truck over the road. I worked on the Big Thompson project. I ran a bull dozer. I ran a jack hammer, those kinds of things. I have worked in the summers for farmers around during the years when I was teaching during the summer vacation. Every summer I have always tried, when I was a teacher (as administrators' time goes more) to do something that made me awfully glad when school started again in September - carpenter's helper, carpenter, farm labor. Well, when school was out in June you're so happy and you don't care if you ever see the kids again, but by September, I was so happy to get back.

Q: I have some questions that I need to ask you, but when you are answering them - more important than the answers to the questions are those kinds of experiences that you would like to share either from your own experience or people around you that would help new and aspiring administrators as they're looking at these questions.

Q: The first one is around recruitment and selection. We are talking about when you are looking at a school staff - what kinds of things do you think would be a balanced staff in terms of matching the personnel that you are hiring to the job - how you do that, what kinds of experience or education or personalities you look for. When an opening occurred, what would you do and how would you help fill it. We might go into interviews and those kinds of specific thin#s around recruitment and selection.

A: Number one-academic credentials are very important. But I always went under the assumption that if they graduated from a legitimate institution with a good reputation then the institution would not recommend them without specific academic credentials. In recruiting or in hiring (and this is my own personal bias) I never liked to look at someone's academic record until I had spent at least an hour with them. I used to fancy myself as a pretty good interviewer and I guess interviewing for the kind of person that I wanted to work with our kids was first and foremost - they have to like kids. And I have many ways, in interviews, consistency checks, to make sure that they weren't just running me around the barn. But in an hour I found that I could ascertain if that was the kind of a person I wanted, that truly liked kids. Starting from that base, then after the interview, then I look at their academic credentials to see what their strong points and what their weak points were. But if they didn't like kids then I didn't want them. I didn't care if they were Phi Beta Kappa. That to me is the reason we are in the business and every action that we take we have a little sign up on the wall that says "How does this affect kids." I hoped in these interviews also, if this was someone that I have reasonable expectations of hiring, to let them know some of my philosophy. And you know words are cheap -- but I always tried to show that my philosophy of administration is that you hire the best qualified person that you can, then get out of their way and let them go to work. Give them all your support. But if you could do their job, you would not need them. So you hire the best people and say-okay, this is the task, how do you want to do it? What do you need? what can I do for you? You know, if we decide on something between us, then we speak with one voice. If you get out there you're never going to be hung out there and have the limb chopped off after you because if we have decided - then I'll be right there with you. And in an hour interview it is easy for them to think-well now, he talks a good fight. But if they talk to any of my staff, I have made an awfully lot of mistakes in my career but the one thing I have been, I think, that I pride myself on, is consistency. Consistency with what I say, I do. And so that has been - as far as if they can live with that kind of a thing, then I want them.

Q: Were there any special things that you looked for when you were hiring for the alternative high school type positions?

A: Well again, number one, they have got to like kids, and all kids, not just the bright, bushy tailed fresh scrubbed ones. And I have had people say, ho# can you say that? But I always say that if they don't like my snotty nosed kids, I don't want them. Now let's face it, a lot of these kids are snotty nosed kids and if you can't, snot nose and all, put your arms around them and say, "I love you, kid" maybe not in those words, but by giving them a hug or giving them that support, then I don't want you. You don't have a place in my scheme of things. You may be a great teacher, you know, somewhere else, not under the way I operate.

Q: When we are looking at recruitment now, Tom, do you think there are any certain things that our personnel office, or we, ought to be doing to be recruiting teachers?

A: I always leaned very heavily on (and I got to know them quite well) the educational institutions around you and get to know some of the professors and some of the people very well. Once they know what you are looking for they will send people to you. You know, it is still pretty tough to get a job any more as a teacher. And you know, some folks, and I am not saying that it is wrong, but it does not fit my style, take the top half of the class, the top quarter, and say-boy, we'll hire those. They probably do a good job, but I would like to talk one to one with the professor at Northern Colo., CU, CSU, get to know some of those guys and say-this is what I'm looking for, if you see somebody who has demonstrated over the period of a year or two years that, boy they really care and will go the extra mile. The union said that I couldn't do it, but I did it anyway, quietly and let the teachers know that if they didn't comply I wouldn't hire them. For my summer schools with disadvantaged kids my one requirement was that in an eight week period every home had to be visited. Which I think is very important - we sometimes think we are hanging out there and we have the whole job to do. Hey, without the parents, we can't do the job. And some teachers would gripe and complain and I would say - well, you don't have to, I can't force you, but I would say if you want a job with me this summer, you'll do it. And most of the gripes and hollers were teachers that were afraid, afraid of parents, loved kids, but were afraid of parents. But when I forced them, after the first two or three visits, and a lot of the visits would be for lunch - we ran a program from 7-12 every morning all summer long - and they would pick up the little kid and they would take the kid home for lunch and would have lunch in that home, no matter what the home looked like and after two or three times they thought this was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Because when they wanted to call the parent and say - hey, look at what little sport is doing - then they knew that parent and the parent knew them, they knew that the teacher loved their kid and when the parents know that you love their kids, you can do a whole bunch of things.

Q: That is so important for our teachers to know.

A: I don't want to keep running off at the mouth ----

Q: Oh, no, that is what we want to hear. When you have hired a new teacher, then the next are# is induction and development, which I translate to be staff development and also introducing a new teacher into the system. What were those kinds of things that you did to make that effective?

A: I used to try at least once a week, depending upon the program, to have an informal meeting before school, early in the morning, with all of the teachers and just talk about kids. I would introduce the new teacher, but then we would start talking about kids. We're not sitting and griping because the administration hasn't done this or we just start talking about kids. And all of a sudden, the new teacher starts entering in and if I have done my job in hiring, that new teacher's got some great ideas. All of a sudden there is no better way to insert yourself in a community of professionals than being a great professional yourself. You know, they may say, hey, that Margie or John is new but, my golly, they've got some good ideas and all of a sudden they start sharing. Too many times in lounges, all we hear are negative things - that rotten Johnny, that kid is just worthless. I wouldn't allow that and it doesn't take very long and before long teachers would be there at 7 o'clock in the morning - I wouldn't try to make it a chore, but at least once a week and in summer school every morning we'd meet over coffee just to talk about kids. What about this - I've tried everything to try to get through and somebody else would say - hey, have you tried this? There's no better way to integrate -- all the inservice and give them methods and what we think is important - I'm not sure I know that much more than the last teacher that I ever hired - because they're there - and that for me was just some of the more delightful times. Those informal meetings, just talking about kids and what can we do for the snotty nosed little kid to make him a participating human being - whether we enhance his self image. Hell, everything we do is enhancing his self image if its positive and it can't always be positive. How do you whack him a little bit, how do you get him focused. Those are -- that's been my whole philosophy of introducing them to the staff.

Q: Do you have any staff development activities that seemed to work well -- some other for your staff over the years that worked real well?

A: Well, I was very fortunate - we were close to Oakland University and there's a gentleman, probably passe now, his name was Harry Hahn, one of the greatest reading experts that I've ever known. And I had a gentleman on my staff who was equally as good as Harry, in fact in some ways went far beyond him in the area of reading, in decoding and reading is still the key, at any level. As I say, I have not - most of my career dealt with those who are out of the mainstream so I can't tell you too much about the mainstream, if they're in the mainstream they can read - that's why they are in the mainstream. But at the senior high level, with alternative education or with the little ones, reading activities, language experience and I was very fortunate to have a great support staff and most of our things were about reading -- not with a capital R but we got that reading in there no matter what was happening.

Q: Going on to evaluation or appraisal. We do a lot around evaluating teachers and there's been some discussion about if that should be the principal's role. When we go into effective teaching and we get into conferences and that sort of thing - whether that tacked on to the evaluating of them makes the conferences not as effective. How do you feel about this whole area of teacher evaluation?

A: Well, as you know, Liz, it's a very touchy subject. Unions say that you can do this or you can do that. I never did feel that -- of course, I was a very active administrator, I was in those classrooms, I was in those homes because I figured that was my job - so I knew, and probably it might be just superficially, but I knew what was going on - there wasn't a week that went by that I wasn't in every classroom. An administrator has some inputs - I think that a colleague ought to have some input.

Q: How would you do that?

A: Ask them. I know that's a very touchy subject, and since I'm retired I can just expound and it's not going to come back. Not only do teachers have to like kids, they have to like human beings. And most of the staff that I've put together loved each other. Now, that's a funny statement to make, but they did, because they're all in the same business and they were all working for me and I ran a very loose organization. Because as I've said, I hired the best that I could possibly lay my hands on and let them go to work. There really wasn't much big daddy talking to the troops - I was just another one of the troops - that I had the clout to get some things done, if they decided they needed them done. So, as with all human beings there are personalities involved - and I realize in a large high school, or a large elementary school - with all diverse things this might not work. So all I can speak from is my particular vantage point, but the staff I put together, we used to evaluate each other once a month. We would sit and a teacher would say - all right -I've been trying to do these things, I've been doing the best job I can and you've observed me - because we had - we didn't call it a team teaching, but we had - what am I doing that I should be doing better? See, that to me is the whole purpose of evaluation. Evaluation takes many forms - for tenure, for raises, for whatever. But evaluation in its simplest sense is how can I help you, by evaluating you, to do your job better, or how can you, by talking to me, sharing your professional expertise - I may be the big dog, but you are just as professional, I may have another degree than you have but that doesn't make me any smarter - it gives me a little more clout. I get tickets #or the theater, reservations to a restaurant. Those are the fringe benefits to having a doctorate, you know sometimes that's about it. So we found that a general sharing - and since I had to make the evaluations to the board office, I would take all of those things into account. Most of the staffs that I worked with, if someone didn't fit in, they were so uncomfortable because they couldn't operate in this milieu, that many times they would take themselves out.

Q: That takes us into the next area of non-renewal/dismissal of teachers.

A: I guess its become a nasty word in some circles, but I guess I could characterize myself as a humanist. And I know that I have had some staff that I should've gotten rid of and didn't. Oh, I know of several cases because I'd think, well, I'd give him one more year. A couple of those have come back to haunt me.

Q: What kind of characteristics did they have that bothered you?

A: I misjudged - and they didn't like kids the way that I thought that I'd read them. Now, that sounds an enigma - I don't expect teachers to spend 24 hours a day giving - you can't do that of every day of every week. That's an impossible expectation. But a majority of the time they're laying themselves on the line out there with kids. If someone is not - if they're shirking -- teaching is the hardest job in the world. No matter what anybody says - I know that I'm talking to a sympathetic audience, but still, I've done a few jobs otherwise. Physically, it's maybe not as hard, but the whole thing, psychologically, emotionally it's the toughest job in the world, if you're giving your all to it. And when someone is not willing to - and I don't ask them for 24 hours, I don't ask them for the whole 5 days per week, but at least 3 out of 5 better be cutting the mustard out there. A lot of that I would admit is subjective - I have an image and I've been accused of just not being realistic. But I have never been one of those who so many times - do as I say, don't do as I do. If I expect them to give, I've been out there giving, too -- maybe not 5 days a week, but I've been out there the majority of the time. If they don't do that, I couldn't write down what I look for - it's very subjective, but I can tell if you're putting out and I can tell if you like the job. If you don't like the job, I don't want you and you don't want me.

Q: What are some things you maybe did to help them?

A: I would sit and have a lot of conferences. Of course, I had a lot of conferences with a lot of my teachers. It wasn't just when everything was going to heck and big daddy comes in. Try at least once a week - I tried to spend at least 10 minutes with each one of my teachers. Sometimes a couple of hours, sometimes 10 minutes. That's all it takes to know that I was available, that I was interested in their well being, and their success as they should have been with each one of those snotty nosed little kids. Some of them can't see where they're not living up to expectations. But we had, as I've said, a whole variety of consultants, which may or may not be valuable, but we had consultants who were committed too -- I don't think if I don't get into your classroom too often, but the thing that bothers me is this -- and they'd say, yes, but -- OK, then we'd discuss this. Well, what is standing in your way? And if it's in my power, I guarantee I'll get out of your way - but if you need a little help, I'll give you all the help I can. And it seemed to work -- not all the time, I've had my share - not as many failures as successes. I've had a lot of successes. That's why I stayed in the job as long as I did because it gave me the "enjoys" if you will. But I'm not sure that that answers your question. But it's as close as I can come.

Q: I think you probably have addressed it in some of the conversation - what about self-evaluation of teachers. How much a part of that should --

A: That always came in with any of the official evaluations I had to do. We would sit and talk and they would evaluate. I have developed -- I'm not sure any of them was worth a darn -- but I developed several instruments. You know, where they say, I'm weak in this, I need help in this, those kinds of things. Looking at evaluation as simply a process of doing a better job, not whether they're going to stay here or whether they're going to get more money.

Q: In the area of compensation, salaries are pretty well set by the personnel department or school board. But you might discuss your feelings about this. We hear that teachers are not well paid and that they have to moonlight to make it and those kinds of things. You might also talk about, since principals don't have too much to do about actual money, what other ways do we compensate teachers or help them to feel that they're being given some benefits for teaching -- other than money. Does that make sense to you?

A: Yes, it certainly does -- and you have to -- if there was any lee way in time -- I've never been a clock watcher and I've never been a teacher clock watcher. The job is there to do and a lot of my experience at the same time that I was doing these I was in charge of the counselors and the psychologists and the social workers - and I'd encourage them - I never did keep track of the time they spent. The job is there to do. If it took till 7 o'clock at night, OK. If you can't be in until 10 o'clock the next morning, fine. You know, those kind of things. The job is there. With the classroom teacher that's not quite as viable as it is for some of the special personnel. But I always tried to send them to all the conferences they wanted to go to. Now, there are conferences and there are conferences and I've been to many, and so have you. Some of them you thought were practically worthless, but it's a gathering of the community of professionals. Plus I always figured that if I went to a conference and just brought back one viable idea even if it was for a week and I brought back just one idea. And I don't think I've been to one conference that I just didn't bring back just one idea -- sometimes only one, but you try to send them to conferences. Oh, you recommend them, you know, several of my teachers got together and they'd want to write a grant. I'd write it for them so they'd get some extra money to things for kids. It's very hard to give them any -- you give them strokes, that's why I thought it was important to come down and to talk to each one of them once a week even for 10 minutes. Liz, how's Liz, how are things going? You know, I understand (I may have just heard it down the hall) that you were having a little trouble, your kid fell down, cut their wrist or skinned their -- those little touches let them know they're hanging out there and they're doing the job. I'm just sitting there getting all the glory. But we all need to be appreciated and I tried to appreciate - I didn't think of that in terms of being compensation. But that's --

Q: But that's the best we can do.

A: That's it -- just let them know that they're being appreciated.

Q: How do you feel about teacher's salaries?

A: Well, I signed my first contract for $2,000. And got an extra $600 for coaching football, basketball, wrestling and baseball. I realize things are -- they're not as good as they should be. I'm not sure they ever will be since we are dependent upon the taxpayer. We get as much as we can but there's no use griping too much more. There is a given pot and as you well know it's a fixed boundary and if we take more of that pot, somebody else is going to suffer, and in the end it's some snotty nosed little kid who suffers. And I'm not a do gooder, hell I want every dime we can get, but you know sometimes you have to be realistic. If you want to get rich, you never would have gone into teaching in the first place. That sounds -- you know what I'm talking about.

Q: That's my philosophy. I don't believe that you should accept poor standards. That you should be working towards good standards but at the same time you know what that salary is. That kind of takes us a little bit into security of teaching, tenure. How do you feel about that, how you use that, whether you saw it -- you know, some people say that you can't fire teachers. How do you feel about that area?

A: I've never been -- it'll sound like hear say -- I've never been in favor of tenure. From a personal viewpoint, if I've not been doing the job, get rid of me. Tenure started when school boards were very capricious. Now I'm not sure they're still not but they're in the public eye. Tenure is a good thing from one stand point, I have seen so many cases where tenure protects the incompetent. If nothing -- if all avenues have been expended to help that teacher get better -- and nobody is a born teacher -- you may be born loving kids but if you don't learn every year or if you're not willing to. In my experience of 33 years, I've had a hand in firing two teacher. One teacher that I know of cost the school district in direct costs $36,000 and untold administrative time. The hearings went on for 3 years. And I can see why districts with tenure teachers really don't go to bat anymore. We fired one teacher for incompetence. You used to have to -- you know, morality - whatever -- and you can get rid of a teacher for incompetence but it is such a -- and who knows what incompetence is. I don't believe that a teacher should be fired at the whim of a principal or school board, but neither do I think that someone who has one year of experience 25 times ought to be kept on. For the simple reason of what's happening to kids. You know, that's my whole philosophy -- there is no answer to that. All I can give you is my personal opinion. I'm not in favor of tenure. I think we can do without it. There are a whole bunch of reasons why we keep it, but for my personal viewpoint I don't think we need it. If you're doing the job, fine, but if you're not, good bye.

Q: Looking at this whole area, we've covered the questions. Thinking about administrators now and pretty sophisticated personnel departments, how do you see the relationship between staff relations department and building administration, school board in hiring and dismissing and the whole personnel area. At one time the principals did it all.

A: I think, and this again is just my personal viewpoint, I think principals have kind of advocated this responsibility to personnel departments. And personnel departments it seems to me are getting farther and farther away from where the action is. That may be unfair but that's just my personal opinion. I still think that principals should have the major role, because ultimately the finger is pointing right there. And you take a heck of a lot more interest in the -- if the onus is going to be on you. I was very fortunate - the two personnel departments I worked for, the personnel director gave me unlimited authority to hire. There was never a question about salary, you know, you bring in someone at a lower -- I was fortunate. Now things are tighter. I'm talking about in the 50s and 60s, the boom years when money was coming, we were building schools. Old Ed said, Tom, hire anyone you want to. Tom, send the recommendation to my desk, I'll sign it and hire them. If they do a great job, you and I both shine. Ii they do a bad job, you're in the soup. I always found that was a powerful incentive in hiring, -- if I knew the finger--and you know I'm not saying that principals aren't -- we lay so much on our principals. Just like the general public is laying so much on our schools, from sex education, to drivers education, to drug education. They can't do it in the church or in the home -- who's going to do it? The school. And we like dummies sat back and said, oh, yeah, we'll do that, we can do that. We lay the things on the principal. They've got to do this and this and this -- it's physically impossible, emotionally impossible for them to fill all the expectations. We say the principal should be the educational leader. Principals don't have time for education, they've got too many other things to do. Now, there again that's my personal bias. But I've seen it change. An elementary principal used to be right there leading and was the expert -- if he or she was not the expert they'd get somebody who was, they had somebody who was - in social studies, in reading, in these kinds of things. Now, my goodness -- meetings on this and that, they're never in the buildings. They get to the point where they're big daddy -- I think that's too bad.

Q: Would you not want to go in to it now at this point?

A: Under certain circumstances. I'd have to pick the district very carefully. They would have to know -- I'm not sure I could find one any more. They'd have to know how I operate. I'd have to know how much support that I'd have. I never made a decision, and I think I'm being very honest, from the standpoint of, if I don't do it, I'm going to get canned. I've never gone into it, that has never worried me. I can always do something else. And I've done that a couple of times in my career. I've quit cold -- because I could not agree with the prevailing philosophy. We got a new superintendent who was a business man, and superintendents need to be businessmen, but he was not a humanist. He had no respect for pupil personnel services. He did, but they were sort of an adjunct and I could not work under those -- I left under very -- I just went in and said, Dr. Hessinger, I'm going to have to resign. I didn't tell him -- I would have if he had pushed me -- I cannot go out into the district and support your policies. And hey, you don't need somebody on the management team that can't do that. If you can't do that -- I've never been a hypocrite. I could not do that. And I didn't tell him to shove it -- I just said, you know, it's not comfortable I can't do that. He respected that. A month later, the director of personnel came over and said, hey, we've got a terrible situation over in the vocational school. The person who's been running the disadvantaged and handicapped program and it was the largest one in the United States, we had about 600 disadvantaged kids in a vocational program --. He said, how would you like to go there? I said, I'd love it. So, would have to be where I could work -- not going wild -- I follow policy, I don't -- I'm not a radical -- it would have to be in a situation where I had some free reign with the bottom expectation of anybody at any level -- the board of education, superintendent on down -- how is what you're doing affecting kids. And if I can't answer that then I have no reason for being there. That sounds awfully altruistic, doesn't it, but I've built a career on that.

Q: Sounds like something good for our young administrators to be aiming towards. Would you just like to make one final statement to brand new administrators?

A: I guess my final statement is -- that you are probably the least important person in the whole educational chain. You put the teacher -- maybe not the least important -- but whenever you start putting yourself as more important than that little ole first year classroom teacher, then you've lost the battle. You are there to support, you are there to help, but that's all you're doing -- you're supporting, helping, you're not out there doing the job. Your job is to help those that do their job.

Q: I suppose that's where people come from who say that the principal's job is the most important.

A: Maybe as a role model, as a leader. But you can be an expert, you can be a guru, but you ain't down there in the trenches doing the job. Oh, we're important. They say, how come they pay you more. They pay me more because when push comes to shove, I have to make the unpopular decision and live with it. That's the only reason I get more than a teacher, because the decisions I make I have to stick with them.

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