Interview with James E. Earp


This is an interview with James E. Earp, a retired principal. He is going to answer questions on the principalship.

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Q: Mr. Earp, would you begin by telling us about your family background, your childhood interests and development, such as your birthplace, elementary and secondary education, and your family characteristics.

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

A: I was born in a little place called Mountain City, Tennessee, which really is located in the corner where Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee all come together. It's just this side of Boone, North Carolina. My family moved from there to Bristol when I was about three years old. As far as Bristol is concerned, of coarse I was raised there and entered the public schools there in Bristol. I went on to Virginia High School where I finished in 1947. Of coarse during that time, my family didn't have some of the better things in life. It was right difficult growing up. My father left when I was about 12. In fact, during the time I was in high school, I took one year off and was out of school to work. This was during the early to mid forties. I finished high school, as I said, in 1947. Then I went on to Emory and Henry College. Of coarse, in high school I participated in football, baseball, basketball, and track. I was one of those who really lived for those sports. While in high school, I might say that I didn't have any aspiration as far as going to college was concerned. I wanted just to get out and go on and work for a cab company. It had been instrumental in my being able to stay in school because I was able to work there as a dispatcher, clean cars, fix flat tires, just anything. In fact, one time somebody asked why did you always leave Irvin in charge when the boss went away, and he said that he was the only one who did not involve himself in the things that the other driver's did. And that is, of coarse, weekends and partying and things like that. I guess because I could be counted on. But anyway, I decided maybe in my senior year I better take a course in math or in Algebra, just in case. So I took a course in Algebra. And then I was accepted at Emory and Henry. All along though I really wanted to go to school probably at another school down in Newport News. While at Emory I took off one week and went down to the other school to see if I could still get in school and they said, of course, I could. I went back to Emory and after talking to a couple of the professors I decided to remain. I was not an outstanding student. I was an average student. I graduated in the upper half of my class. But I could have been better. While at Emory I participated in football. I was fortunate enough to be captain of the team my senior year. My team went to two bowl games. The Tangerine Bowl in 1950 and 1951. When I finished at Emory, I went into the Marine Corp. The Korean Conflict broke out in June of my junior year. So they informed me that I would be drafted in November after I graduated the following year. And I told my mom by that time I probably would decide what I was going to do and was probably going to go into some branch of the service. So I joined the Marines and went to Paris Island where after three months of training I was fortunate enough to be commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in the Marines. After the Marines, of course I served a year in Korea, came back and was released on inactive duty in the late fall of 1983. I then applied and was accepted to graduate school at the University of Tennessee in Health and Physical Education. Really all through high school I had a feeling that someday I wanted to coach and teach. So after finishing up at the University of Tennessee, and of coarse it was during this time too while I was in graduate school that I married. Then we came to Christiansburg. At Christiansburg I taught some English, some Spanish, you can imagine, health and physical education, and started their drama training program. I guess that really basically takes me up through my elementary and secondary education and covers really my college education and preparation for going into teaching.

Q: Did you teach before you went to graduate school? Or after getting out of the Marines?

A: No, well I got out in the fall like in November, and there wasn't much to do. So I applied to graduate school. Really I applied to Peabody down at Nashville, but in the meantime I got engaged and I felt that if I could get into school at the University of Tennessee I would be much better off. And so, after checking with them they agreed to accept me, so I just picked up my transcript at Peabody went back to Knoxville, and enrolled in school there all within a matter of a couple of days.

Q: How many years did you serve as a teacher?

A: Seven.

Q: How about as a principal?

A: All together 15.

Q: I wonder if you could discuss those experiences and events in your life that constitute an important decision towards your career and how you feel about it.

A: In my second year of teaching at Christiansburg High School I was contacted by the superintendent to see if I would be interested in serving as the first assistant principal of Christiansburg High School. And I said that I was interested. I felt that I related well with young people and parents alike from my coaching and teaching experiences. The only thing about it was that in addition to being assistant principal, I also was required to teach some classes. I was able to be associated with an individual there, Mr. Evans King, who was principal when I was hired at Christiansburg High School and who took over two years later as superintendent of schools in Montgomery County. In watching him operate and his rapport and his laid-back type of enthusiasm and his ability to get along and work with other people, I felt like it helped me considerably in some of my approaches to administration and to serving as an assistant principal. I've had other people. My college coach, Conelly Snydow, who was quite influential. One individual that I had at Emory, Jack Young, was probably one of the most hard nosed individuals that I've ever seen. And who had just come back from World War II. Because I had enrolled at Emory shortly after World War II. But some of his mannerisms and straight forwardness and the way he felt about living a clean structured life, I felt had some bearings on me. Really some of my coaches and teachers really probably influenced my career more than anyone else. Of coarse, my wife, whom I celebrated my 36th anniversary with yesterday, it has been quite influential on my career. During the time I was in Montgomery County, I held four different positions. None of which I ever applied for. I was approached and asked if I would be interested or would I be willing to serve in one of those positions. I was quite involved in the building programs in 1960 and 1970. Individuals that I mentioned along with my wife have probably had more influence on my career than anyone.

Q: How did your motives change over the years or did they ever change?

A: No, I don't think my motives ever changed. I've always felt that if your going to be in school administration, then you're going to have to realize that you're going to live in a glass house. Everbody's going to know what's going on. And of coarse, with that in mind, I tried to live basically that kind of life. As far as the students were concerned and all, I've always had a philosophy that you can be down on them one day dealing with them on some type of problem or something that's gone wrong, but then you've got to be there too, to pat them on the back whenever they do something that they need to get a pat for.

Q: Would you take us for a walk through your school describing the appearance and any unusual features of the building?

A: O.K. I'll take you through Glenvar High School. The last school in which I was principal. It's a beautiful facility built in about 1965. It's one of the cleanest buildings. On more than one occasion we've had people to come in and think that the building was new. I contribute a lot of that to a real conscientious custodian that a lot of times my teachers weren't happy with because he told them the way it was going to be as far as cleanliness and those things were concerned. If things were left in the refrigerator in the teacher's lounge or something too long they could be rest assured that they would be gone. But that's just an indication of how he cared for that building. It is a beautiful building as clean as it's been. You walk in the front door, there's about eight doors across the front of the school, into a huge lobby. And if you look up, you'll see a railing on the second floor, second level with a stair on each side. On the right. of coarse, is the administration; the reception area, the principal's office, the assistant principal's office. And of coarse, your guidance, clinic, and those other things. As far as the lobby is concerned, as you leave the lobby there's a long hallway that would take you strictly down to the cafeteria, the bandroom, located along with industrial arts. Also, right off the lobby, as you look right out of the administrative suite was our gymnasium. As you go to the hallway to the left it will take you down through foreign language and the library. The hallway off of it, which is parallel to the hall which took you to the cafeteria, was located English, social studies, and at the far end was home economics and distributive education. On the second floor directly above that floor was math, a math lab with computers, also a classroom with nothing but computers in it. There were approximately 24. And of coarse, the science labs were excellent with ample materials and supplies. Roanoke County Schools do an excellent job of providing you with the things you need to have a good instructional program. The other two things I was thinking about there in the computer lab was we also had two printers. Back down and located above the administrative suite were the mechanical drawing and business departments. Located directly over the library was the area we had for special education. We petitioned off a room the size of the library, which we had learning disabilities, emotionally disturbed, MH, and I guess that's about all we had up there. I might say that they built an additional gymnasium onto Glenvar High School primarily for the community, because the gym itself, the number of activities could not take care of everything that we had going on. Of coarse, we had beautiful outside facilities taking care of physical education, located in a separate area. The football field was in a separate area. The baseball field was adjacent to the football field and then we had a softball facility directly in front of the school.

Q: How long were you at Glenvar High School?

A: Ten years

Q: It was the last school that you were at?

A: That's right.

Q: Would you describe your personal philosophy of education and how it evolved over the years?

A: A lot could be said about the philosophy of education. I always saw it, especially as an administrator, that to provide as good a learning climate and learning environment as you could for those kids. As far as I personally am concerned, in providing that environment or that climate, that was to make myself available to those kids and help those kids to provide those kids with the things they needed as far as materials, equipment, or any of those things. But to show, I guess really more than anything, to show how much I cared for them, and how much I cared about attempting to provide that good learning environment free from outside activities, commotion, free form disturbances. As I said, I guess that might be a little different from other people's philosophy, but I always felt that if I could see that they had that good learning environment or climate, then the teachers and my assistants could take care of the rest.

Q: Would you describe your instructional philosophies?

A: I believe in good strong curriculum guides. I believe in good strong adherence to those curriculum guides. So that if they leave our school and go to another school in the system then they will be able to pick up right where they left off. Knowing that they are not going to be exactly, but at least they will be in the ballpark. And to see that the teachers are here to do that too, and to do all that I could to take all the extra duties and all that I could off of teachers. A lot of doing some of them myself and my assistants. I feel like that if you have good guides, and you've got good materials, and you've got good teachers, and you're providing a good learning environment, fee of commotions, and all these outside things that are going on, then if you do those things then kids will learn.


Q: What experiences or events in your professional life have influenced your philosophy?

A: I guess that goes back a long way. That goes back to when I was growing up, in high school. The man I worked for in the cab company in Bristol, in the way that he went about running his business. And I guess that the faith and the stock that he put in me to let me do things that a 16, 17, and 18 year old at other companies had people doing that were probably in their 30's and 40's. But to put that kind of faith and stock in me, to let me do some of those things. And then going on and finishing high school and being involved in some of the activities I was involved in there. Not just in athletics but in Civitan and I was involved in the Kiwanis program, in which I had to attend meetings of the Kiwanis and make reports on the things that were going on. People, I guess seeing that maybe I could do some things. And then, of course, when I went into the Marine Corp and being a Marine officer. In fact, I came close and I gave some consideration as far as making it a career. But, I knew I would never be satisfied unless I done some of these things that I've done. But the people I've seen in education, certain individuals and the way they have applied themselves and all. And I've always felt that I had a real ability to get along and to work with people.

Q: What kinds of things do teachers expect principles to be able to do? Describe your views on what it takes to be an effective principal. Describe personal and professional characteristics of the principal.

A: Well sometimes you think that they want you to be able to do everything. But they expect you to see that they have a fair class load. They expect you to provide them with materials and the equipment that they need. They expect you to see that school has a good learning environment. They expect you to see that the kids are dealt with when there are problems within the classroom and within the school. I think that on the personal characteristics I may have mentioned this before. You live in a glass house. And if you're going to be school principal, or serve as a school principal, then you're going to have to live the part. If you're going to go out here and party and carouse and do things that you wouldn't want members of your staff doing, because of how the public is going to react to it all. As far as doing those things are concerned, if you involve yourself in things of that nature, then people are going to see those things. And those are the things that they are going to talk about, and all. Those are the things that they are going to hold against you. So, if you're going to be a principal, then your personal life has to be above reproach. I guess that would be it in a nut shell. As far as the professional characteristics are concerned, I think of coarse, there too you're going to be willing to do and keep yourself up to date on things that are going on in education. The latest ideas and concepts and all.


Q: There are those that argue more often than not central office policies hinder rather than help building levels of the administrators in carrying out their responsibilities. Could you give your views on this issue and if you could what changes would you make on typical system like organizational arrangements as a way of improving administrative efficiency effectively.

A: Those central office policies and all are not always things that they've come up with that have to be done. I've always felt that those things that come, direct us, so forth, come from the central office. I've always accepted those as things that have to be done. And not things that they're just dreaming up that have to be done. I'm sure that on occasions that there's some things, but overall what they're attempting to do at the central office, is to make for a better school system, a more efficient school system. And you know if it takes a little extra time to complete some of those reports then that's all part of the business of coming early and staying late. And if I had anything to do with it, I'm not sure that there need to be changes made there. As I said, the things that they say need to be done, a lot of those things are coming from the state level.

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

A: He better be willing to work his tail off. If you're willing to do that, and realize the self satisfaction that you'll get out of helping dealing with people. and if you're willing to come early and stay late, I think that you're going to have to take those things into consideration. If you're not willing to give abundantly of your time, then you might as well not even consider it because it is a demanding job. Both from the standpoint of time spent on the job, time spent away from your family, and all. But if your looking at one where you think you're going to get rich, then just forget it. But, in a nut shell, one thing I found out about administration is that you're going to have to be willing to work your tail off.

Q: There are those who argue that the principal should be an instructional leader and those that suggest realistically speaking, that this person must be above all, a good manager. Would you give your views on this issue and describe your own style.

A: I think you have to be both. I think you have to be an instructional leader and a good manager because a good manager will see that the things that are needed are provided. Making for the instructional leader to have those things that he or she need. But, personally, I think that I was a better manager than I was an instructional leader. I felt that I had a good grasp of the instructional program, and if you have good teachers and if you're good manager, then those teachers are going to do a good job in the classroom because you as a good manager are going to see that they have all those things that they need. A good deal of attention is given to career levels, differential pay plans, and number of hours per week. I guess counting the number of activities and all, I'd say somewhere of 60 and 70 hours. Cause I believe in you can't just go to ball games and things. You've got to go to some of those band concerts and be there for choral and forensics because those kids are going to see you on Monday and say "I saw you there, what did you think?" You know, kids appreciate those things and it shows you're interested in those facets and not just a few.

Q: A good deal of attention has been given to career ladders, differential pay plans and merit pay in recent years. Would you give your views on the issues and describe any involvement you had with such approaches.

A: Well, first I might mention that I haven't had any involvement dealing with these things. Career ladders, differential pay plans, so forth, and basically what I know is what I've read and what I 've heard in talking to people. I talked to people in Tennessee who could care less about the career ladder program that they have in their state. People being paid on a basis, in some cases, of courses taken, things to that nature, and they already have that. I mean you as an administrator are paid additionally for your masters, paid additionally for hours beyond it. As far as the merit pay and those things are concerned, personally, I don't think they're worth a damn. All I think they do is stir up ill feelings and all within your school. And the school board spend hours and hours talking about those things and I will feel for principals who would have to deal with those things, because all you're going to have left in the final analysis is a bunch of disgruntled people.

Q: Would you describe your approach to teacher evaluation and give your philosophy of other evaluations?

A: I've always viewed the evaluation process as a cooperative effort between the person being evaluated and the person doing the evaluation. In which you set down and you talk in terms of strength and weaknesses, knowing that no one is perfect. But that in the final analyses what you're endeavoring to do is to help that person do a better job. The things leading up to the final evaluation, I always felt, I usually try to have at least two evaluations either by myself or by my assistant. Have two evaluations on the teacher each semester in which we were invited in by that teacher. In the meantime, the evaluation process, I made a point to get into the classrooms as often as I could. Just walking down the hall and step in. Spend maybe five, ten minutes. If something was going wrong, I would say something to the teacher afterwards. Ordinarily, it would not be during the period. Simply step out the first opportunity I could and jot down the things I observed while in that classroom. Then a note back in that teacher's box and enjoyed being in that classroom, I was impressed with certain things. I found out a long time ago about the cash. There are times when you have to use the cash and God knows I've done that too. But, for the most part really the eval- uation process is cooperative overall. Just sit down with the teacher and discuss those things and give the teacher time to say what he or she wants to say.

Q: Would you discuss teacher dismissal and the involvement in any such activities?

A: Anytime you're going to be involved in teacher dismissal then you better be sure that you've done your homework. You better have it down and you better have the cold, hard facts and one you can back up and one's you know there's no question about. The thing about dismissing a teacher, and I've been involved in it over the years, I can recall at least a half dozen situations that were not real nice situ ations in which I even. I never will forget the first one I ever dealt with. It was my second year as principal. I was about a 31 year old principal. And the first year I had made some observations and the second year I worked along with the situation. And in April I told the teacher that I was recommending that they be dismissed and these were the reasons why. I really stirred up a hornets nest. I didn't realize that you had to notify them before April 15, so I really screwed up there. But I survived it and we got rid of that teacher. I've always felt that in teacher dismissal that, I, as a high school principal was the one who should be a witness. At least initially. I got a letter from the superintendent's office. In the situation I dealt with him one on one. I don't think on an occasion I had them in my office not knowing how the person was going to react. Usually, it was in another area of the school.

Q: How did you recommend dismissal?

A: I usually, as I said, wrote all my facts and figures down, notified the central office, the people there or the personnel director, the superintendent. This is what I want to do of course I dismissed one day right on the spot. I just told her "Hey," I told her husband to come and get her. I mean she had been drinking. I'm not going to put up with that. He came and got her and that was the end of it so I survived it but I survived it without any lawsuits on those things. I had some lawsuits on some other things, but not on that.

Q: What, in your view should be the role of the assistant principal?

A: If you have one assistant principal, I think that he must be exceptionally strong in both areas of instruction and administration. I don't think that the principal should put all the duties, especially those dealing in the area of discipline. I always had a philosophy there that the assistant principal, if you have a problem that arose and they came into your office, or into the administrative office, that whoever was available dealt with it. The principal or the assistant principal normally, if I only has one assistant principal, I usually let him work primarily on the area of administration. Although I expected him to be strong in instruction and curriculum also realizing that he can only do so much. So you can't unload everything on him. I like him to deal primarily in the areas of basic discipline concerns. Things that were of a more serious nature, I expected him to consult me on, so we could both work on them together, in case we might end up in court over it. If you have two assistant principals, I like to divide them, one in instruction and one in administration. By taking two, that person in instruction, give him some of those things that the other one had also. The one in administration dealt with. Come evaluation time, you could use the assistant principal in instruction to help you as the principal primarily with the evaluation process. But letting the assistant principal in administration to deal with some of those in his areas of expertise or where he taught. I think you have to have an excellent rapport with your assistants. You can't give them all the dirty work, all the dirty details. You can't expect them to be there for all your night activities and those things. You're going to have to be there yourself. Divide those things up, of course, the best you can. But I'd say that's enough of that.

Q: Would you describe the most effective assistant principal with whom you've had the opportunity to serve?

A: The most effective assistant principal that I had the opportunity to serve. I guess the individual I'd have to describe would be one that I really only spent a couple of years with. The person is now a high school principal and doing an excellent job. He came in every day, went about doing his job. Never approaching me as some assistant principals I've seen with everything that goes wrong in the school, every little problem that comes up. He came to me when the situation warranted my involvement or warranted some advice from me as principal. But, going about his job in such a manner that I always felt like that his job was to do all he could to see that the principal could go about doing his job. You know what I'm saying ? I felt that way as a high school principal that my job was to administer to that school in such a manner that the superintendent could go about doing what he needed to do, and not to spend his time on some of the Mickey Mouse stuff that was going on in my school. But there are people who like for you to realize just how important you are. But that assistant principal, as I said , and many a time I thought I put in long hours, but there were times when I saw him there when I left. I didn't always see him there when I got there in the morning because I had a reason of doing that myself. But he was an individual who certainly carried his share of the load and who was always available for any night activities. Like I said, I was impressed with the way he went about doing his job, not looking for any praise or pats on the back or those things. Just seeing that the school was run and run properly.

Q: Would you discuss your participation in handling civic rights situation and describe your involvement in any?

A: I guess it was probably the second year I was principal. I was notified that we integrate our high school during the school year. So I contacted the school from the students who were coming and I think there were about 20 students involved. I got their records and sat down with my guidance department and after looking over their records and courses they were taking, and we offered the same courses in our school. We scheduled the students just like we did during the summer months we were scheduling. We had schedules for them, put all their books together, and as I recall, I had a meeting with them on the weekend. On a Saturday all the students reported to myself, assistant principal, and a guidance coordinator. The parents also came. In approaching them, I told them even though it wasn't the beginning of the year, I approached them like it was the beginning of the year. I showed them their schedules, asked them if there were any questions about them. Of course, first and foremost, I welcomed them to our school, and we went over the schedules. I took them on a tour of the building, showed them where their lockers were. Showed them everything I could about the school. Because they had never been in the facility probably to my knowledge. So that when they came to school the following Monday, they would know where everything was and how our school operated. I don't recall saying anything to the student today about it. I think it came out in the paper, but brought them back into the room, still there were no questions so we thought we had covered all the basics. And of coarse on Monday morning, it wasn't any different than any other Monday morning. I always make a point to be in the building in the halls, before and after school, and also where their classes were. The only time I might have missed something like that might be when there was an emergency somewhere or I was out of town or something. I've always had a philosophy that you always have to be where the action is. There is more action in the morning in the halls than in the afternoon when they're catching those busses. On Monday morning everything went fine. There were no problems. I won't say there were none over the years, and even maybe that year. I'm not sure if it was that year. Some of the things were done, but anyway, as far as busing was concerned, everybody rode the same bus, we weren't really involved in that.

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

A: I made a point to start at 7:45. As always, the buses started coming in about 8:00. I was usually in my office at about 7:30. I spent 30 minutes in there, sometimes answering the phone on occasion but usually in my office, checking up on paperwork and anything I needed to do. I'm always big on writing myself notes. I had a separate note for everything. Once in awhile I might have several things on the same paper, but I always liked just having individual notes. I went through my schedule of things I needed to do, make a phone call or two. In other words taking care of the administrative details, so I could be out in the hall at 8:00. From 8:00 until the bell rang I was in the halls talking to the kids, talking to teachers. In the cafeteria. Out with the buses. In the restrooms. Just being on the go. Because just talking to the kids about activities going on, the choral concerts, and the band concerts, the forensics, the athletic events, and some of the things I knew they were interested in. That comes back to what I mentioned earlier to a good learning climate or environment. Then I go into the office, we had to pledge the flag everyday. The president of students body was responsible for it. Very seldom was he not there then I usually led the pledge. I'd do the pledge right along with them in my office. I've had students who used to not do it. But I would bring them into my office and make them sit there while I did it. You spend 26 years in the Marine Corp Reserve, you have a certain promise to those--but anyway.

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

A: I would have got my initial masters degree and school administration as opposed to physical education. Although, the courses I took at UTS was at that time recognized as one of the top five in the country. It was a good school, a tough school. I learned a lot that helped me in school administration, but I think that's the thing I definitely would have done as opposed to coming to Christiansburg and having to go to Tech and UVA and Radford to get those courses that I needed for proper endorsement. But I think too that I would have concentrated more on curriculum, the instructional. I was always amazed at those people I talked to that had a much better grasp it than I did. And a lot of that I think, was attributed to, not knowing what I know now about the principalship is I wouldn't, I loved it. and the reason I retired was primarily because I was fifty-six years old and tired of being out all night. As far as dealing with kids and with parents, I loved that.

Q: That was my next question. What lead to your decision to retire?

A: Well like I said, it was the night activities and all, and there were some things that I wanted to do that I'm doing now. A lot of activities, but, of all the jobs that I've had, I've been a classroom teacher, I've been an administrative assistant during 1960 building program, that lead to the principalship and that's what I wanted to be, because it makes you feel pretty good. They said "I wouldn't touch your job with a ten foot pole, I wouldn't have your job" I wouldn't trade it. I have an uncle to ask me "Don't you miss everything," but I didn't know what he was talking about. I told him that it was the only pie job I ever had. But I enjoyed being a high school principal.

Q: In spite all the different questions I asked you, is there anything I left out or I didn't ask that I should have.

A: Well, no I guess I'm a bit of a humble person and I have a certain amount of humility. I probably said on a lot of these things that it bothered me that if I said some things and I never believe in that, and my wife told me on an occasion that you always let someone else take the credit for things. I said if people know that they're getting some of the credit, then I don't care, because if they're getting some of the credit and they're doing a better job, they're going to make my job a whole lot better, a whole lot easier and so I go along and give people credit for those things. But as I've looked back over the years, I've never had a teacher to grieve against me. A lot of them have probably thought about it. I've never been into court as result of a teacher situation. I've been in for denying kids their constitutional rights, but I spent three years in there. I'm satisfied with what I've accomplished and attempted to accomplish, and education has been good to me too, I think. I'm involved in recruitment program on Roanoke County where I do twenty four hours of work a year, so education has been good to me.


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