Interview with Reg Figal


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Q: How many years were you in education? Give us a brief background and a brief history of yourself.

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

A: I started teaching in 1957 - three years in the same area - also teaching and coaching. ... three years as a teacher and three years as a principal after I got my master's. Then I moved to Windsor as a principal of a junior/senior high. Then we split and went to a middle school, senior high concept. I was a principal there for 17 years. In 1983 I went o central administration. I retired after 35 years. Enjoyed every minute of it.

Q: When you were a principal, maybe the last time, before you moved to central administration, you might talk a little about your schools - could you describe it in size, enrollment, staff.

A: When I first came here in 1966 they were just putting together a junior/senior high...previously there was a very small junior high and a small senior high. When they built the new building they decided to combine it with the senior high. I was hired to put the junior/senior high together. At that time there were about 365 students. Then Kodak came to Windsor and we started renovating our facilities and we decided to separate the junior/senior high so the facility could be senior high and the middle school concept. Then we moved in 1975.

Q: And which facility did you take?

A: I took the high school. Q: And how did your high school end up in size?

A: We ended up with 450 students and we were growing .... three buildings ... cafeteria, fine arts, industrial arts, and a vocational ag building - a very nice facility.

Q: If you thought back to when before you were an administrator, when you were a teacher, were there any things which led up to you pursuing administration or changing to that direction?

A: Being a teacher and a coach ... coaching, ... the area of principalship appealed to me not only for the fact that it had financial benefits I thought it would have more challenges for me.

Q: So a desire to move up the ladder so to speak. Can you give any examples of some of those things that were in your mind?

A: Oh, yes, I was thinking about the fact that kids always have difficulties in English ... I was trying to come up with a way to make it a little more appealing. Thinking about ways to spread a year out with quarters and give kids more options ... taking various aspects of English, literature, writing and media, and putting it all together in an interesting form ... so those were things I wanted to do. I was also interested in making science into a stronger area ... just things that you get out of what you put into them.

Q: Coming here gave you a chance to expand and try new things.

A: Yes, it was an agricultural setting ... very stable and in coming here I had a chance to break all the traditions ...

Q: Think of maybe your last school or it might be one of your former schools and talk a little bit about the philosophy. I don't know if you would have had a formal adopted school philosophy or maybe it was just a written philosophy. Can you maybe verbalize what your school was all about?

A: One of the things all kids deserve is a good education - as best we can provide them. All kids learn at different levels. I think the ones that are special ed ... deserve it, as do our gifted. ... That's important. I also feel that students need a strong science background with math. I think that kids need to be in school. I think we need to provide the best environment possible. Teachers who want to work with kids and take a personal interest in them. Teachers and counselors not just principals need to do this. Teachers who spend time in the office, lunchroom and in the classroom. I also think that we're changing. We're coming from an industrial age to an agricultural age. I think we need to find a way for parent involvement, real parent involvement. I don't think kids can succeed without that. I think we need to make students really aware of the drugs in our particular area, the availability of them and their use.

Q: Obviously you have some real definite feelings for what the schools should be for the kids. In stating the philosophy, you've stated what your personal beliefs are. In what way did you convey that philosophy or develop that philosophy within your school or was that kind of philosophy - is that something that developed within your school and you became a believer in?

A: No, I think it was first believed by me.

Q: From you?

A: And when I first got here this was a very traditional school ... and therefore the school had no sex education ... The students were required to take four years of social studies, for years of English, two years of science, two years of math ... and then the electives. The options weren't there. If a student had to take algebra to get through the math requirement, to get through the science they had to take a biology and chemistry. Also, four years of English. So if wee don't help them by offering the alternate they won't succeed. From that we worked very hard to put in the physical science class and to get some of the requirements changed, which opened up elective programs. We went to a seven period day from a six period day. We did require the P.E. which they never had before so we made that a new requirement. Lots of things happened. We expanded the distributive education. It's still a strong program. Then, we advanced some kids over to Aims. We developed a nice cooperative with them. Then we have a Kodak cooperative program, about 12-13 kids in the afternoon go over there and work in their training program. Then those things change. Aims decided to go to a community college and they dropped the high school program ... the other ways to get those kids motivated is rather limited.

Q: Would you mind if I turn the fan off? I'm wondering if we're getting any of that sound.

A: Then we dropped distributive ed ... it seemed that it wasn't doing what it was supposed to do.

Q: Do you think that Vocational Education as such maybe came in and took part of that responsibility.

A: It did partly. An then we're changing. If you go back through your curriculums now you'll see that Home Ec isn't as strong as it was. I think it's going by the wayside. Industrial arts - the same thing is happening. Then the colleges come along and their demands change. A lot of them want foreign language so of course the students decide on the language. So things change and schools change their curriculum,

Q: There are lots of demands on administrators.

A: Teachers are teaching five or six classes. It makes it hard.

Q: I'd like to go a different direction and maybe for a minute you might like to talk about any particular people that influenced you as a school administrator and as a leader. Were there people that were either well known or just personal friends or contacts that have any kind of influence on developing you into the kind of administrator with the administrative style that you have?

A: I think - I don't think I could point to one - but I could probably point to a quandary people. The fact that we were in a league school - 9 schools in a league - and you needed to talk with other principals .... all the problems and so on ... most of that was helpful so by getting together in the seminars and talking you learned quite a bit.

Q: Your practicing peers?

A: I got involved with the principals over at Ft. Collins. When they would have somebody special they would invite me. The same with Greeley, which was really nice. So by looking at those schools and what they were doing and then reading and going to seminars. You took the information that fit the particular needs of your school.

Q: That's true and part of your responsibility is deciding what will work. Can you describe yourself as a school administrator, as a leader. What is your style, so to speak?

A: Well, if you probably talked to my teachers they would probably say I was very autocratic. I'm sure I was. I pushed forward. I liked to get things done and functioning.

Q: How did you go about this?

A: Well, I probably just came up with an idea that we wanted to do, and decided who I needed to influence, why we needed it and then tried to get their opinion. But I probably would go ahead without the group consensus. A lot of times that doesn't work but most of the time it did.

Q: You got good response.

A: Yes, I did. Of course you provide the teachers with the materials they need and the time they need to teach and you do things for them to compensate and they in turn help you out.

Q: So that's not totally autocratic. How did you change and why did you change?

A: I don't think I changed fully. What I did later on was to try to involve all the staff, maybe a teachers' meeting to discuss the next year and discuss what direction they wanted to go or how do we handle certain things. They would come back and hash it out.

Q: Was that more effective or effective at the time?

A: Yes, it was but I probably dominated it. Again, I'm being very honest with you. At least the feelings were out. We'd try it or no, we wouldn't. But we tried and most of it was pretty positive. And if things would work for the teachers then the teacher would come back with more confidence so if I would suggest something the chances of them doing it were greatly enhanced. We're having difficulties like all high schools with kids. It might be a student who was sent to the office, to me, that was. So we devised a way of a timeout situation. What we would do if a student was sent to the office sometime in the future we would keep him there the rest of the period the first time. Then if the student was sent down again we'd call his parents. So it has some teeth. The teachers didn't mind working with it. They could see results. Before sometimes kids were coming five and six times to the office and nothing was happening. But this had an affect again - at least you could see the light at the end of the tunnel. It had to be something desperate before you'd kick them out. But most of it would be resolved with the teacher and the student. If it went to the third level we conferenced with the student and parent which happened very seldom. In the four years before I worked with it, I think I took about 6 kids out of school and that settled the situation. Again, teachers were desperate to find something that worked. This works very well and they are still using the same procedure - the timeout - because there is a conclusion to it. I think you need to conclude and I was not doing a very good job of concluding. Sure I could send them home but it didn't accomplish what you wanted it to accomplish. So those are some of the things that are very hard and we started of course, inhouse suspension when sometimes the student wanted to be sent home and we would take that into consideration. They were in isolation and they could have lunch and that was the extent of it.

Q: We spent a lot of time talking with teachers about how they motivate their students. How did you motivate your teachers?

A: I was very supportive of my teachers, very, very supportive. I got to know them. I would visit with them off-time in the lounge. I would make sure I knew what they were doing - what they were attempting to do, how they were attempting to do it. Try to get their confidence. I'd ask what can I do to help you do a better job. And some would say, I need this book so you would find ways to help. Sometimes it's just a very simple thing they need to do something special in the class. If you can provide it for them it really helped. I think being very supportive of them when they really got in a jam, trying to resolve the situation, where everybody is happy, they knew I was definitely behind that teacher.

Q: In your assessment as you think back about the staff you worked with, particularly in the last school, do you have a vision of them as being a highly gung ho, motivated group? You felt good about whatever you were doing.

A: Yes. And what it is too, when you're there so long pretty soon teachers leave you. You bring in the particular staff you are looking for you. So you build your staff to really fit your style. You use good interviewing techniques with candidates and I think that's how you become successful. Somebody may not be the top notch person credential wise but their method and the way they fit in may be what you're looking for. There are people I have had who were top notch who did not fit with the staff and that's where you get little groups out here and that's no good. You try to maintain a good staff. I would have parties for them. I'd have a get together here after a football game. We'd have 90 people in the house - having a good time. I'd invite them out to the house ... and I'd cook breakfast for them at Christmas time ... and have gag gifts at Christmas ... and just try to be a part of that staff. I think it is just getting behind them and getting interested and trying to help them out. Be there to pick them up if they fall.

Q: How would you describe your decision making method with major decisions within your building? How did you function as a decision maker?

A: When I first became a principal, I would probably do that without seeking too much outside information. But it needed to be done and this is the way I'd do it and I'd do it. But as it became part of the changing role of the teacher to be part of decision making, then I went out to seek some information from them. Committees would work. I'd try to look at things from the staff's point of view. I'd tell them, though, here's what we're going to do, we need to make a decision. Now you can give me all your advice but at the end I will make the final decision because I'm the one who is going to have to pay the bill, but I would like your help. I'm not saying I'll do what you say but I appreciate your help in making this decision.

Q: Can you think of an example of a major decision that you faced with your staff?

A: Putting up new buildings, two of them. Deciding what should be the size of rooms which is always critical to teachers - and how to keep those class sizes in perspective - and scheduling types of things. I think the one about classroom size, doesn't sound like much, but it is a very critical thing. We decided - I decided - the rooms would be only large enough to put 24 students in them comfortably. That would mean smaller class sizes. This school district really believes in keeping the class size down. This is one way of doing that. Now I got myself in trouble because you have a few extra students and no place to put them. We have committees that work and so on and when the final decisions had to be made I made them.

Q: You maintained veto power?

A: You have to because you're looking at the total picture out there and the teacher or that particular staff member doesn't have that information. What does the science room look like? What's it going to do for the school in other ways? You get them involved but you always go back to them and give them your reason why you made the decision. I'm not trying to leave you out. I probably made a lot of decisions that maybe I should have taken a little more advice on but I just felt that was right at the time. I don't think I alienated too many people.

Q: Could you address the issue of discipline within the staff - not for students - but with your staff and talk a little bit about how you handled some of those tough situations with problem teachers or with teachers you felt and problems.

A: I would bring them in for a conference and I would be pretty much open with them. Unless you change something you're doing that is really bothering me I'll push to get rid of you. Let's see if we can come to some conclusion that I'd be happy with and that you could be happy with and then just tackle it head on.

Q: Did you ever fire a teacher?

A: Oh, yes. It's a process of evaluations and making sure they were aware of what was happening from the beginning and setting up particular professional goals to try to help them come through a bind and to get on track. If they didn't succeed I would tell them and would be very frank and honest. If by April you're not doing this I cannot extend your contract. I would be very open about this and I guess when I first came here I got rid of a lot of teachers. They were on the staff - alot of them were here just to work and going to school and hoping to get another degree and move on or the husband was working or the wife was working.

Q: How did you handle that with the rest of the staff? If you had to get rid of a lot of teachers, what did you do with the rest of the staff so that they did not feel threatened?

A: I didn't even worry about it because those teachers knew ... I never worried about that. They could see it. I had one I had to get rid of and went through the process with CEA but they never went to first base because when the Uniserv person came in and started to interview the teacher, they said he or she doesn't need to be here. I think that teachers who do their job don't need to worry about it because they know whose carrying the load and who isn't. I never thought that was a problem. Most of them resigned. I did fire a couple that didn't want to resign and they were nontenured. But I had a lot of tenured ones that I had to let go. Working with them until I decided they'd be better off somewhere else. They resigned and saved me the battle of going through the process. It's a difficult process to get rid of tenured people. Most of them didn't want to work but then they see the rest of the staff progressing and going on to better things and they are going to finally decide they don't want to do that.

Q: I get the feeling from this short visit that your staff pretty well followed your leadership, that you didn't seem to have a lot of staff problems.

A: I surely didn't. I didn't have a lot of staff problems. I think the ones I had any difficulty with were the ones that didn't belong there but they knew it right off. An even when they left we were not enemies...I worked very hard with teachers to get them to be better teachers and the others knew that. I would give them that extra year and that's all I can do. I just can't let you hurt kids and that's what we're here for. They could see if they weren't a good teacher. They went on to teach somewhere else. They just didn't fit in with what we were doing or where we were going.

Q: Could you dwell on your change to central administration the latter years before your retirement and how did you use some of the same skills or did you take some of those same leadership qualities and use them at central office level.

A: Central office was really a lot different because I had a lot of varied duties in the central office that didn't entail a lot of teacher supervision. I did have Chapter I teachers and Chapter 2 - but Chapter 2 was strictly for staff development. I was working with people instead of being the boss down. I did the curriculum revision and again that's working with the teachers instead of being the boss. I'm facilitating getting things in place so they can do the job. It was a whole different situation that being a principal.

Q: Did you like that more or less?

A: I really missed the high school. I missed the kids. I missed the staff. The reason I made the change was that after 17 years and after doing the same things I needed a new challenge, and we also planned that building with an addition on it. I had the opportunity to move into the district office and learn the business aspect of it. I don't have that strong of a business background but the situation was that I could just about write my own job description and able to come in at an exciting time. I had to supervise the budget and bookkeepers and do the bids, do all the business aspect of it. I don't know very much about staff development but it was fun to put those things together. I also got involved in the insurances, property, liability, district insurance package. I got involved in career education but that wasn't typical. I also started a wellness program in the district that is very popular. So you work at a different level than you do - it's just a whole lot different.

Q: Did you feel the same reward or the same personal benefit?

A: I did from the standpoint that I did some things I had never done before. It was a big challenge. I knew nothing about insurances and such - how they operate - claims insurance. It was a challenge.

Q: What a compliment, though, that you were offered that opportunity - that really indicates a lot of confidence in your ability that you were allowed that opportunity.

A: If felt real good. They asked me if I wanted to do PR work which was great. I also did the accountability. I was the liaison for accountability. So it was kind of fun to do the PR - and I had many many meetings. I was about meetinged to death. It was fun working with people .... see how we can improve those. It was just a lot of things that were different. Talk about researching.

Q: What lead to your retirement?

A: My wife teaches also and we decided we'd retire when I was 59 - I'd have enough time, she'd have enough time and we just went ahead and did it. Last August they had the early out so I was able to take advantage of the early retirement and I would get the same percentage if I waited and also the school district said they would hire me for a year until they found someone and they would pay me 110 days a year in 1987 and 110 days in 1988. So I was able to get a salary under contract and then go ahead with my retirement. This gave me two years. I figure 31 years is enough. I have some other plans - so it's been a good decision. I've had a good career starting with teaching and going all the way up. I enjoyed the activities. I'm a firm believer in being there - never missed any activities. It's just fun to deal with kids and the parents and the sponsors. It was a fun time. Things have changed. The effective teaching model - I think this would be a great time for somebody to get into the teaching field. I was really into evaluating the teacher on how they set the objectives and the team and how much time you were wasting. But they didn't call it that. But never had the terms for it. But now with the terms and everybody speaks the same terms and it makes it very exciting. The principal can do a much better job of supervising. I'm looking for something special and maybe you're trying to do something different. It's very exciting to be in a principalship now. .... I think we're doing a better job than we've ever done. I think the main thing again is to get very involved and I think we need that back to be very successful. I don't see how you can be involved with a student who doesn't want to do something. There is no way you can force him to do something. But our system says we educate everyone. We need more help. It's a good life and I have enjoyed that.

Q: We've talked about a number of different topics but I wonder if as you were anticipating this interview were there things that you had on your mind that you anticipated being able to talk about that you'd like to add at the very end.

A: I think education becomes individual, of course its individualized. My situation coming here was unique. Coming in as a junior/senior high principal and being advanced as a senior high principal was because of growth. Because of growth we became very wealthy in this school district. We were able to open beautiful new buildings and have enough budget for future needs. That was unique. We were able to build. I don't know of many principals who come and open up a new building and then after you get here work on a new building that you will be the focus of and see when you put it on paper that this is the first phase and this is the second and how it all comes together. All the things you do - I think it's unique. When you're doing that .. You have another big job to do. Rewarding. That makes it very difficult - building a building and running a building at the same time.

Q: Why do you think your were successful?

A: I think probably I'm very persistent and am a good organizer and planner. I can convey what I want done. They really worked their heads off. I'll go shoulder to shoulder with them to get it done. Look at the self esteem of kids - really work with the self esteem. I had a big bulletin board and then working with them .. you still have to work on their self esteem.

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