Interview with Judith Gorham

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

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

A: I was born in Marion, Virginia in 1945. I was an only child. My parents divorced when I was three. I lived with my grandparents and then my mother and my grandfather until I completed high school. My elementary and secondary education was in Marion, Virginia and I remained an only child. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. Although my mother attended college, she was not a graduate. So I’ve been an only child with only a few cousins on my mother’s side of the family.

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

A: I attended Marion College, it was a junior college Lutheran school in Marion, which is now closed in the job core. I started there after I was married and had a child. Later, I had a second child and continued college at Radford University, graduating in 1973, ten years after I graduated from high school. So, that was quite an accomplishment for someone with two children and who was married. Actually, when I was in college, my main goal was to become a probation officer. I had done some teaching experience at Saint Alban’s Psychiatric Hospital and just as a backup for the probation work and with a degree in sociology, I elected to go ahead and take the education courses. Not intending at any point to teach. However, during my student teaching, in Pulaski County, I was offered a contract for the following year as a crisis teacher, through a federal grant, which was a teacher for emotionally disturbed. I did not have that background but I had the sociology background that matched some of the characteristics for that position. Actually, then I started taking classes in special education and the next year became an ED teacher at the high school level. Later then, I taught at a different system. I spent seven years at the elementary, middle school, and senior high teaching ED. Then from there, I became an assistant principal in Montgomery County at Blacksburg Middle School. Then later, came to Roanoke City as an assistant principal. Then worked at the Central Office as a supervisor for the Gifted Program. Later, supervisor for Title 1. And during that period of time in administration, I served as principal at three elementary schools, three years each. So, I spent approximately twelve/thirteen years in administration. Also, in that administrative vein, I was the educational coordinator for one year at Saint Alban’s Psychiatric Hospital in Radford.

Q: And then you came back to teaching?

A: Yes, and decided to leave administration and went back into the classroom as an ED teacher for the last four years before my retirement.

Q: Would you talk about the circumstances surrounding your entry into the principalship.

A: As an ED teacher, I had a wonderful mentor in Roanoke County schools, Dr. Eddie Cobb, who was the director of pupil personnel services. Dr. Cobb was instrumental in my master’s degree because I was finishing a master’s degree in special ed. for emotionally disturbed, when he suggested that I consider secondary administration and supervision. He thought that I had the skills and the background to go into administration. So, I changed my major in my master’s degree and finished that in secondary education in 1982. And then he was certainly very helpful in my being able to get the first administrative position in Montgomery County as an assistant principal. So, it was through his guidance and his mentorship.

Q: What motivated you to enter the principalship? How did your motives change over the years?

A: I suppose having a sociology background and the ED background, that I felt that I had something special to offer, both to adults and for children and working with parents. Probably one of the things that motivated that, too, was my own background. Because I certainly not your model student in elementary school. In fact, I had several encounters with the principal and they weren’t to give me a lot of positive feedback at that age. However, because of a wonderful teacher I had in the sixth grade, and some other people who influenced my life, I felt like that I had something special to offer to children and to teachers who were teaching those children.

Q: Would you describe you personal philosophy of education. How did it evolve over the years?

A: My personal philosophy parallels the program now under grant and being implemented at Roanoke Academy and that’s Accelerated Schools Program. My philosophy is that all children should be taught and as gifted. I think that over the years we have worked with remediation so frequently without really identifying and capitalizing on children’s strengths and interests. And I believe that all children are gifted in different ways and that we need to design programs and design curricula that matches those interests and those needs. It’s evolved over the years by watching how children learn, watching children when they become excited about learning, what turns them on and what turns them off. And we know through research, through federal statistics, that compensatory education has not worked. So, we need to try the other end.

Q: Would you describe the instructional philosophy of your school, telling how it was developed and how it evolved over time.

A: My instructional philosophy was probably that of interdisciplinary teaching. It was developed through working, developing units myself, working with teachers to develop units, and probably some of that goes back to my opportunity, for a couple of years, to supervise the gifted program and be able to see how wonderfully those units were constructed and what the learning came about for the children. When I was principal at Crystal Spring, we operated a mini middle school program. We called it the M&M program in grades four, five and six. We cross grade grouped for the major disciplines and then we had enrichment experiences beyond that. We had interest units that they were able to take part in. And, one unique feature of that elementary school when we were doing the M&M program was that we did a foreign exchange program with a school in England for sixth graders, and the next year for fifth and sixth graders. So, I think the background with the gifted education program, that has just sort of paralleled my own beliefs and supported them over the years.

Q: What experiences/events in your professional life influenced your management philosophy? Please discuss these events.

A: Sometimes I think my management philosophy is more influenced by my personality as opposed to experiences or events in my professional life. I think there is a basic personality, maybe one of high control and a strong leadership or self perceived strong leadership ability. So, I think my basic personality probably dictated more of my management philosophy although I tried to modify that, my style and everything, based on events and input from staff and other personnel.

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

A: Ok. Let me see if I can sort these one by one. What do you think teachers expect principals to be able to do? I think teachers expect principals to be able to do the very things they ask the teachers to do. And I think that if teachers are expected to work long hours, they expect the principal to do the same, they don’t expect the principal to leave at four o’clock or not take anything home when they are dragging it home in the evenings. I think they expect principals to know exactly what’s going on in the school, what’s going on in every classroom, what’s going on with students, what’s happening in their lives and be able to support all of those things. They have to know curricula. They have to know the legalities involved with their position. They have to be able to articulate those things to teachers and to parents and to students and then be able to support them when that’s needed. My views of what it takes to be an effective principal, well all of the things I just mentioned. Being able to articulate expectations and a vision. There has to be a vision in a school. The principal is the primary source for that vision, but it has to be a cooperative vision and everyone has to understand what the vision is, what the expectations are, and the steps that you’re going to take to reach that vision. To change that school, to change the instructional program to get the test scores up, to make students better citizens, whatever the agenda is and the particular vision. But everyone has to understand it, be able to articulate it, understand the steps, and know that everyone is working in the same direction. You have to have a plan because you don’t know where you’re going if you don’t and then you don’t know when you get there.

Q: As a follow up question, would you describe the expectations, both professional and personal, that were placed upon principals by their employers and the community during your period of employment. How do those expectations differ from today’s situation?

A: When I became a principal and during my tenure in administration, I believe that the expectations that were placed upon principal’s at that point, professional, that they were expected to be able to manage a school effectively, and that entails the financial, the personnel, all aspects of it. The legal aspects as well. The expectations were that we had been hired as principals. We were valued as principals. We were hired for skills, and that there was confidence in our ability to make changes where changes were needed, to keep things rolling along a steady course if that’s what we needed to do. But, we were expected to be visionary. We were also expected to be able to take the vision and work with the staff and we were allowed to do that. We were given the freedom to do it. We knew what the end results wanted and that was that improved achievement, student achievement. But we had the flexibility. We had the support to go about achieving that the way that we saw that we needed to do based on the needs of our students and our community that we were functioning in at that time. And we were given that support. And very frequently, given the resources to do the job that we identified needed to be done. The community as a whole was supportive. They knew that we valued education. We valued their children. We wanted their children to learn. We were just there for the children and I think that brought about a great deal of support. And, there’s lots of ways you can show the community that you care about their children. And, that’s all they want. I think today, it is somewhat different. I saw expectations changing my last year as a principal. And, eventhough, we were able as a staff to identify our vision and the resources we needed for that, we were not able to get those things. That certainly had an impact on my decision to leave administration. I think the things were changing it was a setting down a plan that was based on someone else’s more generalized expectations rather than looking at our student population and their needs and being able to customize and personalize biennial plans, if you will, to meet those particular needs and then be able to get the resources needed to do that. Yet we were moving in a direction of less control over what we were doing not more control.

Q: A great deal of attention has been given to the topic of personal leadership in recent years. Please discuss your approach to leadership and describe some techniques which worked for you — and an incident in which your approach failed.

A: I think that my personal leadership style was certainly one of high control, I wanted to be involved in everything. But, to balance that I was also, I believe, a caring leader and wanted to have the personal touch with the staff members and the students. And wanted to know every student’s name and be able to understand what was happening in their families, with the students as well as the staff members. I think sometimes I became to sensitive to some of their personal needs and that was maybe a little difficult. One incident, I had a very good friend who taught at the school where I was principal and it was …

Q: (the tape was cut off for rethinking time)

A: As I said, my leadership style is one of high control, however, some techniques that worked for me, and I had to balance that high control leadership style, was to get input frequently from staff members, from students through students councils, but I asked for feedback because sometimes I became so high control that I left people out and they needed to be included in things. So, through surveys, through informal meetings with teachers, and through formal meetings with teachers, I took some feedback from them. Sometimes, it was a little difficult but I knew that I needed the feedback if I were going to make improvements and that the children were going to benefit and that we were all going to live in a happy environment. An incident in which my approach failed, I did have a friend who was teaching at this particular school and my high control I said that we are implementing interdisciplinary units, and you will do them. And there wasn’t any leeway on that one. An excellent teacher, had only one child who didn’t pass a literacy test. An outstanding teacher and she quit. I was devastated for a short period of time but I understood why she quit and she was beginning to see more things that were happening in the city, in terms of the dictatorial things and sometimes with the Magnet. That sometimes we were missing the meat and potatoes, what we were supposed to be doing and we were putting on maybe just too many illusions.

Q: There are those who argue that standardized testing can provide a way to improve instruction. Please discuss your experience with such testing and provide us your views on its effect on the quality of the instructional program.

A: Well, I’m an advocate for standardized testing. And, I believe it can improve instruction if it’s used correctly. And, I don’t think it should be used, the results, to dismiss teachers or to penalize staff members or principals. However, I think it’s very valid in terms of being pre- and post- testing. And, I think if we can get a testing program that is consistent from grade level to grade level so you can use the pre- and post- data and you do it year after year then you can really make some difference with that. One experience I’d like to share with you in testing that worked at one school where we were still doing the old SRA test and we had the teachers, we worked together, we took an old management system we had and we took old SRA tests, the third grade, and highlighted those for the students and had individual conferences. Now this was fourth grade only. Individual students. They ended up taping to their desks a copy of their pre-test and highlighted in yellow with target areas that they needed to improve on. Since they were included in it, it wasn’t just something the teacher was focusing on, but the students knew what they needed and then it was right there in front of them constantly as a reminder and they worked really hard. Our test scores from the year before to this year, when we started doing this, and we had done some other things starting in second grade to build up to this point, but in Math alone the standardized test scores went from I think it was the 30th percentile to the 52nd percentile in Math. We gained like 22 percentile points. We gained almost as much in English, the language section on the test. We did not fair as well with the Reading, we needed to do some other work with that. But, I see some real benefit with the standardized testing. If it’s used correctly for the right instructional reasons in the right ways.

Q: Would you describe some the pressures you faced on a daily basis and explain how you coped with them. Describe your biggest headaches or concerns on the job. Describe the toughest decision or decisions that you had to make.

A: Um. That’s quite a question. Some of the pressures faced on a daily basis were trying to make sure that the instructional program was being implemented as it should be. Also, students safety was always an issue with me. Not from someone coming into the school that didn’t belong there, but often just minor things that students could do that would have some severe consequences, physically, to them. One incident was a child playing on the monkey bars and falling and going into seizures, was passed out, a broken arm, all those things, and those were some pretty serious things. So, I was always very cautious and always fine tuned to safety issues, their physical well being as well as their educational well being. Some of the biggest headaches or concerns on the job was simply making sure that things were like they should be. I know that some people would say that parents might be the biggest headache and occasionally you would get a parent or a relative that caused some difficulty in the position but overall, as I said earlier, I think when parents or relatives know that you have their child’s interests at heart, they really come around for the most part. But you have to be gentle with them and take the time. The toughest decision or decisions that you had to make. There were times when decisions involving suspensions, decisions involving notifying local agencies because of suspected child abuse, which wasn’t a decision if you suspected that you had to notify them. Some things, other decisions, and how to work with staff. How to support them and yet at the same time get them to be the professional people that I knew they could be. Balancing, sometimes, my caring for them, knowing what they were going through personally and what they had to deal with there, professionally. So, I don’t think there’s any one thing but it’s just a conglomeration of many concerns and decisions that are made on a daily basis. And, you cope with it because you care.

Q: Would you tell us the key to your success as a principal.

A: I think the bottom line is the caring. The special caring for both the staff and the children. And being able to just be a workaholic. Just work myself to death. And be willing to spend at least twelve hours a day and going in on weekends and being actively involved and being in the forefront and having a vision and all those things and high expectations.

Q: Would you describe those aspects of your professional training which best prepared you for the principalship. Which training experiences were least useful?

A: I guess the internship, secondary internship, was probably in terms of my educational experience the most useful. Some of the classes I had, school law and those kinds of things, were certainly useful. The time that I spent, two years, as an assistant principal in Montgomery County and then again a year as assistant principal in Roanoke City, really I think prepared me best for a principalship. That on the job training as an assistant principal I think is invaluable for anyone who is going to go on to a principalship.

Q: There are those who argue that, more often than not, central office policies hinder, rather than help, building level administrators in carrying out their responsibilities. Would you give your views on this issue. If you were king, what changes would you make in the typical system-wide organizational arrangements as a way of improving administrative efficiency and effectiveness?

A: I have to look at that to see if I understand what it means. I think sometimes central office policies do hinder rather than help. There are sometimes they help. I think it’s difficult, however, for central level administrators who have not been in the classroom in twenty-five/thirty years. I think they have some grandiose ideas about how things should operate at the building level and what the responsibilities are at the building level, when in fact, it’s been so long since they’ve had any real experience involving, they really need to go back and not go in for a day to read stories or go in and do model lessons, but go in and take over because you have to have the control and the responsibility to understand how those changes have come about. I think that with central office personnel, if they were to have time in a building where they would assume the responsibilities of either classroom teacher or building level principal, they’d have a better understanding in developing policies. I think I have a better grasp for that, simply because I left administration and went back to the classroom for four years before I retired. I had some ideas that were not realistic as a principal and I did not understand that until I was back in the classroom. And then I had an opportunity to see how some of the things I asked of staff were not realistic. One teacher said to me one time, I said something about "do you understand my expectations" and she said, "Oh we all understand your expectations. You expect us to work fourteen hours a day, seven days a week. Like you do." But I didn’t realize at times what I was asking people to do and how much time I was taking away from their families and their personal lives. And I really did that.

Q: But going back into the classroom made you see that?

A: I could see how difficult that was when I was on the other side of the fence. Ok. If you were king, what changes would you make in the typical system-wide organizational arrangements. I would think that people would rotate in and out of schools, in and out of classrooms. Roanoke County, I read in the paper, has a policy now where some of the assistant principals are going back into the classroom to teach a half day. I think that it would be advisable for all central level administrators to get back in for a year, rotate in and out as the principalship and a teacher so that we could all have a better balanced view of what the jobs are really about.

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

A: My advice has been recently, don’t do it. I would also say I would advise any person who is considering an administrative job, a principalship, to do everything possible to serve as an assistant principal for at least two years before you decide that a principalship is exactly what you want. It’s very time consuming. It’s very demanding. It can be wonderful and a heartbreak. It’s all in the same.

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

A: I agree whole heartedly that the principal should be an instructional leader and a good manager and they’re not mutually exclusive. They go hand in hand. And I think that to run a school appropriately you have to be the instructional leader. You have to be the top person out there and you have to know the instructional program. You have to know what works with it and what’s coming out that’s new, what’s innovative, what’s creative and the other hand you have to be able to run the building as a manager, as a business manager.

Q: Would you describe your approach to teacher evaluation and give your philosophy of evaluation.

A: My approach to teacher evaluation, I appreciate a formal evaluation process and I think that’s certainly valid to have that. On the other hand, I think that we also need a more informal teacher evaluation that balances that, the formal part of it. I think formal, informal, portfolio evaluation is appropriate and I think seeing today what we are expecting of students and portfolio assessments, I think we need to look more toward a teacher portfolio assessment.

Q: What, in your view, should be the role of the Assistant Principal. Discuss your utilization of such personnel while on the job. Would you describe the most effective assistant principal with whom you had opportunity to serve. What became of this individual.

A: The role of the Assistant Principal. I think typically has been, and as an assistant principal I found this to be the case, the role became whatever the principal really didn’t like to do, those jobs. At the secondary level, it was taking care of the lockers, discipline, buses, those types of things. But I think the role of the assistant principal is one of some on job training as well. So there should be a balance with the principal and the assistant principal that the assistant principal has the opportunity to learn all aspects of a principalship during that job as an assistant principal. I worked at that when I had assistant principals in the building where I was principal. I had two very effective assistant principals. They had different strengths in different areas but they were both highly effective. They both later became principals.

Q: As you view it, what characteristics are associated with the most effective schools, and what features characterize less successful ones?

A: Well, as I view it, the characteristics associated with the effective schools would be schools that are inviting, where you have a warm feeling/tone, where there are high expectations, where there’s a vision, and everyone is working toward that vision. There are a lot of characteristics, that’s just a skimming of the surface of that. I think features that characterize less successful ones, ones where you see that you don’t feel invited, children don’t feel successful, you don’t see evidence of that when you walk in the school, there doesn't appear to be a cohesiveness in a building. People are just closing their doors and going off and doing their own thing. And as an instructional leader, and a manager of a school, as a principal, that’s something that you have to create a cohesiveness among staff. So that everyone is working toward the same goal and that the atmosphere is warm and inviting and a successful one.

Q: It has been said that good personnel managers encourage their subordinates and peers by staging celebrations on their successes. To what extent did you engage in this practice during your tenure as principal, and to what extent did it improve morale and organizational effectiveness?

A: I probably didn’t do enough of that as a principal. In retrospect, you can always see that there are things that you should have done more frequently or more elaborately and that would certainly be one of them. We did celebrate successes. Any time there was a special award or anything that staff received or students, we did that. We celebrated birthdays. We did showers. We did all kinds of things. One fun thing that we did when I was principal of one school, we had drawings every week and it might be, I’d draw two names, all staff would put their names in a hat and it might be that if their name were drawn they’d get an egg biscuit from Hardees the next morning or if the substitute teacher, building level substitute teacher, was not busy then they could have that person as a half day. That was a treat that they were able to get. Or they might get a gift certificate to KSS for $25 dollars. It wasn’t always very much but it kept the morale going and we did party things. One thing that kept the morale going, was we did an inservice once that fortunately Dr. Tota didn’t find out about, but it was on checking for head lice. We used a mannequin with hair and nose and glasses that looked like Dr. Tota. And actually what we were doing, I told the staff, it was at the beginning of the school year, that we were revisiting the elements of an effective lesson. They were angry, hostile. Anyway, the next morning when they saw the two teachers, on staff, who were doing this workshop they rolled. People had tears rolling down their faces. It was hysterical and it was a way of saying that we do use the elements of an effective lesson but it was a way of balancing it with some humor at a very trying time in our profession with those elements.

Q: In recent years more and more programs for special groups of students (LD, Gifted and Talented, Non-English speaking) have been developed. Please discuss your experience with special student services and your views on today’s trends in this regard.

A: My experience has been as a special ed. teacher for emotionally disturbed as well as coordinator for gifted and talented programs in Roanoke City Schools. I think that we need more programs. I’m not opposed to special groups and special experiences designed for those particular groups. I think we need to be careful in some areas that we’re not infringing on some student’s rights in an effort to promote another student’s rights. We need to be very careful that we’re balancing and we’re not taking away from one in an effort to give to another.

Q: Given the presence of administrative complexity, if there were three areas of administration that you could change in order to improve efficiency and effectiveness of educational administration, what would they be?

A: I can’t see changing any of the administrative areas. I think they’re all interwoven to make up the administrative position and I don’t think you can isolate any of the variables out.

Q: As a follow up question, if you could change three areas in the curriculum or overall operations in American schools, what would they be?

A: I think at reading. I’m an advocate for Mari Clay’s Reading Recovery. We were able to have four teachers at one time at Forest Park trained in Reading Recovery and to extend some of those strategies into the other grade levels. I think that the approach to reading, based on the New Zealand studies, I think would be an overall way to approach reading. Also, I think that just more hands on experiences, more opportunities for first hand learning would be advisable. And that’s probably the two major things.

Q: Principals operate in a constantly tense environment. What kinds of things did you do to maintain your sanity under these stressful conditions?

A: Oh! I had several strategies for maintaining my sanity and there were days I wasn’t sure I did maintain it. But I used a lot of profanity in the bathroom, not outside the bathroom but in the bathroom with the door closed and that relieved some of the stress. At night, my husband became stressed because he went through what he called a debriefing every evening which helped me unload it and load onto him. And I read. I’m an avid reader so I was able to sort of remove myself after the day was over, at times, by loosing myself in the books I read.

Q: Since you have now had some time to reflect on your career, I wonder if you would share with us that you consider to be your administrative strengths and weaknesses.

A: My administrative strengths, I think as I’ve said earlier was the special caring about human beings of all ages. My ability to have a vision and to proceed toward that vision. My ability, I think at times, to gather people together and form a cohesive bond so that a group can work together. And I think that my ability to just be tenacious and be willing to put in the hours, the time, the energy and the caring for it. My weaknesses were somewhat on the same lines that sometimes I couldn’t balance it with my life. I became too involved with it. I became, it was too painful when I saw children with AIDS and I was dealing with that. I would leave school crying in the parking lot and my heart broke for those children. So, what sometimes were my strengths were also my weaknesses. Another weakness I had was that I did expect people to give too much of their personal time and I was too dictatorial at times.

Q: Would you discuss the circumstances leading up to your decision to retire at the time you did, giving your reasons and the mental processes you exercised in reaching the conclusion to step down.

A: I’m going to approach this question from the standpoint of deciding to leave the principalship, leave administration, and go back to the classroom which is an unprecedented thing in Roanoke City, I’m told. But, there were many circumstances, many hours and days of thinking and crying and praying to get through that process. I had been in administration for several years and was not being asked to go back to the classroom but trying to make that decision myself. I saw that decision being affected by circumstances beyond my control in the school division, the direction I saw the school division going in. Also, personal circumstances with loosing friends and family members who had died that year. That was certainly a variable in consideration. Wanting more time with my family, with grandchildren who had, one child had been born, and I think just I had a point in my life where I had to reevaluate and to ask myself do I want to continue giving all of this time and energy and can I physically continue. Physically and mentally. And I decided it was time that I gave some of the attention that I had been giving to the job to my family. So I made the decision.

Q: Would you give us an overall comment on the pros and cons of administrative service, and any advice you would wish passed along to today’s principals.

A: I’ve said several things that would probably indicate a negative perspective about administrative service but I would not change it. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to do it and I loved it while I was doing it. I really enjoyed it and when the end came I knew it was time for me to leave. Lots of people don’t acknowledge when that time comes and I’m grateful that I did. I would pass along to just go with your beliefs to be the best principals you can, to be the manager, to take everyone’s feelings into consideration (children’s, parent’s, staff member’s, everyone), and to work cohesively with your staff and to fight for what you and the staff believe is the best thing for the children in that school.

Q: Despite my best efforts to be comprehensive in my questioning, there is probably something I have left out. What have I not asked you that I should have?

A: Yes, I feel that I answered that in the previous question by saying that I think it is wise to ask people "Would you do it all again?" "Was it worth it?" Yes it was. It was wonderful. I wouldn’t trade it. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything and there’s still days I miss it very much, being with children and with the adults.  

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