This is an interview with Gordon Higgins, Retired Principal for the Oral History Project at Virginia Tech.
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Q: Mr. Higgins, can you tell me about the Association of Arlington School Administrators and your job as the Executive Secretary of the Association.
(Streamed audio file of interview for this question using RealPlayer)
Q: Was this Organization ever a part of a teachers' organization?
A: No, as the ASA (Arlington School Administrators Association), or as part of the AFL-CIO organizing committee it was strictly only for administrators or supervisors. We are the people who were in the organization at the beginning and had belonged to the teachers association. A vote was held and the principals and administrators broke away from that group and became the ASA.
Q: Do other jurisdictions have similar organizations in Virginia?
Q: But Fairfax County doesn't have a separate organization like Arlington has?
A: At the last I don't think they did. They're a little different setup, and they have the area type of organization there, four different areas. I don't think they have a completely county-wide association like this.
Q: Mr. Higgins, would you tell me about your educational background?
Q: When did you decide to become a principal, or I should say, why did you decide to become a principal?
Q: How long did you have that job?
A: I was there three years.
Q: Where is the school?
Q: I remember last time you told me about your other job experiences. You have a very interesting background. Could you elaborate on that for me?
Q: That was a difficult position to be in...
A: Yes. So I did that and went back to principalship there in Maine and then I was a headmaster in Colbrook, New Hampshire which was a small land grant type of secondary school near the Canadian border, about 8. miles form the Canadian border. After two years there I returned to Virginia as a principal in the Richmond area, just outside of Richmond in the suburbs. After about three years there I went to the State Department of Education as Supervisor of Secondary Education and did that for five years. I left on leave of absence to go to the university to finish up my doctoral work. When I had completed the coursework on that I resigned from the State Department of Education and took a position with the Air Force CAP Program as an aerospace education specialist. I had gotten into that when I was working with the State Department of Education and they loaned me to the Division of Space and Aeronautics sometimes to that may have more promise than things they may have been doing. I feel a school, if it is going to serve its students well, the staff is going to have to continually be on the ball to look for more and better ways to get their learnings across that they have come to do. It takes a staff with a lot of get up and go and ready to try. That's the way I like to see the staff work.
Q: So actually you think that a very important element of the school are the teachers. Do you think it is a good idea for the schools to decide who works at the schools; in other words, what do you think of center-base decision making versus central-office decision making?
Q: What are the characteristics of an effective school? What do you like to see in a school?
A: Good teachers who know where they are going and know how to get there and are willing to explore and try things.
Q: So do you think center-based decision making is important? School based decision making?
Q: How broad do you think this school-based decision making should be, for instance in the selection and hiring of teachers?
A: Well here in Arlington, for at least all the time I was with the system, the principal had a pretty important role in the selection of teachers. It allowed the principal and I think they still do, make the same thing. They can pick as they need. Of course, they have to take people who are qualified by certified by education, and they will take people who have been scouted by the school system, and are on the list there as people applying and they will have a chance to interview whoever they want to of that group. But when they recommend who they want of the people they've interviewed it should rest with the school because they're the ones who are going to have to work together.
Q: Right. So you think that in selecting the teacher, the teacher should, lets say, be compatible with the existing members of the school. Is that an important element do you think?
Q: Can you describe Fort Myer School for me?
A: Of course Fort Myer no longer exists as a school. At the time in the years I was there we had in the school originally about 600 pupils. And then as the post did away with some of the housing for dependents, like in the south post was really wiped out, which was a large percentage of the housing on-post and then went over to the county after the one year I was there it became a part of the Arlington School system and Arlington used in many different ways. At times we were sort of a special ed center along with a regular 1-6 program and other times we had a kindergarten center there along with a 1-6 program. It seemed that whatever the needs of the county and they wanted space for something we would be line to get it. As I often told the staff, if you think this year is different, wait until next year.
Q: How did your staff adjust to that?
A: We had some of probably the earliest Arlington Schools with a real bi-lingual situation because of the neighborhood where we served along with the diversity within the dependents there, the military dependents. And then in the area where we served we had a large Korean population, and were one of the first schools to do what we talk about now as ESL and that type of thing. So it took a while to meet the needs of this type of situation and we were probably trial and error, but we made it.
Q: Sounds like you had to be very flexible...
A: Yes, very much. It was never a dull moment.
Q: It sounds also like you went through a lot of transitions at Fort Myer. You were there for fifteen years and the first year that you were there you took it over with the understanding that it would be turned over to Arlington County, so you would have to be in a period of transition from one system to another which makes it very difficult. Of course you would have to adapt to a new system. Then it sounds like they expected that school to serve a lot of very different needs. Besides the bi-lingual program you spoke of a special ed program. What types of special ed programs did you have?
A: We had EMRs (Educational Mental Retardation) and we had language handicap type. Those were the main ones we had there for the years I was there anyway. And we had probably a third of our school at one time with the special ed program.
Q: A third?
Q: That's a big proportion. What years were you at Fort Myer?
A: From 1962 to 1977.
Q: And that's a period that saw a lot of growth, also, in Arlington.
Q: Why was that?
A: Because Arlington is sort of a retired people's community. There are a lot of retired people here, --- military, government and otherwise, and they don't produce children. Not children of school age, anyway. I think that is a big part of it. From somewhere in the 20 thousands it's down to 14 or 15 isn't it?
Q: So it underwent a neighborhood change. It went from one type of neighborhood to an older population neighborhood. Is that correct?
A: Well, I think it always had been somewhat of an older persons' community, but for some reason that seemed to accelerate at one point.
Q: Why did Fort Myer Elementary School close?
A: Because they were closing schools in the system anyway, and the county didn't own the building, and if they were going to do away with a school they would get rid of that one for sure.
Q: Where was the school exactly?
A: Are you acquainted with the post at Fort Myer?
Q: Kind of. I know there's Fort McHenry...
A: Are you acquainted with the Commissary?
Q: On the post? So how did the other kids get in?
A: Bussed in by the Arlington School buses. The school was located right across the street from the commissary.
Q: Was that unusual for non-military children to go to a school that was located on a military base?
A: No, not necessarily, because Army schools and all military schools for dependents came under HEW at one time, and first in this country there was a movement, and this was a movement that began a little before the time that I came to Fort Myer. I think in Virginia, the air base at Langley was one of the first schools of military dependents to go over to the local school system at Hampton, there, and then I think that Fort Myer was the second one in the state to go over to the local school system. Soon after we made the move, the principal of the dependent school at West Point, the military academy, called me to see what I thought about how the system of working under the local school system compared to what we had been under as an Army school, and little by little around the country, they've gone out of the business of schools on the post and given them over the local school systems, and they are run by the local school system.
Q: Do you think this is a good idea?
Q: Do you think this is good for the kids?
Q: I guess I want to ask you this because it's something sort of personal. I know that a lot of kids like military kids travel an awful lot. They have to move every two years. How do you think this affects them, drawing on your experience at Fort Myer?
Q: Do you think it hurts their educational or the academic development?
Q: So it depends on the schools they've gone to, and it depends a lot on their educational background.
Q: What was the biggest problem at your school for the kids?
Q: What problems did you have with the children at Fort Myer?
A: Oh, I don't think any different from what you get in any school. You have things of people that are pupils and students with different makeups, characteristics. You have your discipline problems, you have your slow learners that you have to work with, you have the run of the mill.
Q: Any big problems that were specific to that time that the kids have? Like now in our school system, and maybe it's because I work as a counselor, but it seems now that many kids have problems because of, lets say, we are discovering many cases of physical and sexual abuse among young kids in the elementary school. Did you have of that back then?
Q: I think you were a principal during the Vietnam War years. Was there any special problem relating to that?
Q: That was the year that the Beatles came out and were very popular. Did you see anything like that?
A: And the things on college campuses and so forth. No at that level of schooling I don't think we saw much of that.
Q: So the elementary schools were not affected by that?
Q: What about the teachers. Did you have any particular problems or general problems with teachers. What was your biggest headache with the staff?
Q: It doesn't sound like things have changed much. How did you think of yourself as a leader, for instance did you think of yourself as an instructional leader? What was your leadership style?
Q: What was your management philosophy and how did you go about doing that. Obviously, Fort Myer with 600 students was a very large school. Did you have an assistant principal or administrative help?
Q: It sounds like you depended on the support of your staff very much.
Q: So you delegated a lot of responsibility.
Q: Did you support your staff in becoming administrators themselves? Did any of your staff go on to become administrators?
Q: How would you evaluate that?
Q: ecause it's a people world.
A: That's all you have to deal with, people.
Q: Being able to interact with others, I see. How did you develop your management style. I know that in the beginning you talked about leading management seminars for private industry. Can you tell me about that because I think that it would be very helpful?
Q: So it was a goal oriented, management skills type seminar?
Q: I see. Do you think personality has anything to do with a person's management style?
Q: And, of course, right now, you know, there is this thing going where the AEA is suggesting that they make evaluations of the principals. Have you run into this?
Q: So principals are going to have to do a performance improvement plan like teachers?
Q: So, what is the ASA position on principal evaluation?
Q: How do they feel about having that formalized?
Q: What types of things would they evaluate? How would they evaluate a principal?
Q: My last question is what is your idea of a good teacher. I think you answered that pretty well. I think you said that a teacher has to have very good instructional program and I think that was one of the focuses of your management was to make sure that there was a good instructional program.
Q: Because there are lots of elements in there that make a good teacher, and each teacher would teach differently.
Q: I guess I'm kind of interested because, of my orientation, in how a person's personal makeup, a person's personality affect their management style and their teaching style. What of type of personality would make, let's say, an excellent teacher. What personal characteristics?
A: Well, I think it has to be a person who is an effective teacher usually if they are not always telling, and more or less encouraging the students to tell. I would say that they avoid the autocratic approach and keep the more democratic if you want to use the word. Have a feeling, in particularly a strong feeling, in being perceptive in what's going on with the youngster. Why is he drooping his eyes today. What's the matter? These things. I think that a teacher has to be very perceptive of the group as a whole and the individuals in the group. And most particularly, they need to know where they're going and what the program is aiming at to determine now and then am I getting there?
Q: It sounds like things haven't changed very much. I think your perception is that you don't teach a child from the head up and I guess that even back 25 years ago when you were principal of Fort Myer, that was still the same philosophy, am I right?
A: And it's true, I think, in good elementary schools, in comparing the difference between high school teaching and elementary teaching. There has been the statement made, you know, that in elementary school they teach the child and in secondary schools they teach the subject. So that is the big difference. You know what I mean...
Q: Do you think that is a necessary separation?
Q: Mr. Higgins, is there anything I left out that you would like to mention?
Q: On going through the last tape I was very interested in when you were talking about being principal in Richmond and you said that you were principal of a secondary and elementary school combination...
Q: And you were principal of both schools.
Q: Is it really difficult, though, to manage two levels?
Q: In one classroom, with one teacher. How did that work?
Q: How did the teacher feel about it?
Q: How did the parents feel about it?
Q: So it was voluntary.
Q: How many students were in that classroom?
Q: That's a large room with that many levels. That's a large class.
Q: Yes, it takes a very skillful teacher to be able to juggle that. And to think that that was the normal thing, that was the kind of the thing back in the years there...
Q: And it worked out well. Mr. Higgins, you've been very informative. I, at this point don't have any more questions, but do you have anything else to add?
Q: Thank you so much.
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