Interview with Gordon Higgins


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.

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

A: The Arlington School Administrators originated in about 1974. At the beginning we were part of the organizing committee of school administrators and supervisors which is an organizing committee of AFL-CIO and we belonged to that for a few years, but then we broke away and became strictly an independent association. Just our local employees of the Arlington School Board are members of it. Our basic reason for being is to be the professional development group for the principals, supervisors or some directors of special programs and other people in the field that we have. We work for things such as salaries, working conditions and in some ways we work in program development by putting on things for our members that will help them professionally to grow and become more effective. My job is to run the Association for the members and do the programming. Today we will have an executive board meeting so I will get ready for that.

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?

A: I guess in a few cases you may find a local organization like ours. I think that there are not too many and probably the administrators and principals around the state mostly belong, the people belong to the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals or Secondary School Principals or the state part of ASCD.

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?

A: I have a bachelors degree from the Univ. of Virginia. I have my masters degree from Bates College which is a college in Maine, and I did my doctoral work at the University of Virginia and completed it all but never finished the dissertation. I have what we jokingly call the ABD degree, All But Dissertation.

Q: When did you decide to become a principal, or I should say, why did you decide to become a principal?

A: I guess because somebody asked me if I would like to have the position of principal of a neighboring high school when I was working as a teacher-coach in a school division where the superintendent had three high schools. He had a vacancy in the neighboring town. At a party he asked me if I knew of somebody who I might recommend who would .perhaps fill that spot for him and I gave him some names, particularly someone nearby, and then he said, "well, how would you like the job?" I said, "are you serious?" He said yes, and I said I would like the job, so I had the job.

Q: How long did you have that job?

A: I was there three years.

Q: Where is the school?

A: It was a school in Maine in the northern part of the state, north of Portland,, a small, rural town type of a place. It was mostly agricultural. Wood pulp was a big business up in that area.

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?

A: Well, I think as we talked before I said I had about 39 years of really working in education as an administrator. I was there three years at that first position and then I became a guidance director at the high school where I went as a student myself. That was when guidance was a new position. I was given the job of being their first guidance director, which I didn't know too much about, but I learned in a hurry. I also was coaching, but I did it only one year because I found that there was a problem between the principal and the head coach for whom I worked. I became an errand boy or message carrier between the two. When I would leave the athletic office I would be carrying a note from the head coach to the principal because they wouldn't speak to each other. After I did my work in my office up at the administration part of the building I would get a message from the superintendent to take back to the coach because he didn't want to speak to him. So I did it one year and said I will get out and be my own principal.

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?

A: Well, of course, a school principal as an administrator for the school system he works for is bound to carry out policies of the central office whatever they may be and he is an agent of the superintendent and the school board in that sense. That does not rule out that there should be things emanating from within the school itself to meet their own particular unique situation which every school in the county isn't the same and they don't serve the same kind of people. ... education and aviation education in the schools. They put me through all so I got quite interested. Then they offered me this position I took . In the Chicago area. I left there after three years. I went into some management consulting work for two years and handled the seminars for a management development type of company which was one of three units: they had one in Canada, one in New York and one in Chicago. I had that experience of running management development seminars. Then I went with the American Book Company as a textbook representative and came back to Virginia. After four years of travelling, the years I put in travelling with the State Department and years with the Air Force I had had enough travelling so I came to Arlington and was principal at the Fort Myer School and that is where I finished. I spent my last 15 years there. I was there as principal during the transition of Fort Myer from a school for military dependents to a school that was a part of the Arlington Public School System.

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?

A: It's very important.

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?

A: Sure.

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: Very well. Very well.
Q: What does it take to be an effective principal, especially at a school like Fort Myer which changed so often?

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?

A: Nearly 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.

A: Not from student population because student population went gradually down in the county.

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: Oh, you mean the school was actually located in the post?

A: On the post.

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?

A: I think it was. It keeps them more into the big main stream of things and a larger system can do more things, there's no doubt about it. And you can become more parochial if you stay with just being one little house on the street.

Q: Do you think this is good for the kids?

A: I think so because more opportunities come if you sort of broaden the programs.

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?

A: I have always felt that the kids adjust a lot better than the parents. And basically the kids seem to fit right in. And they're used to this thing because, as you say, they are quite transient, and for some reason younger people are more flexible than some of us oldies, you know.

Q: Do you think it hurts their educational or the academic development?

A: I think that is something that would have to be looked at from the point of view of where, when and so forth, because some schools they are in may be fine, and other schools they may find are not up to the same standards they left, and vise-versa.

Q: So it depends on the schools they've gone to, and it depends a lot on their educational background.

A: I'd say so.

Q: What was the biggest problem at your school for the kids?

A: The biggest problem in what sense?

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?

A: I would say not to any notable degree. Now and then you might see something that would cause you to wonder what was happening at home. And you can see parents as they sometimes deal with the youngsters on the school grounds, at times you might see something that you don't think is the right way to handle the youngsters. But I don't recall much of what you read about today, thank goodness. I mean some of those things are horrible. No I would say that was not a big problem.

Q: I think you were a principal during the Vietnam War years. Was there any special problem relating to that?

A: Not at that level.

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?

A: I wouldn't say so, no.

Q: What about the teachers. Did you have any particular problems or general problems with teachers. What was your biggest headache with the staff?

A: I was just trying to think, what are the things that do pop up with any teacher. You have problems some times on getting them to follow through with a program and so forth. And you have problems with teachers who seemingly aren't good with class management. And you have to devise some program to help them get hold of the situation and get the game in motion and then let go. These are things that I think almost any principal runs into and then absenteeism from work sometimes becomes a problem. Lateness coming in can be a problem.

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?

A: Well, I think my big concern was instruction. I wanted to see programs that were promising to do things better and we'd keep working on getting that. And I feel that I did exert a lot of leadership influence on getting things going in the classrooms that would make us a better school and serve our community better.

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?

A: No, you didn't have it at that time. They had a formula and as the years went by we went below 600, so we didn't qualify for an assistant, but a principal would have assistance whether they so called name and appointed with the remuneration for it, I think most any principal has a staff and on that staff we will have two or three, call them if you want to, assistant principals, I like to call them lieutenants, and if there are things that you need help from somebody on, usually those people that you tagged as lieutenants can help you get a campaign going or whatever it is you want to see in motion.

Q: It sounds like you depended on the support of your staff very much.

A: Well, you've got to. I mean you've got to give them a chance to go on their own. They can't go forever with somebody taking them by the hand. And if you want to see a staff go to work and do the job they've got to do you've got to say, well hey, now you're qualified, go ahead do it. I'll support you all the way.

Q: So you delegated a lot of responsibility.

A: I believe in delegation, true.

Q: Did you support your staff in becoming administrators themselves? Did any of your staff go on to become administrators?

A: Any time anybody wanted to make that move I would encourage it. If I felt they would make it.

Q: How would you evaluate that?

A: Well, I think you have to know a person quite well, and you can see whether a person has ability, is quick at perceiving things, you can see if the person in his/her personal relationships interacts well with people. Do they have the ability to lead? So you ranked interactive skills very high.

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?

A: I think the management style I worked with in those seminars was a way of training people. Now, the management firm, the management development firm would take or make a contract with some large corporation, and then they'd put on a seminar for a week at some resort hotel, which I would run. And basically it was to develop within the people there who might be vice presidents or heads of divisions or people of this sort, to develop a way of appraising situations and learning to get the facts that are vital to what they are facing, so they don't spin wheels but can impinge on to the problem as quickly as possible.

Q: So it was a goal oriented, management skills type seminar?

A: It would attempt to teach, get across, that you can't jump to conclusions, you've got to be able to sift the facts from just false perceptions you're getting, that there's no perfect answer to anything, that you're just going to have to adjust for the time being and think there's going to be some change beyond that. This type of thing.

Q: I see. Do you think personality has anything to do with a person's management style?

A: I guess it has to because the person who is managing is creating an image of himself one way or another, that his people that he supervises or leads or whatever are going to have of him. And if they don't gain a positive image of him he's not going to go too well. So your question, I guess, is that you have to think, hey, how do they see me, and you have to do some assessing of yourself, and that's something we all ought to do once in a while. So an effective manager or administrator actually knows himself well and is able to project that.

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?

A: Yes.

Q: OK.

A: And of course that's being done in a lot of schools anyway. I think many principals have been doing that for years. I know we did that at Fort Myer. And it's good. You've got to have some of that. Hey, how am I doing? And what am I doing wrong that I can correct and do better?

Q: So principals are going to have to do a performance improvement plan like teachers?

A: I don't think they should be afraid of assessing whether they assess themselves or let their staff give an assessment of them. I think that's alright.

Q: So, what is the ASA position on principal evaluation?

A: Well, as I said, I think that it's been an informal thing and I think a lot of principals do it.

Q: How do they feel about having that formalized?

A: I think they would take issue, I'm sure, if--it would become a standardized thing. This aim of maybe getting somebody, as you say. I think it has to be on an fairly informal basis.

Q: What types of things would they evaluate? How would they evaluate a principal?

A: I haven't seen the form, but they had one that was presented, I guess. I haven't seen it. I think it came from NEA and I don't know just what the contents of it are.

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.

A: I think the best way to answer that is I could take you by the hand and go somewhere and find a couple of teachers I had and say, you want to see what my idea of a good teacher is, watch that person for a day or two. That'll be my answer to you.

Q: Because there are lots of elements in there that make a good teacher, and each teacher would teach differently.

A: Right.

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?

A: I don't know, but it comes across in many things traditionally in high school, things that have been departmentalized, and the subjects and the credits, and the old Carnegie approach to graduation and everything else. So they're handicapped, well maybe not handicapped, but they are in a more structured situation just by the history of high school education.

Q: Mr. Higgins, is there anything I left out that you would like to mention?

A: I don't know. Do you remember anything that they talked about the last time that we didn't touch on this time.

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...

A: They combined one through twelve...

Q: Yes...

A: One through twelve, in two separate buildings separated by a street, and it was seeing both worlds.

Q: And you were principal of both schools.

A: Yes.
Q: There is a move now toward having these educational centers where the different levels are combined...elementary school, intermediate school, high school in that area. What do you think of that in light of your experience?

A: I think it can work. You know in education things go around in circles, and if you look back some time, hey that's what went around in so-and-so.

Q: Is it really difficult, though, to manage two levels?

A: I didn't find it because you had it organized so that there is really geographic, let's say, place, location is different one from the other, and our activities don't mix like in recreation and phys ed and anything else. There's not the mix going on in there which would not be good, I don't think. I remember though, we did, you know in the old schools in the country, one room school houses, remember that?

Q: Yes.

A: We at one time at Fort Myer tried that actually. The first time was great and I liked it. We had an extra teacher assigned to us after the school year started because we were up on enrollment, and you can't just take one person and put him on the staff and just relieve the thing for one grade level or whatever. So what we decided for the staff was that we would run a one-room schoolhouse in which we had first grade through six all together.

Q: In one classroom, with one teacher. How did that work?

A: I thought it was great.

Q: How did the teacher feel about it?

A: The teacher was a wonderful teacher and took hold of the thing and came in after the year started and did the organizing and did the communicating with the parents on how we were selecting kids and the whole bit. And it did fine. It was great to go in there and see a little kid working with a big kid. And the little one can help the big one sometimes, too.

Q: How did the parents feel about it?

A: I think they liked it. We went through a process about how we would select. them to go in there and we communicated with their parents in each case and left it up to them. Did they want to do it or didn't they. We explained what we were trying to do.

Q: So it was voluntary.

A: Yes.

Q: How many students were in that classroom?

A: I think we had right around 21 or 22, I think.

Q: That's a large room with that many levels. That's a large class.

A: It was right around 20. I've forgotten exactly. But it takes a particular type of teacher to do something like that.

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...

A: And this teacher came to Arlington from out of state and this was I said after the year started, and knowing what we were doing I called the principal where she had been in Massachusetts, and told her what we were going to try and I said, what would you think. And she said if you can get her, get her.

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?

A: I think that's it...

Q: Thank you so much.

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