This is an interview with Mr. John D. Hodson retired principal of Strasburg High School Strasburg, Virginia Shenandoah County.
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Q: Based on your observations throughout the years, Mr. Hodson, I would like to ask you some questions as a reflection back on your years as principal and experience in secondary education. Mr. Hodson would you begin by telling us about your family background, your childhood or interests that may have affected your reason to become an educator.
(Streamed audio file of interview for this question using RealPlayer)
A: Well Mr. Fravel I appreciate the opportunity of being able to tell my story a little bit here, ugh I am originally from Winchester, Virginia I grew up in Winchester. I had my mom and my dad and five children , four girls and myself. Ugh we all went to Handley High school I guess one of the real accomplishments that I feel that I attribute to my parents were the fact that one of them had a seventh grade education and the other had an eighth grade education they had all five kids graduate from high school which to me in the fifties was probably a real accomplishment. I was the only one of the five that went on to college. Ugh, and I really don =t know exactly why I think all of my sisters were academically very capable but at that point in our lives funds were very tight ugh and as far as ugh, the raising the family if there was such a thing as a dysfunctional family then I guess we probably had one. Ugh, I thought my mother did a wonderful job of raising the five of us, my dad was an alcoholic and ugh, I think through her stern leadership ugh, we were all successful and ugh, it was felt that as a male I should go ahead and further my education. At a great deal of sacrifice to the family ugh, I was the one that was selected to go on to college. Ugh, with that in mind I really did not know what school to go to I ah was a good student in high school but nothing extraordinary I had a real good friend that went to the University of Richmond and I ugh seemed to want to follow him and so I became a student at the University of Richmond in 1955. And I really enjoyed my education there.
Q: Would you discuss your education and preparation for entering the field of education?
A: It was really odd as I say by chance that I selected the University of Richmond but ugh it ugh was a wonderful school ugh it was small enough that it really met my needs that I had never been away from home or outside the city of Winchester and just so traveling to Richmond, which really was not that far. It seemed like a great distance for me, and to be separated from my family, that was also a first time that I was away from my family since the only thing I had been away was to church camps and that kind of thing for any period of time. But, um the ugh irony of it, I chose to major in history and I got a BA in history and graduated in 1959 from the University of Richmond. At that time I still did not have any particular plans ugh, going into education was the most removed from my mind at that particular time and it was all by chance that it ended up ugh, my life turning out the way it did.
Q: How many years did you serve as a teacher?
A: When I graduated from University of Richmond I was really just waiting to be drafted. And ugh, I ran into Mr. James C. Gordon, when he was the principal at James Wood High school at the time ugh, and through Mr. Godon there was shortage of teachers at that time and again this was 1959. They had a class that they did not have a teacher for and they asked me if I would like to substitute even if I would just run a study halls. I chose to do that and then in the process enjoyed it so much when they finally did get a biology teacher ugh, he asked me if I would want to stay on they had many classes that were very over crowded and that he would make me up a schedule of my own and I said that think I would really like to try that. And so my first year of teaching, I taught five different preparations eight grade math, ninth grade math, first year algebra, eight grade science, and ninth grade science at James Wood high school in 1959 1960 and that's where I found my love of education.
Q: What, ah, followed up those years of education as far as teaching experience?
A: I taught two years at two years at James Wood in Frederick county and ugh, then a position opened up at John S. Mosby Academy which was a freedom of choice school built during the integration movements in the 1960s, late 1950s early 1960s in Front Royal, Virginia. They advertised for a basketball coach and coaching was one of the things that I loved as dearly as teaching. And so I applied for the job as head basketball coach at Mosby and was hired there so I went from James Wood to Mosby Academy. From Mosby Academy, I was there for several years and then as soon as I got in a freedom choice situation ugh, the military drafted me so then I was in the army for two years. I cam back out and returned to Mosby Academy. Now just speaking of my service tenure there for two years I was very bitter when I got drafted but when I looked back on it it was probably one of the best things that happened to me because it did get your thoughts in order, it got discipline as a major factor in your life ugh, that you were a fish in a big pond and I thin the military did much for my organizational skills at that point in time. So I returned to Mosby academy I was there for a short period of time and then the opportunity came to move on to Shenandoah county as a head basketball coach at Stonewall Jackson High school and that it what I did in 1966. From 1966, when I went to Stonewall, and I often said that my life is just meant to be, and I did not have a whole lot of planning in it it just seemed that opportunity presented itself as I moved along from one job to another. When I went to Stonewall, they had a position of assistant principal open along with teaching so I taught two classes of World History and was assistant principal for half the day. And that eventually materialized into a full time principalship along with my coaching duties and then it was that time that they encouraged me to go on back to school and get my masters degree in administration. I had the G.I. Bill to do that on and if it were not for the G.I. bill again we ugh, I had married and started a family and without that financial help that would have been impossible. Again a lot of pieces of the puzzle fell together as I moved along in my career.
Q: What do you think actually motivated you to enter the principalship?
A: As assistant principal, and head basketball coach and athletic director for Stonewall Jackson I found that the kids were having a difficult time dealing with me as an administrator from one stand point and then as a basketball coach from another so I felt that I was at a point or juncture that I was going to have to make some kind of decision. And I really like the opportunities and challenges that the principalship was offering and I felt that might be the best direction for me to go. So at that point in time I threw my name in the hat, the principalship was opening up at Strasburg High school in Shenandoah county and ugh, I applied for it and was appointed principal in 1975. So again it was the type of thing that I just felt that I was ready for that type of opportunity and challenge.
Q: How would you describe your personal philosophy on education?
A: That is an interesting question, in that it makes you think in depth about how you form ugh, an overall opinion in how do you want to attack various situations particularly when you are placed in essence in charge of a faculty of thirty-five, student body of 625 kids and you want to make the best decision for all parties. I think a number of things, I mentioned the fact that I grew up in a family of five and we knew what sacrifices were and I knew what it was to be the low man on the totem pole, and I guess I really wanted to watch out for the kid that was the low man on the totem pole. I was in the military and I think I learned some discipline from that, some sacrifice, some allegiance, and being a history major, I think the military brought home what freedom is all about, what sacrifice is all about, and what the better things in the American way of life are all about. And then you mix that in with the fact that I am a strong believer in student activities, in believing that if a youngster only come to school for the academic part of it that is well and good but I don't think that is the total individual. I think the extra-curricular activities play a vital part in every youngsters make-up and I was a very ardent follower and became even a leader in the Virginia High School League which is extra-curricular activities and athletic activities in the state of Virginia. And I think that total package is kinda what my approach to making a happy student and a successful student.
Q: Could you say that your philosophy has evolved over the years or changed?
A: It's changed in that, the student is a much more complex individual that when I started back in the sixties. I really am concerned about youngsters today. We in the fifties had problems, we had conflicts, we had situations that we could get our selves into as young people, but these young people today have such a vast, vastness of problems to confront that we didn't even dream of. And the automobile was not even a factor in my day. We didn't have a car. We walked. So, but, the automobile and kids with having money and having jobs and having the availability of these types of things that give them the opportunity to get themselves involved in things they have no business being involved in such as drugs and having friends that can also get them into serious difficulty. I really am concerned and fret about the youngsters today. They have a lot more facing them today than we ever dreamed of. I am concerned about my grandchildren. I am essence concerned about education and the direction it is presently going.
Q: Maybe describe the instructional philosophy of Strasburg High School as you first began as principal and how it possibly evolved or how you moved it in the direction you wanted it to go.
A: When I became principal, I did a lot of thinking in that stage in my life Phil, because I was taking on a tremendous responsibility and I decided then and there that what I wanted to do was create an environment where kids wanted to come, be safe when they did come and that if anything, my object or my objective was going to be that once a youngster came to school that day, the only thing different about him when he left would be a little bit wiser. I wanted to try to create an environment where the teacher could teach, and I =ll never forget when I came to Strasburg High School I told the teachers I wanted you to go into the classroom, you can close the door or you can leave it open, but I want you teach your heart out, I want you to teach just as hard as you can, and you leave every thing else up to me because I'm going to take care of the discipline, I am going to take care of the harassment, all I want you to do is to teach. And I want us to make this place as comfortable and as a happy place as we can be. And I think we did that. Over the years attendance was a big factor. And so ah, attendance was kept throughout the county and Strasburg High School for years, and I would like to go back and look at the statistics and figure out the years, but Strasburg High School led Shenandoah county in student attendance month after month, year after year, we were uncontested, no one else was even close to us. We led Shenandoah county in the least drop-out rate. In Shenandoah county as well as the state of Virginia we were well below the state average in student drop out. We, I think made students comfortable, parents comfortable, we made the school feel like it was a safe place to be. We emphasized extra-curricular activities, student involvement and I think the faculty did a wonderful job of doing it. I tried to pass onto the faculty that I was innately interested in them as an individual and that we were all in this together, that we were a family type of atmosphere and our purpose for being here was for the kids. Let's do every thing we possibly can to make their life better and that everything we do is if they were our own child and we wouldn=t treat them any differently.
Q: What experiences or event in your professional life influenced your management philosophy?
A: (pause, question unanswered- brief break)
Q: Mr. Hodson, what techniques did you use to create a successful climate for learning?
A: When I look back on it, and these were done over a period of years, but when I first came you accept what you got, and I had a staff that was wonderful. But as you get to know that staff, you learn their strengths and weaknesses, then it gives you an opportunity to maybe play with personnel a little bit, you play with test scores. I personally tried to, in my math curriculum, I really worked at putting teachers where I thought they would teach to their strengths. And that is also how they dealt with kids. I decided after a few years that the most important group of kids in my building to me at that point in time were seniors, because they were getting ready to go out on their own. I thought we really owed that particular group of kids something more in at particular point of their lives, so I really worked at getting staff and putting staff in those positions such as English 12, government, calculus, and those subject that were going to involve seniors. I tried to put teachers in there that were the very best that I had because I felt if we set the tone for those seniors, and make those good people in our school, all the other kids would look up to them and we would have good examples for young people to follow. And I think that philosophy really paid off. We had happy kids. And as I reiterated a little while ago, we led in attendance, we had good test scores, we had goes SAT scores, we sent some awfully well prepared youngsters away to college and I felt we prepared a an awfully lot of good kids for the work, the world of work. Looking , and I think that set the climate of the school. We also were very blessed by having someone like a Glenn Proctor, who, in our Phys. Ed. Department, and let me talk a minute on that. I really think that the discipline in our school can be set in physical education. I think those teachers can do a job in the classroom and in the gym that will carry over in the other areas of curriculum within your school. If you have a bunch of kids in gym who don =t know what discipline is, then we aren=t going to have any discipline in the rest of the building. So we had good P.E. teachers, we had good discipline that extended on out into the school. We had , and getting back to Coach Proctor, we had a situation there where he was an extremely good person. Nothing else, lets just talk about the person. He was a good person, he was an excellent coach and with starting the school year out, a lot of people may think I am crazy but, a lot of the tone of your school is set by extracurricular activities, and when you have a football team that can go out and be successful on Friday night, that comes back into your building on Monday and can have a tremendous impact on teachers, staff, students and everyone else as far as the tone of the school. And I attribute a lot of my success to those types of little things, that ah, we had good coaches. And we had kids that were treated very, very well by these coaches and they learned the discipline from the sports played from those coaches. And some of my coaches were my best teachers that I had in my building, much less coaches. So that is how I bring the impact of the extra-curricular program into the classroom. I think it, I think that they are all very meshed together and hand-in-hand.
Q: I assume it has a spill over effect into the next generation as well?
A: I think very much so. Ah, I ah, when youngsters can have that success athletically or extra curricularly, and when I say extra-curricular, I might even, I am talking about athletics, but I am talking about kids that are in forensics or public speaking, or FFA, the Ag. Program. I attribute tremendous success of a lot of our kids from the public speaking strengths that they have learned from the Ag. Program. I wasn =t a Clinton (President Bill Clinton) man in this past election, but I think Clinton won on his charisma. His ability to speak to the people of this country like FDR did back in World War II days. And I think that a lot of our success is based upon those things, our ability to communicate. And a lot of these things helped in doing that.
Q: Can you think of any unsuccessful experiments or attempts in your career?
A: I don =t know if they would be unsuccessful, but I had to do a few things in my tenure that when I look back at it, and having retired and having got older, I feel kind of badly that I maybe did some people a little bit an injustice by moving them around in curriculum where I felt that they were not doing the job that they should or were not identifying with the kids like they should when in fact it was probably more of a maturation thing where we all get older, we all slow down, we all get affected by this thing called old age. And if anything, if any parts of what I did was, I don=t know if it was unsuccessful, I think it succeeded in what I wanted to do, but I think I might have ah, hurt people.
Q: What kind of things do you think the teachers expect from the principal?
A: I think the teachers expects, has a right to expect that they teach and that the principal should preserve that right that they have to teach that they were taught and they went to school to learn how to do it and how to do it as properly as they could and I think that the principal has to just remove all of these other distractions so that the teacher can do that. Now that is getting difficult. That is getting difficult in education today. I felt that I was successful in it because I had the authority to discipline. I could take a youngster and when they did something that was not appropriate I could deal with that child. Whether it was paddling him, suspending him, or just talking to him but I could get my point across to him that what he did was not acceptable and was not going to be acceptable. And to improve the teaching situation in the classroom for the rest of the youngsters that had a right to learn without distractions. Today, we are not able to do that as easily, and as properly as we once did. And until some things change I am afraid that the ability of the principal in this light is going to be diminished. Ah, you =ll say that well maybe the principal needs to change, maybe he needs to change his approach. And I think you are right, I think maybe the principal will need to sit back and restudy what they do, but it still comes back to old basic discipline which does not need to be restudied. It just needs to be allowed that the principal can discipline.
Q: If you were to describe or possibly interview someone for a principals position, what personal and professional characteristics would you look for?
A: If I were to interview a person for a principalship or try to determine if a person is primed to be a principal, as far as background, I would want someone who is humanistic. That has a caring attitude about kids and about staff. I think it has to be a love affair. And in loving, you don =t just pat them on the back, you have the ups and downs with them. But I think I would want someone that has been under fire. By that I again, think that coaches make good administrators because, you know, they have had to make tough decisions. They have won ball games, they have lost ball games, they have had parents on their backs. They have had to deal with all kinds of adverse situations and they, they dealt with successful situations. But I would want someone that, that could deal with those types of ups and downs, but at the same time, be a carrying type of person. I would want that person to be humanistic and, be able to make the tough decisions and then at the same time relish and embrace everyone after the decision has been made. We cannot harbor hard feelings. We need to make the decision. Make the best one we know how and then go on from there.
Q: Do you think your expectations have changed over the years?
A: I think your expectations always change. I think as times change, sets of circumstances change and our expectations change as well. But, I think we may have gone a little bit over-board. I know when we got into situations with, for a period of time, we did not have LD =s, or gifted or talented identified in our building back when I came here in the seventies, but shortly there after of course all the parts, all these things were added to our educational system. We entered a period about rewarding kids. Now I am not so sure we haven=t gone over-board. We don=t need to reward kids for every thing that they do. The grade is the reward in that classroom and I think so many times we=re rewarding them and they aren=t thinking in terms of the grade. They aren=t thinking in terms of what they=ve learned or what they need to learn. But they are looking for the reward and I think maybe we have made a mistake in that regard.
Q: A great deal of attention has been given to the topic of personal leadership in recent years. Could you please discuss your approach to leadership in being a building principal?
A: Well I think I have touched on that a little bit. I think leadership has to be where, you know, you make a decision, you go out on a limb. You do what, you know, you survey all the information that you have. Talk to as many reliable sources as you can talk to, and I have always relished in having really good people around me and I have been very fortunate in that. I think a lot of your success is who you have around you, and I have had good people around me. And we will talk about the assistant principal later on in this interview. But ahh, I think, I think if you have these good people around you, you , you get all the information you can, you make a decision and you go from there. Ah, it may not be the best decision at that time, but it was one that was made with as much information and was the most enlightened decision you could make at that time, and you may have to reface some things, but I think that is where leadership stems from, is making decisions, and some times they are tough decisions, ahh, but you make them and go from there.
Q: You mentioned being surrounded by good people, would you possibly elaborate on those or that structure above you, that echelon above you as a principal.
A: Yes I don =t think there is any doubt that the hierarchy in your county, your school board, your superintendent, your supervisors, they are all very important to your success and to how you feel, the leverage that you feel you can exert. But when I became principal at Strasburg High School I had a superintendent who said, A John, go there and do the job.@ And I really took him for his word and Mr. Danley sent me here (Strasburg High School) and I had the greatest confidence in myself because he had the confidence in me. I came here in my first year and I made some tough decisions and most of them were around discipline. Because he, you know, really felt that I needed to get a foot-hold in the school and ahh, ahh, and that=s what I did. And many of the tough decisions merited that well, AI want to talk to the superintendent.@ and I said, AWell talk to the superintendent, but the superintendent put me here to do the job.@ And Mr. Danley backed me up in that fashion and I=ll never forget that. And I=ll never forget the school board who said that, Aif Mr. Hodson wants this youngster suspended, he never ever suspends a student@ or if Ahe wants this student expelled from his building, then we need to do what he asked because he never, never asked us anything that he does not really need to have done@. And when you have got those kind of people working over you or you=re working in conjunction with them, it just makes your decision making a lot more powerful, a lot more gratifying because you know that you, you=ve got the support of your superiors. If you don=t have that, then I think you have a very scary situation.
Q: Can you think of any ways you can improve administrative efficiency or its effectiveness looking back?
Q: Or has it changed through the years?
A: Yea, I think it changes as administrators come down the road, as superintendents come down the road. You know, since I have been in this county, we have had four different superintendents. I think some of them were easier to work with than others. I think ahh, all of them were outstanding superintendents in their own fields. They had their areas of expertise. And ahh, ahh, I think for one to be a superintendent, he has to have exerted some of those, or displayed some of those characteristics or he would not have attained where he gotten himself to. But ahh, the ahh, I think they are like a building principal. They have their strong attributes as well as maybe a building principal does, and ahh, and they have their areas of weaknesses as well.
Q: Some people argue that a principal should be an instructional leader and others think they should be a good manager. It kind of ties into the previous question. What is your feelings on that?
A: I think the manager part of it is coming into play more all the time. I think when I became a building principal, it was probably an ideal time to come into that profession because you were , you were in a position where I think a lot of the people felt that when you were placed at the school as principal, then they looked up to you as, as the principal . And in the community when I made decision, I think most of the parents, you know, AMr. Hodson=s the principal and that=s what he says and that=s what is@. I don=t know that that=s the way it is today? I don=t know that the schools are getting the parental support that they need. I think that too many parents have individualized agendas that ahh, ahh, you know, the school needs to do Athis@ because my kid does Athis@. And now we have to have Athis@ to meet their needs. Well, you know, the school can only do so much in those kinds of situations and I think we really need to get, ahh, parents backing the schools and ahh, reinforcing what the school=s do. And I don=t know whether we will ever turn that around because we have reached a point in our , ahh, in our progression of things that, ahh, we have had a break down in that.
Q: Describe the ideal requirements for principal certification, or if you were to set on the board making certification requirements what areas would you like to emphasize?
A: O.K. I again I would want that person to be able to have been under fire. I would want that person to ahh, having an experience in the military I don =t think would be bad at all. I think that they would need to have experienced some ,ahh, negative types of things in order to have strengthened them. I think they have to be relatively bright, they don=t have to be an Einstein, but I think they have to have a good grasp of the curriculum, of management skills ahh, but they need to be a good person. I just keep coming keep on coming back to they have to be a good person and that they have got a love of kids, they want to do what is best for kids. And what is best for kids is sometimes saying no and disciplining them and taking things away from them and denying them things. But that is love, I mean all of that comes into play. But, I think I would want someone that ahh, is involved with, with human nature and is as humanistic in making those types of decisions.
Q: It is often said that the principal should be active in the community. Can you elaborate on your agreement or disagreement with that statement?
A: Yea, I think that they do. I think they need to be active in the community. Now , ahh, as far as taking myself as an example ahh, I think that one needs to be very involved in their church. I think they have to have a church background in order to even start making a dent in any profession much more so the principalship because there is so much adversity and tough decisions to be made and I think you don =t have a God to follow back on I think you are really in trouble. You need that. As far as Rotary and Kiwanis clubs and those types of things, I was never a member of those but I always availed myself to them. If they would like for me to speak at any of their functions or to come answer questions, anything about curriculum, test scores or whatever, I would be only too happy to ahh, to go to their meeting and talk with them. Being very active in extra-curricular activities I think, you know, an administrator needs to be on display of these to where I always felt that we didn=t have a PTA at our school but we had a APTA@ every night there was an extra-curricular activity because as the parents came out I was there. And if there was anything that needed to be discussed, then we would certainly discuss it at those activities. So ahh, that=s the type of involvement I think an administrator needs to be involved in.
Q: There certainly has been a gap identified between the home and the school in recent years. Could you give any suggestions on how to narrow that gap or how to involve the parents and the citizens of the community?
A: Well, I , when I was here ( Strasburg High School) we had a principal =s advisory committee which was made up of teachers, and parents in the community, civic leaders, and would meet fairly often. But I think, that ahh, that we, that we need more of that than ever. I think that we have to open up the lines of communication with the community. And certainly make them welcome in our building. Make them comfortable in coming into our classrooms. And in by the same token, if we have any programs within our school, and we have an abundance of them, but just like our one act play is going off for competition I think even today, but I think maybe take that even into some of your civic clubs or something to let these organizations see all the things that our school does that doesn=t necessarily make the newspaper, but our kids are very, very busy in doing things that are constructive to our school and to our community. Maybe the community is not really well versed on having a knowledge of it.
Q: You mentioned earlier about being surrounded by good people. What in your view should be the role of the assistant principal?
A: Why I think probably this a ahh, if there is a mentoring situation, then this is probably it. But I know, again I, don =t know if school systems are involved in this type of thing as much now, but I know when I went out, and got in the situation where I needed an assistant principal, they let me really almost name that person. And I think the assistant principal is all important. I think they end up becoming a mentor , an image of yourself. You would want someone who has your ideologies basically, and your thoughts and theories. You don=t want a puppet but at the same time basically to pick up the program when you aren=t there or you=re out of the building or what ever. I went through several assistant principals but, the one I ended up with, you know I was here for sixteen years and I had the same assistant principal for twelve years. So I, was very pleased that I was able to get one I was totally comfortable with. And in fact, Ms. Hardy has now become principal of Strasburg High School. So that made me feel even, especially good. I think it is important for you to have someone that you can identify with and that they can identify with you as well.
Q: Would you take a few minutes to describe the most effective assistant principal that you got to work with over the years?
A: Well, as I say, my tenure has been kinda limited. I was at Stonewall Jackson (at Mt. Jackson, VA) as an assistant principal for, I guess seven years. I have been, we were talking just a few minutes ago, I have 32 years in education, 25 of them as an administrator. 16 of those as a principal. And, the most years I have spent with an assistant principal was Ms. Hardy, and again to me she came in, was very, had the background as an administrative assistant at Stonewall Jackson, so she had a lot of good leadership qualities. Well she had been a former coach, she had been a classroom teacher, she had been an administrative assistant and she had all the tools, the characteristics of being successful. And ahh, in that selection I was not disappointed, and in fact brought a lot of new ideas that I had not even thought about to Strasburg High School and we put them in place and I think we were a better school as a result of them.
Q: In your travels as well as working in other schools, what are some characteristics that you think are associated with very effective schools?
A: Ahh, pause.
Q: Or possibly even less successful schools.
A: Again I think that if you can go back and have a happy student body, you can see pretty quickly, ahh, whether it is a an enthusiastic group of students there or not. But I think you really need to establish a happy student body. If you have got happy students then you can do a lot of things with those happy students. I think we are always trying to improve instruction and strengthen curriculum and ahh, I think again, in working with students who are going to be there more often on a regular basis, if their attendance can improve. And there are different ways you can even work on that. And I know I have been in several school that have worked on incentive programs that ahh, ahh, of improving attendance by rewards and what not. But again I come back to the old thing as if you can just make the kid want to be there for the sake of what he is going to gain by being there. And this is knowledge and socialization, and I mean that is a big factor with kids. They want to socialize. And ahh, that =s O.K. If they are in school, they are going to be in the right place and they can learn the proper things.
Q: In recent years, schools seem to have become larger in size or a trend towards larger schools. What is your few on this subject?
A: Well I think there was a trend to go to the larger school and ahh, I think that larger school started to experience some problems that the vastness in the larger number of kids were creating problems. I think, you know, you can strengthen your program. You can have a greater curricular offering. I think they do have some advantages, but I know in our, for instance in our neighboring county, Frederick, they have gone from a AAA school to two AA schools and probably will add more AA schools. But I think the smaller school is the direction you need to go.
Q: Mr. Hodson, administrators presently spend a good deal of time complaining about the amount of paper work and the bureaucratic complexity of which they are forced to work on a daily basis. What comments or evolution did you notice coming down the road in your tenure?
A: Well of course I retired in 1991, and I don't know what has transpired since then, but I do know that the last few years of my principalship, it really was disheartening to even go to a principals meeting with the superintendent because of the stack of things you would bring back to the teachers. I would bring them back but would make every effort to keep the paper work away from the teachers, and I think I did a good bit of that. I think I was successful in that. And it was very disheartening. And now of course, the work load, the paper load has just gotten so heavy that it's overwhelmed the faculty and staff to the point where morale is really an issue. Salaries have not progressed like they should and so with a combination of things, I think morale is really being affected and we need to have a happy, progressive staff in order to be successful. I think the superintendent has a lot to do with that. And I think the present superintendent is making every effort here in Shenandoah county to limit this amount of paper work. And he is to be commended for that and I think it will be reflected in the staff. I think you will see a higher morale because of that. The paper work is something that really needs to be addressed. And accountability is important, and we need to be accountable, but I think the amount of paper work sometimes , contracts that we are having with youngsters, and "Choosing to Succeed" , an contracting kids to where we are not allowing them to fail, well, I am afraid when you look at things realistically , people are going to fail. Someone is going to fail. And infact, failure is important. As you fail, you learn how to succeed. And if we grow a generation where they don't know what it is to fail, then we are in dire trouble because there is failure and there is disappointment out there. And we need to build character to be ready to deal with that.
Q: If you were to choose three areas of improvement for the administrative area of public schools, just in a nutshell, what three areas come to mind? What could we do to improve education?
A: Right at the top of the list I think if you could give to the administrator the ability to discipline. I think that would be number one. Ahh, and I think a lot would evolve out of that.. I think if we could discipline youngsters, then a lot of things would automatically start changing. Just off the ability to do that. I guess secondly, if ahh, ahh, if we could continue to cut down on paper work and be realistic with youngsters, that everyone isn't going to be successful, that we are going to have failure, and then teach kids how to deal with failure. And how to succeed in the next attempt. But those are some of the things that I think that administrators would, that I would put high on that list.
Q: As a follow up question, what three areas in terms of curriculum do you think could be changed to make a positive influence on education?
A: I really think that just going back to our basic reading, writing and arithmetic . I think if we would emphasize in those three areas of curriculum, I have seen so many things in math where we are trying to make it fun. Well I am sorry, but I can recall a lot of math that just wasn't fun but I know I had to memorize my multiplication tables. I had to do a lot of things out of memorization. I know in English I had to memorize certain passages of the Gettysburg Address or whatever it might have been. But I think we just need to maybe look at that seriously and I don't know that we were doing it really badly early on. I think maybe we were doing some things extremely well and for the sake of changing, we have changed. And I don't know that all this change was for the best.
Q: You mentioned division superintendents earlier, in fact that you worked under several. What effect did they have on your general demeanor or how you could conduct business as a principal?
A: Well I think they control the total picture. You know if you've got a superintendent who can make you feel confident in your own ability, make you feel good about yourself, then I think the job that you do, they way your exert yourself and your ability, feel comfortable in your decision making process, I think it makes all the difference in the world. If you are looking over your shoulder every time you make a decision, then it is going to be reflective and teachers are going to pick up on it. They are going to realize that you are not confident in your own decision making . And the kids will soon pick up on it as well. If every time you have to make a decision, you have to consult the superintendent, then you wonder why you are drawing the salary that you are because you should be able to make some of those decisions.
Q: In terms of salary, what trends , certainly over your thirty years of experience you saw a difference in the compensation or pay. What comments could you make?
A: Well, when I started out teaching, my first teaching job was in 1959 at $3100. In of course I thought it was a lot of money, and I guess back in 1959 it was a lot of money. Really teacher's salaries have increase I think in proportion with everything else. I don't know if we have a great deal more buying power than we did back in 1959 at $3100. But, salaries have increased right so. None of us think we are making what we ought to. And in education in particular. Its getting much more difficult in the field of education today. And if we are going to continue to get good people, and good young people, and treat our , I don't want to say old, but our experienced teachers. If we want to treat them like they ought to be treated, and particularly with approaching retirement, and being able to have legitimate retirement, I think we need to continue to address our salaries. They are not what they ought to be but they have improved over the years considering what I made when I first started. But I think we really need to be competitive with our surrounding counties and I would hope that the school board and the board of supervisors will have that high on their agenda.
Q: What general relationship, pros or cons, did you experience with the local school board and how has the school board's function changed over the years?
A: We have had some tremendous school boards in Shenandoah county. And as I look back over the years, we had some that stayed in those positions for many years. Florence Young. I have very fond memories of her because I think she was a lady who was there to make decisions for the kids, and she did it for a long, long time. Having gotten into elected school boards, I feel we really have an area for concern. And we have seen it in adjacent areas. I hope it doesn't come to Shenandoah county. I think we have some very, very good elected school board members on our school board. But I do get concerned about elected school boards. I hope that they do not get people on there with private agendas that come back to ruin or haunt public education. We need strong believers in public education in the position of school board members.
Q: Please discuss your experiences with standardized testing.
A: Standardized testing is something I never did put a great deal of stock in. There is just too many variables involved in it. The fact that the kids may not have felt good, it may not have been administered under the best types of conditions. It may not have been a fair test depending on who was giving it and who was taking it, and under the conditions that it was taken. We live with it though. Education, public education is going to have to live by standardized test scores. So with that in mind, I think we need to administer them in the best possible conditions that we possibly can. Motivating the kids to do as best on them as they possibly can. But I have seen too many kids mark them just for the sake of marking them with out any realization of what kind of reflection that it is going to make. So, I think standardized test has a , you know, its got a ways to go as far as having a credible place in a lot of real serious decision making.
Q: Could you describe your normal work day as principal. Looking back, what would be considered a typical day?
A: Well, I tell you, when I became principal of Strasburg High School in 1975, I guess it was one of the most thrilling periods of my life. I really looked at it as a special type of thing. I felt there are only three people in Shenandoah county that are secondary school principals. And I am one of those three. And I really looked at it in that light. I felt I was very special and I felt I had gotten myself into a position where I could really influence and have an impact on a lot of people. And with that in mind, I was very, very excited about the opportunity to be a principal and I was totally meshed into it. I thought, "golly, I am doing this and getting paid on top of it." I can recall we'd come down and even camp down here, you know Strasburg High School is one of the few schools in the state of Virginia that has the benefit of bordering a river. And our property adjoins the Shenandoah river here, and we would come, I'd bring Donna and the kids and we would come down and camp on the river, down on our school property here. I would stay here all weekend. We would mow grass, plant trees, plant those pines that are growing down there now. And stay here for activities that we would have over the weekend. If we had wrestling on Saturday, I was here. I went to every extra-curricular activity there was. And I had kids (Mr. Hodson's own children) involved in many of them, but I did it because I just loved it. I just dearly loved it. As I got older and my kids got out of it, then of course it became more of a task than it was before. But, I still enjoyed all the activities that the school was involved in. And I tried to go to as many of them as I could. Today I understand that is almost impossible. With all the demands that are being placed on the principalship, with the paper work, and the various state reports, and ahh, just overall demands of the principalship, I just don't think it is practical to be able to do that. But I was totally meshed in it for years. And thoroughly enjoyed it.
Q: What would you consider to be the normal number of hours per week that you would spend?
A: There were days where I would come to school at eight in the morning and go home at ten at night. And that was Saturday as well because we had our wrestling matches on Saturday. And so your Saturday is even taken up. So you know, it didn't bother me because I just totally enjoyed it.
Q: What were some of the pressures you faced on a daily basis?
A: Well, that would just depend on a daily basis. But, most of them would be involved with discipline types of things. If kids would do dumb things, and you would have to deal with it. But in most instances I have a very pleasant sixteen years at Strasburg High School. And I think I did that by making the parents and the community feel comfortable with my decision making. And that's not saying some of them didn't disagree with it. We had confrontation over some of it. But it was the type of thing where they would either accept or they wouldn't accept it and we would go on about our business from there. But I had the confidence in my decision making. I had the confidence of the superintendent and the school board. And so, you know, I just did what I felt was necessary. There were pressures there. And naturally I lost sleep many nights over the things that would occur and decisions you would make. But I had two other principals in the county I could rely on. Carl Plum, I would call Carl a lot and talk with him. And give him a set of circumstances and get his opinion on how we ought to deal with it. So when you have good people like that around that you can talk with, and emphasize with, it made you feel a better even though you were catching some flack. You still had support that you made the right decision.
Q: What other ways did you find that you could cope with the pressures of the job?
A: As I say, extra-curricular activities was a big thing. I mean I could get from day to day just looking at some of the extra-curricular things that were coming up that I was going to be able to attend. As a family, we camped a lot. And look forward to those types of things. Spending time together. But, basically, if, and I did this more than once, we would have a situation where I knew it was a tough call, I knew someone, and most of it was involved with kids and decision making and discipline. And I would go home and ride the lawn mower. I'd cut grass and ride the lawn mower. I'd cut grass and just let the mower, and Donna (his wife) " if someone calls, just tell them I'm cutting grass." But, you know, those time are going to come and you hope that they aren't as often as they are sometimes, but most of it evolved around decision making with kids. And as a parent, I understand why "that" parent is concerned. If it were my kid, I would be concerned too. So I don't feel badly toward any parent being concerned about a decision that affected their child. I just want that parent to know that once that decision was made, it was made as if that child was my own and I would do it to my own as well as theirs.
Q: Did you have to handle a lot of after hour complaints from parents?
A: Not particularly. As I say, that kind of came with time. Having been here for sixteen years, that diminished the longer I was here. Parents felt more comfortable with me. And with the school. And knew they could come talk and discuss what ever the issue was. And we would discuss it then a decision would be made. It is just a shame that you wouldn't get the concerns about curriculum or instruction that you would over discipline, but you know we are asking for discipline to come back into the hands of the school, but by not having to make those decisions, I am sure that there is a lot of pressure that is taken off if you can't discipline. But I tell you I don't know where a school is that doesn't have discipline or the ability to discipline.
Q: Describe some of the toughest decisions or particular decision that you had to make.
A: Well, personnel to me is always the toughest decision. And anytime that you have to make a decision that is going to involve one of your cohorts, one of your associates, ahh, it is difficult. Again there are things that you have to do. You have to evaluate situations, you have to have classroom observations, you have to see what teachers are doing with kids, and how the instruction in different classroom are going. And you give fair warning and support and a line of communication with the people involved, and if it doesn't work out, then decisions have to be made. And I guess that was the hardest part of my job and I just didn't enjoy that at all.
Q: Would you tell us the key to your success as a principal ?
A: (pause) I don't really, I don't really know. I don't know that I was successful as a principal. I feel that the response that I have had from friends and from associates, and when I feel like I was successful. I felt like I contributed to the success of the school and to the leadership and direction that the school made during my sixteen years. If I had to really pin-point my success, again I would go back to the people around me. If you have good people around you, and in so many instances I did, then you just kinda get out of the way. You provide them with the proper environment, as much instructional funds, moneys, that they feel are necessary and you just get out of the way and let them teach. And in essence that's what I did. I was there if a teacher needed me, if they wanted to talk about something. Or if I needed to talk to them. But in essence, I just tried to stay out of the way and provide them a vehicle to teach. Keeping in mind that the youngster was the most important thing that we had to deal with and for us to do the best that we could with him. Any success was centered around that.
Q: Maybe discuss your professional code of ethics and give some examples of how you applied it throughout your career.
A: I was a firm believer that I wasn't going to ask a youngster to do anything that I wouldn't do. If I was going to tell them that they shouldn't drink and drive, then I wasn't going to drink and drive. I was not even going to allow myself if I was a drinking person, which I am not, I wouldn't go out in public drinking where a kid could see me. I just felt that I had to be a day to day living example of what I wanted them to be. I guess that is what I concentrated around. I tried to be a good Christian person and I would like for them to be the same.
Q: What aspects of your professional training do you feel best prepared you for the principalship?
A: You know its, I was just talking to Sonny Bailes, who is my next door neighbor, who is now on the school board, and I would go to all these workshops and all these conferences and listen to all these speakers, and you would go not knowing what you were going to get out of it, and so many times it would be a subliminal type of something or another. But I think going to all those conferences, and listening to all those speakers and all those points of views, ahh, Sonny had just been to Williamsburg for a week and had just experience the same thing I had all these years in administration. But I think just going and listening to people and listening to their point of view and then kind of digesting it and seeing if "hey", does this fit into or would this enhance your point of view or something you could utilize. And I know that in my coaching days, I would go to a coaching clinic and if I could just get one thing out of a coaching clinic then the whole clinic was very worthwhile. If you could just get one thing that you could use. And so professionally, I think by just going to those various conferences and those speakers, I think that in essence enlightened me and made me what I was,
Q: In terms of professional training, which experiences do you feel were least useful?
A: Ahh, Some inservices probably, like any teacher would. And you get half way resentful when you have to go to many of these. And I am sure they serve a lot of purposes that again, maybe we didn't know that they did. But sometimes when you go to a conference and it isn't what you expect it to be, and I am sure we all run into those as well. But those would be a little bit of a let down and you would feel it was a waste of time.
Q: There is mentoring program now for new administrators which an experienced administrator is teamed up with a person in training. Do you have any views on that approach?
A: I think that is probably a good program in that it would give someone, I think it would be good for both ends of the spectrum. Think it would be good for the person that is mentoring, seeing if he really does want to get into the shoes of an administrator. And vise versa. I don't think that administration is for everyone. I think we have situations where different individuals in education say, "I just want to get out of this classroom, and I want to be an administrator". Well you know that may well and good but I don't think it's all that simple. I think is does take a certain niche to become an administrator and I think the mentoring program would probably be a good way for both to look at each other and see whether one would be a good administrator or whether one might want to one.
Q: Was there a mentor in your life?
A: Ahh, administratively I don't know that, I guess the biggest mentor, my whole life got started out with the fact that I ended up going to college not even planning to. And I guess when I look back at that, if I had a mentor it would be Bob Kendal who was ended up becoming a neurological surgeon in the Winchester Medical Center (Virginia) . Bob graduated the year before I did from Handley High School and he went to the University of Richmond. And I thought so much of Bob, when it became evident that I could go to college, and when the said, "where do you want to go?", and I said , "well, I want to go to the University of Richmond". So if I had a mentor, I guess it would be Bob.
Q: Going back to a previous question, principals operate in a constantly tense environment. You mentioned camping. What other kinds of things did you do to maintain your sanity under these stressful situations?
A: I did a lot of work around the house. I have a small orchard. I have fruit trees. And I really enjoy just messing with, I have everything imaginable as far as fruit trees, grapes and raspberries and roses. I just enjoy being outside and dealing with those types of things. We don't use any of it, we use very little of the fruit. I give it away. But I sure like to grow it.
Q: Since you have had some time to reflect back on your career, I wonder if there are some strengths or weaknesses that you would like to point out to us, administratively?
A: (pause) I thought about it. You know this retirement thing came upon me very hurriedly. I was able to retire at the age of fifty-three. And I really wasn't ready for it. But when the opportunity presented itself, I thought well, I better go ahead and do it. So, I took the retirement and then tried to search my mind if I had second thoughts about it. Did I do the right thing? And I never ever do that to myself. I have never second guessed myself in my entire life. When I make a decision, I put a lot of thought into it before I make it. And when I make it, that is it. I don't go back and look over my shoulder and the say golly day did I do the right thing? I have never done that. And I vowed and declared that I would never do that. But on this retirement I did. And I tell you I didn't look very long and I said, "well you know, I did the right thing and I'm going to leave it alone and that is that".
Q: Looking back, what things do you feel were your strengths and weaknesses?
A: As far as the strength, I think the fact that I came from a hard working family. We didn't have a whole lot and I felt if I was going to be the one with the opportunity to go to college, then I best make the most of it. And then when it happened to go into education the way I did, and I already related that story as to how I started as a teacher. I really feel it was already mapped out for me. That I didn't have a whole lot of choices in what I was doing. As opportunities presented themselves, I just followed God's plan and I went from one thing to the next. And ended up where I ended up. If I strengths alone the way, I guess it was the belief that God was going to take me there. A second thing was that I think the military was good for me. I think the discipline, and the having winning and loosing as a coach, making decisions in that capacity was good for me. It just kind of led me into the fact that when a position of principalship opened up, I just said, "hey, I think I am suppose to, its in the plan" and that is the direction I went. Weaknesses, ahh, I probably, if I had a weakness, and its even have a weakness, because I probably still have it, it would be in making tough decisions on personnel. I really had a hard time with that, and I would continue to have a hard time with that. When you have to, ahh, because innately, whoever it is doing what they are doing because they love what they are doing and they are probably doing as best they know how. And, then for someone to come along and say, "in my evaluation, you aren't doing it good enough". Then that takes a lot of audacity.
Q: You mentioned some of the circumstances leading to your decision to retire. Do you want to elaborate on those? You mentioned it coming so quickly.
A: Yea, of course it came in 1991 when Governor Wilder presented this plan and at that time I was fifty-three and was looking for twelve more proms and twelve more graduations until could retire at age 65. So I hadn't even thought about retirement. And so this thing, I am confronted with it in about April and have to make a decision so quickly, and so I did. And I think I made the right decision. Particularly with the direction that education is going. And I come back to the fact that its not fair for me to think that I got out. Because I don't want to give the impression that I am leaving a sinking ship. Because I think it is going to only sink if people like myself keep our mouths shut and don't try to do something about it. But we have got to, we've got to get back to reality here. We have to have a reality check and get some authority back into the hands of the proper officials in the public school's systems.
Q: You mentioned certainly a lot of pros and cons on being an administrator in a public school system. Is there any advise that you would like to pass on to future or even today's principals?
A: Well, I think its that we can't give up. I mean if we have to bombard our legislators with memos, letters, we need to get them to look at the public school situation. And some one is going to have to be intelligent enough to make the observations and decisions, and why are we floundering in public education today? And I , you know I'm not just saying that if you bring prayer back into the classroom, that it's going to make all of our worries go away. But I tell you when a youngster doesn't, can't even know God in the classroom, but yet he only knows it on Sunday morning, something is wrong. Because God just isn't there on Sunday morning. If a youngster in science has to say, "well teacher, all this is the scientific evolution of man. I thought God created man". Is that teacher suppose to say, "Boy, I'm going to cut your tongue out, you can't say that in this classroom". You know, someone has to answer those kinds of things. And if I had to advise administrators that are in it today, and I would be right with them, we need to get answers to those questions. Why can't we ask those questions? Why can't textbooks, I know in world history for years, I taught two theories. The evolution of man, the biblical and the scientific. I would teach them both and let the kid decide. But I think we are being so anti-Christ right now, that we are making him out to be a villain in this thing. And I think it is dangerous, really dangerous. By the "right" movement, I think that's dangerous too. I am not here to say that one is so much more right than the other, but I am saying that a lot of things we were doing weren't doing in public education.
Q: Just a few questions on the leadership. Maybe discuss ways in which you learned to lead. Procedures or experiences that evolved or helped your skills at being a leader.
A: You know, it's interesting. I don't know whether if any one can put their finger and say, "this, this, this and this". I think its just a camaraderie of things that, you know I played basketball, I happened to be selected as one of the co-captains on the basketball team. I was president of my high school, my junior class and my senior class in high school. I don't know if there is something personality wise or something that surfaces. And I wasn't a forceful leader. I wasn't one that said, "hey, here I am, pick me". But its just some intangible things I guess that surface in an individual and I don't know, I guess it goes back to what we were talking about. I guess it goes back to Ag. Class, from giving speeches, and getting a little charisma , and a little bit of confidence in front of a group. It is these intangibles that you don't know where. It could be in judging contest that kids go to. And its all, it comes from confidence and how you display and handle this confidence. Not as a cockiness but as a sincere confidence. And I think we have exposure all through our lives to pick up little pieces of it here and there. But the main thing is for us to afford the youngsters the opportunity to be exposed to those situations.
Q: In terms of staff, some writers recommend that principals adjust their leadership styles to meet the individual needs of the staff. Do you agree with that or is that your style?
A: You know I think it is important to take every staff member has some strengths and as a building principal, I tried to find those strengths. And in speaking in curriculum, that's when we made the master schedule and I would say, "this teacher is going to teach thus and so". And I was really trying to put the teacher to where they could teach to their strengths. So, I think we do that and I think we should do it. I don't think we ought to put teachers in uncomfortable situations if we can get away from it. So in that sense, I do think we need to try work with their strengths.
Q: Can you become too close or too much of a family that it is difficult to make decisions?
A: Yes, I don't know if it is too difficult to make, it just makes it a lot more difficult. I think a true leader will make the decision, and it may cut their heart out to do it. It is just like when I paddled kids before. I'd tell 'em that this is going to hurt me more than it is you. And I am sure that youngster has never understood that until maybe one of these days when they have to make a tough decision, they will understand it. But family is important, but when you get real close it can bring some real serious heartache.
Q: One model of leadership describes people as either being assertive, supportive or contemplative. Could you categorize yourself into one of these and possibly give reasons?
A: I think Phil, I would probably be a little of each one of those. Because I could be assertive in a situation that I felt real comfortable with and some prior opinions about and be assertive in that regard. But I tell you if it is something that I am not real sure about myself, I am going to do a lot of contemplative thinking and maybe even talking to people who know more about it than me. So I think I was a little bit maybe of all of that. Because I would not make, at times you have to make a decision, you know you can't put it off and you have to react, but anything that was a serious enough nature that I was concerned about too quick of a decision, I would sure put a lot of thought into it and I might even go off by myself some place and think it through, or call and get input from other people that I had a very. Very high regard for.
Q: In our interview today, I am sure we left something out, is there something I should have asked or any input that you might want to add to this interview?
A: Well, Phil I have enjoyed it, I appreciate the opportunity you're asking me a lot of things that I have never really thought about since I have retired. And so many of these things I don't guess that you do, say that I'm, you know, this is the category that I'm in. Again, I've mentioned again that my life has been just one of those things where that it has kind of rolled along and I don't look back and I don't second guess myself. But I am just ah, just the fact of being ah raised in a Christian home and having people around that you care for and having a family and youngster that, you know. I had three children that graduated from Strasburg High School and I wanted to make decision in their best interest and in the best interest of every kid and I think that all those types of things helped me stay focused on trying to do what is best for the kids in Shenandoah county and particularly Strasburg community. But I had a wonderful sixteen years as principal here. I thoroughly enjoyed the people that I worked with and I just again, I think the key is to have good people around you and when you do it just makes things an awful lot easier.
Q: Graduation, I assume is our end product. What feelings generally went through your mind at graduation?
A: Well, it ah, it kind of got by me before I realized that it was the last one. I was still kind of in a daze from everything happening so quickly there in 1991 when Governor Wilder offered the early retirement. But I know that the class of '87, a number of classes had been after me to have graduation outside and I kept putting them off and putting them off saying the weather is too bad it is too much of a chance and so in finally the class of '87 was the first one that really pushed me to the point where I said "OK we're going to try it." And if I remember correctly that night it was so cold, those little kids, most the time that gym is so hot that you can't breathe, well that particular night I shook a couple of hands and I mean those little girls hands were ice cold, and they were just shaking all over. But I guess just the fact that having it outside there, under the Massanutten, that setting is miraculous, it is just encompassing. I think that night and that setting with the class of '91 it was just a beautiful evening for graduation. So I guess those kids were right when they got me to change.
Q: Mr. Hodson we certainly appreciate you taking this time and we wish you many years of enjoyable retirement and health. We hope that you continue to give input to the field of education. Thank you.
A: I appreciate the opportunity.
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