Interview with Norma Joiner


I am in Southwest Washington with Miss Norma Joiner, who is a retired principal. The date is March 29, 1989.

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Q: Miss Joiner, could you tell me:how and why you got into education?

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

A: I think, for women of my generation, there weren't very many choices available when I was in high school. I think I was given a choice of being three things. I was told I could be a nurse or a secretary or a teacher. I felt that being a teacher was probably the least worrisome career field that I could go into. I really didn't want to sit behind a desk, and I didn't like to watch people suffer. I didn't think I would see so much of that suffering in education. Further, my parents were both teachers. Each started out in one-room schools. And my father's father was a teacher, and my sister was a teacher. So there were a lot of educators in the family. I think that is how it happened; I just sort of fell into it.

Q: I bet you've heard a lot of stories about your parents' experiences is their one-room schools.

A: Well, yes. My dad got an education that way. He talks about getting on a horse and going three miles in the morning and building fires and working all day for the amount of pay they got. Whereas my mother, I think, saw it as a career in which she could make as good money as any woman could make. And she did that, in fact. She did ride horseback. She started back in 1915, rode to the schoolhouse and built a fire and got ready for the kids and made sure there was water in, toilet paper in the outhouse, and all of that. She taught for several years in a one-room school: eight grades. There were lots of stories about all that. She was the eldest of eight kids, so she had her own siblings as students in one of the schools in which she taught.

Q: Describe the process of events that led up to you becoming a principal. You started out teaching?

A: I started teaching. I never considered being a principal. I got interested in the counseling field and got trained in that area and then became a department head in a high school. During that time, of course, I had a lot of administrative tasks to perform and sort of got interested that way in administration. I went and got my degree in secondary administration. When first offered the job I declined it; I didn't think I wanted to do that. But the second time around when it was offered, I decided to try it. So I became assistant principal. And then my principal retired, and that is how I got the job.

Q: Was this all in the same school?

A: Yes, it was.

Q: In York, Pennsylvania?

A: Yes. I only ever taught in two different schools. I taught my first three years in Somerset County. And then I moved to York and spent twenty-seven years in the same building.

Q: I'll bet you saw a lot of changes in that building.

A: There were a lot a changes in the educational system, discipline. The building was rebuilt, so the physical part of it changed. Yes, things changed a lot.

Q: How would you have described yourself as a principal? What do you feel your role was?

A: I thought about this a little bit, because I had these questions ahead of time. I think mainly I thought of myself as a person who could create an atmosphere for learning and teaching and could be a leader in the necessary changes- in a sense, to be an enabler: to enable all those in the building to be able to focus on what their tasks were, to have students in an environment that was free from worries and distractions, and to have teachers in an environment in which they could concentrate and teach. I think I should say here: I came into a situation where there was a tremendous lack of discipline. I felt that my prime job in my first couple of years was to get that part straightened around and to get the teachers back into their former ways of taking leadership and doing things on their own. They had been rather stripped of their power, and there was really a negative atmosphere for learning in the building. So I considered myself a person to change that.

Q: If you would, just go into that a little bit and describe some of the things you did with discipline and with having teachers feel better about themselves and their role. What are some of the things that you did?

A: I decided that I would create something tangible, something to point to, that I wouldn't just say: we are going to straighten this place out and we are going to clean it up discipline-wise. However, the assistant principals knew that that was going to be the task, and the teachers knew it was going to be the task. But what I did was: It was a big year for the Care Bears--about 1984. Our mascot was a bear cat, which was not easy to find. So we took the bear as our theme--the Care Bear--and decided that we would stress among the kids the idea of caring for each other, and for the teachers caring for each other and caring for the kids, caring for the school. Almost everything we initiated, we incorporated that theme. A reward system was important, and we incorporated the Care Bear. The kids, if they got on the honor roll, would get pins or other items with the Bear logo, and they got days with free time for trips for kids who did well and exemplified anything in the caring process. The teachers bought into it. On the first day, I gave each of them a teddy bear to wear. I told them it was corny but they were going to see a lot of it. And they saw a lot of it in those two years. Everything we did, we sort of built around that theme: that it was the Care Bears and Care Bear cats. When we went to sports events, we were to exemplify that attitude, and there were not going to be any fights; we would not tolerate them behaving badly toward each other, toward other people. And it worked. At the same time, we required the teachers to take charge of their classrooms. We tightened up discipline. The kids knew it, and I think they liked it.

Q: And so the teachers felt better about themselves?

A: It turned out that way. Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. They had to see the advantage. After they saw that I was committed to work hard, they sort of grabbed hold of it. I think in two years we did turn things around.

Q: Tell me about leadership techniques when you worked with your teachers. How would you describe yourself as a leader in regards to your teachers?

A: They had to know that someone was there to make decisions, that someone would be decisive. They had to know that when they were empowered--for instance, the department heads got a lot more power; they were in charge of their own budgets, their own monitoring of teachers. In a building of the size I had--there were 125 teachers--there had to be overlayers. I felt that what I was doing was empowering the department heads. At the same time, when any problems came up--any conflicts, anything that needed a leadership position exemplified--I tried to do it, tried to be there, tried to go to the events, be visible, be in the hallways, be in the lunch room--don't ask them to do anything I wouldn't do. And when they see you doing it, they'll do it too. They don't want lunch duty; they don't want detention duty. But I felt that I could show them I could do it too. The other thing is: I had an advantage having been there all those years, being head of the guidance and counseling department. It wasn't as if I walked in off the street. And I had also been the president of the teachers' union. Some of the unions in Pennsylvania strike.

Q: Was it hard to make that change from being a counselor in the school to becoming the principal when you everyone so well?

A: It wasn't hard.

Q: It was very comfortable for you?

A: Very comfortable. What was uncomfortable was that the day I started my job, there was a teachers' strike in the district. That was probably one of my most stressful or unpleasant experiences. It was unpleasant being in charge of the building when the teachers were on strike walking around

the building, and I had just come off the picket line myself a few years before. That was a little difficult.

Q: What happened with that? How long did it last?

A: It was a two-week strike. The school didn't open for two weeks. There were a lot of problems with it. The board wanted to continue athletics, so trying to get the coaches to coach--

Q: This was over money?

A: Yes. The problem had been brewing for a year.

Q: Did the teacners get what they wanted?

A: I think there was a pretty good settlement. I don't remember exactly. They didn't come back in a grumpy mood; I remember that.

Q: That's a rough start. As the principal, what would you say your biggest concern was in those two years, or one of them?

A: The biggest concern was, as I think I alluded to, that I wanted to restore the climate to a place that it was an environment where kids could learn and where teachers could teach.

Q: And that was your goal?

A: It was my goal, and it took a lot of hard work because we had to keep fighting to enforce a discipline code, making sure that the kids knew that we meant what we said- that if you skipped school, it was a serious offense. If you assaulted another student, it meant that you were automatically put in the alternative, which was in the basement of the building, which was separate from the rest of the building. And so I could use the alternative school as a lever with the students. We used it so that the most disruptive ones almos# immediately found themselves in a different environment and had to work their way back into regular classes. So it was a bit of a struggle. One of the biggest problems I had was athletics, because over the years we had accrued a number of coaches who were not the type of people that I felt should be coaches--who didn't want to go by the school rules, and who had gotten away with not doing things according to policy; who couldn't lead the students in their own training rules because they were breaking some of the rules themselves. So one of my most difficult challenges was trying to find a way to get rid of those coaches and a couple of teachers who I felt needed to be out of there.

Q: How did you do that?

A: We did it, because I had a superintendent who would back me up. Anyone who wants to get rid of a genuinely poor teacher or staff member, with courage, can do it. All one needs to do is set up the expectations, monitor, evaluate them so that they know what is happening. They need to be told that there will be a period to give them time to improve, and when they don't, they are on dismissal proceedings. In the State of Pennsylvania, it takes two consecutive unsatisfactory ratings to fire a teacher. But if you give the unsatisfactory ratings and document them, and you give the persons due process, and they are still poor teachers, you can get rid of them.

Q: So you did an evaluation and went through due process, and you gave them strategies to improve their teaching, and they chose not to follow through with it?

A: They didn't choose not to. They just--none of them were able to. But I would say I was responsible for dismissing eight or ten noninstructional people--coaches and other noninstructional staff--who just were taking taxpayers' money and weren't producing. So that was stressful, because that involved human relations.

Q: And you did all that in the two years?

A: Well, my superintendent and I; he said he'd back me up.

Q: They weren't teachers, then?

A: There were two teachers.

Q: The coaches were not in the classroom?

A: Coaches and other noninstructional people. We had one who was an athlete trainer; we had one who was a hall monitor. In fact, we had two who were hall monitors. We had had race riots in that school in the late '60s. Paid hall monitors were placed at that time and were still there. And there still are a couple.

Q: What two years were you principal?

A: '84-'85 and '85-'86.

Q: And the hall monitors were still there?

A: Yes.

Q: What would you say your philosophy was as a principal? If you had a philosophy of running your school, what would you say?

A: I would say: to be able to lay out the expectations and the goals and then enable people to be able to carry out their tasks; to be a facilitator when they needed something- supplies, equipment, textbooks--or when they had concerns; to be the one person in the building who could make decisions that would positively affect the educational outcome. I think the principal--I see a principal as being a person sensitive to the needs of the students as well as the teachers and a person who can be decisive, who can be a leader. I tried to use those skills in my role.

Q: And you saw a lot of improvement?

A: I think so; yes. At the end of the second year, we did a building survey of teachers. They said in the survey that they felt they were teaching in a school that they enjoyed teaching in. So I think it was--

Q: I'll bet you left there with a good feeling.

A: Right. I think my best experiences were experiences with people--with students as well as staff who had ideas of things they wanted to do and did them and were successful. Those were the good experiences. Never in the history of the school had it ever won awards for sportsmanship in any of the sports in which we competed. But the second year that I left, there were five teams that were voted most sportsmanlike by all the county teams- fourteen teams in the north county league. So we got five sportsmanship awards, and in the whole history of the school, they'd never won before that. So I think that although I didn't spend a lot of time working on instructional goals, that was my next goal--to take a closer look at the instruction program.

Q: First you have to get things in order, and then deliver the curriculum and let--

A: And get their attention. It's like the man with the donkey. He hit the donkey over the head with a 2x4 and said: Before I tell him what to do, I have to get his attention.

Q: You have to have control first.

A: Right. If you don't have control of the classroom, there is no control of the building. If there aren't services to help kids who need it, . . .

Q: How did you evaluated teachers? What was the procedure?

A: It was a state procedure.

Q: You went into it a little bit before. Is it a checklist, like "needs improvement"?

A: A checklist with a space at the bottom to write out some paragraphs where, if you check an area that needs improvement, then you,re specific in what the areas are.

Q: And two consecutive "needs improvement" evaluations meant that you could--

A: Two "unsatisfactory." "Needs improvement" wouldn't do it.

Q: You observed them once a year, twice a year?

A: The department heads would observe them at minimum four times a year. Then one of the--when I started, I had three assistant principals--one of the assistant principals would observe them twice a year formally. But you had a lot of other information that you collected from the department heads and from your informal evaluations.

Q: Did you do evaluations?

A: Oh, yes. We divided it up four ways.

Q: That is interesting that the department heads did the evaluations.

A: Theirs were not the state evaluations; theirs could not result in dismissal. Only the principal and assistant principals who had state certification can evaluate.

Q: I see. But it gave you additional information and kind of kept tabs on things.

A: Right. The department heads were appointed annually, so that if you had a department head who wasn't pulling their weight, you could also replace that person.

Q: The topic of staff development: What was your approach to staff development?

A: I had to think about that. Our central administrative staff were in charge of staff development, so there were staff development days, staff development times. My own projects included a mandatory visit by department heads and follow-up conversations with the teacher. It also included a new routine where the teachers had to go and visit another teacher in another department twice a year. They were covered for the time that they would go and visit the other teachers.

Q: How did you cover the classrooms?

A: Out department heads only teach four periods a day out of seven, so they did the covering. We also started a teacher-mentor programwhen I was there. It wasn't my doing, but it started the year that I began. All new teachers had a mentor, and there was a mentor program. It was started by a larger school district outside of our own school district, sort of a tri-county organization that provides staff development services. That was one of their projects. One of the other projects was: They offered many one-day staff development programs for our teachers. If they chose to go, we would get a substitute teacher for the one- or two day sessions. Some were offered on Saturdays.

Q: What was the mentor program?

A: The mentor program started with a full day in the summer with the other teacher orienting them to the school, to the classroom in which they were going to teach, and more or less just getting acquainted. When school started, it meant visits to that teacher's classroom and meetings after school regarding their concerns. As I said, it wasn't my idea, but it was a great thing. Our new teachers jumped right into all of the activities that were going on at the school. They felt they had someone they could go to and talk with, relate with professionally. So it was a very successful program.

Q: What about noninstructional staff?

A: I had some say in hiring noninstructional staff. For instance, I had no input in hiring cafeteria workers, but I did in hiring custodial staff and clerical and secretarial staff. If I had it to do again, I think I would spend more time with noninstructional staff. I think, as I look back, I didn't do enough of that. I helped to hire them and then more or less expected their supervisors to take over. And I think that if I had to do it again, I would probably spend more time with the noninstructional staff. I think most principals would agree that we have to give them attention as well. I think I probably was stuck in the mode of dealing with the instructional staff and so worried about discipline and that sort of thing that I neglected that area. So if I had to do it again, I would make those changes.

Q: You say you hired these people--for instance, clerical--and made sure they were familiar with their role, but from then on there really was no program to keep them monitored?

A: Right.

Q: Supervision of instruction: How did you go about supervising what the teachers were doing in the classroom?

A: I don't think 1 ever did supervise what they did in the classroom. I think that I made known to the department heads that I wanted them to monitor the curriculum and the classroom instruction. They had to given me written reports every nine weeks on what each teacher was doing in their classroom. Whether or not that agreed with the curriculum being taught was up to the department head to decide. I did not get into that. It was simply, purely lack of time. That needed to be done in a better manner. As I said, the next year my goal was to spend more time on monitoring instruction because I knew from being a counselor for twenty years--from talking with kids for twenty years--I knew pretty much who was teaching what they were supposed to teach and who wasn't. So I had a pretty good idea, and I could go to the department head and make my concerns known, and do a little bit of that. But to actually say that when that door closed, I knew what was going on in the classroom--I don't think I did. I don't know if any of us do, particularly in a school that size. You just can't be in 125 places at one time.

Q: How many students were in the school?

A: Eighteen hundred. There is the curriculum that is written, and there is the curriculum that teachers tell you they teach, and then when that door closes, there is the real curriculum. They could be making paper dolls, and I wouldn't know it. The standardized tests were only--the subject areas were verbal and math. So it was only in the English and math areas that we could effectively monitor that. We had to depend on the department heads monitoring the unit tests and the final exams and monitoring the instruction process and depending on the teacher to be professional enough to be teaching what they are supposed to be teaching. But there is a lot of that going around where, when the door closes, the teacher is flying by the seat of their pants. And then there is a lot of that going around where they are doing an outstanding job--doing more than the required curriculum.

Q: Were the department heads qualified and trained to do that? Or did they have to figure it out, and you had to hope that they knew how to do that?

A: They weren't qualified or trained, I wouldn't say. All of our department heads had to have masters degrees. And I think that that requirement was there, probably, because whoever made the requirement felt that that at least meant that they went on after their baccalaureate and got some more education in their field. Therefore, they would be more expert that some of the teachers. They had to continually work with the curriculum because annually a curriculum guide was published. We went over it annually in meetings. We did that in meetings with the guidance counselors, because every year when they did their scheduling, they had to know what went on in woodworking I and what went on in the other courses. So for them to become familiar with it, and for me to become familiar, we had an annual curriculum meeting, and it went on for a couple of days. As you can see, it would have to. They would go over each course and specify what was being taught in it. It was printed and published annually, and it was available for students, parents, whoever.

Q: What was your role in recruitment and selection of staff? You might want to talk, if you will, first about teachers and then custodial staff, although you said custodia# and clerical they chose for you.

A: Well, they did make it--I'll explain that. As far as teachers are concerned, the main recruiting was done at the personnel office in the school district central office. They would send me three or four candidates and say: Interview these three or four candidates. So I would interview them, and I would have the department head interview them as well. Then we would sit down and decide who we wanted to have the position. Pretty much I was allowed the final choice. The central office stayed out of it, which was good. I had to demand that, when it came to hiring custodial staff and coaches, however, that I also had more of a voice because there was some political pressure. For instance, there was pressure to hire more Black coaches, and my strong feeling was that if you could find a model coach--Black or white--you should hire that person. If you could find a minority who was qualified, then hire that person, but don't hire a person because he or she is white or he or she is Black. So I had to sort of change that so that I could have the final word on coaching.

Q: Were you able to do that?

A: Yes. And also custodian staff: Before I started there, the principal had no input hiring custodial staff. Custodial staff hiring in the city was quite political because our custodial staff was very well paid. They were political plums in many cases. I got as far as being one of three people who would make the final decision in our building. The head custodian and the person in charge of all the custodians for the district and myself would sit down and interview the candidates together and then make a joint decision. I didn't always win, but I wasn't necessarily always right. But I did have input.

Q: If you can tell me, what experiences or events in your professional life influenced your management philosophy?

A: I lived through an era where we had an outstanding principal and we had one who I admired. I felt that he was a good manager and a good model. I think that that influenced my management style. Then I lived through a period where I had a principal who was a dictator, that is, his style was that. He really wasn't a dictator, but his style was that. And then I lived through a principal who was sort of a hands off principal that allowed people to do whatever they wanted to do. And I didn't like that at all. I liked the first person I saw, and so I felt that I wanted to model that management style, where you are sensitive to--you realize that teachers--and we have a hundred and some teachers and they all are different--and you have to learn to appreciate their strong points and not nitpick at their weak points. Some of them cannot control a budget, and some of them don't know when the bells are going to ring, and some of them turn in their reports late. But you don't nitpick; you don't look at those negative aspects of a person. The person who I modeled, I think, taught me that. I had an idea of what I thought a perfect teacher should be, but he would say frequently: there is no perfect teacher; you are not going to get one in your lifetime. You learn to work with the teachers who have good abilities. Some are creative; some are not. The kid is exposed to maybe seven during the day. It is not going to hurt that kid to have one who is not creative, but it is going to help #f they have one that is. Not to put people down because they have weaknesses. Someone's not a real good disciplinarian, but she mothered them like nobody else did--that sort of thing. So I think that all that influenced my management style.

Q: How would you describe him? What were the characteristics in him that you admired?

A: First of all, he didn't mind working hard. And he was bright, and everyone knew he was in charge. He recognized talent and patted people on the back when they did something well. I think they were probably afraid that if they made him mad, it would be doomsday. So people stayed away from him when he became angry, because when he got angry, you could hear him roaring. But he cared about people. As I said, he was very sensitive, I think. He always talked about the kids. I learned that from him. He encouraged me into counseling from physical education; he really encouraged me. In the middle of the year, he put me in the counseling job when I thought I wasn't ready for it yet. He showed that he had faith in people and their abilities. He didn't mind taking a risk as long as it helped the kids. He would bring that up all the time: What's happening with the kids? I think he's the one who taught me: You look at a teacher, and if tneir main concern is not the kids, then you need to do something about it. If their main concern is the kids, you let that person alone, let them do what they are doing. That has always been a benchmark, even in my conversations with my housemate. She is a college administrator. I often say: Well, what does that person think about the

Q: Mentioning pleasant experiences and unpleasant, I know one of your most pleasant was the fact that the school shaped up and control was returned to the school.

A: And kids got pride in the school; I saw that develop. It was very pleasant to see them show up at an athletic contest, and even when the other team was winning and the other group of kids were being rude, our kids weren't.

Q: Any particular pleasant experiences?

A: I wrote down a couple of unpleasant ones.

Q: We'll move on to that.

A: Cheerleaders: Cheerleaders were very unpleasant experiences.

Q: Why is that? What happened?

A: Choosing cheerleaders is probably a bigger deal than voting on a president, to a high school kid. And so there were always a lot of problems and pressures around cheerleading and choosing them. There was constant in fighting.

Q: What about parents? Did they call complaining?

A: Oh, yes. To parents, cheerleading is a big deal. So that was always a problem. In athletics we had a few problems. One young man came in and falsified documents and played on our football team for four games before we found out that he was an escapee from a reform school. And it wasn't resolved; we had a big brouhaha that got us on the front page of the paper for six weeks. That was unpleasant because the papers made a big deal out of something that wasn't a big deal. The pleasant experiences were just seeing the kids enjoy their school, take on projects that they hadn't taken on before.

Q: Did you have vandalism, anything like that?

A: You could walk through the school, and you would rarely see any writing on the wall#--in the restrooms or anywhere. If you did, I would say that within a couple of days, we found out who it was. But that didn't happen necessarily because I was principal. The school very rarely had vandalism in the whole history of the school for some reason. I am not sure why.

Q: What about parents? I am curious: How did you deal with parents when you had an unpleasant experience with a parent? What did you find that helped work that out?

A: The thing that helped me was my counseling training. I don't know how a person can be a principal without some counseling training unless they are gifted with ability to step into conflict situations and solve them. The conflict situations that I encountered were chiefly when I wanted to put a student in the alternative school out of the regular mainstream. That is when we got the parents' attention. Before that it was hard to get their attention. York is a blue collar town, and there was a lot of unemployment at the time I was principal. Of the eighteen hundred kids, about seven hundred kids were on free lunches. We had a minority population of about 40% Black. We had the socioeconomic problems of a town with those demographics. 25% of the kids went to college. So we had all kinds of parents. We had parents who cared and parents who didn't care. In a conflict situation, I think that when the parent knew that I wanted for their child what they wanted for their child, that would usually defuse the situation. We didn't want different things; we both wanted the same thing.

Q: So you made it clear that you wanted what they wanted?

A: Right. I wanted the kid to be happy and healthy and productive and graduate. Sometimes we had to come down hard on them, but they always got another chance unless they did something awful. We did have to expel a couple of kids. We had a student expelled for assaulting a teacher. That was a very difficult case because we had caring parents. But we still had to expel the child. That was a school district policy: If you assault a teacher, you can't go back.

Q: What about drug use? Was that a big problem?

A: No. It was a problem. Marijuana was the biggest problem, I think. The kids didn't have much money, so there were no trendy drugs used very much. Alcohol was a bit of a problem, and marijuana smoking was a bit of a problem. But, again, if you were caught smoking marijuana or in possession in the building, you were automatically in the alternative school. So they knew that if they smoked or brought it to school, they wouldn't be in the regular school anymore; they would be in the alternative school. So we dealt with it; it wasn't a disruptive problem.

Q: What was your reason for retirement?

A: I guess the overriding reason was that I though I wanted to do something else in life. The State offered full retirement with no penalty for age. It was supposed to be a one-time-only thing. I had relatives and friends in D.C. who wanted me to come down here. I didn't want to retire in York anyway because I had no family there. I have some family in Western Pennsylvania, and I have family here. I just thought I wanted the change. Had I known that the State was going to keep the retirement option open for a couple more years, I probably would have considered staying another year or two. But I thought I would probably do something else. I haven't done much else since. I do spend a lot of time in Western Pennsylvania with my elderly parents. I'm going tomorrow. My mother will be 93 this weekend, and my dad's 95. They are being kept in a home; a registered nurse keeps them.

Q: Are they pretty contented?

A: My dad's in pretty good health. My mother's in very poor health. But I am going up there for four days, five days.

Q: Did you go for Easter?

A: No, since I was going this weekend. But I usually spend all the holidays with them.

Q: My final question is: What questions should I have asked that I didn't ask? Is there anything that you feel that we missed?

A: I have a concern that more--maybe it is happening now, but it wasn't happening then--I have a concern that talented people are not going into administration. Unfortunately, the people that I have seen as principals when I was growing up were former coaches, were people who were not necessarily sensitive people, who were not necessarily leaders, who were not necessarily committed to education but just sort of got there because they didn't want to be in a classroom anymore. That may be changing; I don't know. But from my viewpoint, I thinkmorepeople--andwomen particularly--should be encouraged to go into leadership positions. I think women can establish a learning climate in a building every bit as well as men, but we traditionally have only male principals. In York County, where I was, I think, of the fourteen schools, I don't think any of them had ever had a female high school principal. I don't know if that is different in Fairfax County.

Q: We have more and more now.

A: In high schools?

Q: Middle schools and elementary. I think more and more are getting into it, so that's good. And I feel like they are good people. We have quite a few women on our staff that have the administrative degree. They are teaching right now, and they are very good. So they are all out there also. I think that's the end.

A: Okay.

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