It is April 3, 1990, and I am speaking to Mr. Steve Kurcis in his home in Arlington, Virginia. He is the former principal of Yorktown High School, here in Arlington.
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Q: Good morning Steve. I wonder if we could begin this interview by talking briefly about your family background - where were you born, your family's interesting characteristics, and so forth.
(Streamed audio file of interview for this question using RealPlayer)
A: That's an easy one. I was born in Pittsburgh, and lived there until I was in first grade, and then we moved about 60 miles west to around Johnstown, Pennsylvania. My father was a steel mill worker in Pittsburgh, was in an accident and decided it was too dangerous a job and we moved. He went to a much safer job - he went into the coal mines. He worked there for the rest of his life. Both my parents were from Hungary and they spoke Hungarian as we grew up. Probably some disadvantages from the standpoint of verbal skills all the way through school as a result. It was also during the end of World War II, and I was young and the attitude of foreigners, of course, in this country wasn't the greatest. So instead of taking advantage of the language that was available to us, my sisters and I were more embarrassed than proud, and were very resistant and reluctant to learn the language. Although I do understand Hungarian if it's spoken, I picked up enough - we did need it, you couldn't communicate if you didn't have that ability. My parents both - one finished eight grade and one finished ninth grade. I was the first one to graduate from college, among all my relatives -- brothers and sisters, father and mother -- they did not believe strongly in college, but were neutral: if I wanted to go, that was fine, if I didn't, that was fine. I played sports in high school all year long and was able to get a scholarship and went to school and graduated in 1961. I taught in ... shall I continue? I went to Clarion University Teachers' College, it had a strong background in preparing teachers and excellent library department. While I was there, I played football for two years, and decided I'd had enough of football because I wanted to get a double major so I switched from social studies, which was my major, to English. And I ended up with a double major -- one English and one in social studies.
Q: In teacher preparation -- particularly toward a certification?
A: Right. When I graduated from college, they offered me a position right in Clarion at the high school. They knew me through the sports, and I used to volunteer to help out with some of the teams there, without pay, but I liked doing it and I was doing fairly well academically in college. So, I volunteered my time. As a result, it led to a job. I taught in Clarion for 3 years. At the same time, I decided to work on my master's degree at the Indiana University, which was about 50 miles away, and during the school year and summertimes, over a two and half year period of time, I was able to get a degree in English literature from Indiana University, which was in Indiana, Pennsylvania.
Q: At that time did you feel you probably would be a teacher, or did you have immediate interest in becoming a principal or administrator?
A: I had no desire whatsoever to be an administrator. I wanted to be a teacher, and that goes back to an experience I had in eighth grade -- and that was probably the changing point in my life. I had a teacher who taught social studies, who was the football coach, and there was something about that guy, that in a sense, turned my life around. Because up to that time, my reputation in elementary school and my first year in junior high was not the greatest. I had no idea that I wanted to go to school, I didn't like school, and I had poor grades. And it was through this one person that I met as a classroom teacher that had a firmness in front of the classroom but a gentleness and sense of humor that just struck me. I can see today, see myself sitting in that classroom saying I want to be like this guy someday. And, the fortunate thing about it, when I went on later in life to become a principal, I had the opportunity to visit my hometown, and ran into this guy at one of the sports events and told him I was as successful as I was and the person I was as a result of the influence he had on me.
Q: Was he surprised?
A: Yes -- not from the standpoint of --that he -- that it was a surprise that I wouldn't do well. Because I did change. Once he was my teacher, my whole attitude toward school -- I started to study, I got fairly decent grades in high school, compared to my elementary school it was like night and day. I made the honor roll a couple times, and those kinds of things.
Q: But that he had been so instrumental --
A: Well -- yes. I think that too often teachers in their lifetimes do not get students to go back and say, look, you've been a great influence on my life, and probably what we should do is teach students that, look, if someone does influence you, or if you ever get the opportunity, go back because that helps build, you know, to do that more often for other students, as well.
Q: You finally feel you're doing something right?
A: Yes. Right. The immediate feedback in teaching isn't like building a house -- you see the results in 3 or 4 months, or a year. Sometimes you have to wait 10, 15 years. So that's pretty much how my -- I knew I wanted to be a teacher since I was in the eight grade, no desire whatsoever to be an administrator.
Q: Your desire was still to teach when you moved to Arlington?
A: Yeah. When I got my master's degree from Indiana University, I also knew the job market for me was pretty wide open because it's not often that you can get a teacher who can teach English, particularly with a degree in English literature plus an undergraduate degree in English, who can read poetry and also coach football or coach baseball. You know, the combination just wasn't there. I knew that and I applied, when I got my master's degree, to probably the ten top school systems in the United States, and I had offers from about 7 or 8 of them -- White Plains, N.Y., some schools in California, and some schools in FloridA: applied in Fairfax, applied in Arlington, because at that time they were good paying schools. What they were paying in 1961 to 1964 -- my first was about $4000.00 -- that was in 1961 -- certainly not a lot of money. But, when I came here, 3 years later, I started out with about $8 - 9000.00 -- plus the coaching -- so, I was doing fairly compared to what I was doing in Pennsylvania.
Q: What first interested you in administration, or going toward administration and leaving the classroom?
A: Well, that's an interesting question. When I came down here, I'd taught 3 years in Pennsylvania, as I said, and I was into my, completing my third year teaching at Washington-Lee High School. I had taught 2 years in a junior high school there, then went on to teaching in high school. I was coaching football, as the varsity assistant, with one of my best friends, who was the head coach. We were both single, lived in the same apartment building, and did a lot of socializing together. But, what I didn't like was how he called certain plays or the strategies of the game. I was in a very awkward position because we were friends. It was frustrating from the standpoint that we did all this hard work and, you know, you go into a crucial game with two minutes left, and you call a wrong play - or two or three - and you lose a ball game simply for not thinking it through carefully. And without wanting to say that to him face to face, I decided the best way was to remove myself from coaching. That was one aspect. The other aspect of it was there were a number of principals in the county that would go out of their way to talk to me about going into administration. I think that was from my dealing with the kids in group situations and being able to motivate them, and, again, that kind of feedback from principals, teachers that I worked with, saying, "You should go into administration, you'd be good at it." That kind of thing. And, at the time, right at the last time of my frustration with coaching, Arlington County had the opportunity where one person was chosen to go into what they called an administrative intern program. You applied for the position and they would take one teacher and put them through a year's training - some at elementary school, some at central office, some at junior high school, and some at the high school. You did that for a year, and then, if there was a position open, and you did well, than you usually got the assistant principal's job. And, that's what happened to me. I started in the summer school - I applied for the position, was lucky enough to get it, and then I went through summer school all the way up through February, and rotated during that period of time going to the junior high school, the elementary school, the central office, etc. And, when I was finishing up my internship at Yorktown (high school), and a position came open, I guess I was doing so well they took me off my internship and gave me the assistant principal's job in early March - so I never finished the year (of the internship).
Q: What year was that?
Q: Well actually, that was a little bit before Don Brandewie went thru the same program. O.K. - I've heard talk enough about that to understand what the internship program at that time was.
A: Right. It was also associated with George Washington University. And, the neat thing about it is they would give you 24 hours tuition-free credits in administration courses. And, I took advantage of that and ended up with 30 hors of educational courses at George Washington University.
Q: Do you think that looking back at all of that, and so forth, that the motivation lead you there from that initial you're and how you felt about coaching with this person, and the internship just kind of opened up and GW offered this program - was that the real motivating factor, or this encouragement that you received from friends?
A: No. I think the real motivation was my frustration with coaching, because - if - the thing that I enjoyed doing was teaching - I got along well with the kids, I had a good sense of humor, I got a lot of good feedback from the kids - I got feedback from the kids on the sports field whether it was on the football field or whether it was on the baseball field - and was able to establish a good rapport with them without, you know, screaming and yelling, just by thinking things through, showing them in a gentle way versus pushing them around. So, I would have stayed in teaching a long, long time -- and maybe still be in it today -- if the circumstances didn't present themselves the way they did. I don't know if I would have handled it differently if the person that was the head coach would not have been a friend of mine, someone that I just hired I was just hired out of the clear blue sky and had that frustration. I probably may have handled it differently. I would have just said, look, I don't like the way this is going, or that is going -- but I just felt that I couldn't do that. So, I just kind of backed out of it. And, it lead to another career, in a sense. I have no regrets. I think one of the reasons I was an effective principal was because I wasn't afraid of getting fired as a principal because I knew I could go back to teaching, you know, and I liked teaching and I wouldn't be going to something that I disliked or I couldn't do well.
Q: Or, that you even felt was a demotion?
A: Right. Exactly.
Q: How long were you an assistant principal?
A: I was an assistant principal from 1970 - that March of 1970 - to the beginning of 1978.
Q: I was right about the approximate time then that you became the principal of Yorktown. So, your whole principalship was at Yorktown?
A: At Yorktown. Right.
Q: And a lot of changes have gone through Yorktown, and so forth - you must walk those halls in your sleep. Could you give us kind of a mental walk-through of the school, and describe its how, what its appearances were to you, or any unusual features of the building?
A: Well, it was - it is - a very difficult building to manage. There are three floors. The highest, or top floor, is the 200-number series - the easiest one to get around. Because, you start at one point and if you walk straight, make a left turn, and keep making left turns, you come back to the same place. That's the only way, place - the only floor that - where you can do that. When you get down to the main floor where the 100-series numbers are, where the main office, the clinic, the cafeteria and a lot of your academic classes in social studies, English, and science - there was an addition right before I came to Yorktown in 1970, where they put a two-story library in. As a result of that construction, they had to redesign the hallways, classrooms and the center court. So, you can go through one door and end up at a place where you can't get anywhere and - downstairs where the gymnasium is, the art department, the music department, industrial arts department, and again, some English classrooms down there. A little more easy to get along with, but there again, you can't walk around making left turns. You just get to understand this is one wing and this is another wing, and if you go through this gym door you might end up in the woman's locker room. It was very confusing, honestly almost 2 to 3 months to get a handle on where I was at any given time, and where the short cuts were. But, you know, you keep doing it, you get on to it and it's a piece of cake now. But it took a long time to get used to it.
Q: Then you have real empathy for those freshman that got lost those first weeks they were at Yorktown.
A: Sure. Exactly. And as a result of my own personal experience, we spent a considerable time on orientation with guides, with maps, and I would break down the building on slide projector with teaching the number system, the short cuts. I took special effort to get the students to understand the building. They obviously had less problems than I did. Maybe it's because someone explained it to them a little bit more thoroughly, I should say. Anyway, the other thing about the building, from the moment I ever went into the building, was the emphasis that I put on cleanliness, keeping the hallways free of clutter and trash, and getting the school itself - the art department and some of the English classes and the drama department - all involved in taking pride in the school and putting murals up. For example, one of the things we did - the art department - (the school being) the Patriots, and the emphasis on colonial times - all the numbers were done by the art students in old English. There are some, for example, when you go past the weight room, there is a clever mural about someone lifting weights. It's funny. When you come down a hallway, or going down the steps, there are clever drawings that the students did -- in good taste. There are quotations in crucial places in the building about motivating students, about caring -- that kind of thing. That was deliberately planned over the years with students and the teaches. It's a friendly, pleasant place to be in -- the color combinations on the walls are bright -- or, at least it was when I left.
Q: Well, I think it still is. I think you set a good tone for it. That has continued, that a lot of things that happened have become a real tradition at Yorktown and have gone on. Could you describe your personal philosophy of education and perhaps it has evolved over the years?
A: I don't want to spend much time on my personal philosophy. The reason I say that, I'm not a theory type of person. I'm a doer. I believe effective principals, effective teachers DO things! You don't just sit around and talk about and think about it -- not that that's not important for a limited period of time. My philosophy is that education is on-going. You just can't say, I graduated from college or I got my master's or doctorate degree, and that's it. You have to have an open mind, that you're going to learn, not only from the newest articles that have been published or different speakers in the educational arena. You're going to learn if you don't do one thing -- if you don't do all the talking. If you talk a lot and dominate the conversations, you're never going to learn. You've got to be a good listener, and you've just got to understand that. You can learn from custodians, you can learn from parents, you can learn from classroom teachers, from your assistant principals. And, going with that philosophy, that everyone you touch might have something to offer. When I went to Disney Worlds several years ago, the thing that most struck me was the organization of how they ran Disney World. It's a huge complex, as everyone knows. And, I asked, you know, down there how did certain things -- you drop a piece of trash and someone's there picking it up, how they organize lines, and so forth. And I picked up certain points from different people to do things more efficiently. And again, if you keep on with that attitude that you can keep learning, and instill that in students -- I think that's the best philosophy you can come up with.
Q: Sounds very good. It appears to me that your educational philosophy and your management philosophy as an administrator might be fairly philosophy. Would you touch on your management philosophy and maybe on one or two experiences that helped you determine your management style?
A: Well, I'll go back. And, like you said, it's similar to my philosophy (of education). I think, again, going back to being a good and effective principal, not only a good principal to the students, a good principal to the teachers, and a good principal to the parents, and you have to take all of those groups into consideration -- your staff, custodians, all of the people who come into contact with you. If you're willing to listen to them and at times you can learn -- there might be an idea or two there that you can adopt. That's one aspect of the management. The other thing that all of these people want, more than anything, if for things to be done. It's the doer type philosophy. They don't want people sitting around and pondering two, three, four days on something -- if there's noise in a particular hallway, you need to get to the bottom of it and stop it; if a student is acting up in class -- and it's not the teachers fault that particular kid is acting up, then you've got to do something about it; If there's trouble with the food program, you've got to get on those things without spending a lot of time in committees and debating it -- but you don't spend tons of hors on those, and tons of days doing those kinds of things. It's just saying, look, we've got a job to do! My management style basically was that, we have to go to work, we have to go to Yorktown every day -- and this was to the staff, and I'm talking about total staff -- we've got to enjoy this place. Now, it ought not be a place where we dislike and we all have to contribute toward making it a likable place -- cooperating, whether it's getting there on time or having lots of special events together, all of those things play on each other and help promote the kind of spirit and the kind of staff you want. Again, my management style is more of an open door -- and I really, truly mean that. I seldom ever had my door shut. That's dangerous 'cause you get people coming in from nowhere, wanting to talk to you, and you've just got to tolerate that. I did all of my paperwork -- you know, the brainy-type thinking and writing on Saturday morning or Sunday when nobody was in school, I would go up there. It's one of the good advantages of living close to the building. And, I was able to go up there early in the morning -- I'm an early riser and I'd get up there 6 or 7 o'clock in the morning -- and by 10 o'clock I had written my evaluations for that particular week or day or got a report due, and gave it to my secretary on Monday morning. And, I took a lot of things home in the evening. Instead of watching television, you know from 8:30 til 10 o'clock, I'd do some of my paperwork -- and which freed my time in hour-to- hour tasks, and also freed my time to talk to people. The visibility part of management, I think, is crucial -- teachers and students have got to see you -- up on the top floor, on the bottom floor, outside, on the athletic fields, or the drama showings, at the musical events - - and that balance is crucial to becoming an effective principal. If you lean too much on the sports, you're going to hurt yourself. And, I was smart enough to realize that football is important, but so is a good musical production. And you have to be seen -- those kids have to see you and those parents have to see you and you have to know those kids and you have to say the right thing if they do a good job.
Q: And, as being part of that school community and hearing both of my daughters talk at some time or the other, I know you were very visible at lunchtime in the cafeteriA: but not just with the big stick.
A: Yeah. Again, the visibility is very important. The communications is very important. You get a lot accomplished -- preventive medicine -- you spending an hour and a half, two hours in the cafeteria. It's a grubby job from that standpoint -I mean I'd much rather be out at some nice Italian restaurant, but it paid off. You can cut off potential problems, if you're observant. Kids will talk to you, tell you who's mad at whom. You can get those kids in before anything develops and prevent a lot of unnecessary throwing of the fists at each other, if you just move around. And the kids like that. Kids like to feel secure in a building.
Q: That leads me to another question. You were so much a part of the daily lives of the kids who were there. We think of the primary job of a school as being learning. What did you do to establish a successful climate for learning?
A: Well, again, it goes back to a more practical philosophy. I think the first thing that one has to understand is that as a principal, the people that you really have to get on your side, if you want change, if you want to do something about creating a good learning environment, is the teaching staff. Like at Yorktown, we had about 100 teachers, I'm talking about the resource aide as well, but 100 staff that dealt pretty regularly with the students on a day-today basis. If each one of those teachers had approximately 100 students to deal with, and some had more and some had less, depending on their teaching assignment, if you can get those teachers to believe in what you believe in, and then those teachers go out and act as leaders in the classroom--then, you'll get things done. They see those students every day for 182 days a year. SO, my philosophy and my strategy as a principal, again, it goes back to some of this management, was really to work with teachers and to convince them--and you have to convince them because a lot of the teachers don't believe this--that they are leaders, that they have the ability to lead. That might seem strange, but they want to send their problems down to the office. If they have a problem, they want the kid out of the class if he's not the perfect ideal student, and I could go on that. And, that's not a criticism. Teachers have to be taught by someone that stands up in front of them and they respect, and you keep bringing in people that help you do what you are trying to do, and that is to make them leaders. If you can get your staff to lead individually, then you're going to see any change that you want, and more importantly, those teachers are going to feel better about themselves. They've got to be told continuously that they are leaders. That was one of my strategies, and I used curriculum supervisors, I used other principals, I used consultants that were well respects whether it was on human relations or whether it was on some science project, whether it was on some kind of writing project and we worked as a staff. That, writing, for example, wasn't just the responsibility of, you know, 15-20 English teachers, that the science teachers had a responsibility at the same time. I used to have the math teachers teach the other staff members some basic principles of math, a little harder than addition and subtraction, but some short cuts in computing math problems. I used to have the English teachers working with the total staff on some skills in writing. And we used to spend part of out faculty meetings educating each other on that. You know, it's a touchy subject but it can be used if it's handled with the idea that, you know, look, we're all trying to learn something and pass this on to other students.
Q: You've mentioned a lot of things, I think, that go into this next question, so maybe you'll just want to capsule it briefly. What, do you really feel, makes the effective principal?
A: Well, there's a combination of things, what he has to have is high expectations--he has to have high expectations of himself and of the staff members. And what I mean by that is the principal and those teachers have to believe that those kids have a place in society--the very bright ones as well as the not-so-bright ones--and if there's enough patience and enough caring, that they're going to learn. And, at the end of their four years at the high school, they're going to go out with a lot more than when they came in--they're going to be better writers, they're going to be better mathematicians, they're going to be better people, generally, they're going to care about people. To do that, again, you've got to go back to using the staff and having them think that way, as well. So, that's one aspect. I think a good principal has to, along with his beliefs, be willing to fight for them. If he doesn't have enough staffing, if he doesn't have enough money for supplies, he has to be a shrewd businessman and somehow get those things for that staff. Whether it's having some fund raisers that he and the staff can come up with or pounding on the budget office door and superintendent's door and making a good case. I think all of those things, working together, you get what you need. At the same time, you're getting respect from staff members as a leader because you're willing to take those kinds of risks. I don't think any principal can be a principal if he's unwilling to take risks. You've got to be careful, I mean there are certain things that you want to go down for and are willing to go down for. In a sense, I mean "down" by getting fired, if necessary. When there are issues out there that are important, then you have to be willing to do that. Particularly when you don't have enough basic materials--you know, pencils, writing stuff, films, or what-have you. You just got to be willing to fight for those kinds of things. That's an ingredient, taking risks. Crucial ingredient. You know, one of the experiences I had was when an American Nazi Party wanted to use our school. I knew after dealing face-to-face with the American Nazi leaders that they weren't going to back off--and at the same time, they knew I wasn't going to back off. There was no way I was going to give them that building to rent. They went to court, and they were basically saying I had overstepped my boundaries, that it was a public institution and they could use it. And, I defied it. I said there's no way you're getting in here. And, the superintendent got involved. Unfortunately, he went along with the courts, saying that I couldn't do that--which was, I think, a dumb thing for him politically to do, because I wasn't going to back off and he knew I wasn't going to back off, so it made him look like he was backing the right to use the building and I wasn't going to give them permission. I felt, in that situation, that it was better that they took me in jail to save the reputation of the school than just to lay down and go along with what the law was. Eventually, I lost out, but at the same time, I became a hero in the eyes of the student body and the eyes of the parents and in the eyes of the people over the United States because it hit all of the presses, you know, as far as Saudi Arabia. But, I really believed that I could not just fold in because you can't explain that to the student body--that they're going to bring in a group of people that promote hate and you're trying to build a school that you want with warm and caring and decent atmosphere. So, what happened was what I knew would happen--they removed me from the school. I wasn't allowed on the school grounds when this was going on or I would have been arrested. But I didn't get arrested because I didn't go on the school grounds, but at the same time, it turned out to my advantage because I wasn't the guy that said go ahead and go with it. That's one of those things that you have to weigh pros and cons and how far you're willing to go. Taking risks. I think that all principals and staff members have to be taught that laughter and a sense of humor is crucial in teaching and in administration. It breaks up the stress, the tensions. A good classroom teacher, I think, is often a funny individual, I mean laughter-wise, and can look at and laugh at himself or herself. A good principal can do the same thing. A crucial ingredient to leadership--self-confidence, strong, willing to compromise, to understand that there are different contingencies out there that have their own agendas--that the parents want one thing, the teachers want one thing, and the students one thing. The skill is to be able to juggle those different groups and when you're finished with them they feel good about you and feel good about themselves. I think at the same time you've got to teach all of those groups, and if you're skillful you can do that, that because they want something, the answer is not always yes, and sometimes the answer is no. And, that's probably most difficult to do with teachers versus the other two groups. You know, they want this particular activity or they want this or that, and sometimes--I mean, one of the things I fought for years was jello-wrestling. It seems simple enough, but my son just came home the other day saying he'd just signed up to jello-wrestle at the same school I left. It's going to be one of their fund raising activities. But, I'd felt that was something dehumanizing--good girls up there slopping around, and--it was just my own personal belief that there was no way that I was going to do it. There were parents who wanted it, students who wanted it, and I'm sure some faculty that wanted it. But I said no and gave them my reason for it. And you know, they accepted it, not liking it, but that's what you've got to learn how to do--say no, but don't just say no without laying out carefully what are your reasons for doing it. I think parents need an explanation on things, students need an explanation and teachers need an explanation. And the more you communicate those kinds of things, the better off you're going to be. Those are leadership things.
Q: That says a lot, and when you were talking, I remembered a lot of things you've talked about because I have been a member of the community. What kinds of things do teachers expect principals to do for them--or to be able to do for them? More than just being and instructional leader?
A: Well, I would say that one of the top things is the ability to make decisions. Now, some decisions are easy to make and some aren't. And it's the skill in being able to do that--if they ask, we'll go down to a simple thing, I need $25.00 to join this particular activity. It's a matter of saying yes or no. The clue to it is thinking it through, listening and having that teacher, that requester, know that you're listening, and after you've thought it over for a short period of time--depending on the situation, some times you can give them an answer at the same time, at the same conversation; but at the same time, you've got to be careful that they know you were at least listening to them--if you have a good explanation why you can't do it, if the answers going to be no. If it's something that's a little more tough, I think you might say I'll get back to you in the next day. I think you should always say I'll get back to you in a amount of time- it's good communication skills--shouldn't leave people out there hanging. If you need 2 days, say I'll get back to you in 48 hours. I think that's one of the things that teachers want. I think the other thing is very closely associated with that. It goes to the assistant principal more so than a principal because they deal more closely with the daily activities, and that is, getting feedback to them as quickly as possible. If they send a student to the office, for whatever the reason, they should know before the end of the day, or certainly the next day, by either a short note in their box--I saw John Doe and we had a conversation, and I called his parents, or whatever it might be. If teachers get feedback quickly, you solve one ton of your problems. It's ridiculous--it's like--one of the things that irritated me mostly, if I called somebody and if I don't get an answer to that phone call within the end of the day, you know, I'm about ready to tear out that phone. You know, I'm busy as they are busy, and it doesn't take that much time--if nothing more than a call from their secretary saying, "Got your message, will get back with you tomorrow. He's tied up, got 30 things going on". I could understand, and assistant principals have to understand, about teachers. If there is some feedback that needs to be sent back to them, it ought to get back to them quickly. That's a crucial key, that's what they want. I developed, when I was assistant principal, a form, they filled it out, there was a carbon copy, and when I saw that kid, they had it back before the end of the period, most of the time. So when they came down for lunchtime, they knew I did this, this, or this--or I didn't do anything. I'd say, look I need to see you on this; I've got some concerns--or whatever it is. And, that's all right, too. Teachers have to be taught how to--a lot of the problems that come, that you get in the schools, in managing, particularly in the discipline area, the referrals to the main office--a high percentage of them could be avoided if the teacher handled it just a little bit differently. And, again, you have to teach your teachers that you want a kid referred to the office that can't say you are the cause of why I'm at the office--that you called me a name, or you yelled at me, or you embarrassed me, or you made fun of me--and I can go on. And, if you can avoid that kind of thing and just deal with a kid on a pure basis that he just screwed up, and there are consequences, [it's easier].
Q: We've been talking about the expectations of teachers--what they expect a principal to do for them. So what's the difference in the expectations of the employers and the community?
A: The question's focusing on the expectations of the teachers?
Q: Right, from before we were talking about the expectations of teachers--what they expect a principal to do for them. So, what's the difference in expectations of the employers and the community from the teachers?
A: The expectations of the community isn't that different from the expectations of the staff-- and, to some degree, of the students. They have a different agenda on what's important. They, again--at Yorktown's community, the emphasis is on getting their son or daughter prepared as best you can for college, because 85-90% of the students went to college. That's a high percentage, obviously. The other 8-10% that are remaining usually went even to a junior college or to the military--to find themselves. The emphasis--that the parents wanted the principal to lead, to make decisions, to be at activities. They felt it was important to see their son or daughter participate in gymnastics or whether it is swimming. So, I think the good, skillful principal will balance his time and spend as much time as he possible can on visiting, going--even if you're at the swim meet 15 minutes, you can't imagine how much this means. Now, you'll get someone say, well he only spent 15 minutes, but you'll also at the same time, you'll have other parents who say, yes but he has 30 other things to do, too. So, it balances out. I think it's important--and getting back to visibility--if you're there, it shows s\that you're interested in what's happening--and, I think parents want that. They want to hear good things from their son or daughter about whoever that principal is, that they know that principal. I think principals have to be careful, and one of the things I always did. I would break the student body down into classes--freshman, sophomores, juniors, seniors--and at the beginning of the school year, I'd bring all the freshman down and we'd stay in the auditorium for at least 40-45 minutes,to an hour. And I would tell them--there'd never better be a student out there that said he didn't know who I am or had never seen me or had never hear me talk. And I think you have to do that, not only at the time when you come in, but you have to break down a year--maybe at the beginning of the new semester--have some kind of pep talk, give them a compliment, tell them how well their doing, tell them what the test scores are for that particular group. Give them some good positive feedback. Break it down into small groups. I'd do that with freshman, sophomores, juniors and seniors--I met with them as a class at least two times, and with the seniors I usually met more--they were leaving, they had more things that we had to get taken care of, the senior week and that kind of stuff--so I'd meet with the senior group probably 3 or 4 times in a given year. That's important. Kids have got to identify with whom the principal is. At the same time, if you want to be well respected by those students, you've got to fight for some of their concerns and charges at times. And, some of them put you in direct conflict with the superintendent's position--whether it's open campus, you know, leaving the school during lunch. The school board and the superintendent might be deadly against it, but it you believe in that kind of freedom, particularly for 17-18 year olds, then you've got to stick your neck out there, and say now look, you can overrule me, you make the major decisions of the school board, but I believe it's wise for you to give them some of these kinds of freedom. Those are the kinds of things that the community--expects.
Q: What about your employers--the expectations?
A: By employer, do you mean the school board or the superintendent?
Q: Probably--we'll talk about the expectations and the school boards both in a little bit, but I would say interpret employers, right now, as the superintendent, probably.
A: Now, I've forgotten the question. His expectations?
Q: His expectations?
A: I think they're fairly similar to my expectations of my assistant principals. I think good assistant principals and good principals should keep in mind that one of their major tasks is to keep the superintendent out of trouble. And, if they know something is coming up, or a decision that could backfire, thru their own experience, and he is fighting for something or wants something changed, or he doesn't want something changed and you believe it should be changed, not that it's going to cost that much money but it's going to have the morality improved of the whole staff--then you have to advise him that he should or she should back off of those kinds of situations. At the same time, I feel that good principals have to understand that everything he advises the superintendent, or the school board, to do isn't going to be accepted. You've got to understand that there are yeses and nos. And that you don't take it so personal, that if you come up with this brilliant idea or brilliant advice, and they ignore it, you can't get hung up on it. You've got to take the position that, well, I gave it my best shot, you didn't listen and you'll see at the right time that I was probably right--and maybe you won't.
Q: Well, you know, the superintendent and the central office all get wrapped into one thing. I've heard it said that the central office hinders a principal carrying out his building responsibilities. What are your views on that subject?
A: Well, my views on that subject is that, more often than not, it is a cop-out of that particular principal. I think that the superintendent, the school board, and the central office staff all have pretty much the same goals in mind. You know, you're trying to have a good school system, you're trying to graduate student that get accepted to many, many different universities, or get well prepared in a career or job market--that have good skills to get into the job market. I don't see them philosophically any different. I think if a principal really wants something, and if he is willing to take a risk for it, because he believes in it so strongly, he'll get the central office to be on his side. But you have to build your case. And, you have to show--whether it's the personnel director, whether it's the assistant superintendent, or whether it's the curriculum supervisor, that his is the way we want things to be because these are the reasons for it--and most people are very reasonable and go along with it. I never had any trouble with the central office. Now, there are certain things that you have to learn to do as an effective leader, as a manager, in a school system. Sometimes you don't ask questions. If you're going to get permission for everything that you want to do to run that school on a daily basis, and you run to the superintendents office for permission to protect your butt-end, in a sense, you're not going to be a very effective principal. Or, are you going to have very much respect from your staff. There are ways to generate revenue that are not illegal, and go out and purchase things for your school and your staff without anybody having to know about it. We had more copier machines at Yorktown then they had at the central office. And, the reason we had was because I managed the school financially, I think, very skillfully. I would put a bit promotion on at the beginning of the summer with at least 2-3 letters updating parents on what our test scores were at the end of the year, how many kids went to college, and, you know, kind of a public relations letter. But, I would also say, it would be more beneficial to the school if you bought as yearbook, if you bought a publications deal that we have. So, for the first night that you get a PTA folder, expect to dish out about $85-90.00. If you give parents a warning, they'll get prepared for it. We would have, by the end of November, about 900- 1000 checks in our hands for yearbooks. Okay? Now, when you multiply, say 1000 times $30.00, that generates a lot of money. Then, I would work out a deal with the publishing company that they wouldn't be paid until February, that 1/3 of the payment, then I would give them all of the payment in June. And what I would do is take all of that money and put it in CD's. And when I started as principal, they were paying 18%. And I would generate $12-$14,000.00 in interest money in one year's time, and that $12-$14,000.00 was mine, not personally but the school's, I felt--the schools board didn't give it to me--and I would use that money to buy anything that I wanted--we bought tractors for the custodians, we bought lawn mowers, we bought textbooks if we were short, we bought more pencils, more paper, more dittos--and no one knew about it. Now, if I'd told the budget office I was doing this, they would have probably spanked me and _____. So, those are the kinds of things that you've got to be careful about, as long as you're being audited, as long as you have careful records that you're not personally taking the money, I think you're on pretty safe grounds. I mean, what the hell can they do? They can say stop doing that, it doesn't look good. But what doesn't look good? You're going out and purchasing things to improve your schools, your instructional program, your sports program. That's going to be a hard argument to get away. We would--I also used the PTA very skillfully. The first thing we did, we expanded the PTA: the executive committee had about 25 members on it, just the executive committee, which met at least once a month. And then, we had the general PTA meeting, which meant they met two times a month. They would--all of the once that we had--and they were big fund raisers, generating sometimes $15-$25,000.00, cumulatively. They would have teachers and student apply for that money in grants--they needed $1000.00 to go to Florida, they needed $1000.00 to buy whatever---machine, tickets for a play--and the parents would release that money. They had their own account, but it generated a lot more money for the school system, and a lot more particular special activities for that school, and it benefitted students and teachers. And, you've just got to do those kinds of things. If you go ask the superintendent, again, for permission for everything to do, you're going to get more nos than yeses because they have to be so super concerned about what your school's doing to school B next door, you know...
Q: Equity across the system.
A: Yeah, and--It's a very legitimate position to take. You have to be concerned about equity and staffing across the school[system].
Q: Look at Arlington's system-wide organization. If you were a fairy god-father and could have a wand, is there anything you might suggest changing that would improve or would enhance administrative efficiency?
A: I think that the system that we have is very effective. the one thing, I think--the one single thing I would put my finger on, again, it's dangerous because you're dealing with the teachers' organization on this, so you have to be pretty sensitive. In that i would build into every principals' budget a trade-off where they could take one or two teaching positions and convert those into teacher aides. I think that's valuable because there are certain classes where you can get away with--where you can handle 27 to 30 students if they're homogeneously grouped which most school systems do whether they admit it or not. And, they're well behaved students and you can get thru it. Then, there are other classes you have to get down to 14 or 15, or even less, because of the makeup of the student body, the attitudes of certain students, the lack of motivation--and at times you have to break them down into smaller groups as well. And if you can use teacher aides to help particular kids or more individual attention, you're way ahead of the game. The more adults you have in the building- good adults--the better off you are. You can't tell a good secretary or a good resource assistant--I mean, that is, a resource assistant--what I mean by that, an aide that has responsibilities to other teachers. They might be able to influence 5 to 10 to 15 or 20 students who might not otherwise be influenced in the right way--just like that eighth grade social studies teacher [of mine]. A whole lot of years in a principalship. Again, I was able to get teacher aides at Yorktown by not asking permission. You know, I would just work out my budget, and at times I got screamed and yelled at by the personnel director for doing it, but it was usually something that I believed in it strongly and took risks, and even got the superintendent on my side to do it. We had more teacher aides than the rest of the schools because I had hand scheduled, if necessary, the master schedule to get classes balanced so I wouldn't get teachers yelling at me that they have too many students, and that kind of stuff. You can work thru the numbers when you're dealing with a large staff. If you're dealing with 80 to 100 teachers, by working out a master schedule, and balancing those classes, you're able to generate 1 to 2 positions without anybody even knowing about it. One of the things, you know, that we--we created a whole human relations department by-- no one knew how that person was being paid, at least the other teacher's didn't. I would tell them how I got--you know, I just said it was allocated. That particular individual had tremendous influence on the black population at Yorktown because of the program that they set up and the individual help that they gave. We had more kids applying to college that were black than in the history of Arlington County because that one person's influence talked to them, motivated them, and got them into college.
Q: That's fantastic. You know, I have heard--I want to summarize something I think that you have said. Some people say that principals are just instructional leaders. And, others say a principal is nothing but a good manager. And throughout our conversation, I think I have heard you interweave the two--that you really believe that they are companions and your ideas of instructional leadership affected your managerial style and vice versa. Could you briefly summarize that--the relationship of the two roles of the principal?
A: Well--I'm going to sidetrack this and then try to bring it all together. I think schools first become great schools, not because people sit back and hope that they'll become great schools, but simply because they focus on improvements year after year. I think a great school--the faculty, the principal and everybody that's associated with that school--from the custodians up through secretaries up through a strong guidance staff--has to understand what it stands for. I think the principal's first job is to make sure everybody understands what it stands for. I would share, I guess, three fundamental beliefs I have over the 25 or so years of teachings of public education, as an assistant principal, and as a principal. First, the instructional aspect of it. Courses that students take have to be delivered by a very caring, a very competent teaching staff. That's the first ingredient. The mission of those teachers is to improve the performance of reading, writing--you know, the basic science, language courses. I think the marketable skills and all those things ties into one. But, I think too often we forget that the most important thing in school--it is the human connection. And, what happens between that teacher and that student has to be the most crucial thing in any school. The principal has to understand it. The human connection is the most important thing. If you don't have a staff person in front of those kids that is a good role model, that has some enthusiasm, that doesn't care about what he is doing, it's just a job, then you're not going to get anywhere. Those kids will see thru that [snaps fingers] just like that. If you work on teachers understanding that, that they're a role model, that how they behave in front of the class, whether they can laugh or don't laugh, whether they're well prepared, or whether they understand their subject matter--you can't fool those students, you can't fool the dumbest students, you can't fool the smartest. That has to be the beginning point--to focus on what happens between the students and the teachers. The human connection is crucial. The role modeling is the harder, I think, of the teaching act. Students respond to how we do things, more to what we do or how we teach. State it another way--I think students watch us. They not only watch you in front of the classroom, they watch you if you attend or do not attend school activities whether it's a sports event or whether it's a drama event or whether it's a science show, or whatever. They're observant. I think the most caring thing a teacher can do, is say look, yeah I have a lot of papers to correct tonight but I also have the responsibility to go out and see something. That's very difficult to do as a principal. It's very difficult in today's educational arena to convince good math teachers and good science teachers that their responsibility only isn't preparing [lessons] and correcting papers, it's also getting out- extending themselves a little bit more. I don't think I could be the kind of principal I was if I decided I wasn't going to take anything home, or was going to quit working at 8 o'clock at night. You've got to expand and go seven days a week. That doesn't mean all seven days a week, it means Saturday and Sunday aren't free holidays for you. You've got to spend some time correcting papers when no one's around, or preparing when no one's around but at the same time, when activities are going on, you get out there a little and see it.
Q: You've talked about being a good principal. As some of you who have been good principals leave that job, we have to consider training new principals. What do you consider might be the ideal requirements for principal certification?
A: Well I think it's like student teaching, you know in our educational preparation for teachers. You are going to be a much more effective teacher if you get more experience working as a student teacher with a teacher sitting down and watching what you do right and what you don't do as well as you ought to. I think some of the schools education-wise are doing a little better job on that, they're taking freshman and sophomores out, putting them in a situation where they can observe teachers at an early age in their career. That serves 2 purposes. Maybe one is that you get rid of those people who really don't want to do that for a life time because it's hard work. Secondly, you're going to learn a heck of a lot more because you're going to be in real situations. I think the same applies to principals. The training--a lot of the curriculum ought to be the real thing--visiting schools, spending some time with principals, assistant principals, talking to teachers, like you're doing today. Asking questions from a teacher's perspective, what makes a good principal, what doesn't make a good principal, how about your principal? That's dangerous from the standpoint of the confidentiality, because if you're not skillful they won't tell you the right things or they'll just be critical. But, to make a long story short, these, I think the best training is to get out and see, first a lot of classroom activities. I think a good college professor in an education class, even as a good baseball player--baseball coach, I should say--if you want them to learn, you simulate situations. If you want a kid to know what to do if the ball's hit to shortstop and there's a guy on second base, do you go to first or watch this guy or whatever. Same thing in a classroom--you could set up situations with parental conferences- pretend parental conferences--you could set up simulations with students who have misbehaved or who have just won an outstanding award. What do you say to them, what do you do? When do you call a parent, when do you not call a parent? You know, if you create those kinds of things that are likely to happen in the job, the crisis situations, and-- you know, there are a lot of things that are not easy or they would have been resolved already. The things you have to deal with--the racial situation, this teacher is being accused of being a racist, how do you handle that with a student, with a parent, with a teacher, with an assistant principal, with the school board? If you do those kinds of things of real life crises, you know, teenage pregnancy, drugs--and bring those things into the setting of the classroom. That's the best training.
Q: Do you advocate, then, types of internships similar to what you went through in training?
A: Yeah. It's the internships--and it also goes further than that. It's what happens in the educational courses. I mean, most of those courses are not that effective--at least the ones I had. And I took many, many hours at George Washington University and I took courses at UVA and I took courses at George Mason--I could go on. But very few of those courses were really effective. I mean, you have to write a paper, you have to read about certain situations- you really don't really learn a lot. I mean, the students who could write well, the students who could speak well get the A's, but they may be the lousiest principals out there.
Q: On the scene?
A: Yeah. I think, again, those courses have to be taught from the standpoint--what is the real life situation. you really don't have to know a whole ton about the philosophy and the history of education today. First of all, things have changed so dramatically, and will continue to change, that the emphasis ought to be on change--the tools of the computer, the tools of the camcorder, the satellite networks and those kinds of things, the telecommunications systems all over the world today. I was just reading not too long ago, with the cables being laid and the fiber optics, you can make 11,000 calls per minute to Japan. Eleven thousand in one minute! That's just mind boggling. So, I think, if anything, the courses in education ought to be more for the future, the emphasis--not in the past. The past is already done. Not that you can't learn something, but you're not going to learn a whole lot versus the dramatic changes in communication that are going on today. So, I think, the effective principals--the effective leaders--they're going to have to read books like, uh--The Year 2000--uh--why can't I think of it? John Nesbitt's book, Megatrends for the Year 2000. That's his newest book out, and you start reading that and it gets you thinking about what the year 2000's going to be like--and some of the things obviously are going to happen. And, the best leaders are going to be able to direct their staffs and their student bodies in the right directions by knowing what the trends are for the future, where the job markets are and what skills are going to be required. Schools have to get in sync with the technology--and we're behind. It's expensive, but that has to be done.
Q: You know, you said that at the time you went into the internship program, they had one slot open. In Arlington the last few years, we've changed our internship program so that we have more people in it--and some may be out there forever, moving around in those schools, and never quite get one that they apply for. But does this seem an appropriate direction for us to be moving--that we have a larger internship program and people rotating through a number of schools?
A: Yeah,. The more people that you can get to see the other picture, I think the better off the school system's going to be. I would have been a much more effective teacher on leaving the principalship or assistant principalship, going back to the classroom, because I understood what some of the consequences are of running a big school, you know. As simple as, if you have 60 classes going on simultaneously and if 60 teachers have one little squabble with a particular students in each of those classes the first period, and they all decide the way to handle it was to send that one person down to the office, during first period would be a zoo with those 60 kids waiting in the office. It teaches you to try to resolve some of the difficult situations you get into as a classroom teacher other ways-- whether it's with more patience, whether it's with more tolerance, whether it's with more individual conferencing, or whatever. So, the more experience you give people outside of the classroom setting, or their particular job at the central office, who are interested in a principalship or assistant principalship, the better off you are. Because, they see a little bit of the other side. And, the more understanding that you have, I think the better off you are.
Q: But everyone who maybe wishes to become a principal maybe should not become principals. What would be the procedures for screening candidates?
A: Well--I think there again, it goes back to the simulation activities, as one way to judge. In Fairfax, Arlington, and a couple other counties have gone together--potential principals or assistant principals go thru a three-day seminar where they are given situations and they have to respond to it in writing and answering it verbally--how do you handle this and how do you handle that? And you get a tendency to understand how people would work under pressure. You know, that's one way. I think the feedback that you get from students-- which we always forget--how this person was as a teacher or as someone else in the school system. If they've had contact with students, if they've had contact with parents, to get a general feel what those people's reaction of that person will give you a pretty good indicator as well. Again, if that's possible. And it's certainly possible with classroom teachers because they have the students available. With other situations, that may be a little more difficult, but--going back to the people they have come in contact with--if they're a bummer as a teacher, they'll be a bummer as a principal. If they were uninspiring as a teacher, or whatever job they had, if they were tense and didn't have a sense of humor or could laugh--I mean, all of those things we talked about--if they don't come out, you can be pretty well convinced that that person isn't going to be any better. If you're not inspirational as a teacher, or whatever job you hold, I doubt very much you're going to fully enjoy this job-- and be any good at it.
Q: How do you feel about--well, everything is changing in the home-school (arena)--continuity in communities in metropolitan areas like Arlington, and the percentage of mothers that are back in the workforce, as so forth--what should the school be doing to help develop more parental involvement in this type of social scene today?
A: One of the things that schools don't so well--principals--is, if parents are working all day, both parents I should say, if there are both parents--because the same situation changes, depending on how n\many divorces there are, how many separations, etc.--which is certainly difficult for students to have to handle besides all the class work. You really have to find other ways to communicate--whether it's writing letters, or--my two children are in school, one in high school and the other one in elementary school, and its astounding during the summer period that about the only communication you get is about a week before school opens telling them where to report, which is a big flaw if you're going to be a good principal, I think. I think the parents ought to get a letter from every principal, telling them what's happening during the summertime--the teachers, if they're out studying somewhere, to make it personal, you know Jerry T. is out in Indiana at a course, you give some highlights of the staff, how they're improving; you make a section on improvements on the building, or the landscaping; what's going on, you update them in that regard. You give them a review on how well you're doing on the testing as a group, as a school, the year previous because, you know, your test scores don't really come in until the end of the school year, in May--SRA tests, for example, were given in March, your results don't come back until the first part of June; your college board tests, I could go on. It's a good idea to communicate to parents these achievements--or if there aren't achievements, saying there aren't and we have to work harder and this is what were going to do to work harder. If you're going to have any kinds of special programs after school, that type of communication. With both parents working, if they get used to getting letters from the school, they will read them. They might not read them that day that you send them, but by the time school opens they will. I think, periodically, they have to send out more communications via mail. We don't do that well. Everybody says its too expensive for postage. Well, then you do what I said earlier. If you need another 500 bucks for postage, then you go out and hustle that 500 bucks somewhere--either through the school board and say how important it is--and, in most instances, if it's a collective effort by principals, they'll get what they want. That's one thing. I think the system of picking up the telephone. Parents are at work. There are few parents who won't accept a phone call at work, and if they don't want a phone call at work, they'll let you know soon enough, but the majority of them will. I think picking up the phone--a lot of our teachers did this, and again it's one of those things you have to teach- - pick up the phone and say to a parent how well their son or daughter is doing in class. It's worth a million dollars in support in regard to one saying how lousy the kid is doing. We had teachers who would send out advisories on every student, not just the ones getting d's and e's, but those advisories saying your son or daughter is getting an A, he's an outstanding worker, and all of that, you know. That's the kind of support you need. It's the kind of support you need as a parent and it's the kind of support you need as a teacher. If the parents like the teacher, even if their son or daughter comes home and says something negative about them or how lousy they are. They'll probably not take it. They'll say, look that person can't be all that bad if they did this, this, and this. You've got to work those kinds of techniques, particularly more importantly today with so many parents being divorced, so many parents working. It's just a different way of communicating--you have to set up one night a week, at times, or once a month, an open-door policy, from 7 o'clock til 9 o'clock at night, and say, come on in if you have any concerns, call for an appointment so I can schedule it. You know, you might get 5 or 6 parents, you don't want them all at the same time, so say, you come in from 7 to 7:30 and you come in from 7:30 to 8--and you can get that kind of thing done. If no one comes, it's just the idea that the opportunity is there, and if they know it's there that goes a long way in public relations and a good image of the school and the principal and the assistant principals. You do have to look at your time, differently than we used to. When I first started as principal, I would set up an open policy with my teachers to come in and have coffee from 7 o'clock til 7:20. We started school at 7:30 with the kids. It was amazing how many teachers would pop in and had no specific problem. They just wanted to say hello and either compliment you or say, look I need some help in this situation--this third period class is driving me up a wall, can you get someone in there to take a look at it. That kind of stuff- preventive. You do the same thing with parents. You look at your clock and sometimes the early morning is good and sometimes the late, late afternoon is good--or the evening.
Q: Steve, to shift gears a little bit, what have been your views on career ladders, differential pay and merit pay? Just very briefly.
A: Well, obviously, merit pay is a touchy issue. I don't know if it's the right thing, but--I'm not a strong advocate of it. If I had my preference, I'm much more inclined to go with the elevation of staff members in two areas: one is--I'm going to speak from the secondary standpoint versus the elementary because I don't have that much expertise in elementary. Certainly, from the secondary standpoint the idea of elevating or making prestigious positions, like department chairperson's position--reducing their class teaching assignments to 2 or 3 periods a day and having them help specifically on the instructional supervisory level- working with teachers, observing teachers, having the observations be confidential between the teacher and that particular supervisor, the department chairperson--is one way. Again, making that position, again, a titled position that has prestige, part of the compensation is that you're not teaching as many students, but at the same time, compensation has to be given there--you know, whether it's $2,000.00 a year or $3,000.00 a year, whatever the figure is, that you're the department chairperson and you're getting extra money and your responsibility is to make that particular department the most effective, caring teaching staff you can, keeping updated in the newest advancements in science or math, etc., and possible teaching techniques to work out. That's one way that i would advocate. I would probably put a limit on it--I'd probably put aa 3 year limit on who's the department chairperson to rotate that. When you get your smaller departments, I would look at combing them--the fine arts where you have the music teachers, the art teachers--even to the point of the industrial arts teachers--and grouping them so that you have a larger staff and you can rotate. That has some potential problems there but I think they can be worked out. A person that's an industrial arts person doesn't--you know, if you take the position he doesn't know a darn thing about music or art, might be exactly right at the beginning, but if that person's a good department person and leader, he or she is going to learn more about the art, music, and some of the intricacies that need to be learned--and that's the kind of person you're looking for. And, that's the kind of person that will grow with the job, and that's again, it's a way of developing a career ladder. OK? I think setting up a tutorial program where teachers, one or two a year, are given a reduced classroom schedule, to either work individually with students that they come in sent by other teachers, whether it's in writing', whether it's in math, whether it's in science--you know, you can set up that kind of program. It's expensive to do, and every time you reduce a classroom teacher's period--then you're taking $7,000.00-8,000.00 depending on what they're getting paid. I know that's expensive but if you can do that with 1 or 2 staff persons per year and rotate that--you give them a 2 year go at it, and then rotate it to someone else. I think that's a better way than going with merit pay. We had an evaluation system--Oh, I'd say 7 or 8 years ago--and there was no money involved, but they changed the evaluation system where you had to rate a teacher Excellent-- or, Outstanding was the word the used--and then, I guess, the second was Excellent, and the third was Average, the fourth was Needs Improvement, and the fifth was, you know, Unsatisfactory. It is amazing how much controversy that caused--without any pay--and how much division in that staff. It was probably my worst year--because I rated about 25% of the staff members as the top of the line. Now the one underneath that was excellent--not anything to shake a stick at, in a sense, but it was amazing how many teachers were hurt that they weren't rated Outstanding--to the point, that they didn't want to talk to you, they would just ignore you--I mean, not ignore you from the standpoint that they'd see you coming, they'd go another way. It was just a bad atmosphere that all the work I'd done up to that time kind of went out the drain. There was resentment from staff member to staff member--well, you're the Outstanding, why don't you do it, why don't you head the committee, why don't you do the routing, you know, that kind of picayune stuff. It was just not a good situation. When you start tying money to it, I think it aggravates even more. I think that the way to get improvement in instruction is to put more manpower there and if you do it that it's non threatening, that it works better. And that is, having a teacher work with another teacher to make improvements, where that person doesn't feel that threatened because that he or she knows it's not going to that principal to write up in the form of an evaluation. I think most teachers who are in those positions are there, first, because they want to be there, because they are respected by their staff members, and will not tolerate someone who is so lousy, if they're working with them, --who was unwilling to sit down and talk about what their improvements ought to be or how they're handling certain situations dealing with kids, not preparing, or what have you. That if those teachers don't see some kind of effort, then they are going to go to the principal, and say look this guy, or this woman, is a lost cause. I've done my best, and you'll hear comments like "Get rid of them", "Fire them." And, I think, that's when you need -staff working together to improve themselves. That's the best evaluation tool that you can probably have. There's no--it's a misleading, terrible thing to say that a principal and his assistants can evaluate a staff effectively in a year's time. It just doesn't happen. There are too many day-to day things that go on, and you don't really get a good feel of what the general atmosphere- education-wise or instruction-wise--by trying to hand it over to four or five people--and, some schools that are smaller, one or two people. There's just no way. You just need more help, and we have to realize that. I think the effort--the good teachers, the ones that are proven need less observation than the others. The manpower should be with the ones that Need Improvement--or, Average, and that's the toughest one to deal with. The ones that are mediocre. You know, your only bet is to make them better, and if you as a principal think you're going to get rid of them--then, you're wasting your time and energy. If you get someone who Needs Improvement, you might have a chance because they're a Needs Improvement for a reason, but your best bet is to understand, to make the mediocre teachers more inspiring, harder workers, and you do that by role models with other teachers. I think you'll make some improvements.
Q: One are that is always touchy, I suppose, is teacher grievances. What are your views on the desirability of the procedures that are used in teacher grievances?
A: Well, I haven't dealt too much with teacher grievances as a principal, and the reason is, I think, most principals will stay out of grievances if they have common sense, if they're reasonable, if they're fair because, I think, most grievances are a result of making a decision that doesn't have a whole lot of merit in the first place. There are very few things in running a school that you can't avoid if you really give some thought and energy to it. If a grievance is coming your way because a particular teacher is overloaded class-wise, student wise--say he has 135 or 140 students and a teacher that's teaching the same area has only 50 or 75 students, if there's that kind of disparity, there's something wrong. You know, as a good principal, you have to get in there and find out. And, I think, most of the grievances can be handled--you know, very equitably, if you don't do unreasonably things as a principal. Now, I get some grievances in regard to write-ups on final examinations-- comments that were in a particular writ-up that teachers grieved against, saying that they weren't fair. You can handle those if you are the one that wrote them--or one of your assistants wrote them--and there's justification and proof what you said you can document. You know, some times you have to go to battle for those kinds of things, and that isn't that difficult. If, again, you have the documentation to back yourself up--if it's just a personal, subjective opinion, then, a smart principal is going to back off right away--I mean, you're going to loose out. First of all, I wouldn't be there for just a gut feeling. You don't want a school run on gut feelings. If there's something wrong with that--with the way a particular teacher is performing, it's your responsibility to help that person improve. And, after you try to help that person improve--at the same time, you have to go back to the key--you'll stay out of grievances if you're like a lawyer, you're going to be a good documenter, you've got to take good notes. And, you have to keep those notes. Sometimes those notes have to be kept in your file for five years--you never know when they're going to come in handy. The whole procedure is too cumbersome, number one. It's too protective. Maybe it has to be--there are some unreasonable principals out there, who are power-hungry, I suppose, and who do stupid things. It's a responsibility of the superintendent to get--his job is to look at those people, you know, if they cause too many grievances.
Q: In the same line, could you reflect on our tenure system or continuing contracts and teacher dismissal?
A: Well, if I were to change anything in regard to the tenure system, I think the biggest mistake we make is putting a 3 year limit on it. I think that should be expanded to no less than 5 years. If you get a new teacher--or a teacher transferring from another part of the state, or another state, period--they should not carry their tenure with them. There might be a different atmosphere or a different demand on them for teaching. And, that shouldn't go with it--it ought to be 5 years. If you're an observant person, you're going to know within that period of time how effective that person is. If they're very--the reason I'm a strong believer of that- the toughest people to get rid of in teaching are the mediocre, uninspiring people. Once they get tenure, they're not going to get any better. So, the key to it is getting rid of those people in another field, another career before you give them tenure.
Q: And it takes longer to do that simply because of the workload that is carried?
Q: As you know, in my job, I get revisited year after year with some of the ones that are there, and spend lots of time working with that. Very briefly, what do you think is an ideal size for a school, so that it can be administratively and academically effective?
A: Well, I think the ideal size, in my experience--I've been at Yorktown when it was 1850 students down to where it was 1150 students--I would say my preference is around 1400 students, anywhere between 1300 and 1500 would be tops. That way you can offer a wide variety in the curriculum, the subjects, repeat courses--seven or eight English courses, all of the regular level social studies courses, and it's easier to do the master schedule--it gives you more flexibility. Once you get down to less regular basic level classes that are spread out through six or seven periods of the day--it poses a lot of problems with scheduling-- removes a lot of flexibility. And, I think, with that size school you have the strength to compete sports wise with even those that are bigger--I think the manpower to do that. I think when you start getting down below 1200, you have to be very careful of that. I think this whole sports arena, if you start competing with schools that have 2500-2700 students and have 500 kids trying out for the particular sport versus 60 kids--it just causes those kinds of problems.
Q: The same is true, then, in the size of the school and the continuing complexity of curriculum that we're getting into today?
Q: Kind of summarizing some of the--Oh, one other thing I wanted to ask you before-- Standardized testing has played a big role in the way we do a lot of things in education. Do you think it's role has been appropriate? Does it drive our instruction, or should we stand back and look at it?
A: I don't know if it drives the instruction--it certainly plays a major role in it. I'm a strong advocate of looking at standardized test results. If they are analyzed, and shared with the teaching staff as to where are some obvious weaknesses--but that takes a lot of effort and that takes a lot of time. But I think it produces some good results. For example, if you analyze that there's a particular question on your test and 60 or 70% or 80% of your students missed that, and it's something that you feel that is important in general information that they ought to have a handle on before they graduate, then--yes, you have to share that information- whether it's with fractions, whether it's with some scientific concept, whether it's with some kind of writing skill. I would spend the summers analyzing different test results. I got a lot of good help from the curriculum people at the central office on doing that. And, it broke down our test results into each question--and you can do that with computers today--and, we would make packets for teachers and share that at the beginning of the year so that they knew, you know, what was lacking and what wasn't lacking in regard to expectations. If you do that, it's a good guide for people, I mean the teaching staff. And it also shows the teaching staff that you're instructionally involved and monitoring what kinds of things are happening, and particularly, I say, if students are missing some particular area of the discipline that they ought to know.
Q: So, it's the manner in which you interpret your datA: not just the numbers?
Q: So often parents just want to see those a big--particularly in Yorktown district, I think.
Q: Principals operate in a rather tense environment. What was, maybe one of the things that you did to help maintain your sanity?
A: Well, you have to surround yourself with your closest associates. And, as a principal, it's the secretarial staff, and it's the assistant principals, and the guidance staff. 'Cause you see those people pretty much on a daily basis and you have a lot of contact with them on a daily basis. And you have to have strong people in those positions that you respect. At the same time, those people have to be able to handle--because you have a bad day, that you've got to believe tomorrow will be better. It's that kind of support--talking, laughing about some of the situations, if you can laugh--it's the support system that you build. The most important thing to me as a principal, was one of the assistant principals that I had, I really enjoyed being with--I liked his calmness, his sense of humor, and his ability to make the most stressful situation not as stressful as it may have seemed at the moment. SO, the key to it is surrounding yourself with good people, you know, and particularly the ones you have to work with day after day after day. OK?
Q: I think in closing some of this, you had a lot of strengths as a principal and, I think you gave a lot of guidance to some of us at the central office when you moved to that position as the Director of Instruction. And, you've had a year or so to reflect on some of these things--what kind of advice would you give to someone considering entering an administrative position?
A: Well, if that person had the characteristics of being a good leader and some of the other things that we've talked about throughout this tape--you know, the willingness to take risks; the willingness to laugh at themselves, if necessary; the willingness to understand that your going to be hit from the parent groups, from the student groups, and from the teacher groups, from the administrative groups, from the guidance groups--that there are different roles that you have to play--the key is balancing those and working with those people, and making sure that they feel that you're listening, that you're on their side. If that person had those kinds of strong characteristics, then I would say that it's a great move--that it's a position where you can have a lot of impact on a lot of people. And, as a principal, you just have to understand that your first job is to teach your teachers to be leaders. And, if you really understand that and know how to do it, and if you're inspiring enough to do that-- then you're going to be in good shape. I think in conclusion, my last comment--you know, if a school or setting that you're working in, and if you're the leader, is well-run, if it's a place where students like to come, where teachers like to come, where it's exciting to be-- then you know, it's a great job. But it takes a lot of work to get there. But the basic key is the human connection. In conclusion, if you don't put that as a priority--what happens between the teacher and that student--you might as well be talking to a brick wall. That's where the priority is--the teaching has to be set up on a pedestal. Those teachers have to feel that they are the greatest. And, what teachers have to learn is that they have to extend themselves beyond the subject matter, and in their preparation, correcting papers--they have to go out beyond a little bit of that classroom to see kids perform, whether it's in sports, whether its in music--without being paid! And that's a difficult thing to do.
Q: The personal reward?
A: Yeah, and that was my most difficult challenge. You had people who believed that their only job was to teach and --I'm not talking about going out and supervising, I'm talking about going out and being with kids in a different setting is the key to building spirit in a school. OK?
Q: Thank you so much, Steve. I've really enjoyed this.
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