Interview with Paul M. Kowatch


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Q: Please begin by telling me about your family background -- your childhood interests and development.

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

A: I was born in Pennsylvania back in 1923, and we moved out to the country when I was four years old. We lived on farms, and we always had plenty to eat, but I know the Depression first hand. I went to a one room school by Windbrook, Pa., until I was in the eighth grade. We took our test to qualify us for High School...I passed and went on to High School. High School was four miles away from my house and most of the time I walked both ways. In summer, our feet would get very sore, and I got teased by the kids because of the odor. I don't know what possessed me to continue High School because I had no family pressure...I had kept my own pressure inside me, and I don't know what to attribute it to. Maybe because I wanted to be better than my father -- I don't know. My family characteristics -- we had a bilingual home, Hungarian and English. The English was mostly spoken, but some of the words in Hungarian -- I could not tell the difference between those and the English ones because we used them so frequently at home. A good example is a drawer we called "fealk", and there are many other words like that I didn't know, so I had to struggle with English all through my career. My Father and my Mother finished fourth grade. She married my Father at fourteen years old. They had five children. I was the middle one. My Dad always managed to work in the coal mines. He was such a radical Unionite that he would never take the promotions that were offered him because he could not fight the Company. I think a little bit of it rubbed off on me. My Dad worked in the coal mines until WW II started, and he came to Cleveland because he was getting black lung. He finished he career in a chain factory, inspecting chains. Then we moved out to the country when the war was over. In 1946, in February, we moved out to where we are now, and we've been here ever since. My idea of Profession when I grew up -- I could see myself going two ways -- either a preacher or an Agricultural teacher, so I guess I strived to obtain what I wanted. My college career didn't start -- I did not use the GI Bill right. My college career didn't start until that ran out. I was in WW II. I flew in B-24s as a gunner. I received the Distinguished Flying Cross Air Medal with five clusters. I came home with my feet not firm enough set down to start college while the GI Bill was in effect. I could not -- I don't think I could have gone to college for a few years anyway, I'd have to simmer down and come back to normalcy. This was quite a struggle for me because they don't make wars for people, they make them for idiots. And I worked in shops, I guess about fifteen years after WW II, and my first college was Lake Erie... I started on their first extension courses and I got about a year -- thirty semester hours there. Whenever they put Kent in Ashtabula, I was in the first class at Kent extension when it was in the old library. I continued until I had to go down to campus for student teaching and so on to meet the requirements. I went down there and graduated down there with a BS and I went over to Edinboro and got a Masters -- then back to Kent -- got my Principal Certification and sometimes I take courses that I want -- in Special Ed or like that just for the dickens of it.

Q: Discuss your college education and preparation for entering the field of teaching. How many years did you serve as a teacher? A principal?

A: My preparation was inadequate -- the only formal preparation I had was student teaching -- the only classroom experience I had was student teaching with a rather firm but good teacher to guide me and I started when I had two years of college and I started -- my first year was in Happy Hearst School in Austinburg. It was turning from a private school to a semi-private school. Then I went to Ledgemont and spent most of my -- all but one year of my teaching career there as a teacher, Principal, and Special Ed Director.

Q: What did you teach?

A: My first year was at Happy Hearts. I taught severely retarded. My first year at Ledgemont I taught fourth grade; second year I taught fifth grade; third year I moved up to sixth grade and taught sixth grade ever after.

Q: How long did you serve as principal at Ledgemont?

A: I think it was four years.

Q: And then you moved on to other responsibilities?

A: I moved up to Special Ed Director -- I was the mainstay in setting up their Special Ed. program -- which I'm quite proud of.

Q: Please describe the aspects of your professional training which best prepared you for the principalship. Which training experiences were least useful?

A: Probably the most beneficial was my student teaching -- the reason I say that was the man knew what he was doing and he was in charge of the University School in Kent, and he was in charge -- he took Kent student teachers under him. He seemed to have the most on the ball as far as discipline.

Q: Was he the Principal in that school?

A: No, he was a teacher.

Q: Which best prepared you for the principalship?

A: I think that would be it.

Q: How about the least?

A: Probably the least useful was the routine classroom teaching.

Q: Why was that?

A: I don't think we are aware of the Principal's role, and of course I did not mention that Kent classes were the biggest teacher.

Q: What suggestions would you offer to universities as a way of helping them to better prepare candidates for administrative positions?

A: I think that I honestly -- I firmly believe that they should go the same way as teachers -- sometimes Principals internship. It does not have to be a year. I could be maybe a semester. It could be handled quite well and I believe that anyone that wants to be a principal would really enjoy working under a well qualified principal as intern.

Q: So actually having some run of the building is what you're saying -- not doing little tasks while you are teaching.

A: Exactly, and decide what role you want to play as administrator.

Q: Could you comment on the weaknesses in traditional programs of training for administrators?

A: Yes, I think a real weakness -- I think there is only one weakness as far as I know and that is that you cannot get your hands on the job itself in any way., you can only hear what's been expounded on by Professors, and its a good bit like teaching for teachers, they don't have the slightest idea what they're getting into, and I think this is true of Principals too from the ones I've talked to and from my own experience. What are we getting into?

Q: If you were advising a person who is considering an administrative job, what would that advice be?

A: My advice would be treat it as a full time job, be ready to sacrifice, and be ready to dedicate yourself for the benefit of the school children.

Q: Please talk about the circumstances surrounding your entry into the principalship. What motivated you to enter the principalship?

A: What I'm going to say may be a little embarrassing. First of all I sort of fell into it --they fired a principal (gave him a lower job) that was there before me and I sort of fell into it, they needed somebody and I already had some education in administration, and what really motivated my though -- here's the bad part -- I was thinking about retirement coming and somehow or another we have to reach for the money because it pays a percentage of our -- that's what determines our pension. The reason I say I'm ashamed of it is you should feel more responsibility to the job than this, and once I got into it though, I gave it my best and I do not believe that this decision just to get more money was -- bothered me in any shape or form.

Q: Describe your personal philosophy of education. How did it evolve over the years?

A: My personal philosophy is teach the whole child -- it's hard to get beyond that well let me say that in Arithmetic when I taught math to my sixth graders I start with the basics...can they add, can they subtract whole numbers. Can they multiply and divide -- if they can do this -- let's move on. If they can't, let's teach those, and I always grouped...I grouped maybe six or eight groups in math and it was a hard job, but this was just to reach the whole child in math. I even had time-telling classes in sixth grade. These children embarrassingly admitted they did not know how to tell time so I teach them that. I'd stop them there and teach them that. I used the percentage basis to pick out three right out of four in math they know what they're doing, two column, three column and so on and some with everything and my most successful year was when I got two girls into Algebra books by the end of the sixth grade. And I think this needs done in reading, are they reading just words, are they getting concepts, or what, and teach it the same way. The only thing is that it's a killer task.

Q: Did it change -- evolve?

A: No I think it got stronger -- we have to teach the child, and sure, we have to be like a parent.

Q: Describe the instructional philosophy of your school. How was it developed and how did it evolve over time?

A: One thing we tried to do was get an agenda out for these subjects which we tried to get across what did we want to teach -- what did we want to teach in Social Studies. What did was really want to teach even in growing up, and what philosophy did we have towards children -- and I felt that it was evolving quite successfully. I felt that by taking all the teachers in that we could get, make them feel important, they too could contribute a lot in this area. Just one thing, we used contracts with children for discipline. Sometimes it was favorable -- sometimes it didn't work at all. Some almost made a joke out of it; others took it so seriously, and this was just one example. I felt during my short tenure, I was very successful what I could do with teachers.

Q: Did you use contracts in your office with students?

A: I would try to make someone who was a repeat offender, maybe at talking in school and give him a certain contract, and we just hoped that it would work most of the time.

Q: Did you set some sort of expectation, and would there be a reward if the kid did what you wanted him to do?

A: Yes, the reward was an extra recess occasionally, or something like this. We did use rewards, but it was all drawn out, and I always -- I almost always had the teacher help me. And I found contracts a good way to discipline. Sometimes when we'd threaten to bring the parents in on certain things, the only thing we got was a screaming child. And sometimes when they'd come to the Principal's office from the teacher, they were crying so that's why I say and I have to come back a little bit and say this that you have to know the child and you have to know the whole child.

Q: Did you have to do a lot of follow up on the contracts -- check with the kid and with the teacher to see how it was going? Did you set a time table?

A: The time table was set. Generally you could tell much sooner whether they were effective because if the kid's in the next day for talking too much, you've blown it. Yes, we had that, and again, we'd ask the teacher's input on how the contract would be written. They would be typed by the secretary, actually.

Q: So it was official.

A: it was pseudo-official, yes.

Q: As you view it, what characteristics are associated with the most effective schools? What features characterize the least successful ones?

A: The characteristics associated with the most effective schools it to see a child come in with a smiling face, see your merit roll and honor roll increase, and see them walk down the hall with a smile -- not just a quite child -- any child can be quiet -- he can be bad and be quiet, retarded and be quiet -- s we want that smile on the face, and a little bit of noise isn't going to hurt us.

Q: What was your role in creating an effective school as Principal?

A: My role was first thing in the morning, I would try to be at the doors, welcoming the students in. I would visit the classroom sometimes just for the children, not for the teacher's sake, but rather for the children. I would try to brag up change in behavior. I guess that's just about what I would try to do. I am a strong believer that we need the children in school before we can teach them. We need them to want to learn before we can teach them anything. I had a boy that fought me in school in sixth grade. He fought his teacher in seventh grade. His IQ tested at about 120. He was a complete failure. They failed him one year which is another thing a little like a punch in the mouth. To fail a kid like that is not reaching the problem, but I could not reach him. So everything is not always roses.

Q: How would you characterize the least effective schools?

A: Stoic children, walking the halls with complete silence and when the teacher leaves the room there is bedlam. They just take advantage of the teacher not being there. They are not learning discipline for discipline's sake, but only as part of the school program.

Q: So you believe strongly in teaching self discipline?

A: Yes. Times change so rapidly -- it's a very, very huge order but its the only way to hit the child with education that will stick.

Q: What kinds of things do teachers expect principals to be able to do?

A: Well, one of the biggest things that Principals must do is to be a mediator, and a facilitator, and bring in a teacher's ideas. Don't make the teacher's meetings for the sake of having teacher's meetings -- make them have something to say or do, and make each teacher feel important. Take their contributions, even though you may not completely agree. See what common basis you have, and for gosh sakes, they have to be a mediator between the hierarchy and the teachers themselves.

Q: Describe your views on what it takes to be an effective principal.

A: I don't think I could meet all the characteristics that i like to see, but one is patience, a great amount of patience, the other is teach by role model, and even for your teachers -- show them a good role model. Of course, you can't shrug off such things as honesty, and integrity, you can go on and on, but I think that the most important thing of all is to be a good role model and really care about your teachers themselves. Each teacher should be your friend.

Q: A great deal of attention has been given to the topic of personal leadership. Please discuss your approach to leadership and describe some techniques which worked well for you as well as an incident in which your approach failed.

A: This takes so much concentration -- and its such a difficult question -- some of the techniques I've always spoken about. Don't be afraid to defend your teachers is a strong point -- you must defend your teachers, you must defend your teachers against parents. Even School Boards themselves and you must try to understand them. I don't know, maybe it was a fault or maybe it wasn't, but I tried to be my teacher's friend. I would assume that you can be too friendly and cause professional jealousy amongst the others even they might not speak of it that way, but it could happen. You have to draw the line some place which is very difficult. That's why I said some of these things that I realize people should have, I may not have had myself.

Q: Summarize what made you a good leader.

A: I think the idea that I tried to be a good mediator between the School Board, the Superintendent, and the Teachers, and I tried to keep things running smoothly as I could. I never found any problem too small to be discussed.

Q: Did you ever have an incident where you found your leadership to fail? Please describe the incident.

A: This is where my Dad's background on Unionism might come in a little bit. The School Board really enjoyed criticizing teachers openly. I tried to stop that with the Superintendent and the School Board, and, of course, I wasn't too successful because I was a Principal and they were above me, but I would think this is something that every administrator, every school teacher and everyone should guard against. Teachers are falling off their pedestals now, they need backing. They don't need strong criticism in public. Any strong criticism should be done behind closed doors. The teacher in particular who got me the most upset was a fourth grade teacher, and the School Board accused her of not trying to teach Penmanship. Oh my gosh! We all tried to teach penmanship. It's just something like these a,b,c,d,e,f,g. Did you ever see a workbook where there wasn't phonics? Same thing.

Q: Did you ever have a case where you thought that the teacher was wrong? What did you do?

A: Why yes, one of our teachers went to arbitration -- it wasn't just a teacher being wrong, it was a School Board being wrong. One of the School Board wrote her a threatening letter about the way she handled children, and where she was wrong. She made a public event out of it, and I was the mediator between the teacher's organization and the Board. I had to argue long and strong to keep her job. And what happened is the School Board member brought in all she could about her teaching, and I just kept at it until we got her contract for the next year because she was a first year teacher, and she had so much potential. And that's why I took such a strong stand. It wasn't a happy situation.

Q: Give your views on tenure.

A: Tenure is a problem that we need to look at long and hard. I think teachers need tenure. I think they need something to look forward to. Right now they are getting few wage increases, and I think tenure is a beautiful bouquet of flowers; however, what bothers me is the amount of protection. Sometimes the protection seems unrealistic. I think maybe we still need the tenure but we need it in a tighter frames of rules and regulations.

Q: How would you change the process?

A: I think that it it tightening the rules and regulations that they must adhere to.

Q: There are those who argue that the principal should be an instructional leader, and those who suggest that, this person must be, above all, a good manager. Please give your views on this issue and describe your own style.

A: To me an instructional leader I think should be left to the teacher because after all there isn't a one of them who hasn't had a background of good education. Poor teachers should be weeded out by colleges. And I think teachers when it comes to managing should be their own best managers to a degree. An teacher should be as autonomous as possible and still be within the framework of the administration.

Q: Would you view your role as principal as an instructional leader for the entire school, or as a manager for the School Board?

A: A facilitator. A principal should be a facilitator and a mediator. If he or she facilitates well enough, the school could be almost autonomous.

Q: So the other things will come with a good facilitator?

A: It should fall in and that should be the consistent striving of the Principal.

Q: What experiences in your professional life influenced your management philosophy?

A: I think again its coming back to these fifteen years I spent in the shop. Some of it was supervision, some of it was just selling my labor at a certain dollar per hour. But I can only speak of the supervision part. Union Carbide, I was an engineering clerk and therefore, I had a crew under me to do inventory on metals and so on. This helped me take the position of leadership.

Q: Did you find your position in Union Carbide as a manager somewhat different from that in your school? What were the differences?

A: Really, I worked in Union Carbide when the administration was like a family, so therefore I found it quite a bit like I mean we were looking for what's best for the plant like we are looking for what's best in a school, so I found it similar, and I found it a good source to draw from.

Q: Then you were able to transfer your management experience from there right into your school and make it a family type atmosphere?

A: Exactly. I think though there was no transition when I took the principal's job. I took it because a man wasn't there, so therefore there was very little to draw on except my background.

Q: So all of a sudden you had to manage?

A: Exactly, like the first year I went into teaching the same thing happened to me -- here's a classroom -- TEACH!!

Q: Given the presence of administrative complexity, if there were three areas of administration that you could change in order to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of educational administration, what would they be?

A: Three is a long subject -- my number one is I think -- we send teachers to school for four - five - six years. In rural areas we take anyone for School Board members. We need a lot more help in training administrators. School Board members I think need more training that they're getting -- or some restrictions on who's eligible to be a Board member. The other one is let's get rid of this hard nosed attitude, let's teach the children as though they were young adults. They need satisfaction -- let's try to find all the satisfaction we can for them. I have a program in mind. I'll have to think a little about it. Oh! Many days administrators keep the school open in bad weather just so they don't have make up days. This is ridiculous. I think I've covered three, but this last one used to bug me no end. I couldn't do anything about it because I was under rules and regulations to keep a school open when it's dangerous for buses, when they're going to come in late, when they're all happy about the snow and everything, you don't teach that day -- it's a waste of day.

Q: Please describe your work day. How did you spend your time?

A: Oh my gosh! One thing that took a lot of time, as you know is meeting after meeting and I would say most of them were beneficial, but some of them were -- they use up gas and time. The other thing I spent a lot of time walking the halls to be seen by the children, and I may not have anything to say to them. And of course the first thing you do is to push the button for the automobile signal lights for speed limit and then, see what I have for the day, and just about that time the children would be coming in and I would make sure to say hello to them to the best of my ability, and maybe go around and see the teachers and see how they're doing for the day -- see if everything is all right. Some of them -- had problems, I knew. I tried to make a little smile come of their face, set up meetings when I'd think I needed them; book reviews was a big essential part of it -- you could go on and on but it kept you busy all day, as you well know.

Q: What was the percentage of time you spent on discipline?

A: I don't think over ten percent. One thing, and the reason for this is any teacher that wanted any discipline and child within reason got it from me, but I do think the teacher has to be the leader in discipline. I think too many times men and women refuse to take the discipline job on their own, they leave it to the principal and I think this is entirely wrong because of the child themselves loses respect for the teacher.

Q: How many hours would you say your normal work week was as Principal?

A: I am going to say that my average work load with what I brought home and everything was between 55-60 hours per week. I think that's safe saying that plus trying to better yourself in summer school so if we add that on to the work week, it would be 60 hours I guess.

Q: Could you describe some of the pressures you faced on a daily basis and tell how you coped with them?

A: I think some of the pressures I faced on a daily basis was just the idea of your responsibility by that I mean are we going to have a good discipline day, are we going to have a teacher angry about something, and this mature of things, but yes, stress -- I had trouble dealing with the stress. I had trouble as I mentioned before dealing with what I considered to be an inappropriate role of the School Board -- this bothered me. This was perhaps my biggest stress. The other one was the Superintendent would not back the teachers. This was very stressful, and again this might be unionism because I would guess half of the time I was in Ledgemont, and with these persons in the teacher organization, or the negotiating committee, I think that's a safe saying. So this is just some of the stresses that you can go on and on. The stress of parents and I suppose that it's worse than ever -- parents can be quite stressful especially when they come in angry as the dickens without really being rational about their conversation.

Q: What were your biggest headaches or concerns on the job?

A: I think I might stick with that last remark -- parents are the biggest concern. You can put up with a lot but when you can't seem to convince parents that you're here to teach their child, not for games or anything. I think that this is serious trouble, and it's a small percentage. The good parents always come to the meetings that you can tell them when you're in the area you can say "Look, your child is beautiful," and you can mean it. But when you have those irate parents, they only come in when they're angry and they're really not talking about the child, they're talking about something that they might consider to be the inefficiency of the teacher or principal. I've had a case where the father was quite ill and we didn't realize it. He'd always come in arguing how badly we treated his daughter, and it wasn't long before he died of a heart attack. You can look back and say, "Gee, that was probable his problem." It doesn't help the situation.

Q: What would you say is the toughest decision you ever had to make as a principal?

A: I think probably the toughest decision was to defend this teacher that I talked about -- this first year teacher before. I think it was the toughest decision I had to make.

Q: And you had to decide to go ahead with the defense and you won.

A: Exactly, and the Superintendent wouldn't touch it. Yes. I always felt that I'm having enough satisfaction -- enough good things happening to me that I can reject the bad things. But it's a constant striving and I think I can understand why any principal would have burn-out.

Q: Did you have a time during the day that was just your own? Did you reflect on the day or use the time out from the staff and kids for anything in particular?

A: Yes, I think this is what most principals do when they're traveling to meetings. I really think that may be one advantage of meetings. I think this gives us, and maybe if you're just setting down looking at a catalog or so, and you have the time to think about this too. I should say that I always managed to keep very busy and there was even talk about it, but I suppose that that's what this traveling time does for me.

Q: What do you think was your key to success as a principal?

A: I would think the key to my success is I just wanted to be. I think as I said before I think I ad enough background to realize that children's education has to be the key goal and again, coming to be friends of teachers. I think that's a big success because when I meet them, they still say how nice it was when we had our family-like organization.

Q: Since you have had some time to reflect on your career, what do you consider to be your biggest administrative strengths and weaknesses?

A: Yes, the biggest strength we had during the years we were a rural community, one of the strengths they had was getting levies passed. The other one was they did have a deep concern about what we taught. This was very important. The weakness was keeping the school open for any kind of day just to be -- just to have a day in school behind you. The other weakness of course was the School Board degrading teachers in their open meetings.

Q: Has that climate changed in the district over the years?

A: I don't know. I know when I tried substituting I found out that I can't substitute because its no time for substitutes to go to the classroom -- it's murder. But I did find out that teachers did not have the closeness that we had. They did not have satisfaction. Too many of them were on the verge of burn-out. For instance, one of them our Superintendent's wife probably one of the best teachers in the school never gave a thought to retirement until she found out it's just too tough to teach anymore. This is something that has to be faced -- this is one of our biggest school problems.

Q: Please discuss the circumstances leading up to your decision to retire at the time you did, giving your reasons and the mental processes you exercised in your decision to step down.

A: Well one thing that I found out that helped me is that we are not in this thing as a necessary fixture -- someone else can take our place. This took me a little time to realize that we are replaceable, that's it. That's one of the decisions I had to fight. I sort of hated to give it up this way, also my nose had been on the grindstone since I was sixteen years old -- on farm labor, coal mines, or shop work, and I was a little tired physically, mentally and emotionally, but I did not think I had the -- I did not think I had what they called burnout. Too many people work as long as they can and draw no retirement pay. That's the point. The point is that retirement is death, you know. So many people -- I think this all attributed to me quitting and also my wife and I decided we don't need big bucks. We don't need those extra years of increases to retire on, and in my pension. But that turned out pretty nice anyway because we get a raise every year whether -- we get a cost of living adjustment every year, and they get a -- some money back on our retirement that's wisely invested every year at Christmas time just about. Now both of these may stop but inflation will be dead too and we won't need so much.

Q: Was it a difficult decision to retire or did you come to that fairly easily do you think?

A: No it was a terribly rough decision. I was enjoying my work in Special Ed and I've had the experience of having a blind girl, and deaf girl in our school and our slow learners. I enjoyed working with them. I enjoyed the teachers, so it was rather difficult. It wasn't an easy process. And until this day I think you might have noticed that, when I went to school, I enjoyed myself immensely with the kids.

Q: And they enjoyed you.Is there anything I did NOT ask but should have asked?

A: I think it's well documented questions for anyone to answer.

Q: Well thank you. That's Paul Kowatch -- former principal of Ledgemont Elementary School.

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