Interview with Bob Laffoon


| Back to "L" Interviews | Index of Interviews | Protocol | Home |

Q: Good day, Mr. Laffoon, we're certainly glad that you were able to meet with us today to answer a few of our questions.

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

A: I'm very happy to , very happy to.

Q: Thank you. Where did you attend college?

A: I attended and did my A.B. work at Colorado State College of Education which has later been changed to University of Northern Colorado. I did my master's work at Western State in Gunnison.

Q: How many years were you a teacher?

A: Well, actually very limited time as a full-time teacher. I spent about 6 years as a teacher, but during that period of time - four of those years, I was a part-time teacher, part-time principal.

Q: So as a full-time principal, how many years did you spend in that position?

A: I spent 16 years as a full-time high school principal.

Q: From that position, you moved into the district office?

A: Yes, I moved from Glenwood Springs High School principalship into the district office as assistant superintendent and served in that capacity for 8 years.

Q: What made you decide to become a principal?

A: I guess it's true - it was kind of by accident. My first teaching job was a Grover, CO, which is about 50 60 miles northeast of Greeley. I took the job as social studies teacher, coached football, helped with basketball, helped drive the bus, whatever. After being there one year, the superintendent left and they got a new superintendent. I had already been assigned that the following year I would teach, do some coaching, and then spend a couple hours a day doing some of the principal's duties. So I kind of fell into it. I started on my master's that summer at Greeley. One of the first classes I took was Organization of Administration so my second year in teaching I developed the schedule - the high school schedule. Grover was a high school of about, probably at that time, 50 students, grades 9-12.

Q: What do you think it takes to be an effective principal?

A: A sense of humor, I think, because the thing I noted in the principalship in any given period of time - whether it be one hour or the morning - you wear so many different hats. First of all you start the morning and the janitor comes in and the heat is not working in one of the rooms or something like that. So you have to give him advice and tell him what to do. The next one, you have a parent conference to get a student back in school. Then a staff member comes in and has some concerns, so you're a counselor. Then the secretary comes. During the day you wear so many hats it seems, you have to be able to shift your thinking very rapidly, I think, to deal with the people you're dealing with. Then just dealing with the students, even the age group, you have to be pretty versatile. Most of my experience has been with 9 - 12, but freshmen are so much different than seniors in just how they interact with adults or adults they don't know. So, you have to be very versatile and have a sense of humor and that helps a lot. How you go about your organizational skills have to be developed and practiced because you do have to organize your time and know your projects and those types of things.

Q: Would you please discuss, as a building principal, your involvement in the recruitment and selection of personnel? How much input did you have?

A: I was very fortunate in the 13 years I was at Glenwood Springs High School, the philosophy of the district at the time, and we've used it since then, was whenever possible involve the building principal when there are openings and you have needs. I think that is very important because I learned from experience that not only do you need people with expertise in the area that they are going to teach in, but they're going to have to become a part of that little community of staff members. You need versatile staff members to deal with the students. In our case at Glenwood Springs High School, we had 550-600 students from varied backgrounds. Some students will relate better to certain individuals than other students. Sometimes in your opportunity to recruit you pick the person with the expertise, but you also took a look at some of the other things they may be able to do - everything from the class sponsor, to coaching, of course, which was important at the time, but other things they are going to offer. If principals can do that and are fortunate to have a number of candidates, over the years they can develop a very effective staff that will do the best for the total education program.

Q: How do you feel that new teachers should be oriented?

A: New teacher orientation - I think we've come a long way than when I did my student teaching and my first job out. In our district we just started, but I think you need to take some time and take the new staff member and advise them how things work in the district, how they get the items they need, and they need to be acquainted with the assistance that is available, whether that be through the special programs from the vocational education, special education to what other members in the staff within the district may be doing or who they can call upon. You need to make them feel very comfortable in their new situation and what is going to happen and what they can expect. Unfortunately, probably so many teachers coming out who've just done student teaching, have not been oriented to the numerous demands placed upon staff members. But we've changed that tremendously over the past few years - everything from lesson planning, goal setting, class management - all of this that the principal is going to expect them to know. Realistically, they won't know it all. You really need to spend some time or have staff members spend some time and help them over that first year or maybe two years.

Q: Did you use a mentor-type approach sometimes in your building?

A: Yes, we like to use this. Sometimes if it was fortunate in a department such as English, we usually used one of those. If the person came in and they basically were the department - whether it be me or another staff member or sometimes even the counselor - we let them know from the beginning that there's a person here for you to ask questions, just talk to, or express frustrations, or whatever. Try to get the person feeling comfortable in that position.

Q: How to you feel about staff development?

A: Staff development - the thing we've really heard a great deal about probably in the last 8 to 10 years. Today it's a must. Education changes rapidly; students change; technology is changing. If we expect to keep our staff members ready and very effective, you've got to keep them updated and motivated. All of that is through staff development. We just can't stay where we were 20 years ago in expecting that the only staff development is that they go back to school. It's got to be an ongoing goal; it's got to be district goal; it's got to be a building goal. You just can't pay lip service to it, you've got to do it, no doubt about it.

Q: What do you believe the purpose and goals of staff induction would be into a new building? Were there certain models you followed as a building principal?

A: Orientation to the building?

Q: As a building principal, we've mentioned that as a principal you spent time with the person and mentors, were there some other ways to do this?

A: Probably, being seen and readily available in those early days - I say early days meaning, the beginning of the school year - nothing very formal, but just passing in between classes and saying, "Hey, how's this day going" or catching them in the hall first thing in the morning and saying, "Hey stop by for a minute." The informal - I found I could be more effective in an informal way, even being planned just knowing I wanted to see so and so. Maybe some kind of an orientation - one of my would be - "We have a football game tonight in Meeker, have you ever been to Meeker? Well, you want to ride along? My assistant and I are going or Helen's going, if you want to ride along." Give them the whole picture of where they work. The opportunity to see the area and then you could visit on the way.

Q: We've already talked a little about cooperative professional development, such as within departments, what is your opinion on using that also to work with faculty?

A: I think that you have to have probably a two pronged approach in inservice. There's some things that have to be building or district-wide, either mandated by law or by a change or whatever, and that will be fairly well organized, formalized presentation or approach. The informal one can be done within the building. A good example of growth in that would be those buildings in North Central Association. They go through their review every seven years and take the time to take a look at yourself and determine what you're doing and what you'd like to be doing. Those are good in that staff members get to start exchanging thoughts and feelings in a structured method so everything is covered, but a lot of things work in.

Q: What do you think the purpose of teacher evaluation is, as a building principal?

A: Despite all, it's really two things for teacher evaluation. One, it becomes the place where there's an evaluation for educational improvement or presentation improvement, improving of the educational process. I think that is one which now is approached in a cooperative method where the evaluator and evaluatee sit down and determine some of the goals for the year - where they want to go, what improvement they want to make - which may just be a general building goal or district-wide goal. That determination is made, then a process of going through that - observation by an evaluator or in some cases even outside peers or whatever. At some period during the year, sit down with formal discussion and make an agreement of how well we've done, where we're going next. That's one - the easy one. Under the law it becomes the system whereby the possibility of termination of employment of that person. Knowing from experience, termination - the trauma of termination - that has to be planned out. I think that in a good evaluation system you can't hide behind the fact that there's two approaches. If you cannot counsel a person out of a position, you may have to go through the formal evaluation and do it in that manner.

Q: So as a building principal, how did you deal with an ineffective performance by a staff member? Through the evaluation system?

A: Not very much through the formal. It has only been recent years in Colorado that we've been put into a pretty strict formal evaluation system. Prior to that, in our district, building principals were allowed to develop their own system, utilizing it and using the general philosophy of the district for improvement. Fortunately I was most successful in improving instructional performance or being able to counsel people out of our district or even out of the profession. Because a person is not successful in one building, may not mean that they won't be successful still in the profession. They're a square peg in a round hole. I remember very early in my years at Glenwood Springs High School, we had recruited and hired a young lady from Pennsylvania. She had three years of experience. But, being so far from home in a new surrounding, she was ready to leave at the end of September. I spent some time with her and were able to keep her until Christmas, but she never came back after Christmas. It wasn't that she was not successful; it was just that other outside influences made her not successful with us. Some people may be fairly successful in any teaching position for which they're qualified; others, they have to find their spot.

Q: In your experiences, can you tell us some of the specific reasons that teachers may have been dismissed?

A: I think one - it probably does not come out - but the reality is that, if they do not have good classroom management, it's doubtful they're going to be successful. Some people have good management in a very structured situation. Others appear to be very unstructured, yet through the experienced eye you can understand that education is taking place and they are moving from point A to point B. Things are happening. People that have poor classroom management, the educational process does not continue; they don't move along. Students find ways of avoiding it. Under this situation, I would be so miserable I wouldn't want to be there. I think those people are one of the big reasons for not being successful. Whether it's because they don't know how or they're not motivated to do the things that make the educational process happen, I don't know. I think the other is, particularly a few years ago, economics had a big place in it. They started and it was their first real job. They looked out and there was more money for people with education in certain areas, and they chose to get out. They were just unhappy and economics had a lot to do with it. I think presently the economics situation for the teaching profession is reasonably good. I think career-wise they have some good prospects. But 15 - 20 years ago that was not true. We were in a high rate of inflation - other salaries, other opportunities went up more rapidly than the education profession.

Q: Did the district provide you with specific guidelines as a principal on good reasons for dismissing a teacher? district policies?

A: No, when I came to the district in 1967, there was no policy pertaining to dismissal. The simple knowledge of the tenure act and just a caution that if you had concerns about a person that was new, be sure you take that into consideration before you give them tenure. That was the big guideline. It was effective and it worked at that time. That was before we got involved with due process - an understanding of that. That forced us to come into a procedure. We were trained. We spent a lot of time. As administrators we would go to workshops where the experts advised us and gave us the guidelines. It didn't really come about until state law required a standard procedure.

Q: What system for teacher compensation has been used in the districts that you've worked in?

A: With the exception of the first district that I worked in, the standard salary schedule of time plus education made up the salary schedule. The first district that I worked in did not have a salary schedule. I'm not really sure what determined it. I went to work for $3600 the first year and I go a $600 raise the second year. The raise was based because I was going to do some principal work, I hadn't really been compensated for coaching the year before, and I was head of the household - that's what compensated me with a $600 raise. I think the salary schedule which is predominate today really has to be changed. I think the profession has to understand the public does not accept it; the public has a lot of distrust in it. They've got to come out with different form of salary schedule - much different from what is out today. Within 5 years, I'm not sure the public is going to accept this.

Q: There are some other ways of structuring salary schedules, such as merit pay, or differentiated pay for teachers, market-sensitive pay. What are your opinions on those? Which one of these do you think would be the most effective?

A: I think we need to develop some form of a schedule that does take into consideration a person's educational background. But once that is established you can just fall there within the realm of AB + 30 or 60 or whatever. You could have a master's degree and beyond. Maybe three columns or four and people fall in the areas and that's it. That's kind of the base pay - that's where you start. When that changes each year or whatever the finance allows, then that's where the actual raise comes in. In addition to that, some way - whether they want to call it merit, performance, or whatever - I think it needs to be placed in there where teachers are paid for this. Some way within the evaluation - I think the evaluation would have to be specific enough that both the principal- person in charge - and the teacher understood these are the expectations. When these are arrived out, there's going to be a recommendation of this type of raise. The salary schedule may put it into levels with Level I being an additional $500, Level II, etc. I think, then, we have to build in that time when teachers do something exceptional and something that benefits students because they spent a lot of extra time. I think they have to be compensated. It's going to have to be one year later and can only be a one time shot. If a person goes out and develops an outstanding program in science and goes through the whole process and puts it through, that's a lot of work. So next year you can say, "There's going to be a rider for $1500 for the past year's work. It's not going to stay there, but you're going to be compensated." So I think those combinations - we have to approach something that is similar to private. We have to have incentives in there; money does motivate. So that has to be built in.

Q: What about in the area of science and math teachers - about possibly having a different pay scale for those people who are hard to recruit into public education?

A: No, I don't think so. What I would fear is that if we took aside those people just because they're hard to recruit and paid them more, this would not be good for morale of other staff members. We really don't know that individual students may grow considerably under a particular teacher - whether it be social studies or shop, we don't know that. But that teacher maybe doing a tremendous job for certain types of students or certain individual students, not that I would cast as types, and that is important. To recruit people who are just good teachers and who can do many things to work with students and improve them. Or at the elementary level, the same goes. Then maybe we ought to pay the first grade teacher the most, because if they're very successful at first grade then everything else should be easier. So I really have a concern saying that these people are set aside and should be paid more. Probably you have to reverse in the original recruitment, maybe loans available, more scholarships available - something to build up that reservoir. But once into the profession there wouldn't be.

Q: How much input do you have as a building principal into the district compensation plan for teachers?

A: Just working with past experience, the district advised the administrative team of the moneys that they thought would be available for increases. I think the principals fed in their information that the compensation needed to be put in the form of raising the base, more money for longevity, maybe more money for extracurricular riders, or whatever. We would feed this in as we felt and were able to support it. The district used this, in turn, in their discussions with teachers groups and negotiation groups as to where the money was to go.

Q: What is your opinion of teacher tenure as is currently observed in Colorado?

A: The teacher tenure - it is somewhat necessary. I think it is a protection for teachers who could be unduly harassed and made uncomfortable in some areas where boards could make arbitrary decisions. But the tenure has about become a thing of the past. The whole thing of due process eliminates a lot of need for a certain type of tenure. The thing that bothers me the most now is that once a district gets involved in fighting a dismissal of a tenure teacher, the legal cost to that district just can be tremendous. If you're spending dollars there then dollars are not available for .... That's what bothers me. The whole process becomes so lengthy and so costly that it becomes a no-win situation. If it wasn't for a district's principle - just what they felt for it - they would be better to buy off a person and give the $60,000 and take their resignation and just leave them. They may face a court cost that might run into the $100,000 to $200,000 - which I'm aware that this has happened. j So that's what bothers me about the state tenure policy - it's a burden on districts who are putting money there rather than the educational process.

Q: Thank you. The leadership style of the principal is very important to how well a building operates. How did you create a climate for learning in your building?

A: I think the best way of having a good climate is a good team approach by the staff. I tried to keep the staff well-informed on expectations of what we were going to do, what problems we were going to have with a particular group of students, interruptions we were going to have during a particular time of the week or the grading period. Keep them informed. Then give them that freedom to move about in their classroom and do the educational process. Continually be positive and work with staff to be positive. The kids are going to be trying on some days, but we're here because the kids are here. If we project that we're happy and we're doing the job, we've got energy and we're going somewhere, then the kids are going to do the same. I didn't know that's what I did, but as I analyze back I think that's what happened. I was kind of a cheerleader at times to the staff saying, "Hey we're going." I did a North Central Evaluation at Glenwood Springs High School when I was principal. We took a different approach - it was only the second time in the state of Colorado there had been a different approach. I knew it was going to be tough on the staff. They had a lot of others: we were overcrowded at the time; we were operating in three buildings - they had a lot of other problems. But I said "Hey, we're going to do this and we're going to do it well. We're going to take care of a lot of other things we've been trying to do. We're going to do it once and do it well." I just got in there and said, "Boy, let's get it done." I was able to recruit three or four staff members to help out and went along. I think that's the way things have to be. You've go to show the enthusiasm; you've got to be motivated yourself and then get out and work with staff. The other thing - you've got to be honest. You're working with adults in your profession. You can't go in and not be honest. You've got to tell them what you're doing. If your having problems with them, you've got to tell them what your concerns are. Your concerns are: "You're not well prepared. You're wasting too much time. Your class ends in 30 minutes - that's got to stop." If you're honest and up-front, they're humans; they're professionals; they're going to respond. That's my view.

Q: Establishing a trust factor?

A: That's right.

Q: Would you describe yourself as a building manager or an instructional leader?

A: Myself - I think I was a manager. I did not really go off into a lot of new ways - I left that to staff and mine was management. I gave them the support and help they needed. I tried to build the best schedule possible, tried to have things available - moneys, equipment, or other key personnel. I felt the management was important. Instructional leadership may have been an offshoot of it. I didn't see myself going out and taking the various, of course being secondary, various other areas and moving them. I thought that the individual person did that the best.

Q: What do you think the role of assistant principal should be?

A: In a building like I operated in with between 500-600 students, the assistant principal was my right-hand man, so to speak. He was the one person, probably in the whole staff, that I could really talk to and let my hair down. "I'm really upset with John down there. I know he's not doing this. I've told him." Sometimes they're your sounding board, because that was really the only person you had at the time. I think their key position is that a determination between the principal and assistant or assistants needs to be determined - the expectations - based on expertise, whatever. Develop that teamwork approach and work with them there because if you're going to be successful, they're going to help make it so. You've got to train them, work with them, instill confidence in them and then let them move ahead.

Q: Are there any topics that we've discussed so far that you have any additional comments that you'd like to add?

A: I foresee the future - we discussed the evaluation - it's going to be there and be very formalized in some areas just because of the laws. Until the professional is able to stand up and be willing to say, "I'm not afraid of evaluation; that's part of the job. We'll do it and get by with it. Here are some better way of doing it." That's what we ought to move to. I think that's got to come from the teaching profession, not from the administrators. Administrators are caught between the state law which goes down to district and they're going to administer that. If the teachers raise up and politically become active and say, "We can do these things." Let's do it in this method - where it's the least expensive, least time, but teachers grow with it. And then spend the rest of the time with the student s in the educational process.

Q: To improve the quality of education, can you think of two things we can do in the field to improve the quality of education we are providing to our students?

A: I think there has to be a continual commitment to understanding the students you are working with. I realize that at secondary level, if you are a math teacher you're going to meet 120-130 kids a day. I know you are. An English teacher that has 120 - it's difficult. There has to be the opportunity for them to understand the students they are working with; therefore, they can be more effective. I think we've got to move to a longer school year. I just don't think all the expectations being laid upon us by society will allow us to do that plus the educational process in 170 175 school days. We have to have student-teacher contact for at least 200 days a year and 20 days to do all of these other things required by law, by the community, other expectations and hopefully, we'll do the main educational process in 180.

Q: Do you have a model person that you've patterned yourself after?

A: I don't know. I've been fortunate to work with some people that I was able to take some of their advice or some of their ways and adapt them. I'm not sure that I had just an individual model, but I was fortunate to work with some people who were progressive at their time. They were probably 15 years ahead in some of their administrative thinking. I was able to adapt from them, but I don't think I had an individual role model.

Q: What suggestions would you offer to the universities that would better prepare candidates to become principals?

A: I think that one of the things going on right now in the state of Colorado through the professional organizations - through C.A.S.E. - they are developing a method of evaluating a person's ability to move into administration. Are the traits there? If they aren't, there are some weaknesses identified early, so that person can know that and work on them. It's - I've forgotten the actual term - but they've done it for about two years. So professionally they are trying to recruit good people into administration. I think the universities and colleges who are prepping people for administration need to tie closely with the professionals within the state or nationally at that campus. But they need to find out what's happening. What usually happens - I don't think the university is the leadership of where we're going in education. The catch up with what's going on. The real leadership that's going to make things happen is going to be out in the field and those administrators that are working with those teachers that are moving ahead. I think they need to have some kind of marriage between that professional organization - what is expected of administrators today, what part of the law that they have to know, how do they motivate people, what are the trends in motivation, how do we cooperate with the private business - through those two groups mold some process, including the educational process that has to be there, as well as the practical approach of recruiting and developing and giving those people a tool so when they go out they will be successful. They will be happy in that position and the various things that's out there. They may not know all the different areas. Some may be much better fitted to be building principals, where others may be better fitted in the area of instruction, of developing new and better programs. We need to identify those and get those people working. We'd hate to lose a person really good at developing programs - new approaches - who may be poor building administrators. So we lose them there. I would see the professional organization and a marriage with the university or college that's doing the prepping.

Q: Thank you. Do you feel that as a principal that central office policy perhaps prevented you from accomplishing any of the goals that you were trying to work on?

A: I always had a good relationship with the district office and operated in a district small enough that the open door policy existed to the district office. I understood the district goals. I always felt very comfortable that I could go and sell what I wanted to do and we could live with it from there. I understand in discussing with colleagues that you get into large districts, such as Jeff Co, it's a different world. The district office has a lot of restraints that they're working under - everything from legislative action, pressure groups, the whole thing. What may fit in one building far removed from the district office - the district office does lose contact, they don't understand - everything can be blanket and that creates problems. If I saw anything that hex from the past - that reorganization 20 years ago, 20 years ago was important. Now in the large districts, I think they've got to break down. I really do not believe there should be a high school larger than 1,500 kids. I think that once you get beyond that kids lose their individuality, principals lose their reason to be there - things just can't happen. The same with a school district - when a school district gets above 10,000, I'm not sure it can be really that effective.

Q: As a principal, what would you say was your biggest headache?

A: It wasn't so much the headache, I think, the thing I disliked the most was the severe discipline cases that you had to deal with. Now severity depending on individual - what would be severe to one student would not be to another. When you had to sit down and deal with the threat of expulsion, denying of very important privileges was a difficult thing with the emotion that comes out of it. You just had to deal with it. Afterwards you always debate, was that the right thing or not. Of course, I started as principal before such things as due process. I felt I was doing what doing what was the best thing for students - maybe it was the expectations of parents, community - we tried to do. Then we got involved in the due process. I think sometimes discipline fell off. I'm still a believer that immediate discipline for a wrong doing or not obeying rules is more effective than if you go through the whole process. Then you finally get to deal with it five days later. I'm not sure how effective that is. But that was one. The thing I really did enjoy - I enjoyed the activities associated with the high school, everything from the athletics, the music and speech. The reason is that I saw that was the opportunity for students to act out their individuality, gave a lot of togetherness with the student body. It was an aspect of education that is probably unique in America. I didn't mind it. I liked the managing of it and working with it. But the severe discipline was the most disliked, but it was part of the job.

Q: So, in a given day, what usually consumed most of your time?

A: Probably answering questions - whether it was the phone call from the parent wanting to know for sure: "The freshmen are to be there?" to the secretary wanting to know how many cash boxes do we make tonight. It was difficult to find some time to do the desk work. My best time as building principal was from 6:15 to 8:15 when only the janitor and I were in the building. Then I got a lot of my desk work done. The rest - it was just hit and miss.

Q: If you'd had more time during the day as principal, what would you have liked to have spent more time on?

A: I would liked to have spent more time in the classroom observing the education process. The key times ten years ago, evaluation was there, but the nuts and bolts of running the building came first - that's where most of the time was spent. You did not have the administrative help to spread that out. But it would have been to spend more time observing the educational process in the classroom.

Q: What procedures should be used before a person is selected to be a principal? What should the person have experienced in addition to the education qualifications? What does the district look for?

A: I think for a person entering if they're moving up from the classroom into administration, it's valuable if they've had a wider range of experiences. If you're in a large district, I think that would mean being assigned to two or three different schools, say in the first seven or eight years. You're going to work under different people, different clientele. You need to have some wider experiences. If it's in a small district, then working in smaller districts. I think you have to see a little bit of various systems working. From that then a choice is made. I think C.A.S.E. has a process of an unbiased group sitting down, interviewing, testing and then coming back and giving a person explanations/expectations of what's going to happen - what's really out there. Then the person has to make that choice.

Q: We certainly appreciate your time today.

A: It's been great.

| Back to "L" Interviews | Index of Interviews | Protocol | Home |