This is July 29, 1998.This is an interview with Mr. Robert Lipscomb in the Administrative Offices of Roanoke County Schools on his experiences as a school principal.
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Q: Mr. Lipscomb, would you begin by telling us about your family background, your childhood interests?
(Streamed audio file of interview for this question using RealPlayer)
A: Well, my mother and father were married about thirty-five years. My mother was a high school teacher. She taught business education. In fact, she had two degrees. She had one in economics, and not happy with that, she went back and got her degree in business education. My father was not really formally educated. His parents had dies when he was just a child. He was raised by one of his sisters and her husband. And, ah, but he was educated in the sense that he was self-educated. He was a person who was an avid reader. He was what I would call really a real scholar on the bible and, ah, he was a very religious person. Not crazy type, but he was soundly so. And, ah, so within that atmosphere, that sort of seems I think maybe to a lot of people, nowadays, would seem like a mismatch, but really, they were quite equal in their intellectual abilities and their curiosity. My dad, the way I always think of him now, I think of him reading. And my mother was, and still is, an avid reader. So, that was passed to me either by culture or genetics, or both, so.
Q: So, did that lead you into teaching?
A: No, it really did not. I was looking to be anything but a teacher, really by the time I finished school. But I went to, I grew up in a little town called Mullens, West Virginia and it is still there. It's, ah, used to be the Western Terminus of the Old Virginia Railroad before it was merged with the Norfolk Western, which merged with the Southern, of course. And, ah, most of my family, my immediate family on my mother's side lived right in that immediate area. And I have two or three of my relatives who were railroaders and my father was an automobile salesman. As I said, my mother taught school. I grew up, we lived on a street, a little street there in Mullens on which there was seven teachers. And you would think that had an impact, but it should have probably, perhaps, but, ah, I don't think that it really did, except maybe in a sort of subliminal way, that may be the case, but I never thought of my neighbors being teachers even though they were teachers. I remember in elementary school, being so surprised to find out, even though my mother was a teacher, but I was so surprised to discover that other teachers- my teachers in elementary school had families and lives of their own. To me, somehow they appeared in the morning and disappeared in the afternoons and they didn't exist. So I grew up there and, ah, went grades one through six in an elementary school that was called Ben Dunman. It was an old, old building, long since demolished. And then, I went to Junior High and High School, of course, it was all in one building. It was called Mullens High School and it was just this past year closed down and consolidated into another local high school. We had about, I think we had in the neighborhood of seven hundred fifty, eight hundred students in six grades. My graduating class has had a big impact on me over the years. We had about a hundred twenty-nine graduates, which was not a big class by most school standards around metropolitan areas, but that class, every time we've had a reunion, we've had over a hundred come back, every time. We was a close unit- first group. So, they still, we still have contact with a goodly number of those folks that I grew up with and went to school with, and you know I just have a good relationship with 'em and they with each other. So, that certainly had an impact on me. My family was a strong church family. I'm not a church person. Not out of rebellion, I don't think, but it was just a choice that I was allowed to make down the road. As I mentioned before, my father was a real biblical scholar and he had read the bible throughout several times. In his own right, he was truly an educated person even though he didn't even have a high school diploma, he really was, and perhaps the best sign of all, was that he kept an open mind and he always allowed me, as crazy as some of my ideas were at the time, he always allowed me to express myself and to go down my own path to some degree as long as I didn't kill myself. Let me make my own mistakes and because, like a good father should, realize that you have to do some of that so, that was, he had a big impact on my life. Very gentle man, but lots of backbone and my mother was the same way. Gently, caring, loving people but, when things mattered, when issues were critical, the thing that sticks out in my mind, they never backed down, that what ever it was, yeah. So I think that had a certainly big impact on me. As far as my being a teacher or principal, no, when I left high school, that was probable the furthest thing from my mind. I did not know what I wanted to do. My grandmother wanted me to be a minister, my mother wanted me to be an engineer, and I had no idea really what I wanted to do. And the only reason, I guess, that I went to college was because all my friends were going. So, I did and that's, there is a reason that I became a teacher but it really had nothing, it really had nothing to do with them at the time. I guess childhood interests, I've always had a mechanical side to me and ah Always been interested in automobiles and my father being an automobile salesperson. Strangely enough, he was not mechanically inclined that way about automobiles. He could care less about that, but I did, I've always had a great love for them and that's been a good part of my life with mechanical kinds of things as hobbies, whether it's automobiles or boats, just tinker around with motors, whatever it might be.
Q: Did you have brothers or sisters?
A: No, I was a spoiled brat, on only child and I do feel like I missed some things because of that and I'm sure I benefitted in some ways too, but, ah, my wife came from a family of four and I think there's something unique about the brother/sister relationship that most of the time I wish I had them but then when I see some of the battles among families, a lot of families, then kind of, I'm not so sure then, but I would like to have grown up with some brothers or sisters. But I didn't have that.
Q: How old were you when you two got married?
A: Oh, I was twenty-three and my wife was twenty-two and she was not quite finished college. I was a year older than she and I was teaching in Maryland and we had sort of split up when I left college, one of those lovers spats, I guess, and something and I went off and after a week or so, I got lonesome and called her and she wasn't there and she was I guess I assumed she was waiting there for me to call and I discovered she was in Petersburg, Virginia and at her cousins home and I called down there and she wasn't there either. She was out on a date with some fellow so I beat a hasty path to Petersburg and got my ducks in a row and proposed to her about a month later and we were married at Christmas that year. So, she left school at the end of the first semester. She only lacked about a semester of work. She left there and went back to Maryland with me and did some substitute teaching there and then she finished in the summer after my first year of teaching, she completed her degree that summer and then that was the time we moved to Roanoke and we both got teaching positions in Roanoke City. Let's see
Q: Did you all have children?
A: We had two adopted children, we were not able to have children of our own. But we did have two- a boy and a girl and my little grandson now who is ten months old. He's a handful gonna be more of one I think
Q: A chip off the old block
A: Well, yeah. That's what I told him. He's handsome, just like his granddaddy.
Q: Well, let me ask you this, how did your college education prepare you for entering the field of teaching?
A: Well, that's really what I was leading up to. As I said, I had no intention of being a teacher. And one of the ironies of my life, I guess, and I did not remember this for years and years, but of all things, I discovered, just within about the last ten years, going back through some old paraphernalia, some mementos that I had kept, I had played a high school principal in my senior play. I don't know if that's foreshadowing or not but you know, that was the furthest thing from my mind and I had forgotten about it and I really had and just rediscovered it. When I went to Concord, Rick Whitwell I discovered that teaching was what I wanted to do and it really was because, primarily because of a lady who taught freshman English that I was fortunate to have. She was, Concord was a very small school, at the time, they only had about, ah, of I think it was twelve hundred students. So, a lot of that faculty did double duty, double positions and Miss Wilson, she was s single lady, She was a retired Marine Corps lady officer and her name was Damarus Wilson. She was also not only the teacher of English, she was also the Dean of Women at Concord and she really, I've always said, she was the one that inspired me to be a teacher. She had, I though, a unique ability to make the most difficult things about the language seem simple and I thought that that was such a gift that I was inspired. I had other good teachers, real good ones, but I think, I've always thought, that she was the one that triggered me to be a teacher because I saw what a good teacher could do and it was just, for me, that was the turning point in my life as far as being what I was going to do and why I was going to do it.
Q: And so you earned a degree at Concord?
A: Yeah, I got my bachelors there and I finished in West Virginia, I had teaching fields in English and social studies, and, of course, when I came to Virginia, I did not intend this, but because the difference in certification, I wound up with a general science certification, too in Virginia. I never used that. I always thought that was kind of strange but, I had taken a number of science courses because I had an interest in that, too. I do have a lot of interests, or had in when I was studying. I always liked math, science and I took a couple of physics courses while I was at Concord, and chemistry and things, and, I guess those, even in West Virginia work and, ah somehow the total of the hours and the classes worked out to have me certified in general science but I never did use that. I had no intention to. Frankly, I didn't really feel qualified to teach that and had no particular interest in it.
Q: How many years were you a teacher?
A: I taught a year in Maryland and then, lets see, I think I was at William Fleming, I was there, I guess I was strictly a teacher six years and before becoming an Assistant Principal at William Fleming High School.
Q: And how many years did you serve as an Assistant Principal?
A: The different schools, quite a few years. I've been all over the place. I was two years as Assistant Principal at William Fleming and then, when integration was ordered in the City of Roanoke in 1970, I was the administrator transferred from William Fleming to Lucy Addison as part of the integration of that school. That was quite an experience, an administrator's nightmare, but it turned out ok, as far as rescheduling everybody because they turned over whole faculties, whole student bodies turned over in August and we had to be ready to start school.
Q: How could you even prepare for that?
A: You didn't, you did not. I mean, there was no preparation because we really didn't think it was going to happen. I recall my wife and I had just returned, at the end of July, we had returned from a vacation in Florida with her brother and his wife and it got, came into the house and got the papers the neighbors had collected for us and opened the paper. I think this had just happened a day before or something and the headline was something U.S. Federal or District Court Orders Integration and the next, well I guess the day after that, or two days after that, whenever it was when I went back to work, sometime during that day, that I found that I was being moved. I had to be at Addison the next day and ready to go and it was something. It was, we worked, literally, we worked night and day. We had, we being the administrators at Addison and I'm sure they did this everywhere in different schools, we had girlfriends, we had wives, we had children, those who had older children, everybody there doing whatever they could do to try to pull the system together because you had all the scheduling that had gone on during the summer was worthless, basically. You had to start from scratch with brand new faculties.
Q: How did the faculties react to that because I know whenever we undergo any change, there is a lot of conflict?
A: Oh, there was much, much disturbance about it. Everybody, I think, was in an uproar. The students, the faculties, the administration, if not outwardly, certainly inwardly. You know your very insides were churning because it was just your world was turned upside down, you know and for most people, in one way or another, you know I say most, that's not true, but for a substantial number of people and for a substantial number of the students in Roanoke City, in that summer, their lives were turned upside down. The student that was, that had been planning to finish at Lucy Addison, may be finishing at William Fleming and vice versa or Patrick Henry of junior highs the same way, elementary the same way. So, there was lots of upheaval in the sense of nerves and churning stomachs, I guess. A lot of teachers, were, of course, came to see and all they really wanted to do was talk. They knew there was nothing anyone could do about it. They just talked about their unhappiness and some wept about it but, ah, we got through it. You know, I, as I recall, we opened on time and, now, I don't know how we'd do it. I'm not sure the computers are fast enough. We did and I think that everybody was worn to a frazzle by the time we opened. Everybody in about the middle of October or something, just sort of gave out a sigh of relief that we had no calamities and that scheduling had essentially worked and, you know, things had begun to settle down, but it was, it was a rough, rough time. But, it was also, when looking back, a time for learning, you know, you learn to do a lot of things you never dreamed you could.
Q: It sounds to me, like a principal is a really stressful position to have. What made you decide to become a principal?
A: Well, two or three things. One, quite frankly, is money. That's always an issue with teachers and Dot, my wife and I, of course she was a teacher of English and later became a librarian but we were looking for Money and I wanted a full time route, you know 12 month job. It was partly that and I had, the assistant principal that supervised me at Fleming, they were called Deans in those years, they were deans or assistant principal over specific buildings at Fleming the way that school is laid out. Jack Graybill, who later was principal at Breckenridge Middle and Patrick Henry High School, he was a really good educator and he talked to me once at some length about maybe perhaps I should think about becoming an administrator. And, I really hadn't thought too terribly much about that, but I did after he talked and he talked. I had some abilities along those lines or he thought he saw some potential so I investigated that and pursued it with Tech, Virginia Tech, and wound up doing just that. Well, I guess there had been some people along the way that had pointed me in this direction or that and Jack was the second one as far as becoming an administrator. I have to say along the lines, I've been most fortunate. I almost to a man, the principals for whom I worked, have been, they were all good principals in more that one way. They were good to me as a teacher and then later when I was an assistant, they were good in a sense that they were willing to let me do things. They were good delegators, and I think that's awfully important when you're an assistant principal. It's awfully important when you're a principal who will allow you to do some things if you're ever going to learn rather than wait till you're in there and then you find out what the real world of a principal's like. So that, you know, Jack was a big help there, and, ah, and then, when I did become an assistant, Frank Beam was the principal at Fleming. Frank had been an assistant also there earlier and he was very good, I thought, about delegating and letting me do some things with curriculum in the areas I supervised, English and social studies at Fleming, after I became an assistant at Fleming and he let us do some things with curriculum that I thought were really good with helping, kind of putting fire in social studies, it sort of did. We had some good people but they had gotten tired and so we did some things with semester classes, sort of jacked the curriculum around in that like had been done with the English curriculum. And we, at that time at Fleming, and I think they're still a very fine school, I can't speak for it, I haven't been there in twenty seven years or twenty eight years but, we had an exceptional faculty at William Fleming. When I went there, I say that right off. Just a lot of people who were leader in the classroom as well as administrators. People who inspired other people, you know. Fleming had a unique, I thought, a unique position with department heads. They weren't paid any more, they didn't have any more legal authority except they had the authority given to them by the principal., the department heads did, and they made a difference at Fleming, they really did. So that, all those things together, I think helped me to see schools from the administrative perspective even before I became an administrator or after as I learned to be an administrator.
Q: So, if you had to sum up what is a good leader, what qualities make a good leader, for the people you've worked with or yourself?
A: Well, the best ones I think to me, are the people who inspire. You have to do a lot of other things to but the best leaders, from my perspective as a follower, for have been the people who inspired me. I think Damarus Wilson, going back to Concord is one. Albert Coulter, who was principal at William Fleming when I went there, he was the principal and I was actually afraid of the man, at first. He, the kids called him Gator behind his back because he always frowned, he seldom smiled. But he said some things early in my career as a teacher that I never forgot and I used lasted with teachers in my school, or tried to. I remember he said that you had to have missionary spirit of missionary zeal, he said, to be a good teacher and I know that is certainly true. I have never forgotten that. I know I used to kid him to, you know but we don't want to get paid like missionaries that sort of thing. Mr. Coulter believed completely in what he did and it came through. He didn't preach exactly but he preached in what he believed and what he, his actions preached for him. He didn't have to, he didn't give little sermonettes all the time, but it was there and it was obvious. And I do think that fire in the belly or missionary zeal or whatever is essential and a leader who can inspire that in a school, your job is way past half done if you can get that done, if you can inspire people to do that. A lot of it has to do with your personnel but
Q: How did you motivate people that worked for you?
A: That's a tough one. I tried, I think, as much as I could, not to be a Mr. Coulter because I could never do that. You have to be your own person but I did try to do something, as much ax I could, about talking to teachers about the importance of what they did. That's again, I went back and I made references to this business to the missionary spirit. I do that, that sounds corny, but I just don't think there's any substitute for that. If you don't have that, you're just a dispenser of knowledge, and that's not the same as a teacher, by any means, not in my book But I tried to tell my teachers to believe, I hoped to believe that what they were teaching was the most important thing going on in that school. And, while they recognized there were certain other subjects being taught, at the same time and they were, at least somewhat, important. I wanted them, if they were teachers of math, I wanted them to believer and know and do and act like they believed that their Algebra II class or there're basic math 10, whatever, that that was the most important thing going on in the building. If they could convince themselves of that, and if they believed that, that that spirit carries over to the children, I think, and helps to motivate kids and inspire them a little bit, too to learn. That's what I tried to do. I don't know how successful, but, I guess sometimes I was and other times I was not.
Q: What kinds of things did the teachers that worked for you expect you to do?
A: Lots of things. I think the biggest thing that they expect, the most obvious thing, is they expect support in terms of discipline. And that is a big issue, it's always been, that's not new. It may be more severe in some cases now then it used to be. I think that probably the problem is more severe. But certainly they expect the administrator to be there for them and behind them to make certain that that classroom is managed and it is the atmosphere is such that real learning can take place. It certainly cannot if you don't have control. That's one thing. And as I said, that is the biggest thing that they expect. I think they expect, and have a right to expect, that their principal will be a leader for them in lots of ways. In terms of the community, the sticking up for them if somebody threatens them verbally or speaks poorly of them, that the principal will speak out as well as will as the Board of Education, the Superintendent, whoever, to protect them in a way, if you will, because for the last several years, the last fifteen years or so, it certainly seems education, public education has come under a lot of attack. O, they expect that. They expect the principal to be able to manage the funds in the building, to provide supplies, you know, that is a small thing from one standpoint but it is a big thing in terms of morale. If teachers have to always pinch pennies or to pay for things out of their own pocket, that doesn't leave you too good a taste in your mouth as to how much support you're getting from your local, political subdivision or the school board or whatever. Even though that happens in a lot of places, that really shouldn't be happening, not to the extent that it does. I guess those are, and, of course, they expect you to be a leader and I think they should. If you don't, if all you are is a manager, then you really shouldn't be a principal. The best managers probably should stay in the assistant principalship and sometimes I wonder about myself, because I was a better manager that I was a leader. I know that, now looking back, well, I think I knew it before but I had to try it anyway but I really, I'm just better at that kind of thing, genetics or whatever, ha, ha, ha than I am inspiring. I got along with teachers very well and we had a good relationship- for the most part but as far as being an inspiration, I'm not, I don't think that that was ever true. I wanted to be but I'm not sure that ever really happened. But you have to try. You do your best.
Q: You said you felt like the public school system is under attack or maybe has been in the media, do you feel like that's warranted, like the quality of our schools has declined in the years?
A: No, not really. There may be some limited areas where we may have compromised ourselves but I have insisted, I still insist and since this business started, what was that committee called? I can't remember the name now started the whole thing with A Nation At Risk, that if a child properly motivated, if they're motivated and cannot get a decent education, in any semi-metropolitan high school in this country, they are, there is something badly wrong. I just don't believe that. There's just none of the schools that I've worked, and as you can see, I've worked in several, that is simply not true. If a child wants a degree or an advanced diploma, advanced studies diploma, it's there, the opportunities are there. Not only the kinds of classes that we have available, but there's no question in my mind that the skilled teaching is far ahead of what is was when I was in high school. And those were the days, the good old days, of high test scores, high SAT scores, ACTs. And we had things, and I tell people this now and they just shake their head but even in high school, we had feature length movies during the school day to raise money and we still accomplished. Now, and I know for a fact, that you'd be run out of town on a rail if you did something like that now and rightly so I guess but that was one of the kinds of things that we did.
Q: I would like to know if you ever had any experience with teacher dismissal and how you were involved with that in any way in any of your experiences?
A: I did actually for dismissal one time. I did have some others that I wanted to but couldn't build a case. The teacher, of course I obviously can't get in to too much specifics, the teacher we really could not nail on what we thought and really knew. What was going on because we couldn't prove it. So we had to, it was sort of like Al Capone, I always relate it to that. They didn't get him for the sort thing he did but the side things and that's really what happened here in that case and I think what happens probably in a lot of cases. Because, the old saying about you don't know what happens when the door closes of what's the other expressions? That teaching's the more private act in the world. There's a little truth to that and when you go in to observe, I think all of us know, that the classroom you see observing isn't the classroom, for better or worse it's not the same classroom you see when you're not there and in cases of poor teaching or bad teaching, you don't see that. The only way you could see that is through means that aren't very well thought of: snooping, eavesdropping, that sort of thing and I'm sure you'd be in court by afternoon if you tried that. So you have to, sometimes you have to get people and that's what happened in this one case, this we wound up nailing the teacher on tardiness and forced that teacher out.
Q: Was there a process that you had to go through to do the dismissal?
A: There really wasn't a formal one but this particular case wound up, we had to document, you know. You have to build, you have to well I'm fond of saying be a full deputy lawyer because you really have to have so much documentation if you want to confront the teacher and his or her representative. You better have page upon page upon page of documentation, stuff that you can prove happened and letters of reprimand and letters of suggestion and letters of whatever and then you may, may, be able to get the teacher out. But it is a very laborious task and in most often, I still think that in many cases, that teachers are dismissed, when they're dismissed, for reasons other that the core reasons, something that is more easily proved, like it's certainly easy to document and prove a teacher who comes to school late or leaves early, something of that nature. It is much simpler to do that than it is to prove that a teacher berates or belittles children in the classroom, which was the case in the teacher to whom I had referenced. But proving that is something else. Kids will tell you about that, but is that proof? Yes, in my mind it is. If you hear enough cases, than that should be a case but from a legal point of view, it's not necessarily. You would have to go to court on that. It's a difficult situation. I don't know the answer. Teachers certainly need tenure. The area in which I grew up in West Virginia, is extremely a political area, much more so than here. And that is only one of the reasons that I left there. I had no desire to teach even though my wife and I were both recruited from my home county by my former principle, who was then the superintendent. In fact, he even came to my folks home one night in the summer after my first year of teaching to give Dot and me a sales talk to try to get us back. In fact, we had been hired in the newspaper. That was the way they did it. They just announced the people who were hired and we hadn't even applied. My mother wrote saying how wonderful it was that we were coming back and I said that I didn't understand. I called her and said mother, we never applied, well your names were in the paper and I said, we've never applied. But that's what they did. In other words, if we had wanted the job, all we had to do was say yes and they were desperate for young teachers. But it was extremely political. If you were in the wrong political stripe of that year or that party in power, you could be out of a job or in a job up some valley, some poe-dunk school where you didn't want to be associated with. I, you know, that was a very real situation so that was something we were trying to get away from. I was, I think, much more aware of it than Dot because the county I grew up in was much more political than hers. Teachers have to be protected from those kinds of political threats. There's just no two ways about that. Even as it is sometimes, there's too much politics in it but that presents the other side of the sword, how do you get rid of the poor ones? That's a difficult case to prove sometimes.
Q: It sounds tough.
Q: Let me ask you this, what should be the role of the assistant principal? What are the duties of the assistant principal?
A: Well, it depends. We at the schools in which I've worked as principal, we had pretty clearly defined roles, both the high schools in which I was principal, we had three assistant principals. They had specific job descriptions but they weren't limited just to that. For example, we had an assistant principal. At Salem High School and at Cave Spring whose primary job was curriculum and scheduling. That wasn't the only thing they did. They also did discipline. They went to ball games. You do whatever is necessary and then you had an assistant principal whose primary function might have been the athletic and activities director. But they also do all these other things. And you have another assistant principal whose primary function may be attendance and discipline but they do all the other things that the other principals do, too, to some degree. So the principal, the best experience for an assistant principal if it were possible, I think, would be to have experience in all those areas. To do, I just don't understand how a person can be a principal without knowing how to schedule. How can you possibly know whether you have a good master schedule if you don't know anything about how to develop one. So, that's essential for anybody who's going to be a principal. So I think every assistant principal ought to have some time at that if they aspire to be a principal. They should know the curriculum inside out so they need to be able to work with teachers and departments in developing courses and course outlines, content, and work with boards of education. They ought to be thoroughly versed in how that's done and be a part of it sometime in their career. They need to deal with the public, with families and the public in the sense of not just individual cases of discipline and such with the families but with the public at large and understand how important the public relations is not just from an individual point of view, but from a school and community point of view that it is. The concept or the, what's the word I'm looking for, the, ah, image that the school has, it sometimes can be very much the image projected by the principal and the assistant principals of that school. Not total, but they have a lot to do with it, I think.
Q: Well, I'm going to pick on you because you were my principal when I was a student at Salem High School and I would like it if you could describe your work day and, since you've had so many experiences, may be we'll focus on the Salem High School position that you held like what hours did you work, what were some of the duties that you did during the day, just a typical workday.
A: OK, I'll try as best I can. I've always been a morning person I operate better early so we had, even before I was principal there, when Dr. Wilson was principal, we sort of had overlapping shifts, if you want to call it that. They didn't overlap that much but I mean they weren't that different. But I, since I like to get up early and go to work early, I would come to work early so I still did that when I became principal. For me, it became that and Sunday afternoons became a time of quiet and a time when I could get away from everybody, to some degree, and think, by myself. So, early mornings were often a time for reflecting my thoughts so it was not unusual for me to be at school at 7:00 or something like that . Of course, Salem started early. I may have even been at Salem earlier, I can't remember when we started there exactly. But it did have an early schedule. But I remember after a while, of course, the teachers and people who come early learn you are there and so they start coming in to see you and pretty soon, your early time is gone and to other causes so I had to back my day up another half hour which worked pretty well for a while, you know, nobody much was showing up then. Custodians would be there but that's about it. So I spent about a half hour or so each morning getting my thoughts together, maybe attending to any late phone messages that I needed to attend to that morning but sort of outlining my day, sometimes on paper, sometimes in my mind, getting myself together. I always wanted to be in the lobby in the front hall, we had that big lobby, remember, very spectacular windows and views. I always enjoyed being out there, just to see the teachers and the kids coming in, That wasn't work, really. That was just real pleasant for me to be out there as they were coming to school but it also afforded an advantage point to see things that were, you know, as people were coming to school, sometimes a scuffle would start and you would see that from a distance, you know, and get to it maybe a little bit faster. And then, we would start our homeroom period and, I guess, usually I liked after we got into the first period class, most mornings, I would like to make a round of the building, if I hadn't already done it just to look at the plant physically as well as looking in classroom window to see what's going on there, not formally visit at that point but just get a feel for the day, maybe, ah, and I've always felt and tried to be very visible. I've always felt that that was important in school so I spent a great deal of my time walking the halls, just sometimes stepping into a classroom for a minute or two, but just walking the halls, keeping an eye on things, making myself available. And then at lunch, I always tried, and I think when I was principal, we never had teachers on lunch duty. I always thought the administrators should do that if possible and we were able to do that. Teachers, well, I don't know, people have different ideas about that but I didn't want my teachers to have to do that if we didn't, and we had enough administrators that we could manage that, which we did. So we divvied, the administrators would divvy that up. We'd have a couple of us on duty at each lunch period. We would rotate that schedule a bit. Then on, and this varied, but class observations, you have to get those in and you really have to start that early in the year or those will sneak up on you. I tried to spend at least a period to two periods a day, and seldom could you get more than that in because there's just a barrage of things that come up that you, a million and one questions, financial reports, queries from people outside, parents concerns about this or that, I can't begin to recall them all not, but, it was, you spent a great deal of your time talking on the telephone, getting out letters to people, just the minutia of the day, dealing with discipline problems to attendance problems. The principal may not be directly involved with all of that but sooner or later it comes, you deal with it, you know, and a lot of cases you do and they have to do those kinds of things. I remember telling one of my secretaries once, I think if I go down below when I die, then I think my private hell will be signing my name of checks and paid vouchers, the rest of my, for eternity. I got so sick of signing my name, and you know, you do this hundreds of times a week and it's just boring and you know to the point of sometimes if you don't watch, sometimes you overlook thinks, you know, you don't pay attention. Then I tried to be, in the afternoons, I was always out when the buses were loading, or in the parking lot, or both at Salem, monitoring that because it needs to be monitored. And then, of course in the evenings, winters busier than any other time of the year as far as evening business goes because you have so many sports activities that occur and, you know, in the evenings and you spend, a good bit of time at those. Again, we divided those up so that we'd have only one or two, depending on the size of the crowd we'd anticipated. We'd have one or two, sometimes maybe all four of us administrators would be there but it makes for a pretty full day and, you know, that , just speaking in pretty general terms, but there's not a certain schedule that you, that I at least, followed each day because it just varies. There were certain basic routines that maybe that you did but from one day to the next, you didn't know whether you'd be looking at purchase voucher, purchase orders and signing checks, well, you might know, but it varied that much from one day to the next. The next time, you might be doing, working on a Southern Association report or just anything or some sort of report that the state had required something or other on how many fist fights you'd had in school this year, you know.
Q: So, some things have never changed?
A: Oh no, no. No they don't, and they never will, I don't think. But those are the kinds of things that you're involved in. I don't know, I never kept a real accurate track of hours. You just did what you have to do but what needs to be done. I would guess most weeks, you could probably, a principal could expect to work, I would think, say fifty-five to sixty hours, something like that. That's not unusual, I don't think, altogether.
Q: Tell me a little bit, I have a special ed background, how did you perceive special education in the school you worked with or what changed did you see special ed go through in the years that you were a principal or an assistant principal?
A: Yeah, the first recollection I have of special ed, per say, was at Andrew Lewis in 1974. And I'm not sure, this sounds peculiar perhaps, I'm not sure, if we had, I guess we had special ed, but I, it certainly wasn't in the regular schools, or I don't remember, in Roanoke City. So when I come to the County in 74, I remember we had some learning disability class, a learning disability class, I think is what it was. And that was my first real exposure to a structured classroom called special education. Out of that, over the years, let's see, that's been twenty-four years, it has exploded, I mean that's the only way you can put it. I don't know, I suspect it is because we found out more about special ed and the various sorts of disabilities and maybe as the public at large has learned more about it also, they expect us to classify more children in special ed. I don't know that but we certainly have grown almost, ah, well I started to say geometrically, but I'm not sure that it's not greater than that, it's probably exponentially, I imagine. But we certainly, the demands, the physical demands of space, not to say personnel, just the physical demands of special education classrooms in the schools is just really crowded your schools and you can look around anywhere and you can see then and you talk to the people who are there know, and ask them what's happened to their school populations aren't any bigger, so where has the space gone? And for the most part, that's what's happened because we've had more and more classes devoted to special ed. And, you know, I think that's probably, as it should be. I remember once, maybe in the first year I was principal, when Roanoke County had the Roanoke County Occupational School. I had never been there and most of the principals in the school system had never been there and for one of our principals meetings, we took a tour of that institution. And that was a real eye opener and I was convinced that every teacher in the system, as well as every administrator, would do well to take a tour of that building once a year because it sure pouts things in perspective as to what tough is and I think we all have to have that re-adjustment of our point of view from time to time in our lives. Of course that doesn't exist anymore.
Q: In fact, we're here right now.
A: That is exactly where we are sitting. But that was, I thought my word, I thought my job was tough. I don't know what tough is. I truly meant that because the teachers working with those children, I don't know how they do it. I have the utmost respect for them. My work, I worked one semester in Roanoke City in a special reading program at the junior high level and this was while I was doing my graduate work at Tech, and all I had, the maximum number of students I had was five. And that was the most intensive teaching I ever did in my life. We didn't call it special ed but I suspect some of those children were special ed. But that helped me greatly later because when regular quote classroom teachers would come to me and complain about how easy the special ed teachers had it, even though I had not been a special ed teacher, I knew what they were going through. So I could put an end to that, you know, pretty quickly with the regular ed teachers and just say look, you don't know what you're talking about. The hardest teaching I ever did was with a crowd of, with a group of five or four kids, you know, and it is. I just don't know. It's very intense, I think, draining. Teaching is unique. It's like being on stage. I've always thought that and I mean I certainly didn't originate that idea but I think that's one reason teachers are exhausted at the end of the day- they've been on all day long. Good teachers have, at least. They've been on and that takes strength and you are tired when you get through. And it's doubly important for special ed teachers. They have to have more stamina, more energy, than anyone else I think in the building.
Q: That leads me to, some principals hold the view that teachers and other staff members are self-motivated and self-starters and others feel that you need to closely monitor teachers in any of their activities. How did your philosophy buy into either of those?
A: Basically, I would subscribe to the first, that good teachers, the bad teachers are the ones that you suspect may not be any good, they're going to be the ones you need to monitor. Good teachers, no, I don't think you need to monitor them unless you just want to see something really great going on. But the best teachers are just self starters. I go back to the missionary zeal, they have the fire in the belly. You don't have to worry about those people too much. They're going to get the job done, every day. So, no, I don't think I have to be there and that kind of leads me astray to another thing that I thought was terribly important that you don't ever see mentioned when you're talking about good schools, good principals, and that is selecting personnel. I've never seen it mentioned at least and I think it is so important because if you picked good people to begin with, you don't have problems, not many, not as many and that's terribly important but I think, I just think teachers need to be, they have to have that fire. Colleges, at least some colleges that I know of, have started a screening process in freshman and sophomore years for perspective teachers, my sister-in-law went through that. She's about ten years younger that I and I though that was really a good idea Concord put that in and I'm sure a lot of others have that now because it they actually had to go to one site to do some things and for some of them, it was an eye opener. They could see that this isn't for me. For others, it may have simply spurred them on, which is equally good but I was not one who monitored closely unless I thought that there was a problem.
Q: How did you learn to lead? How did you learn to be a good, effective leader?
A: Well, that goes back to my other thing. I'm not sure how good a leader I was. I guess I tried, Jack Graybill taught me once to not try to before I became or as I became an administrator, just be yourself, and so, I tried to do that and I am who I am. I'm not stern faced. I never have been. I never will be. That's just not me. So, I guess, you take me as you see me. I guess I tried to lead my providing a light atmosphere. I hope an atmosphere that teachers believed that they were appreciated for what they did, that they were respected for what they did. I always tried to maintain an open door, not just a name but teachers could come and see me and I think I did that. Just, I guess what you would call, basic, not special, but just basic respect for the individual and for what he or she is doing in that classroom. That's what I wanted when I was teaching and that's what I tried to do. I tried to lead primarily by that. I was not what I would call an inspiration, well I know I'm not an inspirational speaker. And I'm certainly not a preacher either even though my grandmother wanted me to be one. So I'm not that kind of leader, not a pound on the pulpit kind of thing or fellow. Oh, I can get up, angry maybe, and distressed sometimes but that's just not my style. I don't know and I said sometimes I wondered about whether I really led or not. That's how I tried to lead, by respecting.
Q: Well, I remember you always having nice things to say to people and always having a good sense of humor. That's important.
A: Well, I hope so and I think it is, too. So, that's primarily what I tried to do and if I saw something wrong, or right, I tried to pat people on the back. I didn't try to do it for every little nickel or dime thing that came down the pike, you can wear that out by rewarding too much. That's just, you can overdo that so that it becomes worthless but when I saw something that I thought was especially worthy, I mentioned it in a letter, in a faculty meeting or something and tried to bring some attention to that person. I think we all need that. We all need pats on the head. We all need strokes, if you will and teachers are no different from anybody else in that regard. Principals need them, too, sometimes, ha, ha.
Q: Oh yeah, we all do. How, I know you celebrated teacher successes, you just mentioned sharing at faculty meetings, is there any other way or ways that you highlighted their success?
A: Yeah, well, of course in Roanoke County, we've done more of that recently with Marty Robinson, when he was the public relations, and he still works for public relations, would work with newspaper releases. I don't know. Is he still the person responsible for that aspect?
A: And that, we he took that job some years ago or took responsibility for that some years ago, that increased greatly here, not only with our in house programs, but with the relationship we had with newspapers and to get some. Publicity for people who are doing things well for teachers and students who are successful and so we tried to do that and tried to do that, and of course Marty started that while I was still at Salem. And then Salem went it's own way but as far as a separate school division but there too, in a very short order, they started doing some things with the newspaper publicizing. I think you need to be careful that you don't overdo it, in my mind you do. It needs to mean something. If everybody gets fifty compliments every day, then they're meaningless. But, they need to know that when you make one, you are not simply, as the saying goes, blowing smoke up their skirt, but that you mean what you say.
Q: How were you chosen for your first administrative role?
A: I'm not sure I can remember, that's been so long ago. Gee, we had an interview process, I do recall that. One of my close friends and I were both candidates for the job and there was a third candidate also. This was for the assistant principalship or the dean's position at William Fleming. They were opening a new building, a new academic building, in Mr., Coulter's honor who had been a principal there before, my first principal. I don't really recall the formal interview process in detail. I do remember that we had to go downtown to the school administration building and, I'm pretty sure that Mrs., Miss rather, Dorothy Gibboney, who was Director of Personnel in the City of Roanoke then and she later became superintendent and died some years ago. She'd been an extraordinary person but I know she sat on the committee. I don't think the superintendent of schools did that time, though I could be mistaken about that, and the principal of the high school, Mr. Frank Beam, sat on the committee. I do not remember who else was there, nor could I begin to tell you what they asked. I have no idea. That's thirty, a little over thirty years ago. I just don't recall. But anyway, John Leffel, who is the friend of mine that I was speaking of, he was also a candidate. He and I, we know we were in the running for this job for about a year and I think one of the tests, they never said so, but they gave John and I the task of doing the census for the Roanoke, the City of Roanoke, school census for the whole city the summer of sixty-seven and we worked together and we had a good time doing it. It drove us crazy but I guess, perhaps, it also provided those folks with some insight into what we could handle and what we could organize and how we would structure things and it was, you know, deliberate or not, it probably provided them with some insight as to our abilities. Jessica, I wish I could tell you more detail about the process but that was probably it.
Q: I want to know if you and John remained friends? You got the position and he didn't .
A: We sure did. Yes, when I got the job and we opened, he became, John was a science teacher who became a guidance counselor. And so when we opened Coulter Hall in the fall of sixty-eight, John came over and or I picked him, asked him if he would come with me and be my guidance counselor and each hall has their own guidance counselor. So, he came over and to my hall and we had Doris Egee, who was the coordinator of guidance, she worked in my hall also. John was only there though for about a half a year and he was appointed assistant principal of Woodrow Wilson, a junior high and went on to become a principal and so things worked out for both of us, you know, and we remained good friends over the years. The interesting sidelight, Roanoke City has never yet told me that I have been appointed. I was never told. Now that sounds peculiar but that's a fact. The morning of the appointment, I went to school to teach and one of my brightest young girls in my first period class came into class and she said congratulations and I said for what? She said, "You don't know?" And I said, "No." I was hoping maybe what she was talking about but she clammed up immediately. Her mother was one of the secretaries at the school board office. Well, then I thought, well surely someone will call . Well, I went all day, nothing, and left school and went to the barber shop and got my hair cut and came home and pulled in, I guess four or five o'clock and my wife came running out to tell me that it had been on the noon news that I had been selected as the principal, or assistant principal at William Fleming. Well, I was elated and everybody patted me on the back. I never did receive any confirmation, verbal, oral, written confirmation of selection. I am still waiting for that thirty years later. But they did send me a notice that I was to attend an administrator's conference that summer, so I went. But I always said I have laughed about that but it was just a slip up and didn't amount to anything. It seemed as if everyone knew but me. It was on the noon news but I didn't know and my neighbors had heard it and called Dottie at school, her school. No, No, No, that's right. They called her when they saw her come home and she tried to get in touch with me but, of course, I was gone and had already left school. But that was, the process was not as certainly nothing like what I hear people have to go through now. But, you know, they base largely their decisions on recommendations from principals under whom you had taught and much more of that than questions that they ask and your performance was the biggest single factor and, in my opinion, probably still should be, what you've done.
Q: Well, tell me, what lead up to your decision to retire when you did retire?
A: Well, I had a heart attack several years ago. That's not the biggest factor but that was part of it, I guess. I had had some rhythm problems, which had lead, me to step down from Cave Spring and take the job here because of stress and principalship is a stressful job. Stress can create arrhythmias and I was having more and more difficulty with that and, so I decided that simply it would be smarted for me to step down and spend my last few years, I had already decided that I was going to go out and retire at fifty-five mainly because of the incentive program that the County provides. It was just very attractive and my wife and I had both decided that we would retire at the same time and we would enjoy ourselves, which we did and I've never regretted that. The only thing I regret about retirement is missing seeing the kids and the people. I really have, I, you know, that's just part of it. You always miss those things, you know, no matter what the job. I have missed that greatly, but that's the great thing about the work program. I get to come back and go around some of the people here in the office and go out in some of the schools from time to time and see some of them. Even though you don't know the kids any longer, it's still kind of good to get there. But, of course, a lot of the headaches, I don't miss a bit. I was thinking to myself the other day, Jessica, that good grief that sometime along the middle of July I'd be sweating blood now twenty years ago or ten years ago laboring over conflicts in schedules and, you know, knowing I was going to get it through, but, worrying about it anyway, you know. And now I think, here I am just riding around, not a care in the world.
Q: Oh good. You deserve it. You deserve that. Well, I have tried to be very comprehensive in all my questions, is there anything you feel that I have left out that you'd like to share about any of your other experiences?
A: Jessica, I can't think of anything. I don't believe so. It seems to me like we've covered a pretty broad area here.
Q: Well, I thank you for letting me interview you. It's been my pleasure.
A: Well, it's been my pleasure, too. It's been a pleasant time.
Q: Well thank you.
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