Interview with John Lane


Today is November 16, 1998. I'm here with Mr. John Lane, currently Assistant Superintendent for Gates County Schools in Gatesville, North Carolina. Mr. Lane was principal of Gatesville Elementary School and will share some of his experiences with us.

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Q: Good Morning Mr. Lane.

A: Good Morning Zenobia, how are you?

Q: Fine and you. Would you began by telling us about your family background, your childhood interest and any kinds of developments that happened during your early educational years.

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

A: Sure. I was born and reared here in Gates County. Went to school here in the county. As a matter of fact I attended all 12 years at the same site. And that was at Gatesville Elementary and Gatesville High School. From there I went to East Carolina University and got my undergraduate degree in Business Administration, got my masters degree in Educational Administration and got my sixth year degree from the University of North Carolina. I come from a farming background. My parents were farmers. I have two sisters and a brother. My two sisters are teachers here in the county and my brother is a business person.

Q: Ok, so it sounds like you have a very interesting family background there. Ok, What we're going to do is talk just about some of your successes during the time you were principal of Gatesville Elementary School. If you could, give us the years that you were principal there?

A: I was principal there of Gatesville Elementary for 11 years. I believe it was uh 78-79 to 88.

Q: Ok. Please discuss the way in which you were chosen for your first administrative role as principal?

A: Ok, first of all I was a teacher at Gates County High School, then I was assistant principal at the junior high. Then I moved from there to the central office. And the principalship at Gatesville Elementary came open and that was my old alma mater. I was very interested in that and the superintendent spoke to me about that position. And at that time he told me that in order to be able to maybe be considered for that principalship I would have to write a letter asking to be considered. Which I did do. I was considered and I received that position. And I was very delighted to go back and be apart of that educational process.

Q: Did you ever think that you would be a principal when you first started out in your early educational years? Or, did it come as a surprise to you?

A: It evolved to some degree. As I mentioned to you, I was a teacher and I taught for three years, three and one half years and then they asked me to be the assistant principal at the middle school then I was asked to come down to the central office, and as I evolved into those positions the principalship was very interesting to me. And at that time it was about seven or eight years in my profession I felt I was ready for that challenge.

Q: Ok. Would you walk us through your school, describing its appearance and any unusual features of the building when you were there?

A: Gatesville Elementary School was a small elementary school. We had approximately 220 students. As you can see it was a small elementary school and we had about twelve professional staff members. The___î building itself was a one story brick building, one long hall, a gymnasium and a cafeteria, and three mobile classrooms. The building did not have climate control; meaning it was not air conditioned. It was later air conditioned after I left and came to the central office. So it was just a regular structure brick building.

Q: Ok. What kinds of things did the teachers do as far as; when we were talking about climate; staff morale, you know since you said it was not air conditioned. I know it was pretty hot some of those summers and falls going back to school. How did you keep the teachers built up to let them know that this is what we are here about; the instructional program? We know the weather is hot, just how did you handle those things? Or, was it a problem?

A: You will probably hear me say this several times during this interview. One of the first things I've tried to do was to build a strong planning team which I believed that was accomplished while I was at Gatesville. With the teachers on the planning team, and I would set down and discuss the same things we just talked about; the best way to handle the warm weather, the opening of the windows, the cooling of the building early in the mornings, those kinds of things, and we worked together as a team. We took certain breaks during the day and we tried our best to look after the students. We did a good job of that even though the building was not air conditioned. But a strong planning team I think is the key to any successful school whether you're talking about environment, or any instructional program, working with parents or handling auxiliary services. You need that support from your instructional/planning team.

Q: Ok, how did you go about forming your planning___ team? Were they selected or did they volunteer?

A: It was some of both. We talked about the planning team, and you try to determine, you try to determine who would be interested. You want creative, dynamic, enthusiastic, teachers to serve on the planning team. You want school leaders. So, first you have to get to know your staff, and they have to get to know you. Once you do that then you start that process of selecting the planning team with the ultimate appointment certainly coming from the principal and maybe some key staff people who would recommend some teachers. So you need to further consider several avenues.

Q: Ok. Would you describe your philosophy of education and how did it evolve over the years?

A: Well, first education is a life long process. I think we all believe that at Gatesville Elementary and even now we feel that every student can learn. He/she should be given the opportunity to reach their potential. In Gates County we have a mission. And that overall mission is to develop an educational environment which prepares students for success in a changing world. I know that's somewhat of a philosophical statement but its a very powerful statement. We need to do our very best to prepare our students for success in a rapidly changing world.

Q: Would you describe the instructional philosophy of your school, telling how it was developed and evolved over time?

A: Once again I want to mention, it is very important to have a very effective planning team. Emphasis has to be placed on a strong staff development component. We need to have the support at the state level, at the local and certainly at the school based level. Staff development created at the school level can be very, very effective and it was effective at Gatesville Elementary. You must have the ability to determine where you are and where you want to go. That means looking at test scores, assessments and those areas. You must be able to communicate to your leadership team. The principal has to be able to communicate with his staff and in particular his leadership team. He has to be able to communicate with the community and certainly the people at the state level . The instructional philosophy has to include the willingness to take risk. If you implement new programs there's always risk involved. You should be able to do that. You should always be able to celebrate your successes. that's important to. To let the teachers know that what they have accomplished has been very valuable to the students and to the community. You must be able to develop a climate for success. Some of the things we have already talked about. Taking care of the teachers and students, creating an environment of excitement and enthusiasm. But that takes work, time commitment and dedication. But that needs to happen if you want to have an effective school. And this requires time and effort every single day.

Q: Ok, now you talked about test scores and you talked about team planning and you talked about celebrating successes. Now I know that your school was nationally recognized. Can you tell us how you got to that point? What kinds of things that you did in order for you all to achieve national recognition?

A: I really enjoyed talking about that but you know there's not going to be enough time today for us to fully explain all of the things we did at Gatesville Elementary School at that time. However, I will just briefly point out just one or two. Gatesville School did - I believe in 86 or 87 receive the governor's Excellence in education Award for its writing program (see appendix). We worked very hard with that writing program. We did a lot of unique things. The following year we did receive national recognition which was quiet an honor (see appendix). As a matter of fact, the entire staff went to Washington, D.C. to visit Washington and I met President Reagan. I was so proud of that. But being more specific on how we got there. The planning team; here again, the planning team felt it important and I felt it was important to set certain specific goals, and we did that. We had a very important supportive instructional staff. We demonstrated as a school that what we were doing and what we were doing with the instructional program was extremely important. We felt that it was important to be open and honest with evaluations, and we developed that environment. I could really go in and observe a classroom and offer the teachers constructive criticism, but you have to get to a point where you can trust one another in order for that to happen. Once we got to that point we began to see the school truly moving forward. Climate control. You mentioned climate in the building not climate control we speak of as an environment but making or developing a good climate within the building, we would do many kinds of things. Displaying quality work on bulletin boards, down the halls, and in the cafeteria. Taking pictures of important events and displaying those. Writing articles in the newspaper. Recognizing individual teachers. We constantly invited specific guest to our school. As a matter of fact, we had the representatives from our area, the senators from our area. We even had the governor of North Carolina to visit our school. It was a very exciting event. You need to celebrate your successes, and we did that at Gatesville Elementary School. To sum this up, we set goals, we had objectives, we followed through and we had a strong planning committee. that's how we received national recognition.

Q: that's excellent. I think that everybody who's striving to achieve national recognition needs to follow some of those very same guidelines. What kinds of things do teachers expect principals to be able to do? Describe your views on what it takes to be an effective principal, describing the personal and professional characteristics of the good principal.

A: As you well know Zenobia, there are many types of leadership styles. But there are certain things that we all need to do at a school in order to be good leaders. I think you need to support your staff. I think you need to develop a sense of trust. I think you need to work hard every single day at trying to be an effective leader. That means being very proactive. Small things like making announcements everyday, following through, understanding the instructional program, taking risk and others. You need to be patient. You need to be able to handle the buses, and books, and the auxiliary teams without letting those kinds of things interfere with the instructional program. And, if you can do that as a leader, then there's a good possibility that your school will succeed. You need to be well organized. You need to be perceptive. You need to understand the community and the state and even the nation at times to be able to interpret what needs to be done at your school and how this affects the instructional program. Most importantly, you need to be a strong instructional leader, which includes the basics; math and language and writing, and in particular this day and time technology. Administrators need to have a basic understanding of technology and know what that means. You need to be honest, you need to be loyal, and you need to understand your community and schools. And if you do these things then you at least have an opportunity to be a successful principal.

Q: Ok. You mentioned community several times, I'm sure there are those who will be listening to this tape later on and trying to figure out, how do I really embrace my community? How do I really get my community involved to support what it is that I'm doing at my school? Would you share with us how you did such things?

A: It is important to reach out to the community. Here again, I go back to a strong staff and planning committee. You and your planning committee and other staff members can develop procedures that you can follow that will involve the community such as having school activities that are open to the public, having PTA meetings and having other special activities that will involve the public, having supervisory groups to come in, and in addition to that invite people. Make a special invitation to invite people to come out to lunch and we did that just about every week that I was at that school. We had people to come by and visit our school and we were very proud of that. We were very proactive in that particular area. Being principal at Gatesville School was somewhat unique because this is a very small rural community. As a matter of fact, in Gates County, there are only 10,000 people. And as I said before there are only 220 students at this school. And the reason I say it's unique, the school is in the community here. Every time I would go to the store or to the bank or to the post office, or anywhere in this small community the people were thinking when they saw me education and what is happening at school. So that was a sense of accountability on my part. And I respected that, responded to it and as a result of that, the school did go on and receive some very important recognition.

Q: So, from your high expectations from your staff, and from the community, you can say that that probably attributed to some or most of your success. Do you think principals today pretty much reach out the way they did during the time that you were in office, as principal?

A: It's hard to evaluate that. It really is. I would encourage them to do that. To reach out. They have to reach out. And as I said earlier, they can't let small things like the busses and the books and support staff or auxiliary services interfere with the instructional program and I mean that in a very positive way. You have to work hard to protect the instructional program, to protect the integrity of the program so that that can continue in a very efficient and effective manner. And I could talk more about that, but time won't permit me to do that today.

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

A: First of all you need to investigate the responsibility and what it's about. And once you make that decision that you want to be an administrator and in particular a principal, is to go out there and give it truly your very best. You have to understand it's not an eight hour a day job, it's not a five day a week job. It's a seven day a week job. It requires an enormous amount of time and effort and energy and sacrifice and if you want to be a good principal. You need to be able to make that decision. It is a tremendous challenge and it requires a great deal of time and knowledge in order to be effective in that position.

Q: Ok. Would you describe the idea requirement for principal certification and discuss appropriate procedures for screening those who wish to become principals?

A: The state of North Carolina as you know has those procedures in place, and its pretty stringent and I think a principal certainly should have his Masters, I think they should have a field- based experience. As I mentioned to you earlier, I got my sixth year degree from University of North Carolina. That was a field based experience. One of the most absolute of value to me. It gave me a sense of vision and understanding that there is a certain direction that you and your staff need to point the school into. So, probably a field based experience with a masters degree is important.

Q: Ok. It is often said that principals should be active in community affairs. Of the civic groups that you were involved in, which organization or group had the greatest influence?

A: At that time I was involved certainly with my church. I was in the fire department, I was in the Gates Hunt Club, and I participated in athletics. The one that had the greatest impact on me and probably my community was my involvement with the church. As I said it's a small community. It's very church oriented, and by being a role model in that sense I would say was very important to the school.

Q: Ok. Would you describe your approach to teacher evaluation and give your philosophy of evaluations? I know you talked a little bit earlier about evaluations, but just describe that for us?

A: That's a very important component in building a strong instructional program. Evaluations should be used to assist teachers to grow, first and foremost. This is an idea time to share with teachers and offer constructive criticism. As I said earlier, it takes a while to develop that sense of trust. And once that trust is there ____and you write something down on that evaluation instrument, the teachers trust you. They will take that information, use it, analyze it, and truly grow from it. One other thing about evaluations and this is a difficult part it, can also be used as a device to maybe even remove even weak teachers and as a principal you have to have the courage to be able to do that too. People need to be evaluated fairly and once you do that I believe the school is ready to move forward .

Q: Ok. Now I know that during the time that you were principal, evaluations were done a little differently than the way they're being done now. Today we're having action plans, having to do IGP (Individual Growth Plans). Could you just do a comparison of the new ways that evaluations are being___ø done? Do you think its going to be a good and effective way? Or, is it going to be an improvement over the old ways we did evaluations?

A: The state of North Carolina is in the process now of developing a new evaluation instrument. So it remains to be seen whether that's going to be more effective than the present TPAI that we're using now. I'm very familiar with the evaluation instrument that we're using now-the one we've used for the last ten years. There's some things that need to be improved on it as it relates to student performance, climate and some other things that need to be evaluated. But we'll just have to wait and see on that.

Q: Would you discuss teacher dismissal and your involvement in such activities? Did you eve____r have to dismiss a teacher? Just how did that go?

A: Being a principal as I said requires a lot of courage. This is the courage part of it. I was never involved in a dismissal process but I did recommend one or two teachers not be placed at Gatesville Elementary. I got the support of the superintendent and the board on those matters and the school was better off because of it. In North Carolina as you know, we do have due process when teachers are tenured and that's a long drawn out process and I'm not real sure that its that effective.

Q: Ok. You mentioned something about support of the board and superintendent. How - what kinds of things must go on between a principal, the board and the superintendent? What kind of relationship must they have?

A: A strong superintendent and a supportive board can serve as a catalyst for change, and especially in a small, rural school. There should be a good working relationship between the principal and particularly the superintendent and the board. It's vital, it's important, but the most important thing is for that principal as I said earlier to be a strong instructional leader at that school site.

Q: Ok. And you had mentioned something earlier about staff development. I know that you were very active in your school's staff development. How important is it today for a principal to be involved in staff development?

A: It is imperative that he is apart of the process. Teachers see that, the community sees that and other central office people see that also. You have to be directly____ involved in that process if you want it to be successful. You need to be there with your teachers supporting them, understanding what they're going through and understanding what is being discussed. Staff development is extremely important if you want to have a strong instructional program. It is imperative that individual schools have strong staff development programs.

Q: Ok. I think you've touched on this a little bit. Standardized testing. There are those who argue that standardized testing can provide a way to improve instruction. Please discuss your experience with such testing and provide us your views on its effects on the quality of the instructional program.

A: In North Carolina accountability is here. As far as my personal view____s with my past experiences I have to admit that standardized testing did improve the instructional program. I give you one specific example. In 1982, the state came out with this standardized writing test. We had our students to write and they were graded. When we got the results back, we were just very average, and I can remember to this day what an impact that had on that staff because we wanted to be better than just average, so we went on a mission. We wanted to improve the writing scores, we wrote poems, we wrote- in fact, we even published two books with poems in them and we were very proud of that. And as it turned out that in a very short time with a strong staff development program we had the highest writing scores in the state. We were so terrible proud of that. But it was not without a strong staff development program and I have to admit that in this particular case, the state provided that impetus for change.

Q: Ok.

A: By, establishing the writing for a standardized test.

Q: Ok. Since you mentioned your writing scores, I do know that you had other systems coming to visit your school to find out what it was that your folks were doing to achieve such high writing test scores. You want to talk about how you all felt about these people___ coming in to visit your school?

A: Zenobia I could talk about it probably for two or three days but I'll try to be brief. It was so terrible exciting to have those people to come to this very small rural school to see what we were doing. You know it was a very powerful thing. The teachers were so terrible proud of that. And then when they were asked to go to the district and conduct a workshop about what they were doing, oh the pride that existed in that school was unmeasurable. Then low and behold, they had the state meeting, and we were invited to the state meeting, and it was truly a happening in this small rural community to have our staff go demonstrate to people across the state what they were doing as it related to writing. We were proud of that____ program and; but do you know the long term effect of that is the effect of this county today. We are still having good writing scores.

Q: Ok. Would you share with us the key to your success as a principal?

A: I think you have to be committed to excellence. You have to be able to work with people, as I've said two or three times on this tape and I don't want to over emphasis this, but its so important to have a strong staff planning committee. I think you need to be extremely enthusiastic. I think you need to develop goals, have objectives, and to follow through. You need a plan. Here again, I could spend a lot of time talking about that but if there is one thing I want to say here is that you do need to have specific goals. We had specific goals when we___" developed our writing program, we had objectives to support that, we had resources identified and we followed through. There's a process that principals need to follow in order to be successful at their schools and one of those is to set goals (see appendix).

Q: Did you involve everybody with goal setting when you all did goals?

A: Absolutely. The entire staff was involved. We had evening work sessions, we had sessions after school, and I know Wednesday afternoon is not the best time but you have to in order to do that. ____At the end of school we developed our own staff development within the school to talk about what we wanted to do the following year. And I know how difficult it is when the students are not there to have staff development. But we felt it was important. We talked about goals. We refined those goals at the beginning of the next year. Setting goals, developing objectives, following through, is essential if you want to have a good instructional program.

Q: So, you would tell young principals to make sure that when they walk into a new school on day one and meet with their staff, that setting goals is a very, very important piece in becoming a principal in order to lead their staff to where they want them to be.

A: Yes, let me make one statement here. You may not set those goals on that particular day, the first day. However, that needs to evolve within the first few weeks of school. Yes indeed. They need to set down and determine what is important to them, where they want to go, and then go about doing that. And there is a process that you can follow to help you become more successful.

Q: What suggestions would offer to universities as a way of helping them to better prepare candidates for administrative positions? And then if you would comment on weaknesses in the traditional programs of training for administrators?

A: I have to say that I'm impressed with what you're doing today. This is a personal interview. You're learning a lot about field-based experience. I recommend that universities continue this particular activity. Field-based programs I think are important. I think young administrators, new administrators need to see first hand, talk with people who are out there in the field as to what is going on at that particular time and to develop a sense of synergy with groups. I do think you need to develop certain support groups. Once you do that, you can call one another, I think that adds to the information that you receive and the to support that you receive. College professors I think are doing basically a good job. However, I would recommend that they would consider spending more time in individual school districts, to build a bond between where they are at the colleges and what we're doing at the individual schools or individual campuses.

Q: Ok. What is your view on mentoring programs for new administrators in which an experienced administrator is paired with a neophyte. Or, was there a mentor in your life when you became a principal?

A: There was a mentor, but it was not called a mentor because that word I'm not sure existed at that particular time when I became a principal. However, I had a principal that was next door. There was another principal in the county that truly I called on a daily basis. Without that support and without those other principals that I could call, I'm absolutely convinced that I could not have been as successful as I was at that time. But mentoring program is an outstanding program, and that needs to be continued and we need to continue to develop that program.

Q: Ok. Well, I certainly have enjoyed asking you these questions and I want to thank you for sharing your experiences with us. Is there anything that I may not have asked that you would think would be very, very helpful for those who are aspiring for a principal's position?

A: Zenobia, let me thank you for this interview and your time. And as I mentioned to you earlier if you feel the need to invite a small group down to share this information, I do have some information here in the way of authentic assessment that may be beneficial.___N In concluding this interview I must - I'd just like to add that if you want to be a principal you need to make that decision, work hard at it, understand that you need to be proactive, that it is a challenge, but of all the experiences that I've had; being a principal and accomplishing things at an individual school has been the most rewarding experience I've had in public education.

Q: Ok, Well again I'd like to thank you very much for taking the time to share some of these things with us, and I look forward to looking at some of the things that you have in your portfolio, and making copies of that to attach along with the interview so that others will be able to see some of the things step by step that you have done that we didn't have time to go into here with the interview. And again, thank you.

A: Thank you.

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