Interview with James Madison Miller


This is an interview with a retired principal from Fauquier County Public Schools in Virginia, who is Mr. Miller (James Madison Miller).

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Q: Mr Miller, would you give me a little bit of background information about your first principalship and subsequent ones before you retired?

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

A: Well, my first principalship was teaching principal. You see I had 5 teachers and I taught 6th grade and that was, I don't know what date.

Q: That's okay.

A: But then I came to Fauquier County as teaching principal at Catlett and the elementary school in Warrenton was principaled by the high school principal and the State Department told them they had to have an elementary major for elementary principal and I was the only elementary major in the County so I came to Warrenton. That's how it happened.

Q: When you first started as a principal and were then at High Street and on your way to Central, which is where you were before you retired, was your philosophy as a starting principal, or rather what was your philosophy as a starting principal and then if you can, note any changes as you gained experience and the population changed a little bit.

A: Do you mean what were my duties as a principal?

Q: What were your duties as well as how you felt about it when you were first an administrator.

A: Well, I never thought I took it seriously enough. When I would hear other people talk about their problems and what they were going through, I must be a joke. I always felt like my main job was to see what the teachers needed, find out what they needed and see that they got it. It wasn't my job to train them because they had already been trained. But find out what they had and wanted to work with was my business, to see that they had it.

Q: When you first became principal, was there a kindergarten program in the county yet?

A: No there wasn't.

Q: Is there any information you might have about how you felt as a principal when that program first began?

A: Well, that didn't begin until after I retired.

Q: What do you think, when you first became principal, were the teachers expectations of you as their principal? Was it, as you just stated, as far as getting them what they needed, and how did that change over the years?

A: Well, I don't know what they expected, but there were never any changes as I could see. I Just... My one thing that I wanted to get across to all the children, and I was a crank about, was worthy use of leisure time. I tried to introduce as many things as I could so that at least one or two could latch on to them. For instance, we always had a poetry book here each year. Those that wanted to contribute to the poetry book and write did stimulate interest in poetry and every Spring we'd have a flower sale and encouraged gardening for garden plantA:

Q: Is that still going on now?

A: Yes, and I can't think of anything nicer for leisure time than gardening. I'd give them, say a package of garden seeds, every year. Of course the upper grades could read the directions, but the third and fourth grades were not allowed to plant their seeds until they could read what was on the packages and so I tried to stimulate an interest in gardening and poetry and we always had a song festival and talent show. We, I know that that came too active little bands and let's see, we did something else. What did we, I don't remember what the other project was, but there was something else years ago. But I think that was one of the most important things - leisure timeA: The teachers would do reading, writing, and arithmetic and if a good teacher didn't get it children will learn in spite of a teacher. If they don't get a good teacher this year, I hoped they'd get a better one next year, so that never worried me.

Q: Mr. Miller, when you were principal - I'm curious about some of the things that happened involving the community as a whole. I know that integration of the schools took place in the middle of your principalship.

A: YeA:

Q: Either that issue or anything else that the community really got involved with you had to deal with as the guiding force in the schoolA:

A: Well, makes me think of a little incident we had. We had integration at our school long before integration integrated.

Q: Really.

A: A man came from Vint Hill and brought a white child, must have had colored blood in it if he was the daddy, but he looked like he was colored, but not. Anyway, I didn't raise the question until I took him to the classroom and when he took of his hat he was definitely a colored man. I use the word colored instead of black because all colored people are not black, and well anyway, when he took off his hat he was definitely a colored man. I didn't say anything. But oh, would the superintendent that we had at that time, he'd have raised cain. The child went on in the classroom. I had board with that teacher and her mother and that evening I went to supper, she said do you think we have integration-ha. But she didn't say anything, nothing was ever made of that.

Q: The parents of the other students never said anything?

A: Well, the little girl was, looked like she was white. You have seen colored people like that and... I never worried too much about integration because we had the only thing I worried about. We did have a family or two or white trash. I was worried about white trash but not too many because most of the people around here are real nice people. With nice children and we have a nice class of colored people, that never bothered me at all.

Q: Never had any of the racial incidents that the big cities had in that transition period?

A: No, we had one man - one time came - and his daughter had some trouble and of course it was the teacher's fault and he indicated it was because she was a colored girl and I said then "in this school people are people and color doesn't make any difference." "So you do show discrimination in this school. I know you do." (the parent said). So I pointed my finger at him and he said "you're pointing your finger at me." And I said "I certainly am! And if I hear of you ever saying that again you better go get yourself a lawyer and a damned good one, because I'll take you to court and make you prove it." That's the only incidence I every had - ha.

Q: Nipped it right in the bud, didn't you. As a principal was there any kind of an evaluation system of teachers and did you ever have cause to fire a teacher during your career?

A: No. I encouraged a teacher to resign. She didn't like teaching and she was a fine person. I liked her personally, but we had in our classroom doors a plain window glass and she broke an average of one a month slamming the door with her temper, you know. And she would swear she was going to stop and over Thanksgiving I remember, I told her to look for another job. Well, Thanksgiving came along and she came back so, well, her mother didn't think it was a good idea and that was that. I told her she really ought to do something else, she said "I know-I hate it. I don't like children and school." "Well," I of resignation and I said "Well you go get your things and go on home right now. We'll get a substitute teacher to cover your clasA: " But I never did consider that firing because she was a fine person, but she just wasn't a teacher.

Q: That's not too different from the way they do things now either. What was your biggest concern as a principal?

A: Lousy, Lousy.

Q: Did it have to do with the children, teachers, community?

A: I can't think of anything that really disturbed me.

Q: How about your biggest headache as principal?

A: Well, I can't think of any headacheA: I never remember one 66 school... to go. I always enjoyed after I got there-ha ha. You know you heard some people say "I just hate to go to work." But I never saw a day I didn't want to go to work. You see, I, elementary children are appreciative of everything and most elementary teachers are well fitted for their jobs, so most are one's I've ever seen. There was one time I had my doubts about one and that was a man in the fourth grade, but he turned out to one of the best fourth grade teachers I've seen. There was really... after that I think I just started and that time, I, we had a man in the first grade and you it worked out real good and the children seemed to like it, to have a man. I always tried to have at least two men in the primary section because the children appreciate it so much.

Q: What do you think about the merit pay system they're trying to get?

A: Well, I don't have any use for it, no indeed. I don't think you can minister fairly, and some people's judgment is so much different than otherA: My evaluation of teachers may be entirely different than someone elseA: I can think of one teacher, as a matter of fact, two, who really were not strong teachers but it was good to have them on the faculty. That might not make sense to you but it was real good to have those teachers on the faculty contributing so... wholes for the teachers and the children, yet they were not strong teachers themselveA: The deserved as much pay as anyone else.

Q: That's nice to hear someone who has been there say that because I happen to agree, but they are really trying to push that as ar well aware of.

A: Well, I think it's the people who don't know. I don't believe many teachers would approve of merit pay.

Q: Unfortunately, the teachers are not being asked as much of it is in the superintendent's position that are checking it out and thinking it is good, but some of the unions are fighting it. How about the standardized testing procedures? Now they use things like the Metropolitan, and quite a few others all the way to the A: A.T. Were they in effect as a beginning principal and how effective do you think they were then and now?

A: Well, I never thought much of them. I can't evaluate them, but never paid them much attention.

Q: They were not used as far as you were concerned for placement of the child for next year - things like that?

A: No.

Q: What do you think, after, well first of all, establish how long were you a principal, in total years?

A: 32 years teaching principal.

Q: What do you think is needed to be an effective principal as far as all the training programs they now have, such as the one I am in now in grad school? What do you think would be the best thing the school could offer people, teachers that now want to go into administration?

A: Lousy, Lousy. I just don't know to tell you the truth. I think a principal ought to like people and like children and understand that not all people are the same-ha, but I just wouldn't know.

Q: You're saying its really more things that can't be taught that has to be baseline for starting whatever additional training you might need.

A: YeA:

Q: Did you always have an assistant principal when you were principal?

A: No.

Q: Do you think it's necessary to have one? Or preferable?

A: Well, it's a lot easier if you have a good one, and fortunately I always had a good one. But, I knew of two schools where the principal was always annoyed because he thought the assistant principal was trying to do too much and take his job away from him, but I was always fortunate to have a good assistant and someone I wasn't afraid of-ha ha. Yes it is much easier to have an assistant. (unintelligible) I called him Long John Silver. He is in California now selling automobileA: But he was a real good assistant.

Q: Did you ever have any reason or situation where you were in a position of disagreement with the board or the superintendent?

A: Oh my goodness, yeA: That was over competitive athletics between schools which is not approved of by the State now. It wasn't approved of then but then the administration didn't know it. And we had two principals in the County who were very athletic minded and they wanted the schools to compete in athletics, which is against all elementary philosophy. And I wouldn't do it. And there was a dentist in town and several other parents who thought it was the thing to do and so it went before the school board and I just told them, the school board, they were ignorant, not in this word that what was required and what was desirable and, by that time they issued a booklet I think, anyway, the superintendent said we ought to do what the patrons wanted. I said, well now, I think these people know more about it than some half assed dentist. I knew he was one of the ones pressure but the day they had it before the board, I called the... the director of instruction. He was on my side and at that time MrA: Joella Bradley was director of elementary education in the State and Mr. Pearson had called her and asked her to come down. So she came down and set them straight. That's the only time I've ever had anything with (the board) but we did it. There used to be... Mr. Middleburg, he was paid by the JacksonA: He would get up outside programs for the different schools and one was a spelling match. Well, spelling matches weren't approved then, so we didn't participate and after spelling matches were over anyway, he got fired, ha ha. He called me once and asked why we didn't take part and I said because it's not recommended and, well there has matches, and I said spelling matches went out with high top shoes and the horse and buddies - we don't have spelling matches any more. And he blurted out something, and I said "You listen here, don't you talk to me like that and I just... ha. But that's the only two times I had trouble with the administration.

Q: When you were the principal at Central did you go up to the sixth grade or just K-3 like it is now.

A: No, it was from first to sixth, and then I moved from Central to Waterloo St., it was fourth - sixth.

Q: What was discipline in the school like and how did you discipline the children and did you ever have any complaints or support from the parents?

A: Well, our children were pretty good. They'd do little things you would expect them to do and you'd be disappointed if they didn't do, but our children were pretty good. You'd have a rotten apple now and then, but sometimes a teacher would bring a child and say I want you to spank him, and I put him across the chair I kept for that purpose. You know how thin the side of orange crates are, I kept 2 or 3 of those. I'd lay him across the chair and I would hit the leg of the chair and maybe just touch him. It would sound like he was being killed, murdered, you know and actually he wasn't being touched hardly. But there wasn't too much of that. Our children were pretty good. The patrons here are nice too.

Q: Do you think that we've lost, or that the administration has lost, the power of discipline in the schools in today's society compared to the past?

A: I really don't know.

Q: What caused you to retire when you did?

A: Well, I, let's see. I felt if I didn't retire I though I wouldn't enjoy retirementA: And if I didn't retire when I did, maybe I wouldn't have any time.

Q: How old were you when you retired?

A: 68.

Q: Have you had fun since you retired?

A: Oh yes, yeA:

Q: Did it work out the way you planned?

A: YeA:

Q: The last question. What have I not asked you that I should have, or is there anything else that you would like going down in history as far as principal, administration, anything having to do with public education you might want to add, now is your chance to throw it in.

A: No, the only thing is emphasize worthy use of leisure time and see how many ways you can stimulate interest in things to put into use in later life.

Q: Do you still feel that that is an important part that is missing or that it's not emphasized enough in education?

A: Yes, it is not emphasized enough.

Q: Well, I surely thank you for taking the time to talk with me and if there is anything else you might want to add. Were there ever any local articles done about you in your career?

A: No.

Q: Was that by choice?

A: No, It just never occurred.

Q: Well, again, thank you.

A: My view, you'd be surprised what impressions you can make on first and second grade children. As a teacher once was very much interested in nature study and I could go in the 6th grade and talk to... and I could pick out the children in that class who had that second grade teacher. Oft times I would ask them who had seen a bug during the day, and by the response of the children I would ask who was your second grade teacher and always it would be the same one. You see with the children, I remember a group of children, 3 or 4 here, and 2 or 3 along, they were following a chain of ants seeing where they were going and I asked who was your teacher and it was MA: ? (the same teacher). Once when I was on High St., a little boy was coming from another building, his shoe was untied and I said wait I'll tie your shoe. His sister later told me that I was one of his favorite people and reason was I tied his shoe. That really amused me. One time a teacher sent me this little boy with a note. He had brought a bee into the classroom in a paper bag. Needless to say the bee stung the child. There was a colony of bees at the top of the column on the porch. The boy had caught these bees from down there one day and took them into the classroom. I said "why did you take them bees into the classroom?" And he said, "I'll tell you why, I have some real friendly bees at home and I thought I'd take them home and put them with mine." I said, "how in the world did you get them in a paper bag without them stinging you?" And he told me, "that's real easy - you just watch real closely and grab the back of the wings and they can't sting you and I just put it in the bag." He didn't intend for anyone to get stung so I didn't get angry with him and as it happened I had a new book about bees and I said, "well, I have a book about bees and I'll bring it in tomorrow and you can take it home with you and read it and we can talk about it sometime." But that afternoon I talked to the teacher and she said, "I'll have you know we've already talked about bees -we are going to talk about birds tomorrow." I was quite annoyed with that teacher because that would make a real good, to me, experience chart for the children could write about but she didn't take advantage of it.

Q: She was more annoyed about the child hat got stung that how much they know about bees and how to pick them up. Were there special education classes in your schools when you were principal?

A: Yes, but I always felt that special ed children should be in the regular classroom. For instance, before we had special ed class, children were able to recognize a special ed child. There's one I can tell you about and there are others who fall in the same...her name was Martha and she wasn't a behavior problem, but children seemed to want to help her. Whenever Martha did something that was noticeable the children would all call attention to it - look was Martha did, look what Martha did. And I always felt like if we could have more of those type of children in the regular classroom they'd do better than they would in a special ed clasA: Of course, you'd have to have a teacher who was concerned teach Martha.

Q: We've kind of come full circle in that kind of thing where up until a few years ago the regular ed teachers were so used to sending out the kids to the special ed teacher that anytime a child blinked wrong, get them out and into a special ed classroom was heard. Now it's kind of procedure and policy of - let's wait a minute and let's try these thingA: Like you said, some teachers work better than others with that type and they need to be broken from the mold where any behavior or other learning problem is sent out of the classroom and learn how to accommodate them within the classroom - we've come a full circle with that.

A: Well, children don't mind having one or two of those in their class and they are quick to recognize.

Q: Unfortunately, sometimes it's their parents who, in another generation were used to segregation, have a harder time with integrating special ed and regular ed than the kids themselve, thanks, Mr. Miller.

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