Interview with Richard M. McElroy


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Q: I am pleased to have been a faculty member in your school and I'm also pleased to have been a friend of yours all of these years. We have a few questions here that I know you can answer very easily but we're very interested in your thoughts on these questions. They pertain to educational leadership. (1) The First one is a great deal of attention has been given today to the topic of personal leadership. Would you discuss your approach to leadership and describe some techniques which worked for you? While you were a totally successful principal did you ever try anything or any approach that failed?

A: You may have to remind me of the different parts of the question.

Q: I'll be glad to do that!

A: First of all I agree with the idea or the premise that there is a strong desire to have the principal and staff inter-relate personally because, in my judgement at least, this is a very people oriented business. It's very intense in the sense of people and the interaction of people and therefore it is a personal kind of thing. It requires the interaction of personalities. I think almost without saying that there are a lot of different things that you might consider and different techniques that you might use to enrich your way of processes and this kind of thing. But nonetheless, it's still a very personal kind of interaction at every level. Both with your principalship to the higher levels of administration and also to the principalship and the teaching staff and students and parents who are also involved.

What's the next part of that same question? Have I ever tried anything that didn't work?

Q: Well first would you like to share with us some techniques that you used in your principalship that were successful, very successful for you because I know there were many of them.

A: I think it's a matter of being conscience of the needs of other people. Almost sometimes to the exclusion of your own needs maybe. By that I mean I think you need to be aware of what they are going through, what they see happening on a personal level. It maybe something that relates specifically to the job, it maybe something that is happening at home. It may be something with one of their kids and, I think, you need to be sort of conscience of that start off by being very open to that kind of conversation. So that a staff member would feel free to say to you "I'm wondering about this or I have some concerns about that." Sometimes you have to find some secondary sources, you have to find that maybe one of the folks are having another kind of problem they don't want to share with you. But I think there are ways that you can go to them and say "I've heard", or some of your friends are concerned about or can I help. It's that kind of thing. I think also that when somebody accomplishes something and this could be a family accomplishment, it might be a child's success in dance, it might be a child's participating in sports, I think you have to be able to say to your staff and your parents, "I saw that I recognize you son John" whatever he did, you. I think you need to make it obvious to those people that you really do care about what the child has done, or what they have done, or what the family has accomplished, and that you're willing to put yourself out to acknowledge that. It may mean a note to them. It may mean a clipping out a newspaper to them. It may mean you make a phone call. It may mean that you walk down a hall. But it means that you, somehow or other, acknowledged the fact that they or theirs' have accomplished something that is important to them and certainly important to you too because you care about them. I think you really have to make an effort to do that, you can't just allow that to happen! The other thing, I think, you have to be cautious about is that you have to go with the flow in the sense that you have to know what is an acceptable way to do this with people. That is to say, you don't necessarily do something very positive for one person that in fact its going to end up hurting three or four others. You have to find some ways to do that quietly, you have to find some ways to not do that at that time until the circumstances change. I think you just have to be very careful that you don't hurt people in order to help people.

Q: I certainly agree with that and I do remember that that was a very positive technique and I appreciated that. Now could we take just a minute to take a look at something that you might have tried that didn't work.

A: Well I always try to erase those things from my mind and(ROSE ­ I THINK ALL PEOPLE DO) never do them again. I think there were probably some things that maybe I would react to in certain ways without having given some thought to them keep as a result and wish afterward that I had given a little bit more thought to it or that I had maybe reacted a little bit differently. I can remember one instance in particular where a new teacher by the way, and that sort of surprised me too, penalized part of a classroom during a Halloween party. I found her form of penalization to be so offensive to me that I sort of ranted and raved and went off the deep end. I was really upset with her and insisted that she do it my way right in the middle of all of this and in fact right in the middle of the Halloween party. I thought afterwards probably I would have been wiser had I waited until the thing was over, maybe the next week even, and then gone to her and said "Now let's sit down and look at this from the point of view of what's best for the kids, what's best for what you are trying to accomplish in a form of discipline or form of disciplinary action. Rather than making her conform to my way at that point. It did work out alright because we did ultimately resolve it. I think she did see how she could have improved it, but at the time I'm sure I gave her a bad weekend. There were probably some other things too! I tried, I think, to make the best of a circumstance even it at times it didn't seem to be the best. I also tried to rationalize or to develop explanations for some of the actions that you had to take, and I did that not because I tried to excuse what I did, but I did that because, I felt, that that was one way to treat the other people and in an adult way. That was a way to say to them‹whether we agree or not‹this is the reason this was done and in my judgement that was the right way to do it. That had to do with the assignment of students, for example. I think that sometimes people would get a little upset with how children were assigned to classes. But I think if you could say to them, "Well this is the reason it was done." Then even though they may not have agreed with that reason, at least, they knew you had thought about it and that you had a reason. I can bet with you, it's a fair way to do it. I spend a lot of time, you loose sleep over this kind of thing!

Q: You certainly do. I appreciate your thought on that question. I would like to move along to another question which is a totally different question, but is in some ways related to the first one. I would like you to describe the expectations, both professional and personal, that were placed upon principals by their employees and the community, during your period of employment. How did those expectations differ from today's situations?

A: That's also an interesting question.

Q: I tried to pick interesting questions.

A: I'll tell you truthfully, I find that much of that level of expectation depends of who the principal is. First of all, I guess, on who you are working for. That is to say what's the kind of person you have as a superintendent or what's your school board like. It also has to do with the mores of that specific community. For example, in our community, at the time that all began for me as principal, we had roughly 1800 boys and girls in K-6. We had six different school buildings. We had 67 odd teachers plus other peripheral staff and one principal. That was a little unrealistic I thought and I spent a good deal of time on the road. Now my perspective of that at that time was that that was unfair that the load. The expectations were unreal and that you obviously could not be in all places at all times for all people! On the other hand I've often thought back and said that there was some advantage in that- in that the time it took me to get from one school to another was peaceful time. I could be in the car, although I probably wasn't watching were I was going, at least I had the opportunity to collect my thoughts and plan on what I was going to do next and that kind of thing. So it's almost extemporaneous but on the other hand there might be something good to be said to be having a little bit of time.

Q: Reflective time is always very good.

A: since I was also active in the State Principals Association and had contact with a whole lot of other good principals from across the Commonwealth, I found that that there was a wide variety of organizational patterns all across the state. Some districts, really not much larger than ours, had you know, two, three, four sometimes five principals. Although I'd be amaze in all of that I could certainly see where they were able to do things and accomplish things and do things in a building that I would never even attempt to do because I was running around from one to another. We have a self-evaluation early in my career here in Grove City and a self-evaluation and then an evaluatory team that came in. The upshot of the teams visit was that we certainly needed to have more principals or and in fact their specific recommendation was that we would have a principal/supervisor and one or two assistants‹thinking that that would dissipate the workload and different principals per say would do different things have different responsibilities. Nothing ever came to that however but that was their thought.

As we reorganized however, it came to the point where we were able to restructure ourselves, close some of the old schools, build several new ones over the course of the years, and ultimately in the restructuring end up with two principals‹one for the primary grade and one for the intermediate grade. And in fact we called the two organizational patterns the Primary Center and the Intermediate Center. In that process then we were able to make especially the intermediate level school. We were able to make it almost like a middle school. We could really do some things for kids in the upper elementary grades. We could really do some nice things with them, give them some opportunities for leadership, give them opportunities for self-government and things that you don't ordinarily find in the elementary schools. But that we could do that because of the way we were structured.

Q: All of those grades then were in one building.

A: Yes, they were all in one building. What was some of the other questions?

Q: I would like to point out that the second principal came very late in your career. I remember that you had many years to survive without any additional help.

A: Now, one of the parts of the question, I think that's interesting, is how you got along with other people that you had to work with. My experience with that is that so much of it was dependent on the kind of leadership style of, specifically, the Superintendent of Schools. If you had a Superintendent who believed in management by cooperation, then you had a lot of meetings and everybody knew what everyone else had was doing. You sort of in a sense got supported by one another, by the other principals. You sort of knew what was going on in the secondary schools and they knew what you were doing. The Superintendent had a feel for the whole operation. On the other hand, we had a Superintendent who didn't communicate at all. You never knew what he was doing and he never knew what you were doing. In fact, some people in the community complained that I ran my own little kingdom. In fact, that was true! You ended up being completely independent-other than obvious things, such as budget and complying with the rules and regulations of the district. That kind of thing.

Q: So in fact you were one of the forerunner on-site-based management.

A: That's an interesting term.

Q: An innovative leader. As you moved through the different superintendents, did you feel that each one of them had unique leadership styles? I know that you served under numerous Superintendents. I've forgotten how many but there were quite a few.

A: I have too. Oh yeah, each one did and I use to be amazed to some degree as to how some folks, men usually, would even really end up being superintendents. Why they chose to do that when in fact when they were almost uncomfortable with it. But yeah, you had all kinds of different styles. We had one superintendent who had been a superintendent, was a superintendent here, and left here to be another superintendent. He seemed to well recognized as a legitimate superintendent. Yet, if [you] would walk into his office and look at his desk you could hardly see him for papers. You would wonder if there was no filing system. Yet he knew where everything was in that pile someplace. I never quite saw anything like this before nor since. We've had other superintendents who were very outgoing very public relations oriented. In fact they saw their jobs as being publicly oriented. Others are very private, individual personalized kind of people, and that's the way they functioned. Others were believers that their job was to deal with the Board. Whatever the Board wanted ­ or whatever directions were given they in turn responded to that. But to really be a leader in a sense of establishing some objectives or following through some goals, they were not very successful in that. So I can think you see all kinds of superintendents. I've also seen the benevolent dictator kind, you know that he believes he knew what was best for the system. He proceeded to operate that way. A lot of people look back on that time as a very positive growing time, a time when the budget was increased, teachers were hired, the school system was growing. I suppose as long as your benevolent dictator is one that has that kind of outlook everybody is happy.

Q: Yes, there were people who felt positively about that leadership. Let's move on a little bit to curriculum. Please reflect upon the way curriculum was during the time you were principal and compare it to the situation in today's school. It may seem like a very unusual question to ask someone who has recently retired from the principalship. However, your School District has perhaps made a drastic change in some respects!

A: When I first started off teaching I started off when the old state handbook for curriculum 233B, when that was really in existence and most school systems whether they liked it or not were obliged to participate in this. To at least be able to say that what they were doing curriculum wise was related somehow to the state guidelines 233B. I lived through the experience of seeing school districts be so structured that, and I can remember a town not to far from Grove City that on any given day you could walk in any sixth grade classroom in any one of the half dozen different schools that they would find every sixth grade teacher on the same page in the same text. Little unusual and I've even heard people say that was good and they would like to go back to that. Obviously, what it does is that it takes away any of the specific inherent skills and interests that good teachers have. You loose that; you loose the benefit of that kind of thing.

On the other hand, ever since I can say that I had been a principal we had always incorporated staff members as part of the team for curriculum selection, whatever that happened to be. And we, I won't say we were always out in front, but I would also say we were never far behind. What is that old saying " Be not the first to try to the new or yet to last to cast the old aside." That's sort of where we were. I can remember contemporary mathematics, modern math it was referred to. Probably modern math had been really operational in a lot of schools for a year or two before we really jumped in on that. But when we did we did what we thought was the right thing. We had parent conferences, we had instructional classes for parents, we had lots of inservice for staff members. Because we saw that as being something uniquely different. We really was to do the best job we could, you know, to prepare everybody in the community for it and I would say it worked out very well.

I think that your always going to see the cycling round of different things. I've often thought about that, I'm reminded of it when I see on television today, I'm hooked on phonics, let's learn to read because I'm hooked using the program I'm hooked on phonics. I can remember a day when that was the thing to do. You taught children to read phonetically. We had a strong phonetic program and for some children that worked very well and for other children it didn't work at all! We produced, which impressed parents by the way, I might add, it produced "word callers". We had children in first grade that were so adept at calling words, they could read the newspaper. We had a lot of parents in town that were very much impressed with that. They couldn't do much else but they could certainly "call words" and they could sound them out and all this kind of thing. But I guess, as I say, that you see curriculum cycling through and in essence you go with that. I would not necessarily say that it's good to be the first on the other hand I would say that it's good to be someplace close to that, if in fact you think what you see happening is happening well. We were, for example, one of six school districts in the Commonwealth to put in computer aided instruction in math and reading. We were one of the six in the Commonwealth. We did that. We hooked up by telephone line to a mainframe at Slippery Rock University; program materials had been developed in Wisconsin and Minnesota. We had everybody here from the State Department at different times to come and watch the kids work on computers. Very interesting and I think at that time and I have thought since that we were in the forefront, we were forerunners I guess. We were one of the first schools around to be able to take advantage of Federal Programming to have guidance counselors in the elementary schools. I know that's not a direct curriculum thing, but it was an important thing for us at that point. I always regretted that we weren't able to maintain some of those things. But, the fact is that at least we were up front and trying to implement them, to study them, and to give other school districts in the Commonwealth an opportunity to see how those things work, if in fact they are valuable for use at other schools. So, yeah we did a lot of things and as I compare those things with what is happening today, I guess it's fair to say that much of it that is was. Much of what we do now is what has at some point in time been done. We call it a little different name and we may approach it differently to some degree, but certainly there is some relationship between those things.

Even if that were not so, I'm still faced with the realization that the implementation of all of this still rests in the hands of the "gifted" teacher. You can buy the best textbook, I mean your social studies material can be the very best and kids will learn it only if in fact you have a really good teacher teaching. You can't just give them the materials or you can't just give materials to the teacher and say "OK go to it, do it, it has to be done." Just like old 233B, it didn't work then and it won't work now. I don't think it should.
I really think you should hire for a school district the very best teachers you can hire and those teachers ought to all bring in some kind of special skill. Whatever that is, it comes from their having lived for 25 years or so. They ought to be able to do something that nobody else can do and do it better! I'd love to watch them, that to me is the most fascinating thing that there is. If we're all gonna do it the same way, if we're all gonna go down life road in lock step then it is not going to fly, nothing changes. So I guess the key to the whole thing is having good material, having a good curriculum, having things well planned, have thing organized that you think you want to teach and I think that it [is] the basis for curriculum. What is it that kids need to know and then give some materials to the teachers and expect them to do a good job. And if they can't do it then ask them, to leave and go someplace else and teach! Because really when it comes right down to it that's the key. You decide in your curriculum what it is you think the kids need to know and then expect that to be taught.

Q: I certainly do agree with you. Do you have any thoughts about aspects of the current situation, positive or negative.

A: Sure, I think the biggest amount of value comes from the fact that there is a conscious awareness and conscious effort to do something about that, to study curriculum, to be alert to what needs to be in the way of curriculum. I think that's the biggest advantage. I think if we all feel as though we're gonna study something this year and implement it next year and it's gonna last forever and ever and ever and it's gonna do the job we want, it's gonna teach every child to do whatever, then I think we live in a fantasy. It will not happen. So I guess what I feel and I've always felt this that in a way it's almost lock step but in another sense it's like every four or five years were gonna study math, every four or five years were gonna study reading, every four or five years were gonna study spelling or whatever it is. I think the reason that you do that is that everybody on your staff, everybody in the community needs to be alert to the fact that we may not change the world but at least we're looking at it. At least we're making an effort to keep ourselves up to date, that we're making an effort to provide the very best education we can for the kids in our community. An I think that's the key to the thing. It's pretty hard to imagine that we would still be using solid geometry book in the high school that I had solid geometry from in my high school. That's hard to visualize because solid geometry has changed. It's hard to imagine that we would still be teaching- some kind of theory form physics today-as we taught it back when I was in high school, I think in good conscience we have to [be] aware of those changes. So, to answer your question more directly. I think value comes in studying it. Do I think it is going to change world? No, I don't! Do I think that we will be changing again in another five years or then years? Yes, I think we will. Will it be something we may have tried before? Yes, it could very well be. Or, it might be something that somebody comes up with that's new. That happens too. It's hard‹I've lived through several and you have too‹several of these long-term projections. It used to be that we projected for 10 years. Everybody had to have a 10 year plan. Well, that was usually obsolete after the first year. After a few of these, everybody began to realize that was [a] little bit ridiculous, maybe we ought to go with a five year plan. So now we have a five-year plan and those also change within a year. Because you can't lock yourself into something that you cannot always anticipate.

I think, it would be nice to say that everyone will have a computer. Every desktop will have a computer and have access to all kinds of programs. But that won't happen until they are much cheaper than they are now. Secondly, until they can be operated like television. One of the advantages of television, one of the things that fascinates kids is that they can operate them easily. When that comes with other kinds of equipment‹like computers‹we'll see more of those around. Are they going to answer all the problems? No! It's just like saying hat because kids watch television, that's what kids become. It may have some impact on them, we may not know how much. But it does have some impact. I think that's the way with curriculum.

I'm always fascinated by spelling. We have never learned to teach spelling.

Q: I have noticed that we continue to have well educated people who can't spell.

A: That's right. Ever week we have 20 or 25 words or whatever the list happens to be. Well we were talking about spelling, so just let me give you a little hint on a think is a classic example of most curriculum area. What we do today in spelling is essentially what was done a hundred years ago. You have a word list, on Monday you do such and such a thing, you and have a pretest, on Tuesday you do such a thing, on Wednesday you do such a thing on Thursday you do something else and on Friday you have a test. And that's the way it's been for a hundred years. If you are a good speller then you are a good speller, if you are not a good speller, and I'm not, then you hire a good secretary. It used to fascinate me. I'll tell you about our two oldest kids. One was one year older than the other, one started in a school kindergarten, first grade, second grade. The next one started the next year same kindergarten, same first grade teacher, same second grade teacher. The oldest one is a boy and he can spell anything, anytime, somehow. The second one was a girl and she has gone on to school everything, cannot spell her name most of the time. In fact I used to be fascinated. She went to school out in Indiana. She would write home to her mother. Phonetically, you had to sound out the word because they were so badly messed up as normal spelling was concerned. An I used to think, why is that so? Both had the same mother and dad, both had the same teachers, both lived in the same house, both had the same opportunities, one could spell and one couldn't. Why?

Q: Did you ever decided upon an answer to that question.

A: No, I decided that we don't teach spelling somehow or other. I don't know how we could;, I don't know how it's done. But I'll tell you this, if you ever find out how, let me know and we'll both be rich.

Q: Before we end this conversation today, I'd like to give you an opportunity to share, with the people who will be listening to this tape, any thoughts on the educational process, past, present or for the future.

A: Now, that is a good question. I guess my first reaction is and maybe chronologically is the way to go. I guess my first reaction is that education in the past was, in my judgement, at least for the majority of the people were pretty effective, because it's obviously help this world of ours reach the level it has reached. It obviously helped me and it's helped you and it it helps so many people I think. I know there are other reasons for that I know there are other personal desires and personal responsibilities and actions and reactions but the fact it that much of that is based on education. The fact that you've learned something somehow, that is applicable to living, I think that's the key to education.
The second aspect of this is as it is now I think education has reached a stage that has become in a sense almost overwhelming for a lot of people. First of all it's gotten so large, it's gotten massive, and that's because the population has gotten so large. Heaven's sake, look at the number of cars in the school parking lot on any given Friday afternoon. I think that it's just gotten so big that that we've we've done our best to control it, we've done our best to monitor, but somehow or other we're a bit offended by the fact that it's as big as it is and we don't know what to do about that and I guess I don't know what to do about that either! I do think however that the people who are involved in education specifically really and most of them I think do, feel the responsibility for doing the best they can under the circumstances. I have a feeling for example that when people begin to talk about an ongoing recession, that we're gonna have to pull back our horns. The industry has to be careful about what they do and what they don't do. I think back on the fact that education has always been that way. We sometimes critize it for spending money but in fact people really have gotten a lot for a little. And so, I think they should be pretty well gratified by what services they have gotten.

The future's something else again. I've never had much success with the futuristic. I guess it's fair to say that in the long run, what we are gonna see is very little change. I think what's gonna happen will be much the same as what has happened! I think in my lifetime and yours and others that we'll see things go along pretty much the way they are. They'll be some buildings built, but they won't be too much different. We'll still have classes organized but it won't be a whole lot different. We'll still have textbooks, but they won't be a whole lot different. We'll still use pencils, we'll still use ballpoint pens, that will be different for me. I think in essence that, and not because I am a believer in things that take so to make changes in education, but I just think it takes so long to make changes in everything. If it takes time and especially when some of what you've done has worked, you don't want to throw out the baby with the bath water kind of thing. And I think most people would acknowledge that. I don't want to go to the time when you have to dump the water out of the ice box every other day that's not good. But on the other hand I don't know if that there's a substitute to somehow or other generating cold to protect the food. I guess what I'm saying is I don't see an upheaval, I don't see an overthrow of what we have come to know in public school. I think they'll go on hopefully improving themselves, hopefully looking at curriculum, hopefully improving staff. But not much different.

Q: Thank you thank you, very much for sharing your thoughts on educational leadership with all the people who will review this tape. Thank you very much.

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