Interview with Roger Nelson


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

Q: To begin with, could you tell us something about your family background - your childhood, your interests and development - things of that nature?

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

A: I was born in Kernersville, which is only twelve miles from here. One of ten children, five boys and five girls, I was number six. As you can see, I grew up in a classroom. The school was across the baseball field. At an early age, we had lots to do around school. At the same time, in my family, we did not know any member who was considering going to college or any relative who had ever been. You could see in my youth, college was not in our plans and that was true through school. The family was close knit. Education was important, but not a plan of anyone in the family.

Q: As for your college education, you said college was not in the plans, so to speak. What did you do to prepare to enter the field of teaching? What led you to this area? Did you have a military background?

A: Let me say, that military was important and lots of my philosophy was developed while I was in school and growing up. Ideas that would come to surface, later when I became a principal, were embedded early. For instance, in my school, as I went to school, it was a very class conscience school. We all knew that but that was the order of the day. Those who would go to college, would go to college, and those who would not, would not. I was one of those who was not destined to go. So, my high school career, I floated through that and did very little because no one expected me to and no one had me take the courses that I probably should have taken because I did not plan to go to college and no one in the town expected you to go to college. After high school, I kind of moved around, job to job, mainly as a carpenter, for another year and a half. Then suddenly, the Korean war was upon us and kids were leaving the town as draftees and so I knew my time was coming so I joined the draft and went into the Marine Corps for two years. In the Marine Corps, I developed a sense of direction; a sense of what I would like to do. I would like to get involved and the idea of going to college surfaced there and so after the Marine Corps, then I came home to go to college. By then, I had two brothers already in college, who decided to go to college while I was away. I came home and went over to Guilford College and thought, "Well, maybe I can't make it at this college," and I left and went to a place, High Point College. I happened to show up on registration day. I walked up the step and happened to see a person I knew and I asked him what was going on and he said, "We are registering." I said, "Well, I think I'll do that." So, he took me down and I registered that day without having any idea about what High Point College was about or anything else. But, it was a college and so I went to college.

Q: Basically, can you discuss any other experiences or events in your life that constituted important decision point about your career? How did you feel about it at that time? Did you have in mind where you wanted to wind up at?

A: My plan after college was to be a teacher and a coach. To coach baseball, that was my ambition. I had been quite a good baseball player, I loved basketball but could never make the team and I was kind of outstanding in football but I hated it. But none the less, I wanted to coach baseball and that was the means to the end, to get a college education.

Q: Would you talk about the circumstances surrounding your entry into the principalship?

A: When I became a teacher, early on, certain people took me under their wing, more or less. I happened to run into outstanding educators who gave me opportunities, or jobs as I saw them then, but really they were opportunities. Early on, I was put in charge of many of the things that needed to happen at school, like Southern Association, the fund raising, the school beautification. All of those committees, within three years, I was the chair or played an important role on. So, early on I was involved in administrative kinds of things and I enjoyed them immensely, but it still had not dawned on me that I might some day be the principal. It was just that there were jobs that needed to be done and I was the one doing them.

Q: What motivated you to enter the principalship? How did you motives change over the years?

A: After coaching for twelve years and teaching and enjoying it immensely, there came a time that finances seemed to be a greater problem than I had expected. Also, the prodding of various educators to join with them in their field because they thought that I would be of some value in terms of the total program in the school system. They also reminded me that if you wait too late that it would be more difficult to move to administration than if you do it kind of mid-career or earlier career. So with that, then I made application but it was kind of predetermined that I would become an administrator.

Q: What experiences or events in your professional life has influenced your management philosophy? Can you share those with us?

A: My management philosophy in working in schools and in working with teachers was exactly the same philosophy that I used as a coach. The idea being that everyone can contribute, that everyone is unique and has unique contributions sometimes better than anyone else, and from that you get the team concept. On the team everybody will furnish something in their strength and we cover up their weakness. In management style, we do exactly the same thing to develop everybody's strengths and hide their weaknesses in terms of the goal.

Q: Would you describe your personal philosophy of education? How did it evolve over the years?

A: My personal philosophy of education, as I mentioned earlier, began at an early age. For instance, I grew up in a community that was extremely class conscience, in terms of who would do what. We were also an integrated community, in my neighborhood, and in those days we referred to one another. I grew up with colored boys next door; white boys and colored boys played baseball; we hunted together; we fished together. From those experiences, I had some idea as to what I would like to see the school be. What I wanted the school to be was absent of class, absent of discrimination, that all students would be challenged to reach any goal that we could offer. All students, we would not make distinctions neither would be prod students in any direction other than the best education that we could give them.

Q: A great deal of attention has been given to the topic of personal leadership. Could you discuss for us your approach to leadership and describe the techniques that worked for you? Is there one particular incident that was successful or one that failed?

A: One of my weaknesses, as I see it or saw it, I had difficulty with large groups in getting points across. Most of the time I dealt with small groups and individuals. But what you saw in my leadership style was an inner circle of five or six people. Those five or six functioned much like a leadership team, all the years I was a principal, that is we did nothing without concurrence, or at least discussing, among those five people. Then I had an outer circle of about twelve people, who were most of the time department chair, etc., who we met with on occasion but not necessarily were in on the action as to which direction the school was going to go. Most of it was what part they would play. And yes, my leadership style depended, much like I coached, to pat some on the back and kick some in the pants. I had more success with kicks in the pants than with pats on the back because sometimes they thought they could do more than they could and that would lead to problems. Yes, I had some failures with that approach.

Q: That is very interesting because I remember interviewing several teachers and talking to them about that and that is the exact style that they described about you with this inner circle and the effectiveness and it was very interesting.

A: The inner circle caused some problems with teachers who were not the inner circle. But you must understand what I am saying about team concept. Your contribution to the team depended upon what you could offer. In my estimation, your contribution, it can be great in terms of the school itself but not necessarily in all areas. Therefore, you may be left out of lots of decisions that I did not see that you could make a contribution. It is not in your realm, you are not expert enough at it and that sort of thing. Yes, that's right.

Q: 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: Many teachers expect immediate gratification on anything that comes their way. But, I am not certain that over the long haul they really believe that. They expect the principal to be someone they can go to for information. They expect the principal to be in command. They expect the principal to be aware and they expect the principal to know something about what they are doing. To be effective the principal has to have a good knowledge of the subject, which is extremely difficult in all areas in high school, and a great deal of human relations. They need to be able to see the "big picture". They need to be able to work on goals without being hung up on lesser objectives along the way. It stalls many principals in to, they work their self to death and get nothing done.

Q: Speaking of vision and goals, there is some argument that, more often the central office policies hinder, rather than help, the building level administrators in carrying out their responsibilities, their vision, so to speak. Would you give your views on this issue. If you were king, what would you do to make the typical system-wide organizational arrangements as to ways of improving the administrative efficiency or effectiveness of carrying out your responsibilities or your vision?

A: Having served on the Guilford County policy committee in excess of ten years, and this policy committee contained board members, principals, teachers, and lay people, I better understood the role of the county office or central office better than most principals probably. Certainly, central offices have a great role to play, particularly when it comes to finance, when it comes to legal situations that deal with health or safety, employment, etc. On the other hand, if I were king, I would certainly leave such things as hiring teachers to the local schools. In other words, how can you build your team if you can't even hire your teachers. Most regulations going to schools would simply be guidelines, guidelines on hiring teachers; guidelines on discipline of students; guidelines on operations and that would be it. Simply goals and leave each school to its own devices. One of the reasons, and I am ashamed to say, that we have such directives, such regulations coming from the county office or central office, is that we have many principals who can not survive without them. They are like many teachers, they like for it to be the principal's rule. Then they can say to the students, "It is the principal's rule, you can not do that." Many principals are exactly the same way, it is the superintendent's rule, you can not do that. It seriously affects the way schools operate and certainly limits them in what they can accomplish.

Q: So you are saying, basically, that there are some people that like to be directed.

A: Most principals, most teachers, want daily directives. They want it in writing. Most principals are exactly the same way. They can not survive without it. They do not have the confidence to survive without it.

Q: There are those who argue that the principal should be an instructional leader, and those that suggest that, realistically speaking, this person must be, above all, a good manager. Would you give your views on this issue and your own style? I guess we are looking at the contrast between an instructional leader and manager. That seems to be the center piece of it.

A: Certainly, the principal should be an instructional leader to the degree humanly possible and certainly the intellect plays a great deal of that, also interest plays a great deal. My attraction to administration had much to do with in being the instructional leader. When I look back over my career, almost from the start, I instituted a number of instructional kinds of strategies to see if they would work or to bring them in from other places. That is what I really like to do. On the other hand, as the school grows, for instance, if you are in a small elementary school, you can be the instructional leader every minute of every day just about. But, when you get into high school it is a little different. You would like to be the instructional leader and do as much as you can, but then you can either move away from that or you can do like I did and have a circle or group and all of you become instructional leaders and managers to help deal with the size of the situation.

Q: Which one of these - instructional leader or management - do you think you were best prepared for in terms of your teacher preparation for the management?

A: In so far as my teacher preparation, I was prepared to be an instructional leader. In so far as my work and activities and so forth, I had to be self prepared to be a management leader.

Q: So, you basically have to have a blending of both.

A: Oh, yes and I think it changes from elementary to the high school dramatically.

Q: Dramatically, I am experienced and I feel that. Would you describe your approach to teacher evaluation and give us your philosophy of the evaluation process? Do you agree with the present method that we use right here in Guilford County according to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction that is handed down to us?

A: Let me speak to the second question first. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction evaluation instrument purely and simply it is an instrument to remove teachers, it's a dismissal instrument. The reason I say that is if you get perfect, you don't get another dollars raise. You get nothing for being perfect. You can only go down hill. So, I think in using it as an evaluation instrument, it is only an evaluation instrument in terms of finding fault because nothing else matters. You can only be dismissed with an evaluation instrument. Now if I had my way and most people I worked with would tell you, the evaluation instrument, as I would use it, would institute merit pay, immediately, to the degree that it would make a difference. And, I have mentioned figures, like certain teachers need at least 30 or 40% more than other teachers. The reason being, they are worth that much more. We can see it in the product they produce; we can see it in test scores; the students would vouch for it and a number of other measures. Now with that it is obvious, that if you were a good teacher, I simply patted you on the back and asked you what you would like to have. If you were a poor teacher, I would use it. That's the way I saw it.

Q: What should be the role of the Assistant Principal? Discuss how you utilized such person while on the job. Of course, describe the most effective assistant principal with whom you had an opportunity to serve? What became of this individual? Is he still here with me?

A: As we eluded to, the job at the high school tends to be, or as I did it, not a principal and an assistant principal, it was a sharing of responsibilities and duties. That is to say, I took some things, although I was responsible for everything, when I gave you an area of responsibility that person knows that it is theirs. I never bothered or tried to change things, even though we discussed things at times. So, in the high school situation, I saw it as the best way to get the most out of the team again, we had a team and we divided all these things we were suppose to do and we could accomplish so much more. What would I assign to each member of the team? That which I thought you could make the greatest contribution, whether you liked it or not. I think if you talk to teachers in this school, they will tell you the same thing. I didn't like the course I taught and I wanted to do something else but he kept telling me this is what I do best. I do the same thing with assistant principals, with counselors, coaches. From that you can see the division of duties, that one assistant principal became the dean of students. He was not an assistant principal, he was the dean of students and I referred to him as that. The other assistant principals I referred to as administrative assistants, curriculum assistants or whatever. So you can see that sharing of duties entirely within the school itself and that is the way I operate.

Q: As a follow-up question, why do you think certain assistant principal remain in that job for a long period of time and basically, retire out of the assistant principalship and do not move up into the principalship?

A: I think many people who become assistant principals, the truth of the matter is, for some that is their calling. That is what they really do well, they would not make good principals. People recognize them as outstanding assistant principals. In fact, their pay should reflect that, I think. Others get in the assistant principal, they're not good assistant principals, that stands out and people understand it, know it and they do not get promoted, they just stay assistant principals. For the most part, as I have observed it over the years, certainly some people not quick as you would expect, because of various things going on in education that you have no control over, those who can function as principal, for the most part, they make it. Not necessarily sooner but some time. I think a fallacy of the way the central office works is that they do not go to people who want to be principal and point blank tell them, "In our estimation, you would not be a good principal or you are not the kind of principal we want in this system, therefore, do not expect to be a principal in this system." If more of them would do that, then they would move on to other systems and may be just exactly what the next system is looking for. I've seen that happen lots of times.

Q: So you think there are leadership characteristics that are demonstrated in the vice principal and the principal and that the leadership characteristics are different between these two jobs.

A: Oh, yes, yes. I was on a committee, at another point in my career, and we studied for at least three years, all over this state and many other states, the idea that we would move away from assistant principals to administrative interns as those who were planning to be principals. But, not take a good assistant principal who is doing a great job daily and put him off in a school where his contribution can not be nearly as great as it is in what he is doing. We see that too many times.

Q: Given the presence of the administrative complexity, if there were three areas of administration that you could change in order to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of educational administration, what would they be?

A: Well, what I would do, if permitted with what I had planned to do and submitted a plan for some four or five years ago, I would only have one assistant principal who would be the person who would be an administrative assistant who would be the person being trained to be a principal. All others, including counselors, would be converted to deans of students and function as deans of students. I would like to have seen that go into effect. I have seen it work in other places and there are so many advantages to it. If you look and see what we are doing in North Carolina, nothing has changed in fifty years. It's almost the same, I do not know of any change at the state level and the way they have used schools in forty years, at least. And so, the idea that the assistant principal is going to be a principal is ingrained somewhere but it is not necessarily the best way to be a school. For instance, in my case, I became an assistant principal for one year but that was just to do my tenure because it was already decided that I was going to be the principal. I had learned nothing from being the assistant principal. I could already do that. What I needed to do was some other kinds of things at the county level, etc. to understand that better rather than do what I already knew how to do. I think there are others who run into that, the assistant principal going through the motions but not really learning anything. I think I was one of those, there is really no doubt about it.

Q: Would you describe your relationship with the Superintendent, in view of the fact that we just recently got a Superintendent in our system, but in terms of his general demeanor toward you and your school?

A: Well, I dealt with several superintendents and all of them were unique. I worked with two truly great ones; I worked with three or four who were just passing through. I always had a good relationship with the superintendent because I understood, and I think early on, that many superintendents have good ideas. Ideas about what they would like to do, but they are the pawns of school boards and pressure groups to the degree that many times, they are not what they would like to be. They are doing what they have to do to keep their job. So, once you understand that, then as a principal, you can begin to not be torn too much when things don't go your way in dealing with him. You begin to understand what their problems are. In fact, this superintendent sees changing too. I think the most dramatic change is in Guilford County now. But, it's not just Guilford County, it's a national trend. We have seen industry go toward leaner, meaner kinds of leadership, increase production and cut cost and now we see superintendents, particularly in the bigger systems, they are coming in preaching the same gospel as they do in business. They are not really good educational leaders, for the most part, but they are dynamic and they are what the public wants. You always have to remember, that the public owns the schools.

Q: Cultural diversity is a topic of great interest and concern at this point in time. Presently, the school you retired from has less than 1% minorities. I believe the statistics are 1300 white and approximately 57 black. Would you discuss the nature of your student body and comment on the problems, challenges and triumphs in which you participated while serving as principal?

A: My last student body is the one you are speaking of. You must remember, I go back twenty years and I have seen lots of student bodies and I have seen lots of percentage of minorities, or at least I think I was here the first year the school opened and we opened with about, well, we opened 100% white. In integration in '65 or '66, we went to about 18% minority and then that number has gone up at times and it has gone down. Certainly it has always been, they are minorities and they are minorities in this particular school. But, I think in dealing with this school, we have to understand they are also minorities in their neighborhood, too. They are not bussed out here, they live out here. They are accustomed to the white kids up the street, and white kids across the road, etc. Over the years, I have been proud of the minorities in this school, not that we had that many good students. We have had some good students but not that many outstanding, scholarly students in the minorities, but a lot us here, the fourteen years we had two presidents of the student body and several of them were outstanding. For the most part, minorities in the school are exactly as they function in their communities. The one thing that was not to my best like was the very thing that many of the more outspoken minorities, not outspoken but the ones who talk to you on occasion, was it was all well and good but socially there is trouble here. We only have so many, if my preferences of black gender; we only have so many, the choices are so slim that I don't really get to meet anybody. Where as, the whites have hundreds and hundreds and they can meet new people daily. But, that's not true of the minorities here, the numbers are so small, they all know one another any way. In terms of their education though, I think that most of them do as well as they could anywhere else. I never really heard that complaint. Sometimes a complaint, "Well, if we just had some other people to talk to it certainly be more comforting."

Q: Socialization.

A: Yes.

Q: Do you think the school achievement profile would have been different?

A: Let me tell you what I think about the school achievement profile, in terms of minorities. I have looked at many studies about minorities, how well they do, test, and this sort of thing, but the truth of the matter is, almost the bottom line, is economics. Economics. For instance, my first school, an elementary school, was about 88% white. We had the lowest test scores in the school system. We also had the lowest per capita income and the highest percentage on free lunch. I have looked at several studies over the years and I think that is much more of an indicator than of what is happening in the school than whether they are minorities or not. I certainly, I know that some people that dealt with that and there may be some certain cultural differences but very little effect. The major effect is, in a minority group that is economically well off as a white group tend to do pretty close to the same, particularly if they are second generation economically well off, not necessarily first.

Q: So, you feel that middle class curriculum is alive and well functioning as a major force in the development of the child.

A: Oh, yes. Yes.

Q: Would you tell us or discuss with us your participation in Civil Rights? We talked about integration and how you dealt with that.

A: I had the fortune, as I have already said, I grew up in an integrated neighborhood, some of my friends were minorities. We played together, when I graduated from school and went into work, at least half the people in my work force were minorities and so I had some idea of some relationship with minorities. It probably was helpful later on because when I came to Northwest Senior High, I had been here two years, and the principal came back from a meeting at the County and he said to me, he said, "Coach, we've got to get ready. Year after next, we're going to integrate the high schools all over this county." I said, "Well, I know there is a problem." Now mind you here, there were token minorities in almost every school already. He said, "Well, what do you think about Laughlin, they only have like 87 or 90 students and they are going to come year after next, who do you think would go over there and talk to them?" I said, "I'm for that cause they have got one good basketball player over there." This actually happened! We got in the car, the year before integration was started, and we went over and the principal called all the students in the high school to the gym. I'll never forget the day. He stood down there and talked to them a little bit and I stood down there and talked to them a little bit and finally we just said, "You know, year after next, you have to come to Northwest. We want you to come now. The door is open and we have plenty of room." All these kids from Colfax, and you have to understand we had just consolidated from small schools, Colfax and Summerfield, so they were all new and had only been here two years. "What would you like to do?" and they held up their hands and they said, "Well, that's it." Now from that, I don't know what happened, but yes, we integrated the school one year earlier.

Q: Was there a parent reaction?

A: No! There was no reaction because it was all over the papers and we already had.

Q: I mean your doing this one year in advance of the deadline?

A: No. We didn't hear anything. I have more stories like that. Lots of what we hear, we read in the paper and we shutter. But in reality there are many things that go on that are not, well they are noteworthy, but they are not something everyone got excited about. So, they came over and so the next year when we played basketball, unfortunately their best players, not all of them, but their best players had graduated the year before but still had a couple of good ones and we went through the school through our schedule playing, we had two minorities on our team. One of them was the best one and the best representative we could ever get. He led our team and he was just an outstanding young man, Jerry Daniels. He graduated and went to Howard University and we can credit him with much of the success of that first year. That brought some problems and certainly there were problems in terms of not so much people being upset but what to do about many things. What are we going to do about the cheerleaders? I mean the athletics will take care of itself but what are we going to do about the cheerleaders? What are we going to do about student council? That sort of thing but any how, we kind of worked through that and things went pretty well.

Q: Describe any incidents or involvement or busing situations for us.

A: Having been at Northwest Guilford High School during integration that first year and then a succeeding year or two, Guilford County became integrated but no school was over about 25% minority. We were playing athletics against each other and all of us had a proportion of minorities on every team. The cities of Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem had not integrated. Any how, I decided at some point that more integration is going to come, therefore, why not play traditionally black schools. So, Northwest, so far as we can tell, played the first traditionally black school with a traditionally white school in basketball in this area, maybe in this state. We played William Penn, which was a totally 100% black school in High Point, just for the experience for our black kids because I kind of felt responsible for them still and it turned out well. Then the next year, I left Northwest Guilford and took the job at High Point Central as a teacher and coach and of all things it was their first year of integration. So what an experience, because it was forced integration, minorities didn't want to come. It was quite a bad experience for most people not necessarily for me because I was still the basketball coach. They had remembered that I had played William Penn in basketball when I was coach at Northwest and I seemed to have some status among minorities. So, I became the go-between for the principal to deal with minority situations and supervised the breakfast program, which all the minorities participated in. It was really a meeting for them daily. During that year, we had six rate walk-outs, we had stand-offs, we had you name it. That was not a lot different than what was going on other campuses. But, one of my proudest days was, I had a job working at night at the old William Penn High School in High Point. They closed the street over there to all whites, Washington Street. But I came up there to go down the street and the minorities recognized me and they waved me on through. So, the basketball coach, I guess, had status! Any how, I stayed there for two years and that situation kind of worked itself out. It was a much more difficult situation than Northwest had been because of, not only numbers, but because it was a forced situation. Many minorities who turned out to be outstanding scholars, students and athletes. It was a great experience.

Q: There are those who argue that standardized testing can provide a way to improve instruction, but at the same time discriminate against minorities. Please discuss your experience with such testing and provide us your views on its effect on the quality of the instructional program and discrimination of minorities.

A: I, for one, have long promoted testing and in fact, the first four years I taught, I purchased my own standardized test to give my students. I did that as a way to measure how well my students would do in competition with other students who took the same test. I saw it only as an information sort of thing. I see it the same today, but today my thoughts are kind of in the minority. People would like to use standardized testing for judgements and even convert them to grades and that sort of thing. To me that is not the benefit of standardized testing. Standardized testing should be something personal. It tells the student how he stands with others, if they are going to compete in the future. And again, I think the business of standardized testing certainly reflects on minorities right now. I think most of the studies show that, but back to other studies that show if minorities become economically as well off as more affluent whites then they tend to do much better on standardized tests. I don't think that is something to discredit standardized testing for but certainly I would not like to see standardized testing used as a grading kind of situation. I like to see it as, and by the way I have already dispositioned with the state of North Carolina since I was on a committee to look at the relationship of standardized testing to grades. My argument was the grade is important because it tells us how hard the student worked, the other standardized test is important to tell the student how he would compete against others in that same area, what the competition would be like. It should be left that way, not a grade. Much like the SAT, you have a number, that's it for whatever purpose, but not a grade, not an evaluation of that student. So, I can support it and I think in the long run minorities, as they come up to the economic standard of the more affluent whites, they will do just as well. It is certainly not something to hold against anybody, white or black.

Q: Could you tell us your key to success as a principal?

A: Well, whatever success I had, I had good background. I had good background, not by design, probably by accident. I had interactions with many people growing up, interactions particularly in athletics and in other areas. My Marine Corps experience was one of the best things I ever did. It gave me direction and up until that time I'd had no direction. I think a sincere study of the idea of team work, that everybody has a contribution to make and that everybody's contribution is important. It is not to be discounted as lesser than anybody else's. That is to say, that if you do a great job teaching basic math and another teacher does a great job teaching advanced calculus then in terms of the team, you are a team member of equal value. We can't win without you. The team can't be as good without you.

Q: So, you see your role as an effective principal is, of course, if you can identify strong characteristics in individuals, slot them into responsibilities and then instill the team principle inside them. That sounds like the Marine Corps.

A: If I have some success, I think that's it. I think that is it because most everything I have attempted that is the approach I have used. I think even the people who participate, once they realize that, hey here is one thing I have, on the surface it may not look as great as somebody else's, but it is mine. That also goes with it. That every individual, every spoke in the wheel, is important. Every individual doing their job is what makes for a successful team. I think people even though they may complain about it but deep down, I think they understand that this is mine, not somebody else's. We're successful because I do my job well.

Q: If you had to do it again, what kinds of things would you do to better prepare yourself for the principalship? Would you describe your feelings, knowing what you know now, about entering the principalship yourself if given the opportunity to start new?

A: Certainly, I had some shortcomings particularly with finance, law, I was never really up on that. One of my favorite statements over the years, the reason I didn't study any more school law was because if I did, I never would do anything. But, I think that was probably a cop-out. For the most part, I operated from an old kind of thought, loco parentis. I always believed if I believed in what I was doing was right and most people thought it was right, then it was okay.

Q: What suggestions would your offer to universities as a way of helping them to better prepare candidates, like myself, for administrative positions? Could you comment on weaknesses in traditional programs of training for administrators.

A: Well, certainly I have not dealt much with that at the university level, but my own experience at the university level, I thought it was quite enlightening. I really like that which had to do with instruction. Some of the other parts, for instance, the business of finance and law, I thought was probably short. I was short changed on that because much of what I had to do I had to learn on the job. I know whereas maybe some of the courses could be more task specific. The idea of internship, probably, I would have more than one internship. I would probably have two or three internships for all graduates. One would have to do with working with office procedures, one would have to do with instruction and one might have to do with counseling or whatever. But, I know because colleges have to generalize because they have people from everywhere. Sometimes, it is hard to take that knowledge and take it into the specifics of the administrative area and see it and make it work.

Q: You've had internship experiences here at Northwest, I guess. You have had people come for internships.

A: I have had lots of them, lots of them. Sometimes, I had two and three at the same time.

Q: Since you have now had some time to reflect on your career and enjoy yourself, I wonder would you share with us what you consider to be your administrative strength as well as your weakness.

A: Well, I think the whole flow of our discussions have been along that line. My strengths are utilizing other peoples strengths and covering up their weaknesses. I think the other thing is probably pretty good judgement into their strengths. The ability to see the big picture and the cause and effect of relationships and things that are happening inside the organ session. What affect does this have? If we do that, what happens there? Someone once told me, when the superintendent said you are going to get a part-time teacher for thus-and-so, it's just like a calculator. You are figuring out which room, which students and which supplies. How is this going to work? Who they are going to answer to? Yes, I was a nuts and bolts person.

Q: Would you discuss the circumstances leading up to your decision to retire at the time you did, giving your reasons and the mental processes you exercised in reaching the conclusion to step down?

A: The truth of the matter is, I had planned to retire the year before and that had been about a four or five year goal, not that I was disenchanted with education. Not one minute was that ever true in my whole career. I had some challenges, but that is what they were to me. They were all challenges, something to over come, something to win at, something to finesse, something to confront. So, that was not a factor in my retirement. My retirement came because it seemed like a good time if I was going to do something else, some hobbies that I wanted to do and I was financially able. I stayed one year longer than I had planned to, mainly because certain members of this particular faculty challenged me to work one year in the merged system and so I did.

Q: Fun year?

A: Well, fun in terms of dealing with and seeing what you can do with the administrator. When things aren't fun, go do something else that is fun and come back and deal with the students, they're fun. Most of the teachers are fun. The interaction with the people you work with is fun. I always thought I big part of my job was to be a shield and go-between between the central office and the faculty in the school and most of the time I functioned in that manner. When directives were coming out or things were about to happen that I didn't think was in the best interest of the school, I would go in there and fight that battle and never even discuss it except with two or three people on the staff. And sometimes, very successful at that, particularly with some superintendents. Not necessarily this one because this one has a unique style. I take great pride in being the first principal that he ever, the term "Weasted", when he chews you out unmercifully in front of all your peers. I was the very first one. I'm very proud of that. But, later on, we had meeting of the minds when we had an opportunity to talk in private and he understood where I was coming from and certainly I understood where he was coming from. So, we had a good relationship.

Q: I guess what I was driving at, in that final year did you say to yourself, "You know, I may be able to be a little more creative or a little more aggressive in a certain area that before it was career decision and now it's an absolute, unequivocal "I'm going to do it my way" decision? Did you have any of that in the last year?

A: Most of the time, my prior years, when I decided we were going in that direction, we were going to go in that direction. With the superintendent, it was my job to convince him, "Hey, that's best for the school system, it's best for the school." I had some ability at that. I had some luck. I had great success with it, in fact. If you look at many of the county policies, I wrote many of them. I was on the policy committee, I had considerable input. So many of the things I was doing creative to make happen at this school, the idea of an extra period in the day, the idea of heterogeneous grouping, all of those things, I went as far as the superintendent to do them long before my last year. Now the last year, really I didn't have any goal I was aiming at, we had put in so many things we were trying to get those smoothed out and make sure they were working and do a little evaluation of what was happening. So, I didn't really have any big things. The only thing I was doing last year was trying to salvage some of the things that Guilford County had considered good, not necessarily the school. Most of my arguments, by the way, and most of my input and one of the reasons I think that I earned some respect from some of my fellow peers was my arguments were always for the schools, never for Northwest. When you get to be a principal, you will rarely see that. One of my best techniques was to enlist others to support that point of view, knowing what affect it will have on this school. Some of the things I got done over the years was the idea of minimal facilities, for instance, we needed a track. Rather than go in and try to get money for Northwest a track, we got a plan to build tracks in rotation. Another concept I bought into was essential equipment. That every school ought to have a certain amount of equipment. Rather than go in and try to get something just for this school. I rarely did that. I never did that.

Q: Equalization of distribution of resources.

A: From that, I think that approach produced far more in terms of what this school got than to try to go. I think that is how I earned some respect among our peers because some of them would see the value of that, but not all of them.

Q: Could you give us your overall comments, pros and cons, and I think we have kind of covered that. Basically, what advice can you pass on to today's principals?

A: Certainly, the principalship of today is demanding but if we go back to 1972, we find that the principalship was the most demanding job in the United States at the time. It passed executives and everything else to become number one in terms of stress long ago. I doubt that has changed. People say well it's so tough now days but the truth of the matter is, I think many of us weathered the worst years possible, the seventies. If you wanted to be in school to find out what school is like, you should have been here or anywhere else in '75! We talk about drugs in school today, it's a joke, not even down in the inner city schools compare to 1975. Can you believe that in the middle school next door, I suspended 28 kids in February of 1975 for drugs. They don't suspend 28 in half the county this year. Can you believe we had three walk outs in the junior high? We had walk outs in all the high schools. It's not going to happen. Now it's a good day to be in education. Certainly, for those who are innovative and want to have impact, there is probably no better time than right now because that is the direction education is going all over the United States. Try new things, see what works. The old ways not necessarily getting results, try something new. Now is a great time.

Q: Speaking of innovation, I may be jumping ahead, we're going to ask you if there is anything we have left out or is there something we should have asked you? But, I do have a question about innovation that I want to ask you after that, but why don't we look at the final question. What have we left out that you would like to add?

A: I don't think anything has been left out that I could comment on about education. I think that some things I would like to see that seem to be just wishful thinking but I have been this way for just five years, I've been like this my whole career. For instance, the whole business of tenure should be done away with. How can I improve the school or coach the team if I can't even select my players and can't make changes. The idea of merit pay. I told the staff many times, I would do it tomorrow and they would say how, I said just give me the money and we'll see. Because I think there is a definite place for that. But again, if you look at my leadership style, you can see that I would feel that way. When certain people with certain talents you expected more from just like you do in the classroom. No difference. I would like to see that occur and the business of innovation and the business of building schools around our school and not being so centralized. I would certainly be a fighter for that and think that's the way to go. Again, most school systems are going that direction.

Q: Let me propose something to you and have you react to it with the depth of your experience as a principal. This comes out of Comer Process which I guess you're familiar with, but it's a modification of that. What would be your reaction if I came to you and said, "Mr. Nelson, I would like to bring 30 to 40 geriatric citizens in, who would like to volunteer here, who would probably be in age of 65 to 75, who would be filtered and evaluated to see if they are appropriate and bring them in and have them manage the movement of children and the discipline in the school." What would be your reaction?

A: My reaction would probably be positive because I have suggested that in a number instances in certain situations. I think your problem might be what could happen from a legal point of view. I think you would have to be concerned about that when you get into managing students. Now as far as assisting with students, you're okay.

Q: I guess that's what I am really thinking about. If I had a pair of geriatrics, and I use that word geriatrics or elderly, at the end of each hall? Isn't it surprising that we spend $40,000 to $50,000 a year on a Vice Principal who roams the halls with a radio, and yet we have elderly who are mature and who are ware housed in settings. What do you think of this idea?

A: Well that, as monitors, probably okay. See I would not be against many things as long as someone says, "I'm going to write this up and tell you what it should accomplish. I'm going to do it" and guess what? You get responsibility for it, too. If you went into the area of, as long as you stay monitor or reporter you're okay, but to intercede that might run into vast legal problems and so, I probably would have to look into that to make sure how we handle that particular part of it.

Q: But, conceptually, you concede to bring the village into the school, that's what I'm getting at.

A: One of the great things in my career occurred about, I don't know, the year they put in No Smoking for students, made the No Smoking rule. The president of the eight student bodies in Guilford County in high school, came to me as a group and asked me to go down and defend their point of view against the school board. Their point of view was that certainly smoking is a nasty habit, etc. but if you ban smoking, you are punishing students as mature as other people. It's not against the law, at the time, it's not something that is against the law and now you are going to make it a law for us and not other adults. And the other thing was, if you do that, you are going to drive them inside and this, that and the other and so I came up with all the laws and all the good arguments. I was extremely proud that they asked me to go defend their point of view with the school board. One of the school board's arguments was, "Where we have these smoking areas outside, they go out there and smoke marijuana and nobody can tell which is which." Well, my lord, have you been to a college campus and smelled marijuana? Everybody knows the difference. My suggestion to them was to enlist a parent who are so concerned about all that and have them stand in the smoking areas daily on the campuses. Well, that fell on deaf ears. Again, I was proud that they asked but we lost that one. It's one of my brighter moments.

Q: Mr. Nelson, do you have any closing statements or words of wisdom you could empower upon us aspiring administrators?

A: Well, I think we should not lose sight of education, it's value, it's satisfaction, maybe not monetarily but certainly humanitarian effort. It's one of the greatest things you could do. The business again, as we read in the paper and not to be deterred by that. The 99% are the greatest kids in the world and the 1% are mixed up, they need help. Someone needs to deal with that but don't let that deter people from coming into education. If you have the energy and you like to see and have an impact on people and make a difference, there's no better opportunity. I'd say full speed ahead.

Q: I want to thank you, along with Charles, for allowing us this opportunity to speak with you and enjoy hearing your experiences and recounting all of the things that we put in our memory banks to make us more positive in our role to be administrators. We will of course give you a copy of this information and if I can do anything for you, Charles or I, do not hesitate and that works visa versa. Thank you. Thank you very much.

A: I enjoyed it.

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