Interview with Mary Quaintance


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Q: Tell me about your personal education and your under graduate work.

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

A: Well, my first year of college, I went to Farmville Teachers College, then, the last three years I went to Harrisonburg Teachers College and graduated from there with a BS degree.

Q: And when was that?

A: I think in 1924. I graduated in 1928 and I taught 1 year in between.

Q: Where was your first teaching job?

A: My first teaching job was in Arlington, I taught 5th grade in Arlington.

Q: About how long were you teaching there?

A: Two years. From then I taught in Rappahannock County. I have taught and been principal for a total of 50 years. 48 of them in Rappahannock County. As I had told you that when I went to school, I went to a 1 room schoolhouse that was taught by my first cousin. We walked to school quite a distance. I was 5, my brother was 6 and my little sister was 5. So she cried to go and she went with us and so all three of us continued to go to school. And I went to a 1 room school. Until I got to High School. I went to Washington (VA) which had grades 1-12. And we rode horseback. We lived maybe 5 miles from town. We rode horseback in the beginning. Later on, we had a Model T Ford. And if the weather was real bad, our grandparents and great aunt lived in town and we'd stay with them. And I went to Washington High School for 4 years and when I graduated, the country at that time was divided into 6 magisterial districts and each of those 6 had a high school in it, none of which were accredited at that time. And in the smaller less densely populated areas there was only 2 years of high school, one in the valley, and then the two 4 year high schools were at Sperryville and Washington. And since not one of them were accredited, I went to Washington, D.C., and lived with my uncle who lived west (of there) and I went from a class of about 5 to a class of about 40 or 50 which was quite an experience and I don't think I ever studied as hard in my life as I did that one year. Trying to adjust. So I graduated from Western High School, that's in D.C., and at that time they did not have an auditorium large enough to accommodate the graduates so we had our graduation in Constitution Hall. I then went in to Farmville, and the year I was at Farmville we had had a fire on part of our school's grounds.

Q: After you had been teaching a few years what made you decide to become a principal?

A: Well I just didn't decide to become a principal. The position was there and I was asked to do it. There were many little 1 room schools in the county, one and two room schools. In Flint Hill, they had grades 1-5, and then they had 2 high schools, Sperryville and Washington, which had grades 7-12, and they decided to consolidate the 2 high schools and they used the whole building at Washington to have the one high school and they took all the students out of that school except 1st, 2nd and 3rd grades and left them in there with the high school and they were the children that lived in the town of Washington and the rest of the children in that area were transported to Flint Hill or Sperryville, most of them to Sperryville so when they did that there were principals of each high school, so they gave the principalship to Mr. Winthrey who had been there the longest, and then they asked me to be the principal of the elementary school and we had children from this half of the county plus they bought them in from other parts of the county. And I don't know for how many years I was a teacher and a principal. I was teacher half the day and principal the other half. And we had 2 seventh grades and I taught a seventh grade and I taught Math and English and PE and the other teacher who taught with me taught the other subjects and she was a librarian (too).

Q: What kind of extra work was there as being a principal added to your daily chores?

A: I kept the school books and I kept up the lunchroom and had to keep all the records, observing the teachers, of course, most of the teachers that were under me were teachers I had taught with. I began teaching in Rappahannock around 1940 and became principal of the elementary school in 1950-51. And it was, having taught with these teachers made the decision that we would work together. I never said now this is the way, we would discuss things, which I found (worked well).

Q: A little tougher question, did you feel like, any time during your years as an educator, that you were ever discriminated against because you were a woman?

A: Never, never, ever.

Q: Did you ever feel like there was a job not offered you just because you were a woman?

A: No.

Q: Did you have male teachers teaching under you?

A: Well, I had 2 men, a black one and a white one. I guess there was no problem with them and there was no problem with your integrating either. There was a very good relationship between the black people and the white people in this area and very good relationships between the black teachers and the white teachers especially I felt with the teachers in my school, in particular of course, when we came we could not get. You see they closed all of these little 1 or 2 room schools and we just had 2 schools, one in Washington, one in Sperryville and there was not enough room in our school to accommodate all the children so until we got more room we were waiting there for the new high school to be built. We transported (2 room) school where the black children had gone at (Scrabble) VA which was about 9 miles from Sperryville, I guess about 10 miles from Sperryville, and we thought it would do less harm to the 1st grade to take traveling time out of their day than it would the other grades. So we bused the 1st grade to the black school in Scrabble and brought them back for lunch, and sent them back, which was very good for the first grade because it broke up their day and that's a long day for 1st grades.

Q: What about busing as a means of achieving integration. Do you believe that's a good way to integrate school systems?

A: No I don't think, if you take them out of their own neighborhood, across a city or a big town, something of that sort just to do it I think that's wrong. Because with us we had no choice. It was rural, we just didn't have that problem. There wasn't any question. They either went to closer to the Washington School, they went there, closer to our school, they came there, and with, of course, in Warren County, they went through a great to-do with integration before we ever had any in this county and I think that helped because people realized, but what they'd seen over there that there was no use to fight it, it was here and we might as well accept it. And when the teachers came, we had 2 sections of each grade in our school. I think there were 8 black teachers in the County, and 4 of them went to Sperryville and 4 to Washington. In my school, we decided that, let's say we had a black person teaching the llth grade and a white person teaching the 9th grade well we divided that up so that the one would teach certain subjects and other one would take the others and that way each section had a white and black teacher so parents couldn't complain because the children in each of those grades were getting the white and the black (teacher) for an equal length of time. That gave me no problems from the parents. If one would say, why did you put my child with a black teacher (I would say they have had equal time.

Q: What is the community's attitude towards education or have you seen a change over the years that you were an educator?

A: Well, I think for many years when I taught, the teachers, most of the teachers in this county, were people who lived in the county and because we had lived here and our parents had lived here, we were trusted. They trusted us much more so than when a new one comes, because you see they've known us all their lives and until the school was consolidated, I know, when I taught that I, and most of the teachers did, visited every child in their classroom. Which in my opinion, if I was to say to a teacher, the best thing you can do, a good relation ship with your parents, is to get into the home. Go and do it. Of course, when we started, it was like they turned up their hands in terror because, until we started doing that, the only time a teacher would come, was if the child was in trouble or had done something terrible and the teacher was going to tell the parent but when they found that you just came for a social call and because you got there they trusted you some many times, they had seen you that had met you and hopefully they had liked you and trusted you. And when a child came home with some great tale, they would say, "Well, I don't believe Mrs. Quaintance would have done any such thing." I think Mr. Leonard ( ) when he became principal of the A.S. Rhodes school over in Warren County, he told me he visited the home of every child in his school.

Q: How about your relationship with the Central Office?

A: That was always excellent. I was very lucky with my Superintendents. I had (Kyler Miller), Mr. Gasque and Mr. Norton, and then, Mr. Leonard, his first teaching position and he became the director of instruction and later Assistant Superintendent. He started out teaching agriculture at Rappahannock High School and he was just excellent. He knew the county and he knew the teachers since he taught here, he knew us too but he was really an excellent director of instruction. He kept you on your toes. If you were lazy, and putting on a show just when he came, you couldn't fool him. We had others but he was, by far, the best, in my opinion.

Q: What do you think are some kinds of character traits that a person needs to have to be an effective principal?

A: Well, I think you have to be fair with children and teachers, and to praise them when they do well and when they don't do well, offer suggestions on how you think they can do better. And I think you've got to like people to be a teacher or a principal. If you didn't really enjoy teaching, I don't see how anybody could teach. You always had the feeling that what you didn't get across today, tomorrow you'd get another crack at it. That's always a challenge I think. I would think that anybody that had really enjoyed teaching would find any kind of work very rewarding.

Q: Did you go in the classroom, if a teacher was sick, for an example, even after you were a fulltime principal?

A: When we consolidated, even before, all the elementary grades into one school, we had aides and usually if a teacher was sick and had to leave, the aide would take over. If I was free, I would go. If the librarian was free, she would go.

Q: Can you think about some incident, or times, that made you feel like when it was all over, that I really did a good job today?

A: When some of the children went to High School and did better grade-wise, than they'd done in the elementary school, it made you and the teacher feel like you'd probably helped them to really get the fundamentals. So often, there would be children who would be good strong C students in the elementary school and when they got to the High School got to be B students. I always felt like the reason for that was that in the High School they just had 5 subjects and the children who were average in intelligence but were hard workers. (You see, at the elementary they had 8 subjects to prepare and to so up.) There they just have 5 so that extra time is what would help them. But they would have to be children that were average and hard working and tried to do the best that they could. And then we would have children, of course, they do it now and they think they're doing something new, we would have bright children and then you would have really slow ones and the bright ones would finish their work in the -th grade, they would take the child who was slow and have a hard time understanding and take this bright child and say, now take him over in the corner and teach him this math lesson and don't tell him the answer, make him reason it out. And then get over there and you could almost hear yourself teaching. They would go about it just like the way you had and a lot of times that would work better than having the teacher do it.

Q: What kind of advice or training would you give to one of your teachers just starting?

A: Most of the time, I had a sister-in-law who had taught in New Jersey, and she (we had a grade chairman , we picked the best teacher to help with the new ones) at each grade level. Anything they needed they would go to her. She would know more about her grade level than I would. So we had this young man who came to us to teach and said, what kind of advice can you give me about how to start the year. She said, all I can say to you is don't smile til Christmas and you won't have any discipline problems. But she was kidding. I think the main thing is to tell them that in the beginning my advice is not to talk too much, you can set your rules, just a few rules, and stick to those and if they don't obey them, then punish them. Now when I first started in Sperryville, I had the 8th grade and I had about _ not really ornery boys, not really bad, but always talking and not doing, and so they talked and didn't do their work. They would have to stay after school. I had one as smart as he could be, but lazy, and he had to stay til 4 o'clock every day until he got his work done. And my 3 brother-in-laws went with me and they were waiting to go, and he walked down the steps and I heard him say to them (Well, Mary ...) that was one (laugh). There is something to be said against consolidation. You gain something but you lose something too. We had one boy, in the -th grade, and he would never complete his work, ever. Then he would half-way do it when he did it. His mother of course was responsible because she took up for him. Well, I had taught the father so he and his wife finally came in. Ms. Quaintance, we have done everything we know, to make this child do his work, now, we're turning him over to you and you do whatever you want. I said well, I will keep him here after school and I had this room where he could be put. The door was so he could not see or hear what was going on around the building. And I put his desk in there and told him you will have to stay. I will bring you home but it may be 6 o'clock some days before I get there. So that's what we did and he perked right up, finished high school, went into the marines and is doing just fine. You would have never thought, ever, but all of that came back to the mother, it was always the teacher's fault. Till finally she gave up. But most of the time, I think that's the difference between when I went and today. When I went to school, if there was ever any trouble, you'd hope it wouldn't get back home. Nowadays and that's one mark against consolidation, is that the children are scattered which would make it impossible for teachers to keep the children. They're just scattered everywhere.

Q: Do you feel that one real key to discipline is personal contact with the home?

A: Yes, you get them on your side.

Q: Let me ask you about the building you were the principal of?

A: In the beginning it was heated by wood stoves. You built fires, collected wood in the mornings and then we didn't have any running water, we went to the well. And for a while we drank out of the same dipper. When I went -- school there was no compulsory attendance law, the big boys just came when they could and I feel that there were some that would have wanted to come.

Q: When did school become compulsory?

A: I don't know. I'm sure it was compulsory when I started teaching (1940). At age 16 and then children could be signed out by parents, if the principal would agree and I think the judge had to approve. That's different now since they do have vocational education. At that time they're teaching, say some graduate would come out, let's say from V.P.I., all theory and no experience, I don't think you could find enough people to staff a school and I don't know how it could be arranged but if it could be, we wouldn't have all this juvenile delinquency. Those boys, some in the 6th grade, 14 or 15 years old, they've got no business there with the younger children. If they could be taught a trade and they could go out and earn a living, buy cars and buy the things they want, then you wouldn't have all this stealing and carrying on. And I think it wouldn't cost any more if you think about juvenile delinquency costs the state with all these people that are paid to do this and that, supervise them and they're just in and out all the time, take that money, it would pay for a really good vocational school if it could be staffed with teachers with experience in what they're teaching. They'd have to be taught some math and some reading so they could read directions but I really feel like all these people turned loose with no jobs what do you expect except trouble.

Q: Do you think it makes sense to expel a child from school if they're 14 or 15?

A: Well, if you're not going to give them anything back and they are very disruptive. There has really been 1 child in all my 50 years that I felt there was nothing there that I could reach. And I don't think a lot of teachers feel like that. I don't think they have the power or whatever to know that you can win them over if you just keep trying. I never had trouble with discipline. I don't know what I'd do now. Sometimes I think I got out at the right time.

Q: When did you retire?

A: I retired in 1976.(after some figuring)

Q: Do you feel like there is any great change in attitude in the children from the 70's from the 40's?

A: I think there seems to be an attitude problem because before only the best children were in school and now you have more. Every child was trying to do his best. The ones who were there were the ones who really wanted to be there and the ones whose parents were determined they were going to make something of themselves. But now, numbers makes a difference. I think the change that the children have in any regard is different from what it was.

Q: Has the attitude of making life better for your children than for you changed with parents?

A: No, I think some parents go a little overboard. I want my children to have everything I didn't have. People should have to work. If you haven't put forth some effort to get something, you don't really appreciate it.

Q: What were some really tough decisions that you had to make?

A: I don't know if I had very tough decisions to make about the school. The really tough decisions to be made about the school were discussed with the teachers and I always felt I had an excellent relationship with the Superintendent. We just worked it out together and I felt like I had that support.

Q: Did you ever have to fire a teacher?

A: No, not really. We had one teacher who was coming in from another school and I knew she was very poor. I told the superintendent I'd rather not take this teacher. He said that he would take the responsibility if it didn't work out. He did luckily, it turned out to be a physical thing.

Q: Was the physical thing sickness?

A: Well, she was older. She wasn't really sick but she wasn't up physically to deal with the children. She'd never been a very good disciplinarian.

Q: Were there any special things that you would do to keep morale high?

A: I guess in a rural community you didn't have the pressures. Of course, you're working with people you've known for years.

Q: How did you encourage your slow learners or reward your students?

A: I have always been hip to having people keep their own teeth as long as they could. When I first started teaching in Sperryville, we started was called a May Day/Health Day. At that time the state had health problems, teeth, eyes, ears, throat and weight. And to meet the requirements in each of those, they were a pointer. We would give them certificates that way, there was no dentist in this county and we started, we went to Culpeper, we made arrangements for the dentist down there to bring the children by bus to the dental office one day a week. At the end of the year, everybody who was a 5 pointer took part in a program and we would take the seventh grade girls and each would have a number and the children would vote for who they wanted for queen. The queen was allowed to choose a seventh grade boy to be the king. Those with the next highest vote would be the maid of honor and then we would have programs and each grade would put on a program, most of which had to do with health. They got to be real professional. They started out kind of hum-drum and later it got so we had to have it on 2 days and some of those children who couldn't do anything else, just because they were on the stage. It doesn't matter if they were a carrot and you see children now and the things they remember to students I had say 50 years ago and May Day is what they remember. We had this boy who was in special ed, he was taller than Mr. Blanton, about 15 but almost 6 ft. and had very little intelligence, of course, he could run like a deer and we went over there (Bing Crosby Stadium) they were doing some sort of race and he wouldn't have sense enough to make the turn, so I had to put the bus driver at the turn to motion him around. To stop him from running into the Shenandoah River. But we had the SCA, Student Cooperative Association, and 1 year we would meet in Warren County and the next here. That was very good. It was good for those children to have to conduct those meetings.

Q: How did you evaluate teacher performance?

A: Just made notes. wrote a summary. Later on, when the schools were consolidated I had an assistant principal and a secretary. we used forms from the central office. We would do our observations, the teacher would evaluate herself, and then the 2 of us would get together and talk about it. And the strange things were that your best teachers would grade themselves low and the poorer teachers grade themselves high.

Q: Did you interview your own teachers or did the central office just place teachers in your school?

A: They bought them to the school for me to show them around the school. That would be the time that I would write down what I thought. They always asked my opinion.

Q: If you didn't hire someone, they usually respected that?

A: Yes, they always did that.

Q: What were some of the duties of your assistant principal?

A: Well, I guess, I'm sorry to say, I gave him the things I didn't want to do. I had some very good assistant principals. They were always men.

Q: What were some of the chores that you really didn't like to do?

A: Well, a lot of it would be evaluation of textbooks, and then, if they were good I would let them go in the classrooms and observe. One time, we had a PE teacher, a man, who was not doing his job so the assistant principal, who was very good, he did the observing and he had everything written down, a good job. We never fired him, we just said to him (to..resign). Now we did have one young man, I forgot about him, who was just not doing the job at all and he wasn't doing very well in the community either. He was going to parties with the High School students. One of the High School students stayed here with me, after my husband died, there was a friend who lived up on the Farm, his father was the manager and the boys, the oldest one came, then he graduated then the next one, then one of those was staying here, and he was at a party with this man, he did things in the community like buying gas, and they gave him too much and he wouldn't pay for it. We talked and the director of instruction was with me and we say we thought it would be better if you went back to school and matured a little bit before you tried teaching and he did and he turned out all right but it was never on his record.

Q: How did you deal with parents who would come into your office very angry?

A: They would come into the main office. I would say, come on, let's go back into my office and have a seat. I'd just listen and not say a word until they just ran down and then you can talk sense. And if it was a teacher I'd say call the teacher, call the child, and very often the child would change his story with the teacher looking at him. Most of the parents, I guess I was lucky I had taught. Having taught that long in the county, I think that was a real help for me because they knew me. The best thing was to say just come to the school and we'll talk about it, and usually it would work out just great.

Q: What do you think of teachers unions?

A: I hate them..

Q: Collective bargaining?

A: I didn't bother with it.

Q: Do you see rural Virginia going the way of some city schools?

A: Yes, I think so, because I think the teachers we're getting in this area now are not local people and they're coming from urban areas. I have no respect for the NEA. I have more respect for an honest to God labor union that I do the NEA. It's a labor union posing as professionals. I feel very strongly about that although I belong to it because as Mr. Leonard said, you got to belong to know what they're doing. I feel very strongly about teachers going on strike. I think my experiences in the teaching profession were always good experiences. Maybe if I had experienced some bad ones, I would feel differently. I never felt like I was treated unfairly.

Q: Did you feel like you were paid fairly?

A: I felt that if I was not satisfied with my pay, I wouldn't have to sign the contract.

Q: Do you have any comments on merit pay?

A: I don't think merit pay would ever work. Who's going to be the judge? I don't think it will ever work and it would cause jealousies within your faculty. I think a poor one will think she's as good as a good one. We have a person in this County who has always hopped on merit pay and I say it will never work. I'm sure it won't. There's always, who's going to be the judge. The worst job I had was trying to evaluate teachers. Of course even the poor ones give the children some things the good ones can't.

Q: Are there any courses a college should offer a future administrator that would really help on the job?

A: I think to be a principal, a person should have taught at least 10 years. A person should have taken part in other school activities when they were teachers. No, I don't think there's any course.

Q: Do you think its a natural promotion within a system into a principalship?

A: At some times, it may not be good to have a principal chosen from within the faculty because there might be some jealousies. I was a PE minor and I think that was one reason why I had no problem with my children because I taught them PE and when you're teaching that, they like you..

Q: What are your thoughts about the role of state and federal governments in education?

A: I think too much paperwork and not giving teachers time enough to teach and its a great disadvantage and the state has gotten worse than the federal.

Q: What are good contributions of federal involvement?

A: Before we had kindergarten, we had a federal program in which the children who were coming into the first grade in the fall had a 6 week summer program for them and it was very good in that we did all this testing and readiness work and it helped you to know which ones were really ready and which ones weren't. And so they were put in different sections and I think that was excellent in placing them. It kept those who were slower back and let those who were ready go on. We had two classes of special education and they were good in that it took those children out who were disruptive and they taught them right attitudes, how to discipline themselves and as much as they could learn but then there's something against that to in that when those children were kept in regular classes and moved up with their age group, it was amazing what they learned from the bright ones and in a room by themselves, they don't get that.

Q: What are your ideas about today's quality of education and suggestions for its improvement?

A: I don't think the days should be made longer. I think teachers should better utilize the time that they have. After you're tired your mind is tired. Children need that break in the summertime. If they would use that time and not be having parties, all well and good, but I think too much time is wasted. You're taking away from real classroom teaching.

Q: Do you think the concept of a teacher-administrator is a good idea?

A: I think that a principal should have to go into a classroom occasionally and teach a class. But no I don't think that now with all you have to do especially with consolidation a principal can be a teacher too. I think that if you don't have to teach, you get an idea teachers can do more than they can. You see you read all this stuff and then you believe what you read. Then you get in there and try it and see if you can do it. He hears thinks and it sounds great but until you go in there and try it, you don't know. So I think that's the advantage of a principal taking time in the classroom.

Q: What do you think is the ideal size for a school?

A: I don't know. There are advantages to Sperryville, maybe 300-400 students and then when we consolidated there were 800 students. There were advantages of both to both teachers and students. I just wouldn't know.

Q: How did you prioritize your work load?

A: Well, I used my own judgement. Some things have to be attended to right now. Those things that had to be done, I would stay until they were done.

Q: What inspired you?

A: Well, I guess I keep going back to Mr. Leonard. He was the director of instruction when I became a principal. He said to me, Mrs. Quaintance, every morning just before school, before the children are in the classroom and every afternoon, about 10 minutes before school lets out, walk around the halls, you can find out more about what's going on. And when you go to observe, always try to set it up so you are there to see the class change which I found to be excellent, the way they handled the new ones. Then I had a teacher that wouldn't go into the classroom until 9 o'clock and the children would arrive at 8. I believe the teacher should be in the classroom cause that's where you set the tone for the day. So I asked her and she'd do it for a little while and then she stopped. So what I did is I would stand at her door, since what I'd said hadn't made much of an impression so I just stood at the door and she walked past me. I never said a word but she finally got the message.

Q: What did you look for in a teacher observation?

A: The way she presented the material to the children. Now sometimes your brightest person is not your best teacher. One with average or just a little better intelligence make the best teachers in a classroom where you have all levels because the bright one. Some teachers I'd give A for bright, C for average, a D for slow, almost hoodlums. When I first started teaching in the 7th grade, I was teaching Math and I hadn't had Math since I graduated and I had to go back and teach myself. I think Math was probably the subject I taught the best because I had to go back and learn. Of course, it would come back to me. I would take them step by step like I took myself but if it had come easy to me, I may not have. Now and then you'd find a child that would have another approach and say how I got this answer and I did it this other way. Well you accept it and I said if you can justify, take me step by step and show me, and sometimes it would.

Q: Is there a place for a sense of humor in the classroom?

A: Oh yes definitely, that would be one of the main requirements of a teacher to have an excellent sense of humor.

Q: How is being a principal like managing a company?

A: I think the main thing is your rapport with other people and knowing how to get people to do what you want them to without saying Do It. Sometimes, like you say to a child, tell a child why and after too many why's because I say so. You have to do that with some children because that's the bottom line with them or else they're using it to take your time. I find it's much better to suggest than to just say do it, with adults or children too for that matter. Think it's their idea and if they do think it's their idea, they think it's great. Of course, some people if it's not their idea they don't want to hear it.

Q: Are there things you miss about your job?

A: I miss the contact with the children but in a rural area like this you see them pretty much anytime. I'll have to tell about this one boy I'd taught a long time ago in the 7th grade and even when he went to school he was lazy but very likeable and had a good personality. And he just turned into a hippie that just sat in front of the store at Sperryville doing nothing. So I had some boys who just tried not to do anything and I had them in the office giving them a good talking to so not caring and not doing and not having any pride in your work and I said who do you want to turn out like, named this man, so they went out and told him what I had said so he kinda hint around but he would never come out and ask me so when I retired he said to me, well, Mrs. Quaintance, what are you going to do now that you're retired and I said, well, you're going to be my first project and he said you're going to need the Lord's help.

Q: Is there anything you'd do differently?

A: No. I don't think so. I think I did the best I could. There were many times I could have done better but at the time . . .

Q: Any advice for a rookie principal?

A: I would say its very important to build a rapport with your teachers, children and parents. I found if you had a grade chairman, pick out one with a good personality, some of the young teachers feel more comfortable asking for help because you don't want your principal to know you don't know. Grade chairman can help the new teachers and the principal.

Q: Are there any things that helped you organize your time?

A: The main thing was to know what I had to get done first. I usually at the end of the day would jot down on a notepad the main things I wanted to get done. Sometimes I'd wake up in the middle of the night thinking of things.

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to discuss?

A: Well, I think we've covered about everything.

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