Interview with Nellie Quander


This is October 6, l988 and I'm interviewing Nellie Quander, a retired school administrator from Fairfax County Virginia.

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

Q: Nellie, thank you for agreeing to talk with me today and sharing with me some of your experiences about the principalship. I really appreciate this and I'm looking forward to the interview because I've often thought of you as a mentor and an adviser. Let me ask you to begin by telling me a little about yourself. I know some information. I know that you were a teacher and a principal in Alexandria; and an administrator in Fairfax County; as well as the president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. Would you tell me more about your experiences?

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

A: Well, it seems that you pretty much have me pegged. I was (as you said) a principal and a teacher in the city of Alexandria and then when I came to Fairfax County I came as a principal. Then I worked in the Department of Instructional Services as the Coordinator of Elementary Instruction. Then I worked as the administrative assistant to the Deputy Superintendent and the administrative assistant to the Superintendent; and as Area administrator when I retired.

Q: You served as principal at how many elementary schools?

A: Three.

Q: Three elementary schools. And one was here in Fairfax County or two?

A: One.

Q: Alright, would you tell me a little bit about your experience here in Fairfax County? What was the philosophy of your elementary school?

A: Well, the philosophy of the school was to provide the best possible academic opportunities and social atmosphere and the highest expectations for all of the students. I don't know how extensive--We wrote a philosophy as most schools--as we are really required to do. But often I feel that we write what is expected of us rather than what we really believe...Or we encompass it in what we think somebody wants to hear. And often that's merely an exercise. I earnestly tried to work with my faculty to make that philosophy a reality in the school. We accepted the public and we worked as a public school. And in public schools you take anybody who comes through the door, who meets the State qualifications to enter. And that means they may be black or white or short or tall or smart. And I have whole lists I would go through like that. We agreed to do this. We signed contracts to do it. We should provide for these youngsters the best possible education that we can.

Q: How did you involve the staff in the development of this philosophy?

A: Well, it's my belief that a principal has to see her staff (and that's your faculty, your kitchen help, your custodial staff, your secretaries and librarian-whoever is in your school) they have to be your colleagues. They can't be your underlings or subordinates in the sense that { I am the principal of this school and what I say goes}. I don't think you can operate in that way. I think if teachers ...that most of the teachers that I've worked with in my life want to be good teachers...and if they feel that they are accepted as your colleagues in helping to accomplish the task of educating children...then you are somewhere down the road towards accomplishing that. They need to feel that they are a part and that they should be involved in making decisions. They can agree with you or disagree and feel that nobody's going to get them back for disagreeing. I think this makes a very collegial atmosphere.

Q: In that kind of atmosphere I'm sure it was very visible to see the ownership and the commitment that the teachers had toward the school philosophy. What are some things that you did to encourage that kind of commitment?

A: I tired to encourage teachers in many ways. First of all I tried to make it my business everyday that I was in that school...Now you know as well as I do that there were days there'd be a bus accident or there'd be some other upheaval...the dog bit somebody and this started before school and your not able to do it. But of the 180 days that children were in school certainly 160 of those days I went to every single classroom...every single morning when school school was starting and classes were beginning. Teachers just knew that I would be in there in that time. And I would walk around. Sometimes I'd stay two minutes...sometimes I'd stay one minute or ten minutes. I would make my rounds to every classroom. And I did that H every afternoon. And when I did that -that was informal. There were times when I would walk into classrooms totally unannounced and see activities. If I thought they were truly outstanding I did not wait until evaluation time to say so. I would go back to my office and try to think of every reason that I believed it was an outstanding it down on a I wouldn't forget any of them...and frequently I sent someone to the classroom to stay for just five minutes while that teacher...sent for the teacher to come to the office...And I would say for example...I went in one morning and one of my kindergarten teachers was doing an absolutely superb language experience was outstanding in every way. It included every element that I felt should be there. She was taking time to move through that lesson so that the children involved in that group were truly involved. I was so pleased I stayed until the end of the lesson and I went and wrote down every reason that I thought it was a good lesson. then I called her on the intercom because she had an aide and said , "Could you come to the office just for a minute?" And I took her into my office and said to her just what I said to you. It was the best language experience lesson I have ever seen in my life and I couldn't wait until three o'clock...and it's a joy for me as principal to see a master teacher at work. And I said it was good because you did A,B,C,D, and went down the list. I said thanks so much now go back to your classroom.

Q: So you gave a lot of positive reinforcement.

A: And I think I gave positive reinforcement only when I thought it was due. I didn't give it to be giving it. And I gave it because I thought it was due. And I felt that that helped teachers to know that you did see the good things they were doing. I tried to encourage teachers and help them... if they were working on...if they were in school I would try to keep them going to school and taking classes. And if they were really having a examine or something I'd say, "Oh, please let me come and teach math for you today." Or I'd do things to assist them if they were working on their Masters in administration or supervision I would ask if they could do that with me and I made absolutely sure that they were involved in every aspect of that administration and I asked know I'm not going to get the report...only you ...Would you let this teacher come into your classroom and observe you and then report to you? Let's see if it does anything to help you ...I don't want to know what she says...I'm going to do my own observing. And they did...And they knew I wasn't going to do it if I said I wasn't going to use that against them know... for them or against them. But they came to me and volunteered how helpful it was to have a fellow teacher observe them because the teacher saw things that they didn't see and that they weren't aware of. They could call it to their attention and they didn't feel any penalty was involved...So I think trying to assist them...I think you've got to be concerned about teachers as human-beings. I think a principal has to be concerned when a teacher is having a particularly difficult time at some personal level. Maybe somebody's mother is critically ill or somebody's child is critically ill or such circumstances. You have to be sensitive to that. You have to help them. You have to say,"If you don't feel like you can make it for the rest of the day, I'll take your class." They have to know that you care about them as human-beings and then as teachers because they are your colleagues.

Q: That's very important Nellie. It's really providing them support. How did you build consensus around school goals and priorities among your staff and your teachers?

A: I had a little exercise that I did particularly when I went to a new school...And then we discussed it with new teachers but we went back each year and looked at this. I'd call my faculty in on those first days when you come back to school. When I went to a new school I would say one factor that really concerns teachers is how am I going to be evaluated?...And I'd say nobody ought to be evaluated on something that's a surprise...And what we need to do now.. and we sometimes worked on this for two-three days...What is it that you think I should see when I come to the classroom?...You as teachers tell me what I should see. And we would get a couple of teachers up to the chalkboards...and we did two because it was easy you could takedown a lot of the suggestions... and they would list all around the classroom that had plenty of chalkboards...They would list what they thought the principal should be observing in their classes...And then we would go back and review this. Now, sometimes people make statements that sounded like they would mean the same thing...But they didn't...So we explained them and talked about them and talked about why and on what philosophy they based their statement that you should see this in the classroom. And we talked about that. And then we began to say well all these things that people said belonged in this category...We set up some categories...For example...These statements deal with the appearance of the classroom itself...the physical appearance...These statements have to do with the teaching of an actual lesson...These statements have to do more with classroom organization and administration. We tried to put them into various categories so that we could identify what was important in these categories. We typed it and then the next day when teachers came in we passed it out. We reviewed it. We looked at it. Now, if there were some areas that I felt that teachers had omitted..that I would feel that I'd be looking for...then I would ask them...Is there anybody who thinks I should be looking at...and I would name it... And they would say {most of the time} oh yes, yes, sure we didn't have this on the list...So we would get that category on the list...But they told me what in that category we should be looking for. And I said now even if we don't have everything these are the areas that I'm going to be looking at when I come to observe in your classroom. And then we talked about areas that I would hardly observe in class such as the teacher's relationship with parents and that sort of thing, the teacher's relationship to peers. Then we added those to our list. We said why we felt these were very important. Then I had a blueprint. Every teacher had it. They made it. Then if I said when I visited that I really didn't see very much evidence of...and list those things I didn't see much evidence of...And I listed those things I saw evidence of...then I wasn't talking about anything that they didn't know and understand.

Q: That's very interesting. You had consensus and you had ownership because they helped develop the document...this blueprint. And it was also tied into the teachers' evaluation program. This was really effective. Nellie, what motivated you ? What really interested you in the principalship? Why did you decide to become an elementary school principal?

A: You may not believe it. It's strange when years ago when I was a teacher all of the regulations that exist now in relationship to advertising jobs were not in existence. All that has come into existence in the last few years. But I got a call. I had a principal who inspired me...Who was my mentor. He came to me and said you take sabbatical leave next year because you need to be a principal. I took sabbatical leave and went to school full time that year and got my Masters. In the spring of that year I got a call from the Superintendent congratulating me because the School Board had appointed me. That wouldn't happen today because ...but it did happen. I thought now I feel really competent to go in and teach and here I am being selected...well-at that time for the assistant principalship. I thought "Oh my!" Becoming a principal was pretty much the same thing. The administration selected you and that's how you got to be a [a principal]. Now, that of course wasn't true when I came to Fairfax. The job opening was there and I had to apply and then go through the process. But back some number of years ago that was the way I got into administration. Now, after I got into administration...I don't know whether it...I loved teaching and I rationalized that if you could make a difference in a single classroom you might be able to make a difference for a school. I approached being a principal with that attitude.

Q: I know that you did make a very positive change in each of your schools. Nellie, tell me a little more about this mentor. What kind of principal was he?

A: He was one who gave me as a teacher a lot of positive feedback. He came to me when there were some difficult tasks. For example, he would come to me and say the school system is doing a series of radio programs and I want our school to be involved. I want you to do a radio program on mathematics in first grade. When he would do that I'd almost have a heart attack. But by the same token I felt he had the confidence in me to do it well...and I would try. He was always very encouraging . As I said he was the one who came to me and said you're going on sabbatical leave next year. I'd say well, I have to ask my husband and he'd say no you're going. Just positive and encouraging as I've said...never buddy, buddy, buddy...always friendly and concerned...always caring about people and caring about the children. He was a wonderful mentor for me. To be quite honest with you I think principals that I judged as poor principals were very helpful to me when I became a principal because I knew lots of things that I had been able to experience that destroyed schools. Having lived through some of those experiences, I knew things I didn't want to do. Where they didn't necessarily mean to be all of my principals during the period that I was a teacher and during the period that I was an assistant principal were very very helpful experiences to me . I learned from those whether I thought they were positive or negative-They were all learning experiences.

Q: What do you think were some of the characteristics that this mentor may have seen in you that might have encouraged him to tell you-you need to become a principal?

A: That's hard to say-what you think somebody else saw. I loved teaching. I felt then as I do now that teachers should have the highest expectations of their students and don't stop until their students reached them. Maybe he saw that. I'm really not sure exactly what made him feel that way...or exactly what he saw...or if I should even try to guess.

Q: That was just an interesting insight into what motivated him. I' m sure just from listening to you he asked you to try certain things and you were always willing and ready to do tackled new jobs and different activities...and did them willingly. Let's go on to discipline in the school. How did you foster good order and discipline in your school as a principal?

A: That school must have high expectations of children. If you expect them to be nothing, to do nothing, to fight, to disrupt...then they're going to do it. I didn't accept that. I said, "You can't do that in this school." It's not acceptable. You're much much too good to do that. I think if you raise the level...I said to their parents,"I'm going to try whenever there's a student who is having difficulty with discipline to work with that student myself...I'm not going to call you the first time the kid says boo. But when I call you -you must understand that I have tried and I don't feel I'm being successful and I need your help then. I want you to come in with the attitude that together we can help this youngster through whatever difficulty there is." Parents did that. They were willing. I feel that children understand that I truly did love them and that I truly did care about them. I couldn't accept the fact that they weren't doing their best. Because it wasn't in their best interest for me to accept that. I think a principal needs to take a lot of time with discipline. Particularly when you first enter a school. You must listen to all the details of petty kinds of discipline problems and disturbances. Hear everything students have to say about them...and what parents have to say...and what teachers have to say...And then I think you're able to discern weaknesses in various places. For example, as a principal I discovered that most of the petty fights and scraps in a school came about for two reasons. He said if I gave him my apple he would give me one of his cupcakes. He ate my apple and then he didn't give me the cupcake. Then I'd say,"Well, did the teacher know about this bargain? Did anybody know that you had made this bargain?" One child would say no I didn't tell him. Okay...that was one thing...Another thing youngsters would say would be...I was just playing. I think that I visited every classroom-everyone in the school third grade and up...I talked...if you borrow or if you loan you cannot do it without the permission of the teacher. Now, I knew perfectly well that the teacher would hardly remember all of the "He borrowed my pencil and then he..." But the youngsters didn't know that the teacher would forget...And so if they had to go through the process of getting permission to borrow or loan...then they would know that there was an adult in charge of them who knew about this ...So we said if you borrow or loan and you don't get the teachers permission you absolutely have no grounds at all to complain when the other person doesn't keep their end of the bargain. Another thing we talked about was the business of putting your hands on someone or hitting them and then saying you were playing...We talked about what play really was...And that there really weren't very many games or very few in an elementary school that you played by hitting anybody. We talked about this so you understand it now. These are not things that you can come to my office and tell me that you hit him because you were just playing...or that you borrowed this and you were fighting because he didn't keep his end of the bargain. Just in one felled sweep fifty percent of the problems disappeared...It's easy as a principal when a teacher would send some youngsters to me...and I'd say tell me what happened...Well, Jack hit me on the head and then I got up and went over and hit him, and then he chased me around the table and hit me, and then I got up and went over and got a book and I threw it at him and then he threw the book back at me and then I ran across...And I'd say wait a minute where was the teacher? Well, the teacher was sitting over at her desk. Well, I understand now that there's a real problem now in this classroom. If both of these children pretty much agree that that happened or even if several of them say oh yes, and he ran after...Then I need to talk with the teacher and ask, "Where were you when all of this was going on?...and Why did that happen?" It no doubt happened because they weren't getting proper supervision...didn't have enough to do...I think you learn a lot when you handle...when you take the time to deal completely. When a parent comes into your office to tell you -"This child is terrible. He hit my kid coming home yesterday and he should be hung at high noon...And I'd say wait a, what I want you to do is either sit here and give me a chance to go find out because I don't know anything about this-or if they'd called me I'd say now I'll get back to you. I want you to know that I would get every possible person involved and I would hear everything they would have to say. Frequently, I would discover that the child whose parent was so upset was really the one who had created the whole situation. I would get the child and I'd say tell your mother what really happened. Well. mom they'd say ...I didn't tell you the truth yesterday and they'd cry and so forth. The mother then says to me ...You know boys will be boys...I said, "Oh no no now you told me that under these circumstances there should be a hanging at high noon on the playground...and We must have a hanging. Isn't that correct?" Well, often then parents would tell other parents that if you go in there she's going to investigate and she's going to listen. They would realize that you weren't just going to pass it off. After awhile parents, students, teachers, crossing guards, neighbors, everybody knew that I was going to listen and that I was going to deal with these incidents and we were not going to accept the behavior that was beneath them. And that's the way I would approach them...I couldn't accept that from you. You're too bright, too good,...

Q: You established expectations.

A: High expectations. Exactly and you have to be consistent. You can't have this a rule today and then not a rule; and punish this one but don't punish this one...or talk to these and don't talk to these. I think that hurts discipline as a teacher or as a principal..anybody.

Q: Yes, Thank you for sharing that. What do you think teachers expect principals to be?

A: I think they expect them to be dictatorial. I think they expect them to be dictatorial and inhumane and lots of other things sometimes...I really do...I think they do. They expect principals to throw their weight around and say I am the principal and things like that. A lot of that is changing simply because of principals realizing that teachers are going to their professional organizations. But I was amazed each time I went to another school that teachers were afraid to speak up. They were afraid to express their opinion. They were devastated to say I disagree. I would've got to tell me if you don't like this while we're talking about it...or what you think it ought to be. Because you can't say nothing and let me go back and do something and then say I don't like that ...Or let me come in with a plan thinking you accepted it and then afterwards hear that the roof is going off because you don't like it. Everybody in here is of age to be here. We are professionals. We are working for children. You're not working for me . You're working for these youngsters. Now, tell me if you don't like things and tell me why. You can't just tear it to pieces and don't have anything to give me back in return. If you tear it up let's replace it. I think that it's important if they say they don't like it that you don't turn around and get angry with them because they said they didn't like it. I think if somebody is far left field and they say they don't like it and they jump on it then it's very easy to be as calm and say do all of you think that? Then a lot of them will say no I don't think that. They then quiet down the one person who's in left I can say well it seems to be the consensus ...and now you tackle me if I'm wrong on this ...Because I don't want to move on this issue until I feel we have the basic consensus that this is the case. The one somebody who's in left field then frequently comes to me later and says ,"You know I really feel whatever I said. I'd say have a right to think it and I don't think you were wrong for saying it. Well those people often when they are doing it deliberately to create difficulty for a new principal or to be disagreeable or whatever find that you've been so respectful, kind and caring about them. You didn't humiliate them. You didn't say how stupid an idea. You handled it in a way that you really didn't have to get in it and often they recognize everybody else fought me but this person isn't and it makes for a more congenial atmosphere.

Q: You talked about respect and trust and certainly you gave some examples about how you went about building these. What else did you do to foster that kind of atmosphere in your school among your teachers and staff?

A: I think you have to be professional. When you talk about the teaching-learning process and when you talk to teachers talk about the research that supports the idea that you're presenting to them. Teachers have respect for you when you can defend a position that you present and when it isn't presented in a dogmatic manner. When you ask them to defend their position and give them an opportunity to do it...It's important to keep abreast of the research that's going on so that you as a principal can discuss it. Teachers feel that you are competent. When they feel that you are incompetent it's a source of a lot of difficulty and the source of a lot of problems in the school. When parents think you're incompetent and teachers think you're incompetent that creates a lot of problems. They need to see you as a competent professional.

Q: So you did a great deal of sharing information and research.

A: I think have the research available to you so that when you talk to teachers you can say why you're concerned. If I were observing a lesson and I saw that the teacher has started somewhere in the abstract range ... and research would tell us that youngsters need to start with the concrete and move to the semi-concrete and then to the abstract. If I didn't see any evidence that any of that had been done then I would want to talk about that with the teacher. But I would want to be familiar with that concept. I'd need to understand and have some evidence. All of the recent research on school me principals really needed to keep abreast of that kind of research...What it was saying...What was happening...I think maybe most of that came in a period after I left the principalship. But lots of it was reassuring in a way. You'd say,"Oh, that's why something worked because we did it in this way. But I think it is important for the principal to be a competent professional and to keep abreast with research.

Q: How about your role in public community relations? What do you see as being the principals role for the school?

A: The principal really needs to interpret the program to the community. Too much of what goes on in PTA meetings is in terms of"Shall we buy raincoats? or What fund raiser? or Who's going to do what for the fund-raiser?" This takes away from the time to discuss with parents some of the major issues and I don't think the principal ought to always be the person to present the major issues necessarily ...But I think the principal ought to take a major role in presenting some issues and ideas to parents...talking about the research to back those ideas up...involving the parents...letting the parents know what's going on. Somehow there's the feeling that they don't have any business with this or something. But when parents know what you're doing, why you're doing it, when you're doing it, where you're doing it for their children...You're likely to have a lot more cooperation and understanding. If you interpret: What are our intentions? What are our directions? Where are we going? Why are we asking for this? Why are we doing this? So that parents know and understand. One day I had some parents who were to come in I'd say at two o'clock one afternoon to meet with me...some officers of the PTA. What did they do? They showed up at one o'clock. Really about a quarter to one...I don't know how they thought it was one but they did. I said , "How many of you have really got to go? How many can stay?" I said, "Come on down to a meeting with me." They went to a meeting where I sat with fourth, fifth, and sixth grade teachers. We were talking about some things I had observed when I went around looking at teachers teaching math. We went through an exercise that really related to...and I won't go into all of it here...But what I saw was youngsters were saying that they didn't understand by raising their hands and asking questions that should have immediately triggered to the teacher that there was a concept they didn't understand? We put down some math problems on the board and we listed every concept that a child had to know in order to deal with that particular math concept. Sometimes there were fifteen concepts that you had to understand in order to deal with one math problem. I'd say, "When a child raised his hand and made a statement... They weren't able to articulate I don't understand concept number 7 here...But you as the teacher should have interpreted what was said as asking that question and recognized that you were going to have to go back and work on concept number 7 before you proceed. We worked on that little exercise and the parents were there. Some of the teachers said,"You must be talking about me when you were there and I did this. I'd say,"No, No, and someone else would say , "No, I thought you were saying me." And they went on. I'd explain that I think this was a general weakness that I observed and we need to address it. We went through that whole exercise and the parents were so thrilled. They thanked us. They thanked the teachers...they thanked me. They said that they didn't even know that things like this went on in the school. We didn't even know that you worked together to try to decide how to improve instruction...and What are some of the things that you did. When they can be involved as much as they can...They need to know what you're doing and why. You need to take every method you can...Your newsletters, your PTA meetings...opportunities when you meet with parents...coffees...Do everything you can to interpret the interpret some of the special problems that occur in the help with special needs in a given community...So that parents understand what is going on and where you stand on issues. Then they don't want to run the schools.

Q: They like to be involved and supportive of what's going on in the school.

A: Yes, they like to know and when they feel like you're doing a competent job they don't want to do it. They're perfectly willing to let you do it when they think it is competent. I always say to a principal when the parents want to run it be very careful because they don't think you're running it well...Or they don't know what you are doing to run it.

Q: Was there a time when you brought about a change or when you were hoping to bring about a change in the school building and you sought parent involvement? Do you recall an incident like that?

A: When I went to Hybla Valley ...The first day I appeared in the building ...There stood a line of parents. I didn't even know where my office was. They were waiting for me to tell me that this school had the worst discipline in all this world. The parents came. the teachers came. The children came. The crossing guard came. The neighbors came. Everybody told me how awful...the secretaries, the custodians, the cafeteria workers...everybody told me that this is the worst discipline that any school might have in the world. I said," Well, you need to help me to change it. The very first PTA meeting we addressed the issue and that is when I said to the entire PTA that I'm going to work with children...But if I call you I need you to come and help. And they did. I don't know what it was before I got there...I truly don't ...It must have been awful ...Because I noticed that people were coming from the central and area offices everyday and I would say to them I have something to do ...but go look...whatever it is you want to do go do it...unless you want to see me. They were coming back saying we don't believe it. Then someone would come in the morning and then come back in the afternoon. Somehow they were just totally shocked. But as best I can figure it the expectations for students were so low you would have probably had to crawl through the gutter and reach down in the drain and find the expectations. I think that created the idea that you could do anything you wanted to do and you weren't even expected to do any better.

Q: It certainly was a positive change when you involved the parents and the staff in turning it around.

A: Well, you couldn't teach or anything. All of the teachers, the parents, everybody worked together and changed that. That is what I was most proud of...that it was a well disciplined school with happy youngsters who cried to come to school.

Q: That was a big change. If you had to describe your personal leadership style, what would you say it is?

A: I guess I have a difficult time with the word leadership. I've never heard anybody describe it so that it was adequate to cover all of the aspects of leadership. I think I have an eclectic leadership style...This business about democratic or laizzez-faire leadership or authoritarian leadership is sometimes a little bit ridiculous. There are times when somebody has burst into the school raging and can't be democratic and meet to decide what to do...You must be autocratic and make a decision and follow through with it and do what needs to be done at that point. Most of what you do ought to be on a sharing democratic basis...Those long term goals and those kinds of things. But you can't put everything through that sort of process. There are times when some issues arise and teachers or parents or youngsters want to push you to decide now or do something right now. When you recognize that if you don't touch that issue but work on some others this one will disappear. That's a time I think is perfectly appropriate to be laizze-faire and don't do one thing about it. That's what I consider leadership. It's knowing when to do which...when to be autocratic, when to be democratic, and when to be laizzez-faire. And making good judgement about when to do those things is a key. As I said before, I'm not sure that a simple discussion like this about leadership is truly adequate, but it's the way I feel. You need to know several approaches to leading or working with people. Try to make good decisions about what time which approach is the best approach.

Q: I heard you say that judgement is very important. That's critical.

A: As an administrator working as administrative assistant to the Superintendent, and as an Area administrator where I saw the most critical problems arise in a school was when somebody didn't use good judgement. There are certain areas that principals must be cognizant of all the time. There can't be a time when you let your guard down on safety. You have to have your eyes open to everything as you walk up and down the halls, in and out of classrooms, in the bathrooms. You must pick up safety hazards. Have all your staff alert to them. And not see them and not report or do anything about them. That is an example of an area where sometimes teachers and principals are very lax and use some very poor judgement and get into some terrible problems. You mentioned inconsistent discipline and the use of poor judgement in what discipline is appropriate for which kind of crime...and reporting that to parents. Errors in judgement in those kinds of areas, errors in grading, arbitrary decisions about grading. These kind of judgement calls- where I felt the most serious problems came up- were frequently poor judgement calls on somebody's part.

Q: If you could use one or two word descriptions how would you prioritize your activities for the most effective leadership you could provide in the building?

A: I'm amused because sometimes when you tackle something like that it's very difficult. I'd say you have to set some priorities and your priorities have to be the quality of the instructional program in that school. Your priorities have to be related to the kind of expectations you have for the students. The priorities have to be what do you know, what do your teachers know about the teaching-learning process. Is that what is constantly before us? Is that what we talk about? Is that what we share as professionals? Is that what we enjoy? That has to have the highest priority. I think frequently priorities are on those kind of foolish things like watching what time people sign in and out. I feel you know if somebody is abusing time. I discovered that I had some teachers who were going to be two or three minutes late every day of their lives. They just drag and then three hours after school closes, just as I came in here this evening and saw your teachers, they're working away. They are night people. Then there are those out there angry walking the sidewalk when the custodian comes in the morning because they're morning people...and when it's time to go home they're at the door ready to walk out. I think you have to accept those kinds of characteristics in people and don't make that your high priority. If somebody is abusing time call them in and tell them their abusing and leave everybody else out of that. Don't stand there watching them. That's where we're the big authority and they're the subordinates and they have to do what we say. Sometimes those kind of things we give high priority instead of placing the priority on where it belongs...the teaching-learning process in the school.

Q: You've had a lot of experiences in educational leadership through your unique positions...being president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. Would you tell me a little about that experience.

A: It was probably the most interesting experience I think I've ever had. I had an opportunity to visit schools and principals across the nation. I had an opportunity to work with principals in all of the visit them and to see their schools and to talk with discuss the issues that were plaguing principals. There were many opportunities to present to the media concerns of principals and problems of principals...and some of the issues principals have to deal with in addition to the teaching-learning process. I felt that it was an experience that helped me to understand that we have lots of common bonds as principals across the nation and that principals are truly the key to good education in the public schools...and that principals are extremely important in interpreting what we do to the public.

Q: They are the key and yes they have a very important role in the school. What does it take to be an effective principal? You mentioned before that it is important to get out in the building and to see what's going on in the building, that it is important to build consensus around goals and priorities. What other attributes are critical for a principal?

A: I did a workshop several times for principals here in Fairfax on being instructional leaders. One of the things I tried to emphasize in that workshop...And I tried to get two people to work with me who were as different as chalk and cheese...So that the three of us were probably as different as three human-beings could be...but I hoped three people who ran pretty good schools...And I don't think anybody has to be me to be a good principal or do things or take my approach. I am enthusiastic-jump through the windows-dance around the room...But there are other principals who are very quiet, who are dynamic leaders, who talk to people in very different ways, who work with their teachers in a very quiet way, who understand and do the same things in very different ways. If we try to say that one kind of person is the best kind of person to be a principal that's a very sad mistake. I'm not sure but as I look back on things that I felt would be important-a person must truly want to be a principal, truly want to make a difference for children. To be dedicated to having students who were the very very best students in the world if possible...To have youngsters who experience the true love of learning. I recognize that home conditions and experiences affect children. But if we leave that alone when we can't do anything about people being divorced, parents being divorced and single parents. We have to be sensitive to it but we can't blame that and say therefore we can't teach. The finest place, the happiest time, the best place that many children will ever be will be in their classrooms. We need to take advantage of that. Many of those same children we're saying can't learn because of their home conditions...the best time that they have is when they're with us. We have to take advantage of that and let them truly share in the love of learning...And try to help them to really love learning...and really feel good about learning and want to learn some more. Expect that they can do it. You're seeing that I truly have a bias in terms of the importance of expectations and the importance of the teaching learning process, and the importance of combining high expectations with top quality teaching, and having youngsters enjoy their learning.

Q: That's important for all youngsters. Recently there has been some indication that there may be relapses in insensitivities toward minority students and toward minority appointees to the principalship. Would you comment on that for me?

A: I've done a lot of research, rather I've looked up a lot of research on minority students specifically and why they fail and why they don't fail. It is absolutely true. There is an abundance of research that makes it quite clear that teachers have low expectations for minority students and those low expectations influence their teaching methods, their discipline, their support, their seating, and questioning... Everything about what they do for those youngsters is influenced by low expectations. I feel so strongly that what I think minorities as principals and teachers do is not only serve as role models for minority children but frequently help their peers to see that minorities can make it. Often if there aren't any minority teachers and principals around then the idea that they can't do it is reinforced. And on the part of people who feel that way I think that is sad.

Q: It's very important that role models are there for all children.

A: Yes, but role models there for our peers too.

Q: How about the civil rights issues? Were you involved in any of that as a principal in either of your schools?

A: When I started to teach we had black and white schools. I went through the period where those schools changed. I actually served as the first black to be an administrator of a school in the city of Alexandria that had been previously all white. I have to tell you in all honesty that I cannot say that I ran into any fierce opposition. I certainly had occasions where there were people who made some derogatory comments but that certainly was not by any means a majority or any where near that. It was a very small portion and happened very infrequently. In fact I felt tremendous support from the parents, the students, the teachers that I worked with during that period. It was difficult for people because we went through these periods where I literally walked into meetings and saw a black sit beside a white teacher who then got up and moved. There were things such as these. We went through some bitterness. For example, the way that the teaching staff was integrated was to take the best black teachers out of the schools that had been previously all black and put them in schools that were mostly all white. Then take the brand new people- who were just hired- who were white teachers-and put them in the previously all black schools. These were the tactics that were used. I just openly said no you will not. I did that. Now, I can tell you that I didn't get to the top of the list that way but I said no you cannot take my best teachers out of my school. I said no you don't. You have orders that you must integrate but this is not the way to do it. I will just absolutely have a fit. If you think you're going to take them I'm going to make a big public scene. This thing is not going to happen...and they didn't do it. They really didn't do it. But after I left they did it.

Q: You mentioned the effective schools movement awhile ago and as I think about some state reform initiatives also there has been a redefinition of what an excellent school is ...If you were to define an excellent school what would you say that school is like?

A: One where children were being taught. There is nothing wrong with the conclusions that have been drawn from the research...that say the principal is the key; high expectations on the part of principals and teachers. But the old philosophy of taking the football coach who has had several losing seasons and has fallen from grace and making him principal of the elementary school...This kind of mentality ...I'm grateful it's gone. That principal is so important. That principal sets the tone for that school; sets expectations for teachers; and the kinds of expectations teachers set for children. The school has to be one where teachers know how to teach. Know the teaching-learning process and demonstrate their knowledge of the process. A school where students enjoy and love learning.

Q: How do you improve on teaching ability? How do you improve and strengthen that?

A: By making teachers your colleagues and not threatening to make them Level 1 or some such lower species. Teachers have to understand what good teaching is. That's why principals need to spend their time getting all the research they can find on teaching and learning and helping teachers to understand it. The material that you have here in Fairfax County now that was put together for you-the manual-is excellent. It truly looks at teaching behavior so that you can help a teacher specifically with that material. There is no way that I could sit here and agree and tell you that I think that to tell the public we're going to get rid of some bad teachers-which you could do without merit pay in essence-giving some teachers Level II and some Level I -I think it will tear your faculty up. I think you've got to help everybody be as much Level II as you can. You can do that if you don't go in with a threat. What you're managing to do is threaten their jobs. Rather go in and say if you want to be a good teacher I'm going to help you to be one. If you don't see a lot of evidence of those desirable characteristics point them out in the manual that you've been through with teachers. They've worked on it and they understand. But if you don't see evidence of that say what it is that you don't see. Have them work with somebody so they see it. Demonstrate and do it. You work with them. Work with the children. Let them go around and observe other teachers and give them every opportunity to learn it. I don't think they can't learn it nor do I think they don't want to learn it. I think they are so threatened now. People are afraid to ask questions or to say they don't know. We are making a monster.

Q: I'm not sure that we have all the answers yet. I think there are still a lot of questions to be answered about our program.

A: I guess my concern is that the type of program you have here with making teachers various levels has been tried in a number of places. These things have not succeeded. They've created more problems than they have solved. You find that teachers are on two levels and where you once had a cooperative faculty with everybody working together... and one teacher agreeing to take this special job-the Superintendent's Advisory Council-the chairperson of the United Way Campaign in your school-all those kinds of jobs-one who agreed to be the safety patrol sponsor and one who is SCA leader. Now what you get is people saying let the Level II people do it. They get the money. It just creates problems you didn't even have before. I'm not sure that you're going to get rid of poor teachers. Somebody who doesn't have the knowledge or the know-how to get rid of a poor teacher. That teacher isn't going to apply for a Level II. Therefore, outside observers aren't going to see them. Principals who didn't have the guts to get rid of them in the first place certainly aren't going to do it now. I'm criticizing a specific program and I shouldn't do that.

Q: But that does talk about merit pay and what you believe about merit pay. How about teacher grievances? Have you ever handled a teacher grievance? How do handle issues that develop with that?

A: I cannot tell you that I've ever had a teacher file a formal grievance against me. A grievance needs to be handled with respect. You're generally the first person who reviews it. You can't sit and say I'm not going to change if you know you're wrong. You need to consider seriously a grievance that a teacher has filed and deal with it in a very respectful and concerned way. It may be that you think that the grievance is against the principal. You might feel that your actions that caused the grievance are very much justified and are very much in order and that you can't change them. You still must treat it with respect, confidentiality. Don't behave as if a teacher isn't suppose to do this. Sometimes just the way the grievance is handled-it's not handled with respect-the teacher is forever a cast out, gets punished in every way that's possible. You must handle anybody's grievance like you'd want yours to be handled. You want it to be respected, confidential. You want it to be given careful consideration. That's how you have to handle a grievance.

Q: As a principal you couldn't escape the tension and pressure of the job. What did you do to handle those pressures and stresses of the job?

A: I'd be lying to you if I told you that in the principal's job I felt a lot of stress and tension. There were some stressful times and I can tell you quickly the two things that created the stress for me. One was if a child was seriously injured or seriously ill. The second is when you have to deal with parents who are fighting each other over the custody of their child and divorce. That always disturbed me because I felt the school should not be involved. Sometimes you had people who were angry, who came to school with guns or knives. You have to deal with those kind of things. The most stressful time for me was a child being seriously ill. Other than that whatever the problem was you can't be tied up and stressed. You have to realize either you can solve or you can't-or you can try to solve it or you can't solve it and not get all tied up.

Q: Well that was the way that you handled stress.

A: I really didn't go home and not have nights where I couldn't sleep or that kind of thing I just didn't do that.

Q: If there were three areas of operations for administrators that you could change what would they be?

A: I'm not sure what you mean by areas of operations.

Q: Three administrative tasks or details that you had to pay attention to during the school year. What might you change?

A: Well, I'm retired so I guess I can say what I want. I felt that principals frequently had to deal on an annual basis if not more frequently with various kinds of reports that had to be sent in to somebody's office to say they had their report. Anytime I had to handle some kind of paper task like that ...that I felt was not going to do the school or me, or the teachers, or the community-other than that person getting in the report any benefit. That's an area that really needs to be challenged. I guess because it was difficult to change hundreds of years of thinking about what PTAs are suppose to do I frequently did not enjoy PTA functions or meetings. I felt every year it was go back and try to help retrain PTA presidents and officers as to what their responsibilities really were and what they were not. I did not like that. I just did not enjoy that part. I didn't mind dealing with parents on any issue. I just felt that this was often a waste of my time to be involved in PTA bake sales. I didn't think that was the direction in which the PTA should be going. I feel that frequently there are too many meetings for principals. Everybody in the school system has to have their meeting with principals. You have all of the offices in Facilities Services, Management Information Services, General Services, and Instructional Services-each office wants to meet with principals so they can explain...Somehow there needs to be a day or time that people can say whatever is important this year and whatever the change is or something. There is too much for principals outside of the schools and they really weren't given time to do those things that were important.

Q: Do you think that's why there's an outcry for school based management? Whatever that might mean?

A: Yes. I haven't learned yet what that means. It is in the head of the beholder as to what it means. It generally doesn't mean that principals are going to be able to choose materials, spend money, choose their teachers, and all of the kinds of things that you have responsibility for and yet somebody else is doing it for you. You've got to take a teacher from somewhere else because she was destaffed or because somebody didn't want her or she couldn't work in a program. It's just a lot of things. I'm not sure that my definition of school-based management would be somebody else's definition. That has to be defined before I think that's any kind of solution.

Q: Nellie is there anything that I haven't asked you that I should ask you... that I should know about you and your experiences?

A: Yes, I have dismissed teachers for being incompetent. Not once did any of those teachers fight it or say that I had done an injustice. That's why I say you can do it. You can do it without lawsuits and ...

Q: And without loss of self-esteem for those teachers.

A: That's exactly right.

Q: Would you mind telling me a little more about that? How did you go about helping those teachers?

A: I worked with teachers. I pointed out the areas of difficulty. I demonstrated for them. I let them see other teachers-visit other teachers. I did everything. I called in specialists. I did everything I could to help them. When I began to see very little was changing I was very open and honest with them. There were times when I was personally touched by the fact that I was telling somebody I don't know how I can support you in this position if there aren't some changes. I told them every right that they had and everything they could do to fight any conclusion that I had drawn-what their rights were and who they could call. I not only told them but I listed them in any written communication that wasn't positive. I listed as soon as I had said what I felt I needed to say in regards to their work. I told them where they could go for help or to get outside advice or who was in the system or outside to help them. I told them how to fight if they felt my actions were not fair. Often they said you were as fair as anybody could be and you tried. Some said I just didn't listen because I didn't want to believe it was me. I thought it was these little dumb children and I didn't realize until it was too late that it was me and not the children. One said when I went to college I just played and had a good time and partied. I really didn't learn those things you said I didn't demonstrate...any concepts of that. I don't know them. I didn't learn them. One even said because my father was influential in the community he made sure I got a job and now I see how wrong that was because I'm not suited to do this.

Q: Yes, they understood and agreed also.

A: Yes, and this required a conference with the Superintendent or the Superintendent's designee. They said to the Superintendent whether I agree with all the accusations or not all of it was done fairly.

Q: Nellie, thank you for sharing that. Thank you again for agreeing to interview with me this evening. You have really given me some insight into the principalship. It's apparent that you have experienced a successful career as a school administrator and educational leader. You bought about many positive changes in your schools and through your positions. You are an excellent example and a model for me and I thank you for that and I've enjoyed talking to you.

A: Thank you because you must know that every day that I went to work as a principal was a wonderful day for me. I really enjoyed being a principal. I enjoyed every bit of being a principal and I think it was an opportunity to be able to see, to work, to change, to see the changes...positive changes, to touch, to be there...I really enjoyed that experience and that part of my career.

Q: Thank you for sharing it.

A: Thank you for inviting me to do this.

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