Interview with Ray Rollins


The following is a transcript of an oral history taken on February 7, 1987. The interviewee is Mr. Ray F. Rollins, a retired secondary school principal with Norfolk Public Schools. The interview was conducted in the living room of Mr. Rollins home in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

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Q: I would like to start with a little of your history in education. How many years were you a teacher?

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

A: Actually a teacher, six and one-half.

Q: Six and one-half?

A: Yep.

Q: And that was as a math teacher at Granby High School?

A: Well, no, I taught Math and Social Studies in Maine for four years before I came to Norfolk.

Q: You had said on the phone that you were in the Navy prior to your teaching career?

A: Right. I was recalled to active duty in '51.

Q: During the Korean conflict?

A: Right. Yeah.

Q: So you were six and ono-half years a teacher, how long were you in administration?

A: Well, when I was in Maine I was a teaching-principal. 1 was principal of the school and teaching at the same time. It was a small school. I only had four and one-half teachers working for me. So 1 was principal of the school and teaching at the same time, teaching parttime.

Q: Do you remember exactly what year you were a principal when you went to Robert Gatewood #chool?

A: (long pause) '56.

Q: 1956 until I963?

A: No, I was only there two years. I went there in '56, September of I956 or whatever, until the next fall. Two years and then I went to Northside (Jr. High) as an Assistant Principal.

Q: So from September, 1956 until your retirement in July, I983 you were in Administration?

A: Yep.

Q: O.K. Do you think that your previous military career assisted you in school administration in any way?

A: I'm not sure.

Q: You're not sure?

A: I'm not sure.

Q: Do you see a military leader being different from a leader in a school?

A: Not really. No.

Q: Does the military force their leaders to be a little more autocratic then what a school system would want you to be as a leader?

A: I wouldn't say so.

Q: Now then, what was your job in the Navy?

A: I was a communicator.

Q: Was that as an enlisted man or officer.

A: Well, both. As an enlisted man I was a communicator. And when I bccame an officer I became a communications officer. I learned how to encode and decode messages and the same. Cryptology or whatever you want to call it.

Q: Did you actualIy have a unit that you were in charge of as an officer?

A: Yes.

Q: Then you did have a leadership position in the military?

A: Yes. When I went back on active duty in '51 I was put in this area where we encoded and decoded messages. I became head of the department. I would be in charge of watches. 1 would serve so many hours on and so many hours off. Then I got to be C.W.O. (Communications Watch Officer). I was in charage of a complete section.

Q: Then that was a responsible position?

A: Yeah.

Q: Can you pinpoint an individual who influenced you more than others as you became an educational administrator?

A: S, R. Butler.

Q: S. R. Butler?

A: Yes.

Q: And he was the principal at Northside (Jr. High)?

A: Yes he was.

Q: And you went there as his Assistant Principal?

A: Yes.

Q: How many years did you serve under Mr. Butler?

A: Two and one-half years...three years at most.

Q: In what ways did he influence you?

A: I don't know, he was like a father to me and he always tried to get you to do your very best.

Q: And when you were a teacher for him he was encouraging you to do your best?

A: Right.

Q: Do you think he was the person who picked up on your administrative skills?

A: I don't know, I don't know! I did the best I could for him in whatever he asked me to do. I really don't know. But he did. Maybe. He really treated me like his son.

Q: So it was a very special relationship and it sounds like you have a lot of respect for him. lt must have been particularly rewarding for you to work for him.

A: Oh, yes.

Q: My first principal in Norfolk was Lillian Brinkley. I have all the respect in the world for Lillian. #he kind of was my mentor all through the years. I started in elementary education. It was a very special relationship between she and I kind of like that between you and Mr. Butler. You talked on the phone about a phone conversation you received asking you to be the Principal of Gatewood school. Can you relate that conversation and tell me what your feelings were when you received it?

A: (laughter) 1 was surprised. I was really surprised. Mr. Brewbaker (superintendent of Norfolk Public Schools at the time) called me one morning, early, and he says, Ray, I hope I haven't awakened you too early. I said no, I'm awake. He said well, I didn't want to wake you up but l've been out mowing the lawn. He said I've got a job offer for you if you want to take it. He said } have a school for you. He said S. R. Butler has recomended you for a principalship and he said I would like to offer you this job. nd I said, Mr. Brewbaker, what does it pay? He said $5000. I said good lord Mr. Brewbaker, I'm making more than that next year as a teacher. (laughter) He said, well you take it or leave it Ray, whatever you want. But he said it's an in, a way to get in. I took it. (laughter).

Q: You really had to take a pay cut?

A: Yeah, I did.

Q: That's amazing!

A: Yeah, Sam Ray (Deputy Superintendent of Norfolk Public Schools) was congratulating me on my promotion. I said Sam, what promotion are you talking about.

Q: Yeah, what kind of promotion was that (laughter)! Having served as an administrator at both the elementary and secondary levels, is there a difference in the leadershp skills needed at each level?

A: I don't think so. I don't think not.

Q: So whatever you need in one you also need in the other?

A: Yes.

Q: Did you preier working with one age group over the other?

A: I like the Junior High age. I just think there is something about them. I really like them.

Q: I've learned too. I was in elementary for four years and high school for six. So having gone to middle school I had never worked with that age before.

A: Well I like elementary and I like secondary!

Q: What did you like about the kids?

A: Well in elementary they were cute. They wouldn't leave you alone. (laughter) You know what I mean. You've taught there. (pause) I think Junior High is the most difficult age to work with. (pause)

Q: After three years working in the middle school I find that they present more challenges because you never know what expect from one minute to the next. They seem so conIused. They need direction but they want to be independent. They don't have a lot of trust and it's hard to relate to them. lt seems as they get into high school the kids develop a sense of maturity and it is easier to deal with them on a more adult level. Of course, I've seen high school students who are immature as well.

A: I've experienced that myself.

Q: You were in administration during some exciting times in our nation's history. What role did historical events such as space exploration, President Kennedy's assassination and the Viet Nam War play in the climate of your schools.

A: I really don't know.

Q: Do you remember the day that President #ennedy was assassinated?

A: I remember the day that President Kennedy was assassinated I was getting ready to go on vacation to Maine. When I heard it on the radio we announced it to the children.

Q: I remember I was in the 9th grade at the time. I can remember the Principal coming on and making the announcement. It must have been a very rough thing for you to do not knowing how the student's were going to respond. Do you remember what the student's response was?

A: They cried. (pause)

Q: I guess the space exploration started with Sputnik around I959 - I960. Did you notice an effect on education?

A: Oh yeah! The National Science Foundation and the Federal Government pumped a lot of money into the schools. It seemed like there was no end to the funds available for science and math programs.

Q: With the implementation of President Johnson's Poverty Program was there any impact on the schools?

A: There was a 1ot more money. It made an amazing difference. There were additional iunds available. (Wife entered the room at this point to say good-bye as she left for the hairdresser).

Q: What was your philosophy oI education?

A: (Shook head no) not a whole lot. (pause)

Q: What was your philosophy of teaching?

A: I'm not good on philosophy.

Q: How did you motivate your students?

A: (pause) We would have conferences at school with the students and their parents in hopes of getting them involved in what their kids were doing. Essentially we tried to get the students interested in the subject matter.

Q: When you were teaching math it must have been hard to motivate those who had a dislike for math.

A: Well whether it was the difference in time or the difference in students, there did not seem to be a motivation problem. I always felt that if a teacher took the time to consider the student and where they were coming from and consider the student as a person, that it made a difference. 1 told my faculties to listen to what the students had to say. lt was a strong belief of mine as a teacher and as an administrator.

Q: Did that motivation technique carry over to administration when you had to work with adults?

A: (pause) Yeah! It was always important for me to take the time to let my faculties know I was interested in each of them as individuals. I would take time to ask questions and let them cry on a shoulder. Giving a teacher strength and support and caring goes a long way for helping them to know someone cares about them not only as a teacher but also as a human.

Q: lt sounds like your motivational techniques might have been one aspect of your pesonal leadership philosophy.

A: As I said, I'm not good with philosophy. I don't think that there is any secret to success in administration. What works for you might not work for another. S . R . Butler taught me how to get the most out of a school. I think 1 learned that lesson well. I think you can only get out as much as you put into a school.

Q: Was there anything distinctive in the way you ran your school?

A: No, (pause) not that I can think of. I went in each day giving my best and I asked my faculties to do the same.

Q: Did your teachers respond to your expectations?

A: sually. We all have our bad days but I would have to say usually.

Q: What does it take to be an effective building principal.

A: 1 learned very early on in the Navy, at my first school in Maine, and when I started teaching in Norfolk that it is important to surround yourself with good people if you are going to be successful.

Q: ln what positions would that be at school?

A: Teachers, Department chairs, others on the administrative team...lhey are all important. lf you have a strong supporting group behind you it seems like the principal can almost look good without doing anything.

Q: Are you saying that an effective building administrator can let those around him make him look good?

A: Well, yes and no. You can't just sit back and do nothing. But then again, if you surround yourself with the right people they will accomplish your goals.

Q: Did you let your faculty and staff have any say-so in decisions?

A: I always felt that was important. I often would set up a committee to study an issue or problem then report to me. I often sat in at these meetings and exchanged ideas with the teachers. They knew I would always listen to what they had to say. Ya know, they felt a lot better about decisions when they felt they contributed to the final decision. I always got the opinions of everyone involved whether it be a secretary, custodian, nurse or cafeteria manager. I learned that the more input a person gives the better they feel about the output.

Q: ln addition to surrounding yourself with good people and giving them a say in decision making, what else made you an effective principal? (pause) laugh...was I an effective principal?

A: (pause) I think another key is organization. I was well trained in the military in being organized. It was important in the communications Iield.

Q: How did that carry over to your career in education?

A: I was always what I called a structure oriented teacher. I had specific plans that anyone could have taught from, I had a classroom management plan that instilled discipline in my students and I used my time effectively in instruction.

Q: How about when you became an administrator?

A: Many of the same characteristics carried over. I organized my time wisely, planned effectively and attempted to instill discipline in my staff and students.

Q: Were you successful in accomplishing these goals?

A: (laughter) I hope so!

Q: Did you notice a change in student attitudes toward school over the period of your administrative career? If so, how?

A: I think so. Students changed. They just didn't seem to care as much as they used to.

Q: In what ways?

A: (pause) They seemed to reject authority. We did that to them.

Q: Who are "we"?

A: I guess society. I can remember in the 1960's how r#les seemed to be cast aside in the world. There was so much going on that students saw on television. #ivil rights, riots, war, the peace movement...everyone was attempting to buck the system.

Q: Did that carry over into the schools?

A: That's what I meant when I said people didn't care. I noticed students not doing their work, talking back to teachers and questioning authority. (pause) Oh, this always went on but not as much.

Q: What changes did you notice in parent's support of schools?

A: P.T.O.'s (Parent Teacher Organizations) just seemed to fall apart. No one seemed to care. Parents didn't support the schools. They also questioned rules and treatment of students.

Q: Sounds like a hard time for administrators.

A: And teachers.

Q: I came into the Norfolk System in 1974. I haven't noticed a big change in support since that time. Was there a moderation of this climate in the I970's?

A: The lack of support remains. I think it's still as it was but you came in the middle of it. You didn't know what it was like before.

Q: 1 guess you're right.

A: My career in education has always been in Norfolk during the 70's and 80's. The only comparison I have is to my student teaching in rural Pennsylvania. That was a far cry from integrated, urban, inner-city schools.

Q: How can schools of higher education better prepare graduate students to become administrators?

A: You know, all that theory that they teach you is pretty useless. lf something could be done at the college level to deal with what it is actually.

Q: Can you give me some examples?

A: Take scheduling. Did anybody teach you how to schedule in college? How about discipline? Was there any courses taught?

Q: You know, you're right. Those are the things that you learn on the job.

A: Why can't they be put into a college curriculum. I know I learned my skills from S. r. Butler. The colleges didn't do a whole lot for me.

Q: Can a person learn to discipline outside the school?

A: In a way I think so. What you learn everywhere, everyday, affects the way you deal with kids. You know the most important parts in disciplining is to be fair and consistent and to be thorough in your investigation. Some of those skills can be taught, some of them can't.

Q: How should school systems evaluate a candidate's potential to be an effective principal?

A: They need to look at you. They need to take a long, hard look at you.

Q: Like S. R. Butler did with you?

A: Yeah. 1 know when I was trying to get into administration it was hard. The system has gotten so big, it's hard to get the people to see you as an individual. The screening process now is so complex. The interview process is so tough. I find it hard to believe that the superintendent called you and offered you a job #fter what I had to go through this past summer to get my permanent position.

Q: What was the toughest challenge you faced as a building principal?

A: (long pause here) I guess it was the day the first black child came into Northside (Jr. High). Mr. S. R. Butler was in the hospital. I was the acting principal when that little girl came into school that first day. There were cameras everywhere and the news media, the newspapers. Everybody wanted to see what was going to happen.

Q: And what did happen?

A: Well, we had provided a lot of security for her. Everybody was expecting her and everybody was expecting trouble. But we didn't have any. I think it was because we were all on our toes. She went to all of her classes, there was not an incident anywhere. The day went very well.

Q: Was it the same when there was mass integration?

A: No. We went through some rough times then. I think the parents caused the trouble. You know they had so many prejudices they caused the trouble in the kids when they brought it to school.

Q: Can you be more specific?

A: You know. There was a lot of racial tension.

Q: When 1 came into the system in 1974 most of that seemed to have disappeared.

A: Well, by the mid '70's and late '70's it had but you saw what happened to your system.

Q: What do you mean?

A: Well, a lot of the whites left.

Q: Well, hopefully, with the new neighborhood school plan we'll be able to rebuild the school system.

A: Yeah. There's been a lot of changes.

Q: Have they all been for the good?

A: Most of them (laughter).

Q: What method did you use for assigning duties to your assistant principal?

A: Well, you know when 1 said about organization. I felt it was important for the assistant principal to know exactly what he was supposed to do. When I would get a new assistant principal in we would go over the duties for his ob. I guess 1 would delegate a lot to the assistant principal but 1 would still share his job myself. lt was important for me to know what was going on in the building.

Q: As an assistant princpal one of my duties is special education screening. Did you delegate that responsibility to your assistant princpal?

A: Oh no! I took care of all that myself.

Q: Do you remember what it was like before public law 94-142?

A: Oh yes! Seemed like the only classes in special education were E.M.R. (Educably Mentally Retarded) and TMR (Trainable Mentally Retarded). Every once in a while there would be a hearing impaired child and they made a whole class of them when I was principal at Lake Taylor Junior High. With the new laws it seemed like everybody was in special education.

Q: I know that feeling. When I first went to Norview Middle IO% of the kids were special education and I think they caused 90% of the discipline problems.

A: That's right. Students who were placed in learning disability classes were always a lot of trouble at our schools too.

Q: I think I can understand why they're trouble-makers.

A: They are always so frustrated. Learning has been hard for them. They never really were able to get much out of school. So they gave the teachers a rough time because learning was a rough time for them.

Q: I agree. With public law 94-I42 implementation in the mid 70's what changes did you notice?

A: As 1 said before, we now had students with learning disabilities and emotionally disturbed classes started to fill up.

Q: What problems did that present?

A: Well, learning disabled students - we went from zero classes to four classes at Lake Taylor Junior High. lt was a whole new ball game. We started talking about mainstreaming. We started talking about least-restrictive environments. ll this was new to everyone and it was a rough learning experience.

Q: I agree again. We just changed the LD model this summer and again, we have had a rough adjustment.

A: That's what 1 mean. You never have a chance to get a program going. There's always so many changes.

Q: What lines of communication did you use between you and your faculty and staff?

A: Well, every once in a while I would send out a memo or a newsletter to them. But mostly I liked to use verbal communication. 1 liked to see the reactions of the people that I was talking to and I think that there is less misunderstanding if you can talk to an individual directly.

Q: Did you have a lot of meetings then?

A: (laughter) Oh no! I can't stand them.

Q: Then your communications verbally were on an individual basis?

A: As much as possible.

Q: What was your key to success as a principal?

A: Well, as we talked about be#ore, I think it was organization. I organized my schools, I organized my schedule ,I organized my day. Yeah , it had to be organization.

Q: Did you feel you were strong instructionally?

A: Well, you know that's the hardest part of the job.

Q: What's that?

A: The supervision of teachers. As a principal you are expected to know it all and it's not always true.

Q: Did the implementation of Madeline Hunter's workshop in instructional skills help?

A: Not at first. You know there was a lot of resentment to having to attend those workshops.

Q: I can remember. 1 was a guidance counselor and I didn't understand what good they were going to do me.

A: The older teachers just didn't see a need for it.

Q: Did you as a principal think it was necessary?

A: lt helped in doing evaluations. Having a specific model a nd specific items to look at made it a little easier to do supervision.

Q: How did you deal with your faculty's resentment?

A: Well, I talked to a lot of people and I called on Ted Forte.

Q: He was the director of staff development at the time?

A: Yeah. Ted came out to school and we met with teachers in small groups. We talked about the workshop in instructional skills. We tried to go through and make the teachers feel more comfortable.

Q: Did that help?

A: Some. You know everybody still doesn't feel comfortable with the model.

Q: I'm well aware of that. Did you have a personal code of ethics that you followed?

A: (smile and laughter) I just did my best. Tried to stay out of trouble. That's all anybody can do.

Q: Describe for me a typical work day when you were a principal,

A: (laughter) You know there's no typical day.

Q: Well, how would you try to set up your agenda for the day?

A: Each night at home I would do my paperwork. I would put down on a legal pad the things I wanted to do the next day. And I would try to prioritize them and then when I went into school I would try to get through as many of them as I could. At school I tried to be around so people would see me as much as possible. I wanted to get to know the kids. I was usually in the halls, in the cafeteria, outside on the grounds. Wherever the kids were when they weren't in the classrooms I tried to be there.

Q: Sounds a little bit like management by walking about.

A: If that's what you want to call it.

Q: lt seems like there's so much being written today about effective management of schools.

A: (laughter) {t's a lot of hogwash. Most of it is just common sense.

Q: Describe for me your last school, Lake Taylor Junior High, the atmosphere, the climate. What was it like while you were the principal?

A: It was a rough school. It was real hard to be the principal there. You know, nobody lives near Lake Taylor. Everybody comes on a bus. It's very hard to contact parents and get them to school. It was a real challenge but the longer I stayed the more I liked it. lhe school itself is kind of cold. The ceramic tile in the hallway. There's not a whole lot that you can do about that. 1 had them repaint it. 1 made it brighter. It was really dark when I went there at first. You know, on the second floor it was important to make those people feel secure. They didn't feel close to the office. When we first hired security officers I had one up there all the time. 1 liked the school. I still do.

Q: Ray, you know while you've been in school you've seen a lot of changes in Norfolk Public Schools. 1 know since 1974 when I joined the system there's been a lot of changes. Have they been for the good?

A: Some. Not all but some.

Q: Let me ask you what you think about the new emphasis on testing and #.R.. achievement test scores.

A: I think its helped our school system. I think the public put some pressure on us. We had to do better.

Q: I guess that came in with Dr. yers competency challenge back in the late '70s.

A: That's right. The public saw how really bad we were doing.

Q: Then you agree with the new emphasis that's placed on testing and publishing scores.

A: I agree with the testing. 1 think it's important that we know how our kids are doing but I don't think we need to spread the scores all over the newspaper. Norfolk is very different from Virginia 8each. Why should we be compared to them?

Q: Did you notice a dramatic increase in the school's test scores where you worked?

A: We worked very hard at that. lt was slow but there was some progress.

Q: nd it seems like the progress continues each year.

A: From what it says in the paper, I agree.

Q: What have I not asked you that I should have?

A: (laughter) I can't think of a thing.

Q: Ray, thank you for allowing me to interview you today.

A: lt was my pleasure.

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