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Q: Mr. Spence, first, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to afford me this interview, and Mr. Spence knowing of your service as a teacher and principal I feel that you could give responses that would satisfy my class project and the first question Mr. Spence that I would like to ask you, sir, is for you to describe the school that you first began your teaching experience?
(Streamed audio file of interview for this question using RealPlayer)
A: My first teaching experience was in an upper elementary school which was in South Boston, Virginia. I taught there one year, and that was the year before I went into the armed service. If I can recall correctly, I believe it was a 5th and 6th grade experience.
Q: Mr. Spence, some schools have a philosophy. I wonder whether or not your particular school that you worked had a philosophy? I realize that it has been quite a few years, but do you recall that philosophy?
A: With that first experience, I don't recall that a written philosophy of that school, of course, the principal of that school was a person who had a deep background in education, both at the elementary, high school, and the college level. As a matter of fact, he had even been a coach at Shaw University and the philosophy of the school seemed to center around that personality structure of that principal who was rich in educational experiences. The idea that I can recall of that particular person is that he always stressed the importance of encouraging students to excel at that level, and he promoted that idea among his faculty and staff. Sort of an idea of academic excellency from those students concentrated at that school at that time.
Q: Mr. Spence as a teacher and principal, how did you go a bout to create a climate for learning at your particular school that you worked?
A: Well, if you're still talking about the same school, again it takes me back a good while and that was my first teaching experience. I recall we would sit around the lunch table, again it was that concept excellence and taking a personal interest in each student. As a matter of fact, we had to in the afternoons after classes were over, we add the responsibility of going into the homes of the students we taught, setting down talking with the parents and trying to relate to parents the opportunities and experiences that we saw their children having under our supervision and to me that was the kind of experience that stands out even now in my thinking and that was my first teaching experience.
Q: Mr. Spence I recall some years ago when you served as an administrator there at Williamston, North Carolina at Hayes High School, would you sort of explain to me about how you went about creating a learning climate there at that particular High School?
A: Well, that again, to me was a good experience on my part. I was fortunate enough to be associated again with what I call a good administrator, whose foundation, again, and concept seemed to be one of excellence, that was a union school, grades 1 - 12. The physical layout of that plant was one separating the elementary building from the high school building, so my first experience again being an elementary major was in the elementary building and there was about thirty one or two of us in the elementary building. But I went in there, again, I think, was the 7th grade teacher with the Language Arts and the tone for that system had been set, again, by its principal who promoted excellence and believed in bringing outstanding speakers to the campus and believed in encouraging students to excel, believed in organizing the school plant and its facilities and personnel in such a way that the entire day was one of educational effort, and concern, again, for the students under his supervision, and I happened to be a part of that team which was a good experience for me. I worked there as a teacher from the 7th and 8th grades and after four or five years, I became the principal of the elementary segment of that school system which gave me a good opportunity to grow, learn, and develop as an educator.
Q: Mr. Spence, as a principal you mentioned that you served there for the elementary grades, what leadership techniques did you use at that time?
A: I suppose that I tried to employ and I can't recall the various educational theory now, was one of actually leading and not want to dominate and forcing a dictorial way teachers to become good educational leaders, one of showing concern and caring for the many students under our supervision, teachers were encouraged to do that by getting in with the students and indicating to them that there was a real human concern for their future and for their welfare in that plant. If there were a need that the student had, usually we as a team tried to address that need, whether the student came to school upset, unprepared, there was somebody among the team who would point that out on that faculty and the necessary efforts and resources were garnished to try to address those needs. Again, it seemed to be a caring environment with education as a goal for those students to achieve and grow and develop and become well rounded persons with the necessary skills to cope in the world in which they will eventually find themselves.
Q: Mr. Spence as a principal, what was your biggest concern?
A: I don't know whether anything stands out as a biggest concern. Of course, during the time of my administration much emphasis was placed upon self discipline. There was a push on the part of members of the team to make sure students understood self-control and self discipline. And of course, each year we would take on some specific goal, and of course, whether it was in the are of Language, for example, there was always the local language problem that had to be addressed. So, in any given year we would take on that as a project to make sure that we moved students from one stage of development to another stage of development and we single out that particular effort for that year. All during the year we'd call our students and our faculty to that goal. So, it may be one thing one year and another year.
Q: What was your biggest headache, Mr. Spence?
A: I don't recall any such thing as a big headache. I sort of thought in terms of each obstacle as an opportunity or a challenge and I never, I guess, saw anything standing out as a big headache. It was always to me something that we were suppose to be doing. If it surfaced as an obstacle we addressed it and went on about our business and I guess never let it get to a point where it was designated as a big headache.
Q: Mr. Spence, during that time that you served as an administrator in the school system in Williamston, North Carolina, what role did you play in public community relations?
A: Well, that was something. I worked in Williamston, I lived in Elm City, and of course, Elm City community was even smaller than Williamston's community and I always saw there an opportunity to involve ones self in that community structure. I served as precinct chairperson in my community political part, of course, during that time there were many government programs that were in placed and we built a community building. We physically went out and built the building. We got the money to do it, and those of us who were community minded, built the building, put the shingles on it, did the whole bit with free labor as far as the community was concerned. Of course, church work has always been my great interest, I was always active in church work doing public speaking and in any way, I guess, that one thought one could be of service to that community. You make yourself available, and of course, I always tried to do that. Working with the various scouts, those kinds of things was just a community involvement.
Q: Mr. Spence, during the time that you served as an administrator, how did you evaluate your teachers?
A: We had the responsibility of going in, we call it setting in and observing teachers, of course, that is the technique I would use. Go in and sit down and spend some time in the class room and then write up the findings, then, of course, we had follow-up conference with the teacher and the supervisor to find out whether or not we could be of further help in helping that particular teacher to grow and become even better than they already were. That was an on-going responsibility.
Q: What, Mr. Spence, is your present philosophy of education as you see it today?
A: I'm not sure I'm able to crystalize my philosophy of education. I suppose its one that's been with me all along and that is one of teaching as they often say in many ways, teaching the whole child, the whole person, if you may, people develop and have many areas to develop and I think that it becomes the purpose of the educator to find out where there is a need with that person or those persons with whom we are working and to give whatever we can to help those persons to become as complete as they can become. Developing the full potential of every individual with whom we have an opportunity, and it is an opportunity, academic, social, and spiritually in whatever area there is a need we have the responsibility to develop that area.
Q: Mr. Spence what does it take to be an effective principal in today's society?
A: I wish I knew the answer to that one. But I think the challenge or the challenges today are even greater because of the racial problems that are with it. I think we have a responsibility today somehow to teach mankind that we're living in a world that is fast shrinking. We must not want to live among our own ethnic group, that we must learn to live among all people from all parts of the world in a very human and fair fashion, trying to promote a concept of education that will bring about that. That we can no longer discriminate, we can no longer favor a particular group over another group. We must realize that we've had a past history of separateness, and in some cases being right unfair to certain people, especially, the black people, and that we must correct that error; and make sure that people all over the world are treated in a human and fair way; and that we can live together with some degree of peace and harmony. I think that is a challenge to today's principals.
Q: Mr. Spence on that same topic that you mentioned pertaining to the race problem that is confronting our present society, how do you feel about the statement that some black educators are saying that the testing that they see in education that it is unfair to the black for several reasons and that there is a concern that this is a tool used to minimize black teachers?
A: I think in many instances those persons who make those statements are rather accurate, in many instances. I'm not saying its always true. I think standardized testing for the purpose of eliminating people from participating fully in the American way of life, when people use testing for that purpose, then it's wrong. If people are testing for the purpose of promoting excellence among all people, then to me it can be a useful tool. What I'm not sure about is whether or not testing is being done for the purpose of education, whether its being done for the purpose of minimizing black participation in the main stream of American life. And when test scores are used as a cut off point to eliminate people for participation in the American process, to me it then becomes wrong and I think that in many instances that is what its used for because the scores are so drawn that it hits at the core of eliminating, particularly, black people from full participation in the education process, and that's an error.
Q: Mr. Spence also along the same lines when we read about the statistics of the number of blacks that are expelled from school, that are dropping out of school for other reasons, what do you think that need to be done to change those situations?
A: Well, again, I think I mentioned earlier about the challenge of the principal of today. You see, this country gets very frighten, and I guess we all maybe feel some- what concerned about communism, and the word communism is used in many instances to frighten people into action. I think at the same time response could be gotten from those persons who use these tools and tactics to eliminate us because of whatever they feel to respond to the word racism, because that is another ism that we don't like to talk about. I think we could address that problem better, People don't want to say that the significant portion of people incarcerated across this country are black because of the racism that's plaguing our system. They don't want to address that, so, there's a lot of isms that are used on the part of many people to do some things, to me, are not good for mankind. Let's address the problem that people are wrong, let's see if we can make them right. Look at the causes for why they are behaving that way, let's get at the problem. But if you want to incarcerate everybody or put everybody out of school than that' going to throw that same statistics into the whole formula; and it is a misleading statistic because they haven't addressed the problem. We haven't gotten to the symptom of education, but we haven't gotten to the problem that's racism. There's economic problems that we need to address and when we do that then the other things will take care of themselves.
Q: Mr. Spence, I'm sure you have read in the news media by way of newspapers and I'm sure you've watched on television, there has been some discussion concerning the educational system in the United States with that in Japan and some seem to feel that we should copy from Japan, and what's your feeling concerning this comparative study that has been made about the educational system in Japan in contrast with our system?
A: First place, I don't believe that any country can copy verbatim anybody's plan. We are a unique nation, Japan is a unique nation in its own way, and we have said in the past that we believe in educating all of our people, that's our commitment. The demographics of our country, as we all know, is very different from the demographic of the Japanese nation. I think we have to look at our nation and see what our needs are and adjust our needs and if there are some techniques and strategies that we can use from the Japanese nation, let's use it. But to go in and copy verbatim a system developed in and for the Japanese, I think would be an error. I think we would lose a lot of talents, a lot of abilities if we were to do that. The Japanese would eliminate many people out of its system very early. I understand they have a very high suicide rate. I don't think we want to increase the suicide rate among our young people. We want to keep them alive. So, I think we need to address our system in a very human way and see what it is we want to accomplish. I think our system is good as the Japanese in many areas, in very many areas. Of course, the Japanese may be excelling in some areas. We need to know what it is that they are doing that's causing them to excel and see if we can use, maybe that part of the system to encourage our students to excellence. But to verbatim copy the Japanese system or any other system is to me an error.
Q: Mr. Spence, getting back to the time that you served as principal of the elementary grades in Williamston, North Carolina, what pressures did you face as a principal, and how did you handle it?
A: Again, I don't recall in my professional experience, experiencing any undue pressure. I don't recall any. I am sure that there must have been some but I don't recall ever being under undue pressure. There was always the pressure and the push to be good and to excel, and to me that's a normal pressure. But the undue pressure, I don't recall any undue pressure. As a matter of fact, I left from being principal of that school and went to the superintendent's office to work with Title 1 program. I guess the pressure if I were to try to recall it was always an inward pressure to try to do a good job and be excellent in whatever one was doing. I just don't recall any undue pressure.
Q: Did you, Mr. Spence, ever recall any pressure from your superintendent or assistant superintendent in any particular instance?
A: I was fortunate, I suppose, when I went there was an older superintendent, of course, that was a time during the transition from a segregated system to an integrated system. And of course, the older superintendent went out and the young one came in. We had. I thought, a good professional relationship. As a matter of fact, we sit down and talked about integration and what we could do to bring about a smooth transition. Of course, a lot of pressure then was put upon the teachers, and I saw it as another challenge, again, that we need to integrate our school systems and we were open. I was open in sharing with him. As a matter of fact. I thought that there was a need for some change in attitudes on the part of many teachers. At that particular time I thought it was especially true for the white teachers because I don't think they were as ready to teach black youngsters as black teachers were ready to teach white youngsters. Of course, we had the National Team Television media to come in and I was interviewed I recall during that time and got on National Television. The question asked me about white teachers teaching my son. if I recall, what I said at that time was; I don't think any white teacher s are ready to teach my son because they had to be at constant work in changing their attitudes as they perceived black youngsters to be. I think blacks were more ready and accepted the challenge. There were more fear on the part of the blacks for many reasons; loss of jobs and not being treated fairly, bit they were more ready to move into an integrated setup than the white teachers were.
Q: Mr. Spence, did you ever experience and pressure from the PTA, from your local PTA group?
A: No. Let me say again, I think it has to do with involvement. I was a member of the PTA. I went to PTA meetings. We interacted together and if we had something to talk about, we talked about it. I think the way to relieve that kind of pressure is you must be involved. You must go in and allow yourself to be questioned and you must respond and I think that relieves the pressure. There are some things that need to be addressed and nobody addresses it then pressure builds up. You can sit down with PTA members and parents of children and talk about things as they are. Then I think that relieves the pressure. I felt very comfortable at that. I think that's something that can be used in today's system.
Q: Mr. Spence, what were the major issues during your last years as an administrator, as a principal? What were the major issues during that time, the major educational issues?
A: Well, again, I recall that was the latter part of the sixties and I served as principal for one year and then I moved to the central office and I think the major issues of that time were, again. transition stage from an all segregated system to an integrated system. That to me was foremost in our mind at that time. how can we bring it about, and how can we meet legal requirements without any more disruptions of the local community and that wasn't the only one thing, of course, the other thing was improving the standards of achieving for our students. Of course, we had special reading programs and many other programs that we can recall. Those of us who were working during that time is how to bring that about. So, there were special federal projects during that time to address what was considered to be educational needs during the transition time in our educational system. That to me was what T think was constantly before us.
Q: Mr. Spence, looking at today's present situation, what do you see as the major issues confronting our school system today?
A: I think it has to do with a great deal with public relations. You see the public schools within the last ten or fifteen years have really taken a beating from the public. All the ills and all the things in our society have to a great deal of degree been blamed upon our schools. Knowing that our schools only reflect what our society is really about. I think the school effort which have been to me a strategy on the part of many people to avoid the public school problem. So you move into a private school setting, you've gotten out of the problem. We haven't gotten out of the problem, we haven't solved the problem. we've compounded the problem. Public schools to me should be the foundation upon which our school system should be built. There's nothing wrong with private schools, but when they have been set up for the sole purpose of avoiding the problems of integration, then the motives are wrong. So, public schools have taken a beating from many segments of our society. I think the reason is that people have seen this and maybe were getting back on track and to address the real need of the public schools and hopefully we can get the funding, the interest, and the support to get them back where they ought to be.
Q: Mr. Spence what's your feeling or the issue of bringing back prayer into the school?
A: I guess I don't have too much feelings one way or the other. What bothers me often is what do people mean, those persons who promote the idea that prayer in the public school is such a major point for discussion. I think many times people use prayer in the public school to hide another motive. If you're going to have a government prayer in the public school, something that is put together by the government and required by people, I think that's wrong, because we have too many diverse groups in our society to accomplish that goal: but, on the other hand, and I say this often, that prayer in the public school is a need, not a formal structure prayer. but a need and I even go further to say that there is no way you can keep prayer out of the school. You can keep a government formalized prayer out of it and it may be right to do that, but you can't stop people from praying - in school or out of school, or anywhere else. And I take the position, I guess, as many others, that basically, maybe prayer ought to be the responsibility of the parents in the home. Prayer in the home, then you devise your own prayer in the school and it doesn't have to be hypocrisy - the pharisee said when you stand on the street corners and pretend that you are praying but really you are not praying, you're repeating something, that is where the problem is maybe in my mind. Forced government prayer legally in a public school to me is probably a mistake. Allowing prayer is something you cannot deny anyway for those of us who pray. It has nothing to do with the legality of it because its a personal commitment to ones God. I can pray anywhere, in the school, outside or anywhere else and you don't have to devise a prayer in the school for me to do it.
Q: Mr. Spence, there's a question that just came to my mind that probably I should have asked you a little earlier but please allow me to ask it now. During your time as a principal, how did you handle teacher grievances?
A: Well, I don't recall having too many but it was then a matter of open-door policy with me. We didn't have a formalized teacher grievance program as I can recall. It was a matter of if a teacher had a complaint or grievance, especially with the school, it was one of coming in and setting down with those of us who were in administration and addressing that grievance in a forthright and honest way. I didn't have any complicated grievances then because, I guess, because of the way the system was during that time. Then, of course, as a full-time assistant principal where I was I always got support from my supervisor, who would say to me that anytime something comes up you cannot manage, then we'll sit down together and see if we can resolve it. So, there was always a system of from one step to the next step until we could finally get it resolved one way or another.
Q: Did you ever fire a teacher?
A: No. Let me see. Let me go back. Did I ever recommend a teacher be fired? Recalling, I was only there one year and the one year that I was there I don't recall having to recommend firing of any teacher under my supervision for that year. No.
Q: When we look at the teacher education program today, at our colleges and your being an administrator here at Elizabeth City State University, how do you think colleges can improve their teacher education program which in turn should bring about an improvement in our teachers as a profession?
A: I'm not sure that I can adequately address that one because that its a big question, and I guess it gets into the overall concept of how to improve a program to the extent that it impacts upon the teachers who are being taught to become excellent teachers. I'm not so sure I can adequately address that one. I believe that one makes improvements through professional efforts, and the problem is so big that its going to require the very best minds, with the very best information to impact upon teacher education program. Now, as I foresee the program presently as it is structured is moving toward, again, eliminating people who seem to not have the standardized test scores to get into the teaching profession. I'm not so sure that is the answer to all of the problems because again what we're doing, we're eliminating possibly some good teachers and to me the sole criteria is too much emphasis is put upon, again. the test scores of an individual. I'm not saying that's not important, but I think there are other factors that ought to be put into that equation that would help people in the profession to realize whether or not this person has potential for becoming a good teacher. And it's more than a test score. I just don't think that it can be capsuled into a test score. Say now we got them all and we don't, all of the bad ones have been eliminated. I don't think its that easy.
Q: Mr. Spence, what do you think of career ladder for teachers?
A: Getting to meriting again and that's a controversial concept. I think those persons who are dedicated to the profession, who are going to be good teachers and who are good teachers, somehow ought to be secure in their profession and ought to be rewarded. The problem that I have with that is whether or not we are making the pool of those persons to be awarded so small that all the other teachers who are going to be doing an excellent Job will not be promptly rewarded for their efforts. If we can find a way to properly reward all teachers who are doing a good job, then find some way to award those teachers who are doing an excellent job, who are really going beyond the call of duty and not call the morals of those persons who are carrying the weight of the load, then we'll have a program that's good. I'm not so sure that we've gotten there yet.
Q: Along the same lines Mr. Spence, what's your feeling about merit pay?
A: Well, that's the latter program that you mentioned to me, is almost synonymous with merit pay. Its the idea of giving it another name but doing the same thing, in one way or another, people are being paid merit pay for whatever reason. We went through that merit pay system in Martin County when I was there as a project. We didn't come out of it too well. But each time it has come back in some way or another with the public.
Q: What happened there in Martin County that was the major reason why it didn't turn out well?
A: Well, of course, it was a state project. I think after the state saw the results that year they decided not to put any more money into the merit program. So it's been an up and down effort down through the years trying to find a merit system for teachers. Suppose it say that those teachers who are good be given merit pay and those who are not so good to keep them poor and I think that's a wrong argument. The argument that I raise is teachers who are good, pay them well, those who are poor, get them out of the system. Those who are doing an excellent job you may want to reward them in some way or other. But, we haven't reached the point yet where we are paying our good teachers well enough. And to excuse in the way by saying I'm going to take a few people and give them merit pay doesn't solve the problem.
Q: Do you, Mr. Spence, see in the near future where teachers pay will be brought up near the level where other so-called professional salaries are close to the salary standards?
A: I believe I foresee the time when teachers pay will be brought up to the level of other professions with similar training. I think the public recently has gotten interested in public profession which is good. The thing that bothers me as we do that is whether or not black people and other minority groups will be factored into the system to the point where they too can realize the benefit from those high salaries. And what I see now I think is a system designed to factor most black people out of the system now that we're going to get salaries up and factor others into the system and have tokenism again from blacks and other minorities: but, the major bulk of the monies will be going to the majority race.
Q: Mr. Spence from your personal point of view, what are the characteristics that you associate with effective schools?
A: Well, its hard, I guess, for me at this point to recall what I would associate factors in an effective school, but I think there are many. The key to me an effective school is that there must be and this is an over used word it is one that I have use now because of the lack of any other, that there must be a love concept preminating that school whereby the students will know that there are people in that school system who love them to the extent that they care about them. They care about them and they care about the way they dress, they care about their academic accomplishments, they care about them as a person. That to me should be the theme of a school system because the other things, the academic skills and the achievement test scores are going to be reflected based upon the climate that set in that school. If you don't care about them, you don't care whether or not they learn, they're not going to achieve. I think there's a school in California now, to me, that's doing an excellent job in turning that whole concept around.
Q: Mr. Spence what was the toughest decision you had to make as a principal, and why was it difficult?
A: I don't know, again, whether I can recall any decision that stands out in my mind as a tough decision. I've always tried to be a practical person. I guess the decision, of course, I was out of school as a principal, I was in the central office, was one of whether I would move from public school setting to higher education where I am now. I think that was probably the toughest decision that I had to make because it was a family decision that we had to make together as to whether or not to make that move, and we did decide to do that, and at that time that was a tough decision.
Q: Mr. Spence, looking at our local situation here in our community, Elizabeth City, North Carolina, we have read so much about the dilapidated condition of some of our schools and what does this tell you about our community's interest in our schools to be at this point now where several of our schools have been condemned, what is your feeling on the local issue confronting our community in regards to our schools today?
A: I think I sort of hit upon it a few minutes ago. The real problem that many people are not addressing, the cause of it people don't want to talk about its one of neglect and you raise the question of why do you think our public schools have been neglected for so long, and all of a sudden, we realize dire need. We have not talked about it, but, again, as we realize for the last ten - twenty years, we've been so involved in racial conflict, its been us against them, that people have refused to give public schools the attention that has been so long needed. we've been thinking about private schools, setting up private schools so that our people can get a good education and in the meantime, nobody has been willing, not enough people rather, have been willing to address the need of our public schools: because, I think they were perceived in the minds of many people and eventually become a school designated for black folk, so they don't need any attention. we've set up our schools in a private setting for whites, so we neglect them and it has caught up with us. We are in a system together and the old statement that you can't keep me down in the ditch unless you stay down there with me, that is the part of what has gotten our school system where it is. We turn our heads and have not addressed properly our school system. So, now we see the need.
Q: What, Mr. Spence, do you feel that now that this had been brought to the public's attention concerning the schools here in Elizabeth City, do you feel that the public's attitude will change to the point that it will demand they be addressed since we have to use what we have, what's your thought Mr. Spence concerning this situation?
A: I don't have any doubts about this local system. I think people have been taught a lesson. a hard lesson think we've been taught. I think now people are ready, especially in this community to do whatever is necessary to address the needs of our public schools. Its been a hard lesson we've been taught, but I think people are ready to get on about the business of building something we should have been doing twenty years ago. I think they are ready now. The lesson has been taught.
Q: Mr. Spence, I certainly appreciate this to the highest this interview. Mr. Spence, let me ask you this though. Is there any question Mr. Spence that I should have asked you but I didn't ask you? If so, please mention it now and I would like for you to address. Is there anything that I should have asked and didn't ?
A: I think you have covered most of the areas that I would have covered. I can't think of any additional thing. Again, Mr. Spence, I want to thank you, and this has been a most educational experience for me because from this interview, I have gained much and I am sure that for my class project it will be most useful. Again, thank you. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity.
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