Interview with Melvin Saunders


This is Mr. Melvin W. Saunders, Retired Principal, Chesapsake Public Schools.

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Q: Mr. Saunders, How many years were you in education as a teacher?

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

A: When I first started, I started in the Norfolk School System teaching Physical Edu#cation and I did that for ten years until I transferred and moved to the Chesapeake school system as an administrator. I served in the role of assistant principal and then principal. I was involved in the role of principal for six years.

Q: Thank you, very much. If you could for me, as best you can describe your school for me that you headed as principal.

A: The school that I was principal of Mr. Frye seemed to have been a very enjoyable school by the students. We did everything that we possibly could to create the climate that would make it an enjoyable situation for the students socially and academically. So I think we had a pretty good atmosphere for a junior high school.

Q: Your school's philosophy, what type of philosophy did you oparate under while you were principal of these schools?

A: I have to sa# that the philosophy that 1 had was to have the teachers do anything that they possibly could to promote and provide learning in any type situation that they could that wouldhelp the student and basically that was the name of the game, you know that's my feeling about it.

Q: As you know, probably one of the most critical roles of a principal is that of working with his parents. What role did you play in public and community relations?

A: First of all, as you said Mr. Frye, dealing with parents,naturally you get involved with the parents through P.T.A. groups and to develop a contact with them to have the workers to keep the program going. Also, I did make it my business to get out into the community --to be invited to some of the churches and some of the social meetings they had, civic leagues and this way I was dealing directly with the parents and community of the school.

Q: You know, principals tend to have many, many expectations that they have for teachers. OK. What types of things do you think teachers expect from a principal?

A: First of all, I think Mr. Frye, you know, you have some principals who like to play the role of a junior Hitler and when I said junior Hitler I was speaking of the point that they are dictators. I think principals should be in position to give some thought that teachers are human too and are not robots or machines that you are going to run over them and control them. So I am simply saying that the principal should give th#e teachers respect and I think the teachers would like this and enjoy seeing this principal act like he is human.

Q: I think you mention the fact that you were a teacher,assistant principal as well as principal. If you were going to advise a person on becoming a principal what would be some ofthe things he would need to do to be an effective principal.

A: Well, I think first of all Mr. Frye, he or she at this day and time should have in mind and in their heart that they have a desire to be an administrator in this capacity, assistant principal or principal and they are going to need some experience. I think that everyone before they become a principal should be involved in the capacity of an assistant principal to get the growth and the experience. I think this is the bulk of the program that you will become involved with because you pick up a lot as a classroom teacher and its a conveyer or a diffarent level as principal, and not only that when you operate as a classroom teacher you operate a classroom but as principal you have to have some knowledge of operating an entire, total building.

Q: I am sure that during your tenure as principal, you ran into many different types of problems and pressures. What do you find to be your biggest pressures or problems you faced as a principal?

A: I have to give it to you and be very honest with you and I am sure that it is something that involved all principals. At the building from elementary or up and that would be parent pressure. I think that the greatest pressure of the school day. Really, you are not involved with the school daily and therefore they don't have total knowledge of what's going on in the building but when they are invited out because of a problem involving their children they become very, very nasty and hostile and seem like they don't understand and they take it out with being angry with the administration. So, I think this is about the greatest amount of pressure that is applied to everyone.

Q: What advice could you give a person who has to deal with or handle the problems of dealing with parents? What advice wouldyou give me, if I had to deal with parents who were hostile? What advice could you give me for dealing with them?

A: Well, I have to give you a technique I used Mr. Frye and that is that when they come and you realize they are the hostile type or angry it's best for you to sit back and observe them and let them talk. The reason why I am giving it to you in this manner is because after they flnish talking they have nothing to say, then they are willing to listen to you. Therein, if you try to 1alk with them you are just pumping them on and keep them going and they are building up more anger and it is hard to control them. Sit back and let them unwind. It doesn't take long before you can get your message across with calmness.

Q: As you know, I am vary aware that you were an exceptional principal during your tenure. But if you had it to do again,what types of things would you do to better prepare yourself for the principalship?

A: The only thing I could say to that Mr, Frye I have I think would help me is to learn to be a little more calmer in accepting problems from parents in conversations dealing with parents.

Q: In every building there are concerns that arise from time to time. How did you handle teacher concerns as they came up in your building?

A: Well, first thing I have to say to that handling problems concerning teachers grievance or concern would be first of all you're gonna have to find some time to spend with teachers. In other words you can't just meet out in the halls and settle some of the problems. The time would have to be set between the two of you to meet before school, or during a school break, or after school and deal with the problem and never try to rush your answers on to teachers. But take time to deal with them. Let them know that they are important and that you are concerned with the matter or the involvement that they wish to discuss.

Q: Did you believe in oparating with an open door policy as regards to teacher concerns?

A: Sure, and I think that this is a good policy. I have known some people to be so busy until they couldn,t get to see them. But I think that as an administrator of a building you find yourself working better that way and you have better contact with the teachers and make it easier for them to talk with you.

Q: Along those same lines, one of the most difficult jobs facing a principal is the decision of whether or not a teacher should bs dismissed. Did you ever have to go through that type of experience?

A: I got pretty close to having to ask for the dismissal of a teacher Mr. Frye. But, I never executed it all the way because instead of having the teacher removed from the building. Because of a problem we had involving the teacher.

Q: Do you think that if you had to fire a teacher, would you be able to?

A: Would, I be able to?

Q: Yes.

A: I think I could and I think that any principal should have the heart and the guts. If he has the facts and rationale to do it. Then you feel this particular person should not be involved with trying to promote learning for students then they should be,you should get rid of them. So, I definitely could do it.

Q: As you probably know, we are continuously bombarded with all types of informtion even from the President about how we can improve education. You, being an ex-educator, what types of things do you think we could do to possibly improve education?

A: I find this one to be a little difficult to give right offhand, Mr. Frye, being out of the building and not being involved with some things daily, but, I think that we could design the curriculum a little bit differently, now, it seems like the curriculum is set to the tone of all smart students and we seem to reflect or side track some of our slower students. We say math, we say algebra, we say English, we say science courses. All students are not geared to or accept or are prepared for that type of knowledge. That's the biggest thing I have found, a change should be made to do something to bring out the goodness of the lower learning student to advance him on his own.

Q: Do you think that part of the reason for that is that the kids, the parents of kids, who are better off academically are more involved in the schools?

A: Well, I am almost sure that all of the learning that takes place with students. This has something to do with home. People who are educated, they, as you notice, their children are educated. Students who are slow learners, if you check it out at home, their parents don't give a darn about them to a certain degree and they are not getting the proper home training. So that is a big factor.

Q: Thank you, Mr. Saunders. Are there any suggestions you would like to give us to improve the quality of our teachers?

A: What's that question again Mr. Frye?

Q: Are there anythings that we could do to possibly improve the quality of our teachers? We are trying to improve education. Are there anything that we could do to improve education, those of us still in it that could help us improve the quality of teachers that we are receiving now?

A: On that particular question Mr. Frye, I have to be very honest with you. I think right now we put too much expectations on our teachers now until I would have to say that I do not know anything else that we could do to bring out any growth for learning of the student by doing anything with teachers. Teachers are trained and what have you. We are overworking them. It goes right back to what I alluded to earlier. It's the environment of the parent that needs to do the job. We expectthe teachers to be the teachers and the parent and that's a little bit too much.

Q: Thank you Mr. Saunders. I am aware of the fact that you went to school during the time of segregation. What do you find to be the biggest difference between the schools now as'opposed to during the time of segregation?

A: Well Mr. Frye, I could at that advantage and I could look at the other point of disadvantages. Number one, I am glad to see what we have today with integrated schools because it gives all of the students the opportunity to have knowledge of one another because they are exposed to one another. Another thing about today, schools have integration, its a good thing because all students are being taught at the same pace. That idea of having inferior minds can be eliminated because a student should have the same feeling of, I can learn and compete against the other students white or black. So I think that's a good thing and it eliminates some problems later on in life.

Q: Thank you, very much. What types of procedures do you think should be used to select a person to become a principal? Are there any things you specifically that you can pin point forus in selecting people to become a principal?

A: If I had any choice of selecting any one to be given the opportunity to serve in an administrative capacity or principal,I would have to check their time that they were in the classroom because basically what you are doing in the classroom proves to be in the long run in line with what you are capable of doing as a principal. If you manage your classroom pretty well with strong disciplinary actions. Then you find yourself person invvolved in that manner can make a good administrator. So I would have to say you have to be strong for me in the classroom. And, if that's the case I feel like we can make you into a good administrator.

Q: Do you feel that a person should have to serve insomething like an internship program?

A: I feel that an internship program is great because it gives one a little experience of a whole lot of things before they become totally because then you are in a learning process or learning process state and you make mistakes you can accept it better when some one gets on your back when you make a mistake and, of course, this time the learning stage when you become certified as a real, genuine person or position of principal. It is easier for you because you have had experience and it doesn,ttake you long before you can cover most of the things that are involved within a school in dealing with problems.

Q: During the time that you were principal, I am sure that you had assistant principals? There seems to be a delicate balance on how to get them really to accept and adapt to your particular philosophy on doing things. How did you handle situations such as that?

A: Well, I think Mr. Frye, being the principal and a leader that it is very easy to handle your assistant principals because first of all what you ask them to do are things you should be doing it as well, and, it doesn,t take long and you don,t have to drive them or beat them with your style because soon it will just wear off on them and become a part of them because of the mworking and being around you. I find that just mentioning some things around them as you go along and you are concerned with a situation just explain and treat your assistant principals gentle as if they are human and let them know that they can make mistakes and if they make mistakes talk to them in a calm, gentle way to explain for helping the next time that it will not be made again or they will have knowledge of what to do, what to say, to handle the situation.

Q: O.K. there has been quite a bit of talk in education about such things as merit pay. What are your feelings on merit pay?

A: Well, right now at this stage of the game about this merit Pay business. I would have to say I don,t know if it is a good thing or not because it is so questionable. I would ask what grounds or what rules and regulations would be used to determine who deserves merit pay. I don,t think we have enough facts that we could say this is a good thing thing to do right now. It sounds great it might motivate some teachers to be re warded with merit pay but, my problem is would it create the problem or headache of determining who would receive the merit pay. If we could iron out some facts and have some stronger rules and regulations we could determine who should receive merit pay then I would not mind seeing it done or seeing it take place.

Q: Thank you. As you know, each year it seems the state school board come up with new guidelines, new rules, and this type of thing. One of them being the standards of quality. What do you think of some of the qual!ties they set down for us? Would you speak to that for me?

A: You know, standards of quality is a great idea, I like the idea because it sets the tone for the state. What,s going on here in this small county is going on in this big city. There is only one problem with standards of quality. I find that I think that it is a problem for a lot of the school systems involved and the superintendents in finance. Because what they say .. The rules for standard of quality, it just cannot bs donein school systems at the time if they have a deadline date for committment of whatever they are requesting. The only thing that I can say about standards of quality is some finance is involved for everythning that they ask. Then it would be easier and great.

Q: So that you are saying is that the state should fund those qualities that they mandate to us?

A: A lot of the things we cannot do because of the economy that if the state would back them up whatever demands they want and the districts to back up what they want then it could be done, but a lot of the things won't be done because of finance.

Q: Thank you. As you know, it seems that each year the papers give each school system a report card, more or less,indicating how a particular school system did on the testing. What do you think of #he testing procedure that we use now? Such as the S.A.T. and the S.R.A. Do you think this is a good thing? What are your feelings on that?

A: Well, I have to say I like it has been said over and over again we are putting a lot of emphasis on testing, test results,and of the time test results doesn't give the true results and Idon't know exactly if it is a good thing, but a lot of weight on college testing to be accepted with the S.R.A. scores. A lot of times I have found that, as I said earlier, testing just does not give you a genuine picture of an individual because there are some people that don't take tests too well and when I say cannot take test, they just can not perform when taking a test. I don't know if it is because of the atmosphere of the pressure of taking a test but ordinarily these are good people. You have these students that certain tests or testing they are just not going to perform too well for you. What are you going to do when you get low scores on a particular test from a person like this you can't say that they are just not ready or what have you.

Q: O.K. along the same line of testing, there are people who say that some of the standardized testing is racially biased. Have you ever run into that or, do you have any thoughts along those lines?

A: Well, Mr. Frye, in answer to that question I have to say there must be something going on because I can't really understand how a lot of the blacks are scoring heavily or high on a lot of the college entrance exams, and, you can't tell that these people --being black are just that dumb. So, I have to say that there is something that is just not right. Either, we are just not teaching the test or I have a lot the time heard that places that tests are actually being taught to the students so they are exposed to it earlier. I don't know, it is funny thing that, and I wonder why is it that the students, the black students at all of the tidewater colleges score below the whites. So its something to make you think.

Q: Thank you. During your tenure as principal, what would you say was your key to success as a principal of a building?

A: Mr. Frye, I have to say what I thought I had going for me as a manager and principal of a building was that I respect, I respected all of the teachers and treated them as human beings and I think this was a good thing with me. I took the time out to speak with all of th#em. I treated all of them in the same fair shake, I didn't do any favors for some and didn't do it for others. I treated all of them alike and fairly.

Q: Thank you, as principal what type of code of ethics did you try to live by during your tenure?

A: That seems to be one of those other difficult questions for me to answer. I have to think back to find, to figure out some of the code of ethics. As I said I treated all teachers alike. I didn't have any cliques, or was not involved with any that had a clique going that I was part of. I tried to check all the business that was nesded to take care of with the bookkeepers with finance, what have you because that is a dangerous thing to be involved with. All monies coming in were accounted for and all monies that went out were accounted for. So, that was one of the biggest things that I had efforts, strong efforts for.

Q: Thank youvery much. What your feelings about the responsibilities of a principal for identifying and developing future administrators?

A: As I have talked earlier about principals, say, internship and that they should be strong when they are in the classroom.I think as a principal going around the building you have a chance to observe teachers when they are not having the opportunities to perform for you. In other words, you don't have to be in the classroom on the observation to observe them. You can just drop by and observe. So therefore, being the principal you have chance to keep a keen eye on key people that have good strong showing to be an administrator.

Q: Mr. Saunders, you are now retired are there any aspects of working in a school or being a principal that you miss? Are there any things about it that you miss?

A: Well, I think most of the time all of you people will find the same feeling that coaches have. They miss the players, the team players. I think its a deal where you miss the camaraderie of being with the teachers. In performing a particular program or being with the teachers to help to promote education. You sort of miss that and you know you miss the students. Because, being an adult, you can learn a lot from them.

Q: I agree with that totally. What caused you to choose your retirement when you did?

A: Well, actually, I wasn't ready to retire Mr. Frye, at the time but my health was the main factor for my retirement. Which I am out on a disability retirement at this time.

Q: Is there a real fond memory of your tenure as principml or in education that you would like to share with us before we close?

A: Well, I have a lot of fond memories. The greatest one that I can recall was my time, my first two years as principal over at Crestwood Junior High School. There I was brand new and it was my first time and I was all keyed up and I was very; very fortunate that a couple of people who were the assistant principals that really made things jibe and made it very happy for me to achieve a lot of the goals that I had set for my time for the first three years at that school. Those people that will probably be listening to the tape. I would like to say that both of those assistant principals are now principals in the City of Chesapeake and that is because they were great at the time I worked with them and they working with me. I am speaking of the interviewer which, is Mr. James Frye.

Q: Mr. Saunders, bafore we close, is there a question that I could have asked you? Is there an#thig you would like to say about education before we close our conversation? Any thoughts, or words of wisdom that you could leave us with?

A: I am thinking Mr. Frye, and I am thinking we are nearing to the end and I am thinking that if it is time. If there are people in this audience at this time listening to this tape who have some strong desires to become an administrator and serve in the capacity of a principal, I wish you luck and I would like to say. give it some thought because you are asking for something that is big and sometimes its a little bigger or larger than you think. So give it some real, real deep concern of thinking and thoughts and good luck to all of you for striving to move in that direction.

Q: Before I close I would like to thank you for doingthe interview and, I would like to say that I chose you as a person to interview because of the admiration that I have for you and, as you said earlier, I was your assistant principal while at Crestwood and I tell anybody that 1 can that I learned s great deal from you and I do know that, in my opinion, you were an exceptional administrator and I will always feel that. Thank you very much for having me in your home this evening.

A: I am glad I could help you Mr. Frye. And thank you for checking me out.

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