Interview with Virginia B. Sargent


Winchester, Va.

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Q: The first thing I'd like to start with would be your full name.

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

A: Virginia Bean Sargent

Q: And if you wish, birth date?

A: I don't wish!

Q: OK fine. How about the college or University you attended?

A: Madison.

Q: And what was your degree?

A: At that time it was called Primary-Kindergarten.

Q: Did you attend any other colleges?

A: No, only extension courses.

Q: And that's how you became certified in administration?

A: Yes.

Q: How long have you lived in Winchester?

A: Since 1935 .... long time.

Q: What was your reason for coming [to Winchester]?

A: Uh, to teach. I came down here and, uh had a conference with Mr. Quarles [Supt. of Schools] and he gave me a job right of so, here I am!

Q: Where did you start?

A: Here.

Q: What grade level did you start [on],what school?

A: John Kerr, third grade.

Q: What made you decide to go into education?

A: I really don't know, except that it's the only thing that I knew of that I thought I'd like.

Q: You went into third grade; How long were you teaching before you decided to go into administration?

A: I think it was about 18 years, I taught third grade.

Q: Is that the only thing [position] you had stayed in , third grade?

A: Uh-Uh.

Q: What prompted you to think about administration, and get certified?

A: Oh, I didn't think about it. I hadn't planned to do it but our supervisor at the age of 64 decided to get married and Mr. Quarles called me in and said "I want you to be principal", and that's all there was to it. I became principal.

Q: I guess that's the way he sort of ran things..... I never really knew him. He just decided who was going to do it? [principalship] and said you're going to go and take over?

A: Uh-Uh.

Q: How long did it take you to become certified? When did you go into the job?

A: I don't know that I was ever certified to tell you the truth.

Q: When did you start in the position?

A: Well it was '35 and 18.

Q: That would be 1953.

A: Yea, that's right.

Q: [You] went into John Kerr as principal. You were there for how long? As principal?

A: I'd have to stop and think that out, Doug. Urn.... When the new school opened. I stopped as principal. They wanted me to take that and I didn't want it.

Q: The new John Kerr?

A: Uh-Uh. It was an open school and I was too structured ... and I felt that I could not do it justice. I didn't want to have to go back learn all of this business of a new type of teaching; because I had taught too long in my way. So I just, I became an assistant principal there instead.

Q: At the new school?

A: Yes. and I was there for three years as assistant principal and then I quit; and just went back as a volunteer and helped the girls. They didn't know how to run the machines and the uh, all the different kinds of machines and the library and so on. In the meantime Snag (her husband] had died and I needed to be busy. So I went back up and tried it and enjoyed it thoroughly. I didn't paid for it but I really did enjoy it!

Q: What were the differences that you saw between, as you said, the re old" school of teaching and the new wave that came in with the "apeness"?

A: There was so much difference, there really was everything was changed. I felt that discipline let down tremendously and they were putting in things, uh, like the new math and the new English and so on, that I did not really approve of because I didn't feel they were getting the right concepts; and uh, I did not push it. I probably should have but I didn't ... Now their going back you see..... that's the way education goes. I don't know why they can't hit the middle but it goes from one extreme to the other. Instead of staying in the middle and concentrate on teaching children, um, without having to push. Teaching children with joy and with fun. And that's what I approved of..... I liked to..... after about the first, I'd say four weeks of school, after the children found out that I was running the classroom and they weren't then we had fun. We had a tremendous time the rest of the year and I loved every minute of it!

Q: Did you find a parallel between; or what types of things did you find between students and then when you started teaching teachers, when you got the administrative job. Did you find the same type of things applied or how much difference was there. [between the two]

A: Well I found that teachers were not teaching according to my standards in a lot of cases. And, uh, they were teaching through force, and uh, yelling at children and I feel you have to teach children; you have to have discipline but you have to have discipline with love. You've got to let them know that you realize they have a problem. You know they are having a hard time learning this and you are there to help them get through this; and that you really care. That's the thing that I tried to stress, um, with the teachers. Now, the teachers didn't agree with me all of them, but uh, that was all right.

Q: How did you finally get that philosophy across to them?

A: I didn't to all of them. But, those I didn't..... some left teaching entirely and the others stayed on and were very good teachers.

Q: That's what I was going to ask you. Was it more a one on one type of situation or was it through evaluation?

A: Well both, I evaluated them and read the evaluation to them. And I had a meeting at the beginning of every year with everyone telling exactly what I expected. And how I expected them to go about it. And then as they needed it during the year, as I observed, after every observation I had a conference with the teacher and told her how I felt about what she had done and, uh, I always tried to stress something good that I felt she had done. Because I wasn't gonna just run her into the ground. So it was a matter of, um...... trying to keep on even keel there. Some of it was very poor, some of it very good and I let them know how I felt about it.

Q: Did you find in that evaluation process, a conflict between what "downtown", so to speak, would tell you and what you were trying to accomplish in the building? Were the evaluation processes that you went through pretty standard during that time or did it change? Was there ever a conflict in what you were trying to do?

A: No, not really..... I uh..... if there was any conflict the parents would come to me. If there was anything they felt that a teacher was doing wrong they would come and complain to me. I got to the point that I felt that I was getting everybody's troubles. I was getting the children's troubles, parent's troubles, teacher's troubles, everybody's. And I thought for a very short period that I could not stand it. I had heard all the troubles I wanted. And then I decided to just let it roll off my back. I was doing the best I could and if it wasn't good enough this was too bad, they could get rid of me. I had to do it the way I felt best for the children. And I always put the children first, um, the teacher was almost incidental, in that what the children needed and what they got was the important thing. So that's the way it went and as I say I enjoyed it tremendously! The only thing if I had a talent I think that teaching was my one talent, because it was something I loved to do. I loved to get up and go to school in the morning. And when you have to get up and go to work in the morning to something that you don't like must be awful. So I just, I stuck with it. At one time Snag [husband) said he thought I better quit. That I had taught long enough that I ought to be running around playing bridge and having fun with the other girls, and I said don't take the thing away from me that I love to do best. So he didn't say anymore about it.

Q: With that in mind if you had to tell someone like myself, at some point hopefully going into an administrative position, if there was one thing you could tell people what would it be?

A: Oh, Doug that's hard. That is hard for me to say .....

Q: I guess another way to look at it is that it sounds like you sort of got into it by accident.

A: Well I did. I was thrown into it. I didn't go into it because I wanted to , I didn't. Teaching was the thing I liked best. Being an administrator was not the thing I liked best. I loved teaching, and uh, the business of administrator was something that was thrust upon me. I chose to teach . I did not choose to be an administrator.

Q: What were your biggest concerns, when you made that switch? you said one was people coming to see you all the time. [with problems] Were there any others that were big for you?

A: I tell you the criticism that I got as an administrator upset me. Because I felt like I was doing the best I knew how. And not having had special training in administration, except, uh, of course in the extra courses I took and so on. I felt that I really should have been in the classroom, I should have been teaching. I should not have been teaching teachers. And uh, I expect there were some teachers who felt the same way! But uh, as I say there were, there were a couple of teachers that I had to see dismissed, because they simply were not doing the job. I couldn't stand to have children treated that way. I had to be sure that children were getting the right kind of treatment.

Q: What happened, without saying who those people were, what happened in those situations, how did you handle that?

A: Well uh, one of the teacher's had, had lost control completely. She had gotten older and uh, was not very well and uh, she simply couldn't make the children um, do their work or behave. They would go to the window and pour their milk out on the playground, and they'd reach up and pull her petticoat down to her ankles. You know, all sorts of ridiculous things like that. And uh, when I went in and observed they were good because they knew I'd jerk a knot in them. But uh, when I wasn't in there and would walk by I could hear the ruckus that was going on. And uh, so we..... Mr. Johnson [supt.] told here that we'd have to get somebody else. We got a colored teacher in the middle of the year who was just excellent, excellent. And uh, so we ended up all right. And I always felt bad about uh, letting this teacher go because I was a friend of hers and I liked her and uh, but she just could not teach. And I thought the children were more important so..... And uh, there was one man who was teaching and I recommended that he be dismissed. And I told him, and I said, you're not enjoying teaching and your not doing a great job. Uh, you don't like to teach, get out while you're young and try different things. Do something you want to do. Don't get stuck because if you stay much longer you're going to get hooked. And you're going to be in this job the rest of your life...... he stayed, reached tenure because he's still there!

Q: Really?

A: Yea. See I was assistant principal there and the principal didn't see anything or didn't have an interest and there wasn't anything else I could do. I'd written it all down and uh, had gone over it with him, gone over it with the principal and had turned the paper in and that was all I could do.

Q: Along those lines then, those were internal forces affecting teachers and how you handled there grievances, letting people go and that sort of thing. During the time that you were in the position there were a lot of external things going on, civil rights [movement], integration. Those types of things here in Winchester, at John Kerr, did you see an influence by those factors? Did any of those things stand out with experiences while you were there?

A: Well I'll tell you. Our integration just in the John Kerr school went as smoothly as anything I ever saw. Very smooth. And uh, because there were few children you see. There were so many, or so few black children I think..... well in the city there were only what, ten percent black of school age in the community. I really didn't have any trouble much with them. Now a teacher would , every now and then , have trouble and uh, I had a little boy say to me one time, "You're just saying that to me because I'm black!", and I said I don't care whether you're purple or green you're going to do what I say. And uh, another one said, "I'm going home and tell my daddy on you!" And I said oh I do hope you will! I've been waiting to talk to him for such a long time! And that was the last I heard of that. But you've got to use a little psychology and a little intuition.

Q: So really you didn't feel a whole lot of outside pressure from any of those things.

A: No, not really.

Q: I guess we really never had a busing issue or anything like that.....

A: Every now and then uh, a white child would say something to a black child, that was not kind and I would just take the white child aside and talk to him alone. And explain that you know this was a child which was a human being and it didn't matter what color he was. He was a human being and he needed to learn just like they learned. And uh, I would not have any more of that. That was the end of it...... so that ended that.

Q: What types of differences do you see or did you see in discipline. What types of things did you do with discipline say when you first started out to when you left. Did you see any big changes in how children were handled? You said you drew the lines for four weeks in the beginning. Did you do anything differently in the beginning than in the end?

A: Probably about the same. I tried to treat them all the same. I think I was pretty successful at doing that. Because I think the children, the colored children , felt that I liked them and that I was trying to help them. Of course our standards went down a little because you know they didn't speak the same language. They spoke, in that uh, well I know on an intelligence test you'd say to a child,"What is a tiger?" and the child would say "I don't know." And you'd say "What's a ty-a-gah?" "Oh! It's one of those great big old mean things!" or "What is a chair?" "I don't know."...... "What's a chere?" "oh, one them things ya sits on!" So you see we were throwing words at them they didn't understand at all. And we had to lower our standards to some degree. Anyway we tried to raise them up. But it was a difficult thing, because you know they'd been brought up where they talked that way and didn't know what we were talking about.

Q: Did that have an effect on your groupings? What you did?

A: Yes. Of course I had some very smart colored children who caught on quickly and why then of course there were some very slow ones, who just couldn't keep up and got no help from home. Now those who were sharp, one of them uh, came from a family where the mother was a nurse. She was an intelligent woman, and uh, she helped her son. When I had that kind of situation it was great!

Q: How did these things effect .... did you see a difference between say now..... In sort of getting back on this evaluation thing again I guess, but uh, did you see a difference in the quality of teachers, when you went through the motions of going to the open schools? As you said going from the old style of things to the new, did you notice a difference in the teachers themselves?

A: Yes. I thought it was very hard for the teachers to change over but those teachers who had been teaching um, in the same kind of program I was. But they adjusted um, I expect better than I would have adjusted. They adjusted and uh, and went right along with the way it was to be. And of course my approval didn't mean anything much then because I was no longer principal..... They would kind of ask me things and I would tell them how I felt about them. But um, I think the teaching was difficult. I thing the knowledge level was higher and I think it was harder to get things across. You had this great open space. You'd have a group here and a group here and a group over here. And everybody can hear everybody else. And you'll find that children from one group their attention will wander over to another group. And they won't get what they're supposed to get in the main group and I objected to that. But there were a lot of good things about the openness. The uh...... the center where they had all of the uh, equipment..... they would use all of the mechanical gadgets, we had for them, was good. And they could go into one of the cells with a projector and, by themselves, work with it, use it and get something from it and that was good.

Q: That reminds me of something I wanted to ask. You were talking about the facility. Can you contrast the old John Kerr and the new John Kerr? Maybe a description of what the old John Kerr was like? I know I remember being there and remembering some things about it. What strikes you about that plant as opposed to the new one?

A: Well, first uh, I don't know very much about the new school anymore. And uh, I wouldn't know what to compare.

Q: Or even just a description of the old one?

A: Well..... of course um, the old one had very set rules. And I don't know if they have them at the new school or not. I don't know how uh, children are taken care of up there generally. I know we had rules like uh, you did not run up and down the steps or through the halls. And um, you had to consider the other children. You couldn't just think about yourself..... You had to consider yourself part of the group. Now, I don't know haw they do it in the new school.

Q: How about the physical plant itself? The rooms..... I know I remember the fire escapes.

A: oh yes. You know of course that old school needed alot of attention but it had alot of good features. It um, it was cool in hot weather because of the thick walls and uh......

Q: When was that school built?

A: Ummm..... 1883 I think. You better not quote me but it was after the Civil War, right after the Civil War. And then uh, an addition was added in 1905 I think, to it and uh, those fire escapes were..... some to the children loved them and some were scared to death and uh,

Q: They were big old things that would swing down.....

A: Yea. I would always go down first with my group and let it bounce me and then I'd run back up the steps and help those who were afraid, come down. Because there were some who were terrified and I can understand that. But uh, we needed a better um, physical plant we really did. Urn, although I loved that old school, of course what they've done to it is just great.

Q: The renovation?

A: Beautiful now.

Q: How many students did you have in there?

A: Oh dear, Doug I don't know. I really don't um, we had too many I know that. I know that one year I taught a top group with 42 in it and uh a lot of them were children of my friends and um, I did not let that make a difference. But there uh, It was awfully hard and I don't think that I ever convinced them but the lower the grade the fewer the children you should have.

Q: Really?

A: Uh, you can teach 50 seniors in a group. it won't be a hard as teaching 30 first graders in a group.

Q: Why is that, because of the.....

A: They needed the individual attention. Higher up they don't have to have it. Now, if they needed help they could go to the teacher and get help. They should teach groups to do this in high school. But uh, you can give each child individual help in the lower groups and the fewer you have the more help you can give them, and the better they'll be. Now that's one man's opinion. Discussion of parent relationships. (Not on tape) Mrs. Sargent told story of one who came into her classroom one day and saw she was teaching antonyms and synonyms. He now had a child in her class and had at one time been a student of hers. The class dismissed and he observed that children were getting much more information earlier in school. They seemed to be growing up faster. His statement to her was "My God Virginia! I didn't get to that until I was in the seventh grade!"

Q: Do any other experiences stick out in your mind in dealing with people during your career?

A: [A parent came into my office ] oh! Just fuming! A teacher had done something terrible to her child she thought. I don't even remember what it was. She came into me and she was fighting mad! Lord, she was ready to tear that school apart. And so I said have a chair and I just sat and listened. And after she got it out of her system I said now I have had the courtesy to listen to all you had to say I hope you will show me the same courtesy. And I said now let me explain to you what we're about. So I explained to her what we expected and what really happened, and what should have happened and so on. And at the end she said , I thank you very much and that's the prettiest flower you have in your window may I have a snip of it?!

Q: What do you think about the movement now..... excellence in education and that sort of thing uh, obviously parents have changed somewhat in how they approach the schools and how they think about them. A couple of points for example; How do you feel about merit pay? And what it would do to increase the level of excellence?

A: I'm against it.

Q: Why is that?

A: Because it's one man's judgement or a group's judgement. um, I did some of the best teaching I ever did unobserved. And I think when there's someone observing a teacher she is going to um, teach differently from the way she would ordinarily teach. I know that I didn't change too much but the best teaching I did was unobserved.

Q: Because that pressure wasn't there .....

A: Ummm-mmm. I didn't exactly feel pressure. A lot of parents said to me you I re the most relaxed teacher I ever saw in my life. And I said well that's on the outside. You don't know what's going on in the inside.

Q: How would you improve education now? That was one idea [merit pay] of how to improve what's going on or what's perceived as going on, I guess the perception is a big problem. Andy ideas for improving the schools? Quality of teachers? Quality of instruction?

A: Well, I'll tell you Doug, if I had to run the schools today they would be run differently.

Q: What would you do?

A: I think children are allowed to do more than they ought to be allowed to do in the schools. I think they need um, more of the right kind of discipline. um, and I think it can be given to children without their feeling uh, too much pressure on themselves. I think the right kind of teacher can give the children the right kind of education. I don't think it's done very much today. There are too many teachers who go into it with the idea of, OK you work all summer off. There's still a are going into teaching who have classroom. To me teaching was a I think uh, I'm not sure you can born, from 9 to 5 during the week and you have lot of that feeling and a lot of people no business ever going into a talent. Just as your music is a talent. make a good teacher. I think they're....

Q: Does the same hold true for administrators?

A: Well, I don't know as much about uh, administration really. Because I do not handle adults as well as I handle children. Now I can't stand up and make a talk to adults. Now I can talk to you one on, one, but I can't stand up and speak to a group of adults. I shake and shake and fall in my shoes but I didn't care how many little ones I had around me.

Q: That' funny because I would have had the opposite impression.

A: No, I can talk to children better than I can to adults.

Q: Well, knowing that what did you do then when you were, I guess, forced into this position of having to deal with.....

A: Will I tell you my first teachers meeting I was quaking in my boots! I had butterflies in my stomach! I really was, I was scared to death! I didn't know what to say. I didn't know what to do. I hadn't had any training for that kind of thing. I went right out of the classroom, right into administration. And that was rough. And uh, I simply learned by trying and doing.

Q: Did you ever make any mistakes?

A: oh ho ho ho ho! I'm sure many. I'm sure. I can't just name off mistakes, but I know I made many mistakes. I know I had, I had to apologize to teachers for making mistakes.

Q: What were you good at? What was your best quality? Moving into that job?

A: Moving into the job?

Q: or even moving into it or what developed? What do you feel your strongest suit was?

A: I don't know, I really don't know. I don't know that I had a strong suit. I got along well with teachers, um, individually. Got along real well individually, but as a group um, they scared me. Just like any group of adults scares me. And uh, I enjoyed talking to them individually .... but not, not as a group.

Q: What did you enjoy the most about being there? In that job? Maybe not what you did the best but, what did you enjoy the most about it?

A: You mean about administration?

Q: Yea.

A: Umm. That's a hard one. I don't know if there was any one thing I enjoyed the most about being an administrator, because it was not my cup of tea.I preferred..... I came home after Mr. Quarles talked to me. I came home and balled like a baby. I did, I told Snag I can't do it! He said you can do anything you want to do. You can do it! And you go on and do it and do it the very best you can. And so I got my degree.

Q: Now did you continue to teach?

A: No.

Q: You cut that out. You just went directly right from one to the other.

A: They got another teacher in for my group which broke my heart because I had just gotten them broken in. The top group and it was a group that I loved and we were having the best time. And I was jerked away from them and put into a job that I really didn't know anything about. And uh, without special training for it I just uh, I just didn't..... I never did like it as well as teaching. Teaching was the thing I loved.

Q: Where do you feel you had the most impact? Where did you make the most difference?

A: You mean in administration?

Q: As compared to teaching?

A: Hummm......... I don't know. I really don't know. Except that in, getting along with teachers. I got along with them fine and uh, I think they felt that they could come to me, with problems and ask,"What would you do about so and so?", and uh, I would give an opinion. But uh, that's what I did.

Q: What would you call your leadership style?

A: Doug, they're getting harder!

Q: I'll give you some easy ones in a minute!

A: I don't know what my leadership style is. I really don't know. I guess..... friendliness, uh, liking people. I like people. And uh, I guess that probably would be .... the style I use would be friendliness. And uh, and helpfulness, whenever I could help.

Q: Let me back up and see if I missed anything. How did you go through a selection process? In the hiring of new teachers? Any tips that you might have on interviewing? What did you look for?

A: I didn't do that.

Q: Oh? Really?

A: That was done by the superintendent and the school board.

Q: So you were just told.....

A: I was told so and so will teach at your school. I had nothing to do with hiring those teachers.

Q: When did that change? Is that the way it was through your.....

A: I don't know whether, I don't know how it is now.

Q: I know that they go, most of the building administrators do.

A: oh really?

Q: In fact a large part of our course right now, is discussing interview techniques and how do you select someone, to hire. So that's interesting, you never did have the opportunity to do that?

A: No. They were, new teachers were selected by the superintendent uh, the assistant super. uh, and the school board. And I had nothing to do with it..... And the superintendent might bring the teachers down to show them the building and just to say how do you do to me. And uh, that was all , because I had nothing to do with the selection of the teachers.

Q: Did you have any role at all with community relations. As far as, I know you mentioned speaking with parents and that sort of thing, were their any other duties that you had to do?

A: Well, I had been asked many times to make talks in the area about certain things but I never would do it. Because I knew myself too well. I'd shake apart. And uh, make a complete fool of myself. So, I didn't do it. They could have gotten anyone to do the same thing.

Q: I don't know about that! I want to go back through here and check and see if I have any other questions that I wanted to ask you.... Is there anything else about your job or your career, anything during this span of time that you were working that might be helpful? Is there anything else that I haven't asked that could be helpful to someone?

A: I don't think so uh, Doug, except that, teachers yelling at children. I am so against. I think it was an awful thing for a teacher to stand up and scream at um, a child. I remember one year um, a child um, he was in my room. He said,"Mrs. Sargent never screamed at us. You yell at us all the time. And that told me something right there and made me more conscious of it. But I think for children to know that you really do like them. that you're trying to help them. That um, as I say your teaching with love. You're not teaching something because you have to do it. But it's because you really care and you really want them to learn?

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