Interview with Algie Spencer


This is October 23, 1989. This is an interview with Mr. Algie Spencer on his experiences as an elementary school principal and as a high school vocational principal.

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Q: I would like for you to begin by discussing your college education and your preparation for entering the field of teaching.

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

A: Well, ah, I attended Virginia Polytechnic Institute and, ah, majored in the field of, ah, Agriculture Education. Ah, of course, in that you know, ah, you had all the courses in that, that pertained to track in ah, ah, to prepare to teach vocational agriculture.

Q: How many years did you serve as a teacher?

A: Nineteen years.

Q: Hmmm, oh goodness! And how many years were you a principal at Woolwine?

A: Three years.

Q: OK, and how many years were you a principal over the vocational building?

A: Six years.

Q: I would like for you to talk about the circum stances surrounding your entry into the principalship. And before you answer that, I would like for the person who's go ing to be listening to this interview to be aware that when you started out as a principal, you started out at Woolwine High School. However, during that time period, Woolwine High School was actually a combination elementary and high school. There were grades one through twelve and I will repeat the question. I would like for you to talk about the circumstances surrounding your entry into the principalship at Woolwine.

A: Well, I never had any intentions on being a principal. I went to V.P.I. and got my Masters in Vocation- al Agricultural or Agricultural Education. Then I, ah, next fall, after completing my Master's Degree, the Super intendent came and wanted me to be principal at Woolwine High School.

Q: How did you enter this profession at Patrick County High School?

A: Ah, more or less under the same circumstances The superintendent wanted me to be, ah, Director of the Vocational program at Patrick County High School.

Q: Outside of being ASKED to join the ranks of being a principal, what motivated you to actually stay in it for a few years?

A: Well, I enjoyed my three years as, ah, principal at Woolwine High School. It was very challenging. It was new and ah, I guess, ah, I was ready to do something else besides teaching.

Q: How did your motives change over the years?

A: Well, from, from, being, ah, as I said in the beginning, my, my goal was to become a teacher and, ah, I had planned to be a teacher from the rest of my career, probably. So, ah, I ah, I really didn't, you know, didn't make any plans to be a principal. Ah, I just came as I saw the by-product.

Q: What kinds of things do you feel teachers expect principals to be able to do? That's a loaded question, I know. (laughter)

A: OK, ah, first thing, ah, I think teachers expect you to be competent. They expect you to be well- organized, to be fair, consistent, supply their needs, support them in, ah, discipline, and to be concerned with them.

Q: Describe your views on what it takes to be an effective principal, describing the personal and professional characteristics of the "good principal".

A: Well I think, ah, probably the, ah, what I've just given, about what the teacher expects, most of those should be, ah, ah, considered in being an effective principal. I would add to that, ah, what a principal should be... able to plan, implement and evaluate an effective instructional program. (He) should develop and maintain an environment, enhance the, ah, work of the school, should manage the school's facilities and grounds, communicate, ah, expectations to students, parents, and the staff. You should lead the staff in school improvement. You should exhibit, ah, ethical behavior. Manage school funds. As f#r as the personal characteristics, I feel that ah, ah, I'm sure that you should be friendly, fair, sincere, enthusiastic, dependable. Professional characteristics, the, ah, should be loyal to the profession, participate in professional activities, make use of recent, recent research literature, should act favorably to constructive criticism.

Q: OK, as a follow up question, look back over your years at Woolwine and P.C.H.S., would you describe the expectations, both professional and personal, that were placed upon the principals by their employers and the community during your period of employment.

A: Repeat that.

Q: I will. As a follow up question, and think about your years at Woolwine and P.C.H.S., would you describe the expectations, both professional and personal, that were placed upon principals by their employers and the community during your period of employment.

A: Well, I think, ah, they were more or less the same as they are today. Ah, I see more, ah, well, when I was the principal at Woolwine High School, the Superintendent told you to go out there and do your job, and if you didn't do it, he could get someone to replace you. You more or less used your own initiative and, ah, and ran your own program. Of course you did get help from the central office, but, ah, not, I see today the Superintendent, the central office staff, and the school board participating a lot more in the planning of your program out in the schools, more so than it was, ah, when I was a principal. And I think that the, ah, principals of today are held more accountable than they probably were, ah, when I was principal. However, still, principals, ah, have room for initiative on their own now.

Q: A great deal of attention has been given to the topic of personal leadership in recent years. Please discuss your approach to leadership and describe some techniques which worked for you and an incident in which your approach failed.

A: Well, ah, I think a good leader probably should have the same qualities that I mentioned awhile ago in personal characteristics. He should be honest, he should have high, personal morals, he should be friendly, but firm; fair and consistent, should have the ability to lead, should have good organizational skills, should have a knowledge of the subject and, should, ah, have the ability to evaluate what the, evaluate the program so improvements can be made.

Q: Now, think about your years at Woolwine. Would you describe some of the pressures you faced on a daily basis and explain how you coped with them.

A: I didn't feel that, ah, I was under too much pressure when I was principal. Ah, I guess the most pressure was when a lot of decisions would come up, you know, that had to be made a lot at one time and you, ah, would,were a little pressured. But what I tried to do there was to put off those decisions that could be put off So I could ponder on them later and then try to make the best decision I could on those that had to be made immediately.

Q: Describe your biggest concern on the job. Describe the toughest decision or decisions that you had to make.

A: I guess my toughest decisions I had to make was when, ah, I had a teacher that wasn't coming up to, ah, par and after trying to help that teacher and she still didn't follow my leadership and, ah, perform as I felt she should perform. I was, ah, recommending that she not be rehired.

Q: OK, now think about your experiences at Woolwine and P.C.H.S. Describe those aspects of your professional train ing which best prepared you for the principalship.

A: Well, ah, going back to my three years as principal at Woolwine. I guess my nineteen years experience as a teacher was, ah, probably the biggest, ah, preparation. However, ah, in my masters program, taking courses such as administration, supervision, evaluation, testing, and so forth, ah, added to that experience.

Q: Which training experiences were least useful to you?

A: I like to think all of them were beneficial.

Q: Very good. Now here comes a very good question. (laughter) If you had to do it all again, what would you do to better prepare yourself for the principalship?

A: I feel that, ah, I would probably take an academic program during my college years, I feel I would have been better qualified to supervise teachers in instruction and so forth if I had taken the academic route. However, when I got to, ah, be Vocational Director at the high school, then my vocational experience, I was able to, ah, (maybe to identify) yes, identify with the teachers in that program.

Q: What suggestions would #ou offer to universities as a way of helping them to better prepare candidates for administrative positions?

A: I hesitate to criticize any university, ah, from that point of view. However, I think it would be good if they offered, had courses which dealt with everyday problems, and everyday activities that a principal, ah, will encounter and ah, do more role playing. Also, ah, since this may not be true in a lot of cases, ah, if the teachers had experience as being a principal themselves.

Q: What advice would you give a person who is con sidering an administrative job?

A: I would, ah, suggest that they get a job description, ah, in an administrative, in whatever administrative field they were going into and study it and see whether they, ah, would feel comfortable doing, whatever the job description was. Ah, then, I would talk to administrators within that field. Then I would try to prepare, ah, a course of study that would best qualify me.

Q: Now I want you to think about your years at Woolwine again. Woolwine was a very nice, small, close-knit community school. It has been said that there is a home-school gap and that more parental involvement with the schools needs to be developed. Give your views on this issue and describe how you interacted with parents and with citizens who were important to the well-being of the school?

A: Well I think it is very important for the parents and the community to be involved in the school. When they are involved they take more pride in the school and understand the problems and will help you deal with those problems, ah, in case you do need their help, which you usually do. I feel probably the best way to do this is through a good, strong PTA or PTO. When parents serve on committees concerning the schools, they feel closer to the school and will be there to help you. There is an element of danger here, though, I think. Ah, I think, ah, principals still has to remain the leader of the school and not let the, ah, community take over.

Q: Describe your approach to teacher evaluation and give your philosophy of evaluation. (laughter)

A: Evaluation, I feel, has come along way since I was principal. As principal, I was, ah, in all of the teachers' room frequently, observed classes occasionally, talked with teachers frequently, and then at the end of the year I filled out an evaluation form. I had very little training, ah, on evaluation methods which I think today, principals are better prepared to evaluate than, ah, they were when I served as principal. I feel evaluation is very important, especially for a new teacher, until they are, are tenured. This is the best way to help them become better teachers and also it's the, your only tool or your main tool, ah, deciding whether a teacher should be granted tenure or not. I think you will be doing the, ah, when a teacher is not coming up to the systems expectations, then I think you are doing the school a favor, and also doing the teacher a favor to not recommend their reemployment.

Q: Do you think three years is long enough for a teacher to go through the process where administrators can decide if the teacher needs to remain or go elsewhere?

A: I guess I do.

Q: OK. Do you think that's a fair amount of time?

A: Yes, because, ah, well, because, ah, I don't think it would be any harm, ah, having a longer period of time because of, ah, anytime along the line, you could terminate teachers that wasn't coming up to par and maybe, ah, a longer period of time would help you save some of those teachers.

Q: Principal's sometimes operate in a tense environment. What kinds of things did you do to maintain your sanity under those stressful conditions?

A: Ah, I never did feel that I was operating in any overly tense situation, ah, I did have times of stress, but, ah, I guess I just used those, ah, procedures or whatever you call them, ah, that ah, I mentioned in the beginning in what a leader is suppose to do. Ah, I was fair and consistent and, ah, I think I had the ability to listen and to what the other person had to say and sometimes that solved the problem itself.

Q: Now, since you have now had some time to reflect on your career, I wonder if you would share with us what you consider to be your administrative strengths and weaknesses.

A: If I had any. (laughter) I guess it's the ability to assess, to assess a situation and make a decision, patience to listen to other people and respect their thoughts. I think I am sincere, fair, friendly, and try to be accountable. As far as weaknesses go, I do feel rather lacking in the ability to express myself. I feel I am somewhat shallow in, ah, ah, the in supervision of instruction.

Q: All right. We are going to have a little history review of your career. You began as a teacher in the community where many, many people knew you and you knew them in return. You moved right into the principalship in a small, local community school. You personally knew most of the staff, the students, and their parents. You only lived two or three miles from the school. And then you went on to Patrick County High School during the time when the county school system was going through a major educational change. The change was converting all of the community high schools into elementary schools and forming one high school. We went through consolidation. You became the vocational high school principal. You were going to encounter new staff, new students, and a new working environment. How did you prepare for this move?

A: Really, it wasn't time to prepare. (laughter) I had to, ah, when I, ah, changed from principal of the academic situation into, ah, a vocational situation, ah, a lot of the teachers whom I were, ah, who were on my staff were not college graduates. They had a different background from the college educated teachers and I felt I had to, ah, find a different method of, ah, supervision. However, I think, ah, these, these teachers were in the trade Well, ah, ah, I don't see that it's much different from ah, when I went into a new position as principal; although, I know that wasn't a newly developed position. You just had to take the situation and, ah, prepare yourself, ah, in the best way you could for it. Of course, ah, the first thing you did was, you know, sit down and made a list of things that you knew you had to do.

Q: What were some of the adjustments you had to go through?

A: One thing was the drive, ah, farther to school. I, I really didn't see that much difference. I, I didn't really see you had to change your, ah, change the way you organized your school. You organized it as, ah, the only difference was that you had to follow a vocational line of operation rather than an academic and of course, they both, ah, coincide very closely. OK. A lot of new social changes were taking place during this time period. Patrick County High School was com- posed of grades 8-12. It was the early 1970's. Ah, we had more minority students at this school, our dress code had been relaxed. Girls were allowed to wear pants and the boys were allowed to wear more grubby-looking jeans. Also, the boys were allowed to have their hair longer, too. Smoking was even allowed on campus in certain areas, but at times it was moved to the bathrooms and to the parking lots where they were not suppose to be. And there were even some situations where, ah, there was suspected illegal drugs, like marijuana and alcohol being brought on campus.

Q: Did you ever have to encounter any of those situations? And if you did, how did you handle this?

A: The, then we had two, ah, then we had two assistant principals, one in charge of, ah, instruction, ah, and the academic area, and one in charge of, ah, ah, discipline and attendance and the academic area. Also, ah, this, ah, assistant principal who was in charge of discipline, he took care of the major discipline over the entire school. Of course, if ah, ah, in the vocational section, if I saw anyone committing some of the acts that you just mentioned, of course I, ah, if, ah, if it was minor, I dealt with it in my own way. If it was a major infraction, then I, reported it on to the assistant principal and they had, ah, rules set up for handling that situation.

Q: Thank you. Despite my best efforts to be com prehensive in my questions, I know there is something I have left out to ask you and what have I not asked you that I should have?

A: I think you have covered the subject pretty well, Jennifer. (laughter)

Q: Well, thank you very, very much for doing this. There are those who argue that the principal should be an instructional leader, and those that suggest that, realisti- cally speaking, this person must be, above all, a good manager. Would you give your views on this issue and describe your own style?

A: I feel that the principal should be the instruc tional leader, ah, especially in the elementary schools. He's held responsible for the successful operation of the school and is the person who the, ah, teachers look to for leadership, and ah, also the, ah, one best suited to fit it into his schedule. Development and supervision becomes a part of his plan just as, ah, the other activities. Basically, the manager does the plan ning because this area is the area that usually more neglected because there's so many more visible things needed to be done. Also, lack of instructional planning may not be as visible to the public as other areas, ah, especially on the short term. So, it's, ah, the principal lots of times may neglect that area. My answer maybe different from the high school program because, ah, ah, high school may have two or three assistants which are more capable of, ah, ah, planning than the principal is.

Q: You had mentioned earlier of your involvement in teacher dismissal. Was your recommendation to not rehire a teacher followed? And if not, why? Were there any parental concerns expressed about that teacher? And if so, how did you handle those?

A: My recommendations were followed. Ah, there was, were some concerns by the parents, but the teacher was dismissed at the end of the year, end of her first year of teaching. And it was fairly well accepted that this was probably the convenient time to do this. Also, there was a real shortage of teachers at that particular time (1968) and, it would have been hard to have gotten a teacher to take her place, ah, during the year.

Q: Would you discuss the circumstances leading up to your decision to retire from the principalship at the time you did, giving your reasons and the mental processes you exercised in reaching the conclusion to step down.

A: This came at a time when the county consolidated the schools. My school went from a one through twelve grade school to a one to seven grade school and the student population of that school went from about 525 to 385. The Superintendent offered me a job as Vocational Director of the new consolidated school. Yes, I went through some mental processes or stress. The consolidated school was fifteen miles away from my home where, as the school that I was principal of was right close to home. Also, my wife was teaching at the school that I was principal of and there was some talk of this, ah, being ah, discontinued. I guess the main thing that made ah, me move was that it was a chance to get back into vocational education which was, ah, my background. Also, the superintendent and school board assured me that it was an advancement.

Q: I'm sure it was. OK. It has been said that the curriculum has become much more complex in recent years. Would you comment on the nature of the curriculum during the time you were principal and compare it to the situation in today's schools, citing positive and negative aspects of the situation then and now.

A: I fee that the curriculum has become more, more complex. We have, ah, a lot of, ah, things that, ah, mandated by the state and we have to put into operation or the principals do today. Students have a much broader offering now; also they have better building, more equipment, more curriculum materials, better trained teachers, principals, and supervisors. Students have a better opportunity to compete than they did when I was principal. However, I wonder if we may not be spreading the curricula too thin in the elementary school. I hear the complaint from principals and teachers that there are so m#ny areas to cover that it is hard to cover the basics. Also, there appears to be a continuous pull-out from the regular classes for this and that.

Q: Describe your personal philosophy of education. How did it evolve over the years?

A: This may seem like a canned statement. I believe that each student should have the opportunity to develop competency in the basic learning skills to the extent of his or her abilities and that the school, family, and community should work together in this endeavor. I guess you might say that it involves sccesses and so forth.

Q: Now, discuss your professional code of ethics. Ah, please give examples of how you applied this during your career.

A: Well, I feel the first thing is that you be honest, you should be fair and consistent, be responsible, be professional, treat confidence, confidential matters in a confidential way, and as far as, ah, practing this in my, ah, ah, term as principal, ah, I've always tried to deal with teachers and students in a professional, respectful manner.

Q: I just want to say that I agree with those state ments. I believe showing respectfulness and acting profession- al is really where principals need to start first and, and, covering the confidential areas and treating them that way is very, very important. It is often said that the principal should be active in com munity affairs. Please discuss your involvements with and participation in civic groups and other community organizations. Which community organizations had the greatest influence?

A: I think it is important to be active, ah, in community affairs. You become familiar with the people of the community and, ah, they become familiar with you. I think you will find that most people are interested in the school and being active in the community you can feel more free to call upon the people to help you in the school. It gives you the opportunity to be visible in the community. I guess, possible, ah, the, number of organizations that I, ah, did participate in, ah, probably, the Ruritan Club was one of the, ah, was the ones that helped me the most. And they were always doing things for the school and the community. They were responsible for the gymnasium , the bank, and the post office and so forth. They also, ah, helped me, ah, during my teaching days with ah, ah, club work and so forth.

Q: We're always hearing a lot about effective schools and really what makes an effective school. What characteristics are associated with the most effective schools, and what features characterize less successful ones?

A: I think, ah, you should, ah, see high morale of the employees and the students. I think there should be evidence that it is well, things are well-organized. You should see good discipline, clean buildings in good repair, evidence of enthusiasm , should see a good instructional pro gram going on, an extensive, ah, extra curricula program. As far as, ah, negative, ah, parts or what would denote an ineffective school would be just the opposite from what I've just given.

Q: All right, we are down to our last question. Could you describe your typical work day; first from Woolwine Elementary School. That is, how did you spend your time and what was the normal number of hours per week you put in?

A: Thinking back twenty years, (laughter) my work day began around 7:45 am. I tried to be the first person on the scene, scene, except for the custodian. This provided, ah, me the opportunity to be available to the teachers, bus drivers, and so forth. After the bell rang for school to begin and everyone was settled in, I usually walked down the halls, around the outside area, just to, ah, make mayself visible and then I went back to the office and took care of, ah, routine duties of the office and reviewed plans for the day. These may include: taking care of teacher requests, taking care of discipline, attendance records and attendance problems, being available to help or approve extra-curricula or curricula activities, attending preacher, ah,(laughter) attending principal meetings, preparing for faculty meetings, taking care of parent and community concerns, observing teachers in the classroom and helping them with the instruc tional program, evaluating teachers, ah, purchasing materials and supplies and managing the school funds and the many other things that would come up during the day. (laughter)

Q: The unexpected?

A: The unexpected, yes. My day ended around 4:00 pm and usually, ah, usually I was usually the last one to leave in the afternoon, except for the ones who stayed on for the sports activities. Then there were the PTA meetings, sports events, and other community activities at night. I would estimate, ah, forty-five to fifty-five hours a week.

Q: How did this change when you went to Patrick County High School? Did you have pretty much the same schedule? the same hours? or did they change somewhat?

A: Pretty much the same hours, ah, it was from 8:00 to 4:00 and then, of course of, ah, the activities were a little different, ah, in the first year or two, ah, we had to completely, ah, organize and buy equipment and furnish the entire vocational department and that took a lot of time.

Q: Now, that was because it was a brand new school?

A: New school and of course the observation of teachers and evaluations was similar, didn't have quite as many night activities as I did while I was principal.

Q: Did you necessarily have to be the first one to arrive or the last one to leave in the vocational building section?

A: Hmmm, not necessarily, no.

Q: Well, thank you very much. Now, before I turn off the tape recorder, is there anything else you would like to add, like a question I didn't ask you that I should have.

A: Hmmm, I think you've covered it pretty good, Jennifer.

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