Today is November 4, 1998 and I am speaking with Dr. Steven Staples, a Virginia Tech graduate, in his office.
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Q: Would you please talk about the circumstances surrounding your entry into the principalship?
A: Be glad to. I was principal at Hopewell High, that's the principalship that we will be talking about. At the time I was offered the position, I was an assistant principal at Prince George. Um, interestingly, I had worked with a fellow named Pat Russo who was the principal at Prince George when I was department chair. He went off to greener pastures and came back as the Superintendent in Hopewell. Advertised the position, called me and recruited me for it. Said, "I'd really like you to apply for the principal's position." I had only been an assistant principal for one year. I said, "I think it's a little early, I'm not sure." So he called his former boss who is the Assistant Superintendent of Prince George and said "You need to push him a little bit to do this; he's the guy I'd really like to have over here." So the Assistant Superintendent in my division at that time comes to see me and says, "I know you want to be a principal. This is really a good job; I think you ought to think about it." So that commits me to apply and I became one of two finalists and actually got the job--interviewed in front of the School Board.
Q: What year was that?
A: That was '85. And I interviewed in front of the School Board for the job and they brought both finalists in and the other guy interviewed ahead of me and I was the second interviewed and went in and interviewed in front of everyone.
Q: Was everyone from the School Board there?
A: Absolutely. All the School Board just sat around and interviewed me, just pot shots, and the Superintendent just sat back and watched. And I remember that their last question to me was, "What is it about you that would make us select you as the candidate." And I said, "Frankly, I think that is obvious from talking with me for forty-five minutes. By now you ought to know I'm your best candidate." And they said, "Well, you're right, we should know that, I guess." So I don't know if I was cocky then or what. But that's how I got the job. I did get it, yes, I got it!
Q: When you were motivated to go into administration and enter the principalship, can you remember what was that motivation, outside of getting that gentle nudge to go into the principalship, but administration in general?
A: I think the more that I worked in teaching and the more I associated with administration, the more interested I became in what they were doing. So I sought out opportunities for mini-principalships, you know, leadership roles here. I took the department chair's position at the high school. That got me the opportunity to observe teachers, to evaluate teachers, to do instructional decision-making from orders. Well, all of those of quasi administrative leadership kinds of tasks. The more I did those, the more comfortable I felt that I had the background and I had the skills to do this as well or better than the people who were doing it. Not that they were bad, but I thought, "well, yeah, I can do this." And that motivated me I think, to say, "well I really would like to seek out those kind of opportunities." I think also everybody gets a little stale in the classroom and I felt like I needed to make a move to stay fresh.
Q: It was time for that change?
A: That offered me the opportunity.
Q: Your philosophy of education, explain to me briefly what it is and possibly how it has evolved over the year in your experience.
A: It has changed a lot. As a teacher I was very focused on the kids in my classroom and didn't have a really deep understanding about all the stuff that went around that room. I was worried about what happened in my room for those fifty minutes that those twenty-eight, actually it was probably thirty-five kids then, so then my focus in education was in dealing with the world that I controlled: the classroom, the subject matter, the curriculum, those kids. My philosophy then was, you know if you motivate kids, if you deal with kids fairly, you can deal with them straight up in a way they know you value them, they will value you, they're going to learn, they're going to be fine. You just have to put forth the effort to make that happen and I didn't picture education as needing all the controls, the assessments and the evaluations, because as a professional teacher I felt competent to do those things. But the further I get away from the classroom, the more I realize, number one, is all teachers are not alike. So there are some teachers, who perhaps, do it in a more cursory fashion than I thought was appropriate. And I began to better understand that because teachers are so different, and classrooms are so different, at times the controls are a lot like stoplights. Most of would stop at an intersection and look both ways whether there was a red light or not; some people wouldn't, so we got to have that red light. For the two or three percent of the teaching population drives much of what we do to deliver education. My theory is still if you give kids an opportunity, you give them a fair shake and you give them a some voice in what it is they are learning; they are going to perform, ninety-nine percent of the kids are going to perform well and you don't need all the bureaucracy and the rules that go with it. But now I have a better understanding of why we have those; I'm part of those.
Q: The instructional philosophy and your personal philosophy of education, you talked about having kids involved and having a vested interest in what you're doing and why you're doing it- being able to raise to the mark to do that. That developed from a personal philosophy; did the instructional philosophy just mesh into it naturally or was it something that you had to say, "what do I believe about kids, what do I believe about teaching -how do I put them together."
A: I think it was more of a forced fit. When I was in the classroom- social studies and history--that was my worry. I'm not sure the natural evolution of learning occurs in math. I think you have to take a different look as we cross the content levels. And also, I had a brief elementary experience, but I had not taught primary grades. I had one year of upper elementary, but no primary. As I moved through administrative positions and broadened some of the things I deal with, my instructional philosophy has reinforced the idea that kids really do perform well when we expect well of them, when we give them the opportunity and when we respect them. But the way that we teach them, the way that I would approach teaching would be different now having viewed all those different levels. So that was a forced fit.
Q: Experience or events within your professional life have to have had some kind of impact on your management philosophy. Can you think of any events that might be particularly significant in terms of how you decided to manage a school, manage the principalship and the employees there?
A: Several, the first one that comes to mind is my first year teaching experience. I was hired late--August of the year and I was hired on a Monday and reported with teachers on a Wednesday and the kids came the following Monday. So I literally had my job seven days the first day kids came in. I was new, I was fresh out of college, I didn't know the school, I knew very little. Throughout the entire school year, an administrator never came through my door. I never saw an assistant principal and I never saw a principal and it struck me as somewhat frightening that they took a kid right out of college who was excited about teaching and thought he was pretty good at teaching but had never done it in this setting with these kids in this school and nobody ever came by to say, "how are you doing, what's happening, do you need some help or you're doing this improperly." That began to craft a management style for me that said, "you gotta make sure to get some personal contact face-to-face. As a supervisor, it is important that you touch base with folks in their site, so even as a Superintendent, I make it a point, at least during the first month, to try and get by to see most of our new teachers or at least walk by their classroom so they know I'm in the building and they know I'm there. That's part of my management style.
Q: You are also really good at knowing their names. Do you make it an effort to be able to call people by name or to be able to associate something with them? I think that's a special characteristic of your management style. How did that develop?
A: I think that was from a positive association. The Assistant Superintendent that I referenced earlier in Prince George was very much a people person--very active, very visible, very involved in the day-to-day activities in the classroom. I watched his style and saw how much success he had because he developed personal relationships with people. People felt like he knew them. He knew who they were; he had an interest in them other than just "you're the employee, I'm the employer, get the job done." And that style I think rubbed off on me as a very effective style for him. And I adopted many of those traits. He modeled for me. In fact he just retired not long ago. I went and spoke at his retirement; he was one of my mentors.
Q: If you were advising a person who is considering an entry-level administrative job, what would that advice be?
A: Go in with your eyes open. I went in really believing that everyone taught the way I did, ran their classrooms the way I did, even people that I knew. So I was really shocked to find the diversity and even the disparity among teachers. That was a shocking thing. So I think as a new administrator you need to go in, accepting the notion that you are going to see some things that are far different from what you experienced in the classroom. I would advise them to carve out personal time. It's easy for those first few years in administration to totally overwhelm you and all of a sudden, your family and other things that are important, get shoved completely to the side, and then you end up resenting the job. So I would say carve out that time. But at the same time I would argue that they need to be very enthusiastic about what they are doing. It's a lot of hard work, particularly in the early years--look at what you're doing. A lot of your work is hard work and if you are not enthusiastic about it and you don't feel like you're making a real contribution, you're going to get pretty disgruntled in your position. So I would encourage folks to maintain that enthusiasm and remember this is what got me into the job, that's why I'm excited about it. And it is a stepping stone, you are looking for the next spot.
Q: Leading and managing can be very, very different and are very different things. There are those who argue that a principal should be an instructional leader and those that suggest, realistically speaking, that a person above all would be a good manager. Would you share your views with me on this issue and perhaps describe your style or which style you lean more towards, ...... or discipline?
A: I think we make a mistake by separating those as if they are mutually exclusive. If you are a principal, you have got to be the instructional leader. There's no other way to effectively run a school and running a school is managing. To effectively run a school, you have to be the one that folks can go to, because instruction is our product. That's what we're here for. So I think you have to be comfortable that instruction is the most important thing you do. Flip that around though, and all your management has got to lead towards improving instruction, whether it is something as simple as when you are going to have lunches, how we're going to change classes, how I'm going to create a master schedule and assign teachers. If all of that is just a management technique separate from instruction, then you make a mistake. Because managing the school, you've got to focus on creating instructional improvement by the way you manage. I would not want a principal to say, "all I do is instruction and I want the management of the school to be done by somebody else." We are entrusting principals with a very expensive building, with the care and welfare of children. All of that has gotten to be taken as an awesome responsibility and factored into it. They should not be mutually exclusive. It concerns me when people say, "I can either manage the building or I can be an instructional leader." And I think, "no, when you do one, you are helping the other." If the roof is leaking it could have some instructional impact. You have to learn as a manager, "what do I do about that? How do I deal with that?"
Q: Would you describe the ideal requirement for a principal certification and discuss perhaps procedures for screening of those people that may be considered principals. You talked about not wanting someone who is all or nothing. What type of certification requirements would you suggest?
A: Well, it is not just certification, because I am trying to answer your questions now from a non-theoretical viewpoint. I figure you guys get enough theory. So you understand that. So I am saying, "just practically, what are some of those kinds of issues to deal with?" Well, outside of principal certification, I want somebody who understands change. I think you need to have a clear understanding of change and how you motivate and nurture people through change, because the principal, like it or not, is going to be the agent that is the extension of all the changes the division wants to occur. You're the person on the firing line to say, "let me make it happen in this building." Understanding that process of change and how it affects people, and the root dynamics that are involved with it, that's an important skill for principals to have. I think they also have to have, I'm not sure how you teach this skill, but they've got to have the courage in their convictions. Sometimes we stand on rules because we are afraid to know when to back off the rule, and it is just a rule. Therefore, I have always got to apply it. There are times, when as a principal, you have to have the courage of your convictions to say, "you know, this doesn't make sense right now. And I am going to stand up and say, right now this is not the right thing to do and so in this set of circumstance I am not going to do this." I had the chance to speak to a group of assistant principals last year in VA Beach and what they wanted to know was, "how do we become principals?" One of the things I told them and had a lot of interesting questions about, I said, "you have got to be willing to step outside of policy. If all you do is do exactly what policy tells you, then you are not really assuming a leadership role because you are saying, "I believe this policy applies 100% of the time to 100% of my people." There has got to be a time when you realize, "I know what that policy says and I know what direction it gives me, but I don't think that's the appropriate decision here. Not that I'm making decisions on my own and I'm going to ignore policy, but I've got to make an interpretation as to when policy applies." For example, you look in our policy manual and it gives you minimum hours for teachers. You could uniformly enforce that and say, "look, you've got be here at 8:00. But if somebody the night before has volunteered to work a basketball game, they have been at the gate, they have been collecting money, they stayed after, they counted the money, and they got home at 11:00. Stepping out of the leadership role in a minor way and saying, "you don't have a class first thing in the morning, sleep in. Get here a little late, I appreciate what you did." That's not policy, that's stepping outside of policy. But the courage of your convictions is this is how you manage people. I'm going on too long about it, but I think a principal has got to be willing to take that on and stand up for it if someone says, "well why did you step outside of policy?" The other thing I told those assistant principals at that meeting was, "it's not just stepping outside of policy to make a decision, it is being willing to take the heat and explain why you did that--not just because I ignored policy, here are the circumstances I saw." That's something I like to see in principals. And then third, good teaching. Good teachers don't always make good principals, but I think all good principals are good teachers. And there is a difference in those. If you are a good principal, your teaching audience is just a little larger. You are teaching your faculty, you are teaching your community, I mean, you have got to teach your PTA. And so I think you have got to be a good teacher to do that and that is a credential I look for. As for screening, we have got to have some kind of internship, because no class or no set of academic requirements gives you the authenticity that you get from doing it on the front line and making decisions "on the fly." If I live to be 500, I'll never forget the feeling I had the first time I sat in the principal's chair at Hopewell High. It was just me, I walked into the office, I was the principal, I had walked around the school, I had greeted people, I sat in that chair and it hit me, "I really am the principal." I can't go in and make a recommendation; people are coming to me with recommendations and I have got to make a decision. I don't think there is a class that prepares you for that. You can talk about it in theoretical terms and do models, but the first time you sit in the chair, you realize "the buck really does stop there." So I've been looking for some internships, some authentic experiences. I like the Assessment Center approach where you kind of put into a setting that requires you to behave that way, even though it is not real, you feel some of the real stress because I've gone through that. So some of those are good, but I'd like to see a real internship.
Q: We talk about teacher evaluations and the philosophy of evaluating teachers and new evaluation instruments are coming along periodically. Lately, it seems like teachers are getting a lot of heat and some of them are responding through teacher grievances. There have to be procedures to handle dissatisfaction with teachers that you have. What are your ideas on some of the best ways to handle that?
A: I think most of our grievances arise from times when the teacher and the principal or the teacher and the evaluator disagree as to what happened in the classroom. Whether it is either you saw me on a day that was unfair; it's unfair to take this snapshot of my year's performance and evaluate me on it, or there are some circumstances going on that you are not aware of, or you and I just saw two different things. All that to me boils down to what is the relationship between that evaluator and the teacher. You have to develop a relationship of trust. If I go in and observe teachers once a year and I give them that only shot, their trust is pretty low, because they know, "it's a make or break; I get that snapshot." It is not like our state testing program now--gives you one shot and that's it. You have a good day or a bad day and that is your reputation. I think we can get rid of a lot of the grievances if principals or evaluators were willing to say, "I need to get multiple looks at your classroom; we need to talk about what you're planning to do." Now, some of those ought to be surprise walk-ins. I don't want every teacher to know you're coming. But if you and I have talked about what's going to be happening over the next two to three weeks, and I understand what you're trying to accomplish in this unit or with a series of lessons. When I come into your room to observe, you and I, at least, have a common understanding of what's supposed to happen. That's a start. Because I may understand that in this particular lesson you're not working to engage kids. You've got to get through a portion where you may be doing some information-giving because eight lessons from now you're going to be engaging kids with that information. This is the only way they can get it. Otherwise, I come in and start gigging you, saying, "you know, you didn't engage kids in this. This is not interactive." And you are trying to convince me why and we are arguing over the fact that we did not understand what was supposed to be happening. That's the first. And I think informally there has got to be a vehicle where the teacher and the evaluator to sit down and talk before we get into a formal grievance process. I had kind of a standard rule and I announced this to our staff. I said, "if I ever come in and do an observation" and we did tons of them, I probably did 120 observations a year as a principal, because our system required us to observe every teacher four times. There were a number of assistants and we were very active in the classrooms. But my rule was even with all those, if I come in and do an observation, you and I sit down and talk about it, and at the end if you don't feel like it was fair or you don't feel like it was an accurate picture of your classroom, I'll tear it up and we'll start over. In other words, you're going to get your best shot and then if I come back in and I see the same things, then we've got to sit down to say, "nothing changed, maybe that was fairer than we thought." But what it relieves them from was the "bad day syndrome", the "where I had a substitute yesterday and you don't remember that syndrome." It wrote all that off because they were in control. And what you really want if you are really doing observations to improve teaching, you want the teacher to buy in to what you are saying. And if it "I gotcha" then they can write it off, and they can say, "you're right, Rose, you saw me today, but everything you told me was because of all these other reasons, so I don't have to buy into that; I don't have to change my teaching." It was all these exterior factors. I'm going to wipe those out so when we come to some conclusions about your observation, they agree, "yeah, that was what happened and I've got to confront that."
Q: I think building trust and relationships and keeping in mind the human factor endears people to you in a way that they have a sense of keeping their dignity. They are not forced to relinquish any of that or have to make excuses for behavior. That's a wonderful tool. I guess the role of the assistant principal, trusting and having a relationship, and you deal with matching up principals to assistant principals, trying to appear not necessarily like they were just pulled out of a hat randomly, but actually trying to match personalities to buildings. Often times people don't understand that big picture. Discuss the utilization of necessarily the assistant principal while on the job and also describe for me, if you would, the truly effective assistant principal and then we'll follow up with an assistant principal you've had a chance to work with in the past and maybe what that person is doing now.
A: I believe the role of the assistant principal is the detail person. They have to be the person who makes sure all the "i's" are dotted and the "t's" are crossed. The principal has a broader view, in the sense of they're looking more for direction for setting goals--those kind of issues. And the assistant principals are the ones who really make sure it happens. When I was an assistant principal my biggest concern was, "do I have enough desks in every room to match up with the most kids who are going to be in the room?" It's a small detail, but it matters a lot when you're the teacher and thirty kids show up and you've got twenty-nine desks. Somebody has got to stand up the first day--that's a problem. But it's a detail a principal should not have to worry about. What the principal should worry about is, "what's our maximum class size, how many desks should we order and in our budget how large a role should that play?" So I give you that as a minute example, but I think that the principal, by nature, is going to be broader and less detailed. The assistant principal, by nature, is going to have a detailed focus, which by definition, is narrower. Now great assistant principals are able to deal with detail, but at the same time participate in some activities that give them a broad picture. We always encourage our principals that not only are they using assistants to run the building, but training assistants to be principals. Part of the evaluation of our principals here is, "how well prepared are your assistants to be principals? How many opportunities have you given them to grow, to look at the big picture, to run a program, to take responsibility." Those are the opportunities we have to give the assistant principals, because otherwise, you get so immersed in detail, you don't see the big picture. There's a big difference between being an assistant principal and a principal, even though you can see the principal from the AP's role, I don't think we give you enough opportunities to do what the principal does. And it is frustrating. As an assistant principal, details were my life. That was what was important. But I was exposed to, and had the opportunity to run enough things, that I had the big picture. And that's the step you've got to make.
Q: An assistant principal that you've had a chance to work with in the past, someone that was either one of your assistant principals or someone that stood out from among the ranks. What were some of the special characteristics of that person, different maybe than what was described that what would be the ideal and what is that person doing now?
A: You want them by name, sure, James Tucker, who's here in the division with me now was an assistant principal and I recruited him to be an assistant principal. He was a classroom teacher. I watched his classroom, I watched the way he interacted with kids, I watched the way he interacted with his colleagues and I knew that he was respected as a teacher. He had high expectations for him and for the performance of his department and he had high expectations for kids, but he was not unreasonable. Kids liked him, they enjoyed his class and they performed well in his class. It wasn't because he gave them grades; they were motivated to perform. Those are characteristics I'd like to see in an administrator: good with people, good detail. This is probably information you don't need for your chronicle, but he was coaching girl's basketball and I talked the Superintendent into letting me make him my assistant principal. And I went down and put my arm around him in the gym and said, "I need to talk to you for a second," took him aside, and said, "have you ever thought about administration?" And he said, "actually, I have." I said, "well, good, because you're going to be the acting assistant principal until you can complete your licensure requirements. I need you to start going to class. He had the attributes of a good teacher that translated to a good administrator. I think those attributes are still here today. People-oriented, he understands detail; he can take a leadership position and take heat when he ignores policy. There are times today when he knows what it is we like people to do, but he has the courage to say, "here's what I need you to do for right now, because this makes sense." He'll stand up for that and he's willing to take the heat for that and usually those calls are pretty good. So today he is our Director of Administration and will probably one day sit in my chair if I vacate it. He's had those opportunities before and we've convinced him to stay here.
Q: If you were to think of effective schools and schools that were effective and schools that were less than successful, do you find any characteristics that seem to you, permeate effective or less successful?
A: I think effective schools are open to change and constantly striving to improve and that starts at the top. That's the old axiom of, " good schools have good principals" is true. The principal has to cultivate a climate where folks realize that doing the same old thing the same old way may not get us where we have to go. But they are open to opportunities for change, open to opportunities to grow and they are comfortable. But they are not threatened in that environment and they expect that. Every year we've got to get a little better because last's year performance wasn't good enough. Schools that, I think, that tend to wallow or tend to stick around in mediocrity, are schools where the principal is satisfied and the status quo is good enough. And what we are talking about is just managing a building. "All I have to worry about is managing it and I'm not worrying about managing it in a way that creates improvement." Bad schools have lots of excuses. When I run into people who start giving me excuses why their school is not very good, I'm suspicious, perhaps, that they are satisfied with the way their school is.
Q: And that often leads to stagnation and zero growth.
A: "Because we can't do anything about it because all these factors are out of our control. You know, we've got bad kids; we've got dumb kids; we've got poor kids." Put the label where you want it. But all those are excuses--a lot of excuses not to succeed.
Q: I guess I've often heard three things can happen: things can stay the same, they're going to get worse or they're going to get better. Choose your place or where you want to go. Traditionally, commitment has been to a principal of universal free public education and often times the media or outside interest groups or the community are really focused on free appropriate public education. If you could give me your views on and feelings of on the practicality of that idea, or maybe just the verbiage at this time and where does it really fit in? Does it apply anymore?
A: First, let me tell you that it is absolutely impractical, but is critical. Democracy is the most impractical idea we've ever had; it just doesn't work without a real commitment to making it work. I think what we're shooting for when we say universal public education is a leveling of the playing field so that everybody is in a position to be successful based on their own efforts. Without universal free public education some people have access to it and automatically have a benefit that others don't. So we tend to promulgate a system where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The purpose of education is to say, "put the poor kids and the rich kids in a setting and we are going to try to expose them to some similar things. Based on that, the playing field is a little more level when they graduate or come out of school than it would have been, so their success in life is a little more competitive. The idea is getting away from blocking in a privileged class. That's why I say it is impractical because today's system is more susceptible to influence groups. Our whole system in politics deals with lobbyists or groups that tend to have the loudest voices or the most persistent voices. Lobbyists focus on getting certain rights or advantages or privileges for a small group. The more that occurs the less likely we are to say we are going to give a universal education to level the playing field. Because lobbyists don't want a level playing field. He wants advantages for his lobby group. And whether it's special ed or disadvantaged or minorities or gifted or science, math, girls versus boys- there are lobbyists in every area of education who want us to say this is most important or this group deserves something more. And the more we do that, the more I think we get away from that idea. That's why I say that it's an impractical idea today. It's going to take an effort for us to continue it. It's going to take a real focus and commitment, not to my kid, not to your kid, but to all kids. And I'm not sure we all have that commitment today. I hear a lot of people advocating for children, but they are advocating for their children and that's not what we're talking about in a universal free public education.
Q: There also is the talk that universal free public education should extend beyond 12th grade. If we're looking at making kids ready to work, then aren't we cutting off part of our population by cutting off the education at age 17, hopefully before 18 or 20, if they are still in school. How do you feel about that?
A: I like to think that we already do that, whether it's by formal or informal means. I mean, there is a difference between education and school. People are going to get education at work; they're going to get it from experience; they're going to get it from taking courses; they're going to get it from public television. So I would like to think that our efforts in educating folks don't end when their school years end, whether that's 10th grade, 12th grade, four years of college or wherever. I finished a doctorate; I can assure you that's my last degree. They tell us at Tech, "it's a terminal degree." I was willing to pay my money and spend my time to get to a terminal degree. But I really think I'm going to continue to be educated so I think our commitment to go beyond schooling, to make sure that folks who finish with their formal schooling years do have opportunities for education. But I'm not sure it would have to be formal schooling. I look at a lot of folks in our community and I think we are, as a school division, actively seek ways to get them involved in improving their own skills or improving their own educational background, whether it's formal schooling or not.
Q: If we look at improving American schools, can you think of a couple of areas, either in curriculum or overall operations, that would need improving?
A: Reading. I don't thing there is anything that we do that is any more important than reading and I hope I've expressed that here in my position. Because without reading, all of our other content and all of our other strategies are useless. We've finally come to the conclusion that a student who can't read, can't learn. So I think we ought to pour more and more of our resources into that commitment. Because kids that can read well open up the opportunity for education well beyond their schooling years. They can go read a book; they can go read a manual. They have the opportunity to extend their education. Kids who can't read well have to have somebody tell them that. So that's the first area, reading. The second is, I think, we've got to get away from our system that moves all kids through the system in a similar fashion. When we talk about universal free public education and sharing experiences, I don't know if that means that everybody gets the same thing at the same time. We all might want to take Algebra but do we all need it 180 days, 45 minutes a day? I don't know. I expect some of our kids could get the hang of Algebra I and move on in 90 days. Some of our other kids, they're going to need 360 days. We tend to hold static, time, and let learning be the variable. We all go 180 days- some of us learn a lot; some of us learn a little. I think with the new State initiative what we're going to be able to do now is to say, "let's let learning be the constant. We've all got to learn at least this much and with varied times, some of us will come a little, some of us will come a lot. But we're going to get on with that thought. Those are the two things I'd change.
Q: With the state initiative and the emphasis on the testing, what is your view on the overall effect of the quality of the instructional program--the impact that the testing could have?
A: I think it's going to have negative impacts if we don't manage it well. That comes back to that no program is a bad program by itself, it's how we implement it and the way we manage it to determine if it has positive impact or negative. If what we do is say, "here's the test and everybody is going to have to do this test and everybody is going to focus entirely on the test," I'm not sure it will have positive impact. If we take that data and use the test as a motivator, as a way to focus our efforts in content, then it can have a very positive impact on instruction. Because frankly, we were trying to do too much. Everybody that complained about public schools didn't realize how we keep heaping one more thing on. If there is a local fire and God forbid, someone is burned, the first thought is, "Oh, we need fire safety education in schools so this will never happen again." Well, is that or isn't that our mission? I don't know. It's part of the education the community needs but somehow we've said "all education has to happen in school" and that's not true. I think the positive in this whole testing program is that it will give us instructional focus and maybe weed out some of the things that have been dumped onto the schools that ought to done somewhere in the community, but I'm not sure we ought to do it.
Q: I'm going to change gears for the next few questions and talk about leadership and talk about your particular leadership and basically I'm interested in learning how you learn to be a leader. Was there a model or a person from when you were younger or smaller that influenced you? We've talked about the mentor who influenced you in the leadership styles that you've taken from people along the way. But can you share with me some of your thoughts on how you learned to lead?
A: Sure, there were at least two or three people who influenced me. Going back as early as third grade, I committed to teaching in education as a third grader. My third grade teacher was just a jewel. She was dynamic and did all the things that I described to you that I thought was good teaching. And as a third grader, I couldn't have named them, but I knew that I enjoyed being in her class, I liked her class, and I was motivated in her class. I was fortunate enough to have her next year my very next as a fourth grade teacher. Those two years cemented for me: that's what I want to do, I want to do it the way she is doing and I don't if I ever lived up to that standard, but I was excited about it. She went on to be chairman of the Chesterfield County School Board, interestingly enough. But just a sharp, sharp lady, so she was a very early influence on some of the things I believe about teaching and learning. Then I mentioned the Assistant Superintendent who was a real role model for me. Some of it has to be an extension of your own personality and your own comfort level. I don't think you can teach someone to be comfortable in one-on-one interactions with people, if that's not an extension of their personality. So when I'm talking with folks who are thinking of going into administration, I try to convince them to look at the outline of what good administration is and make sure they understand that there are sometimes that they are going to step out of their comfort zone. But for the most time when they are in their comfort zone, find a way to accommodate what they are not comfortable with that's important. If I'm not a great public speaker, and public speaking is part of administration, I'm not comfortable doing that and I'm not going to want to do that a lot, but I need to do it because it is part of the role. Then I have to find a way to accommodate my anxiety about it so I can do it. Maybe that means that I script everything that I do. Fine, that's okay, that's a reasonable accommodation. I go by the script and that relives my anxiety and I can do the public speaking. But I think you've got to get into a comfort zone with your own personality style and what that means, there isn't one administrative way. We've got to look for combinations and we've got to look at divisions or buildings or even interactions with students, so that we expose them to two or three different styles. There ought to be one, just tough guy in the building. Somewhere along the line, they're comfortable with that style--somebody else who is more a people person, warm fuzzies, giving hugs. You've got to have both of those to make a building run or a division run.
Q: When you look at making those adjustments in your leadership style--when you're meeting the individual of your staff and you're making those adjustments along the way, how do you feel about the idea of your almost individualized leadership, adjusting to get you where you're going and adjusting to meet teachers where they are?
A: Absolutely. Leadership, and if you define leadership as moving people from where they are to where they need to be. Some people are heavier than others. For some people that movement is going to be easy. So your leadership style ought to be easier to move them. You are going to move them in a different way. Other people, you are going to need a wheelbarrow. And you'd better be prepared to run that wheelbarrow to move them. But your purpose if to get them all to that new point. That's all leadership is to me, moving people where you want them to go or where it's important they go and providing the support and the guidance and the encouragement and motivation to do that. So if some will walk on their own and others you have to tote in a wheelbarrow, yeah, differ your leadership styles, absolutely.
Q: So that would carry through in managing or micromanaging particular activities of some folks, while others had more of a supervisory approach so you kind of let them go and explore on their own. They're all going to get that same end of the roadmap. It's just going to take a little bit of a different way to get them there.
A: That's right. You don't want to ever leave anybody alone to the point where they feel like you're not interested in what's going on. Even your high fliers, even the folks who are just taking a idea and running with it and implement it and just doing a super job, you want to check in with them enough to so they know you have not forgotten them. I'm walking the path and I know I'm on the right path, but every once in while I want somebody to come in and say, "boy, your place looks great, you're really moving along. This is excellent, run into any problems, if not, hey, but you know I'm there." I'm afraid some folks assume that management style means that I leave some people alone. That's not what I mean. It's just means that you manage them differently. And managing them differently might mean support and encouragement versus direction and guidance.
Q: If you look at leadership in terms of quantifiable terms: assertive, supportive, contemplative, and not one of them really tends to describe any style that would be yours. Do you have a word for your leadership style or a descriptor that you would consider yourself and if so, would you give me some reasons behind why you've chosen it?
A: Well, I would like to think I don't have one style, because I really believe different situations are going to call for me to respond in different ways. There are times when I've got to directive. There are times where I've got to supportive. There are times where I've got to quiet--that's probably the hardest one for me. But if I were to describe my style, I think I would say that it is personal. Part of my success, whatever success I've had, is because I try to get to know folks and make a personal connection that allows to understand the circumstances and help them understand what I'm looking for from the circumstances of my job. But not separate out that we are still just two people just working hard trying to get somewhere. I think that personal connection allows for the trust, allows for the opportunities to interact and both of us to get a better understanding of what it is we are trying to do. It allows for me to let them know that it's not just work, it maybe a part of your life that is important to you. So I'm going to take an interest in it because I want your success to help me with my success. But I also want your success to be what you want. I want you to be successful in what you are doing.
Q: I noticed that often times when you want to make a point about something, you have a very eloquent way of telling a story and being able to reach someone where they are. Is that something that you came up with on your own or is that a methodology that you just thought may be easier for people to buy inyo where you're going?
A: That was part of my success in teaching. I think in teaching what I tried to do was paint pictures that made sense to people--not literally paint pictures. But I did that with stories and because I was a history teacher, one of the challenges in history is to make anything that has already happened and is old, real. I did that by trying to give them examples and stories that were relevant to them and allowed them to better understand that experience or that event or the importance of that period. That, I think, carried over to administration, because often we are talking about very abstract things. So I look for ways to try and make it a little more concrete and connect the folks with a little story.
Q: You do a successful job at it. Sometimes I'm not sure where you get them all, but you always seem to have a new one that reaches the point.
A: Sometimes people go, "I have no idea what he's talking about, but that's okay."
Q: It's going to come together somehow.
A: That's right, just stick with me.
Q: There's a point here somewhere.
A: We hope so.
Q: When you take a look at your success, where you are now, where you've been, how you got here--advice that you would give someone else who might be heading down the same road.
A: Be ambitious. Opportunity doesn't knock. I really don't believe that now. In the case of my principalship in Hopewell, some would say, "well, it knocked." No, I had already impressed that superintendent while I was teaching and so I got the opportunity to knock by knocking myself out as department chair and showing some opportunities and willingness to take risks and those kind of things. He said, "hey, this is the kind of guy I want." So you have to be ambitious, not to the point that is destructive. Not any job at all costs, but the idea of when you feel prepared, get out there and find out. Take an interview. I encourage folks, even though I know we could loose them. If you're ready, take a shot. I had to move divisions. If that Assistant Superintendent hadn't come put his arm around me and said, "it's okay, you need to go look at this," I might still be sitting there as assistant principal and I'd be frustrated. So be ambitious, that's the first thing. Know your own limitations within those ambitions. There are times where you don't want a job just because you're excited about it. Make sure you're comfortable with that as the next step. I think too often we think I've got to make that next step in this time frame or I'm a failure. Sometimes I put those parameters on me. That's not a healthy thing. Once you feel comfortable and I think that when that happens, it's more of a feeling than anything else. But once you know, "you know I've done this and I know what's going on here and I don't need to do this anymore to learn about it. I've seen the wheel go around enough times that I milked this job for all the learning." Now will there always be new situations, absolutely, you could do discipline for 50 years and always get a new situation. How long do you have to do discipline before you get the handle on understanding what discipline is and I know how this happens? Once you've done that and you start getting the hang of these things, you say, "I know it's time to move, I'm ready to move on." Okay, then be ambitious. Seek out those opportunities and present yourself. I think opportunities come to those who seek them. The more opportunities you open your field if you say, "I can only take a job in this division," fine, that's good for us, but that's going to limit your opportunities. If you say, "I want this position and I'm willing to look across a broader region," absolutely, you'll get it.
Q: I don't know if you've heard the philosophy, my brother works for IBM and shared with me a philosophy that he works with everyday, "things come to those who wait, but only those things left behind by those who didn't."
A: That's very true. I think ambition is a positive thing as long it's not absolutely not uncontrolled.
Q: Have you thought about something that through the years that you've been especially proud of, besides that first day maybe when you were sitting in that principal's chair and you can think back to that moment? Or has there been any event or period of events or something that led up to something that you think, "you know, throughout everything I'm ever going to be, any job I've ever had or the impact that I might have had on the multitudes, this one incident really sticks out as something I could say, "I'm proud of this."
A: There are several and there are lots of them and I'm going to give you the one that is probably least public, but may be the most personal to me. It really goes back to when I was teacher, because I think, perhaps it symbolizes or reinforces my belief, "okay, what I'm doing is the right way. At least for me it's the right way." But several years ago, I got a call from a student, not a particularly good student, a student I remembered. I got to know all my students the same way. I got a call from him and he said, "I just wanted you to know, I've entered medical school." That was pretty much a shock to me because he was not a good student. But he said, "I wanted to tell you something. Throughout the time I was in your class, you always treated me fairly and you always encouraged that I could really do a lot more. You weren't disappointed, you weren't mad, you weren't upset, but you always let me know I had lot more potential. And if I would just do or commit myself, it really would come out. What you did was inspire some confidence in me and through the years I thought, you know he's right. I was kind of immature and I kind of piddled away my time in high school and barely graduated. But I kept coming back to the idea that was something in me that could do better." And he said, "the first person I wanted to call when I got into medical school was you." That's a pretty nice compliment. Well, what it reinforced for me was the way you deal with people is more important than what you do with people. That kind of cemented my management style. He called me when he graduated too. Q: I think that's one of the things that you are admired for is the amount of time that you do spend with people and a genuine caring for the people who work for York County, in the division here. I think that's something that people see through your leadership style and through your belief system of, "here's where we're going, it might be a tough road to get there, but we can get there. We just need to step out our own box, per se, and look at the larger one and move forward." Despite some of my efforts to ask you as many questions and as many rounds as I was able to, I'm sure I've probably something out that may be really important as this oral history is completed. Can you think of something that would be important to add to this or something that I may have left out that would be a piece of information about you as we include this oral history into the archives and we take a look at people, where they've come from, where they've gone, perhaps, where they're going. All of the pieces fit together so carefully and not often times as neatly as you might think, but they fit together carefully to build the people that we have. Is there something that you would like to share?
A: I think one of the things that has guided me as we move into positions of leadership, when we all feel somewhat frustrated because there is no textbook. Situations that we are confronted with don't always have clear right or wrong answers. So you always look back for a guiding principle, you know, where is it I can get my philosophical base? Where is it that I can say, "all right, I've got to make this decision." Some people say, "do what's best for kids." Sometimes that's confusing to me. I don't know what's best for kids. What's best for some kids isn't best for these kids. Early on I talked with someone and they said, "you know, everytime you make a decision, make it with the understanding of, can you look yourself in the mirror and say, "that's the right thing to do. I feel comfortable that's the right thing to do, based on what I believe." That mirror test has served me well throughout my career because there are times where you are confronted with a situation and politics says, "maybe you want to do this." Or expediency says, "you know, let's duck this." Or the loudest or most hushed voice says, "just do this and I will leave you alone." If you stick with the mirror test, which is tomorrow when I get up and go to shave and I look in the mirror, can I look myself in the eye and say, "that was the right thing to do?" And if you can't, you've got to reflect on that decision and say, "I'm not sure I feel comfortable with this." The first time I used the mirror test was as an assistant principal and a teacher came to me during exam period, and of course, the principal wasn't there- always happens--the principal is never there. She said to me, "one of my students was cheating on the exam." We started talking about it. It was the second ranked student in that class. We talked about it and it became clear that the teacher had not just seen something accidental. It was true. I brought the student in; she cried, she had never done this before. She admitted she had done it but not only had she done it, thirteen of them had done it. A majority of our Beta Club, the kids who about to be inducted into the National Honor Society, some of our best respected kids and my first thought was, "whew, how do I get out from under this one. What do I do?" I remembered that mirror test and I thought, "wait a second, she cheated on the exam. Whether she's salutatorian, whether she ranked 190, the mirror test says, "I don't feel comfortable with that." You did it on purpose and you took advantage of it and you compromised your own principles there and she knew it. So I had to deal with it. There was a lot of public flack, people said, "you know, one bad mistake, don't punish the kids; they're good kids, give them a break." What got me through that was the mirror test. When I got up in the morning I said, "that's was the wrong thing to do, shouldn't have done it." So, they should not have cheated. The mirror test got me through it and that's what I use from here on out.
Q: Who are you going to see in the mirror in the future? Is there a place you're going or something you're looking forward to when you look in the mirror in five or ten years?
A: There was a time when ambition would have said, "I need more than this." There was a time when I needed to be the State Superintendent or I needed to be Superintendent of the biggest division in Virginia. Really, even at my young age, I've passed that. I don't have to have to do that anymore. I see my career actually going the other way. The longer I do this job, ten years from now, I think you might see a teacher when I look in the mirror. I think I've got to get back to that. The further away you get from the classroom, maybe it's not going to be a public school classroom, maybe it's not going to be an elementary classroom, but it's going to be a classroom where my work with teaching is more direct than my indirect role now. So ten years from now when I look in the mirror, I think maybe I'll see a teacher. It will be fun.
Q: I thank you very much for the time in helping me complete this interview and do this oral history. It's been a really great hour talking to you here today and if there is anything else you'd like to add later on down the way, if there is something I didn't ask you that you'd say, "I'd really like this to be part of the archive part of the information," please let me know because we'd always love to have that as part of this. Because this is going to be something that's ongoing and it will be something that people can refer to later on down the way. It's basically to help others, to help people realize where we've come from, what can we learn, where can we go from this. What types of experiences have been created over and over again in time through history? Do things really change. Is it the same thing in a new way, shape or form as we look at things. So that option is always there, to add to this archive.
A: Let me add this comment: Twelve years ago I sat where you're sitting and did this very interview with a principal. I'm going to make a prediction: that you're going to be on the opposite side of this tape recorder in the not too distant future. Because folks need to know Rose White is going to be one of those folks we archive.
Q: Thank you very much.
A: I've recorded it now. So now it's part of history.
Q: Thank you very much.
A: My pleasure, glad to do it.
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