Interview with Dr. Sarah Simmons

March 22, 2000

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Q: Would you begin by telling us about your family background-your childhood interests and development? (Birthplace, elementary and secondary education, family characteristics.

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

A: I was born in Floyd County, which is close by, about a hour’s drive from here. Very rural, mountainous, 11,000 population in the whole county. When I grew up, it was so small, even more so than now that by a person’s last name, I could tell you which section of the county the person was from the Check area, or Willis, or Indian Valley. On 221, which is the main artery, you get behind somebody that is driving pretty slow, you knew whether or not to pass because farmer’s so and so’s truck. The next mile, he will be turning off on road so and so. That is how everybody knew everybody else. That has changed a lot. It is an influx of people from even Roanoke, Montgomery County moving into Floyd County, but it was a nice place to grow up. Would you tell us a little bit about your college education and preparation

Q: for entering the field of teaching? How many years did you serve as a teacher? A principal?

A: Well I am a fourth generation teacher, all coming from Floyd County and beginning with my great grandfather; my grandfather was chairman of the school board for 30 years and recognized as the outstanding school board member in the state of Virginia in 1957, so education has always been an intricle part of my life. There was never a time in my life that I didn’t want to be a teacher. I can remember in first grade being asked what I was going to do. I said, Oh, I am going to be a teacher and it just never changed or altered. Growing up in my day, the main, in this area, the main teacher education programs are at Radford College. It was college then as opposed to University. My sister went there, a teacher also. So, that is the only place that I applied and went to school at Radford College to become a teacher. Finished, went through early, took overloads so I got through early, and did my student teaching the fall of 1972. I can still remember exactly what I wore the very first day that I walked into school as a student teacher. I can visualize everything, it is surreal, but I remember it vividly. My whole student teaching experience at Hillsville Elementary in Carroll County. I did not want to go back to Floyd because of my grandfather’s connections, my mother, all my aunts, who were teachers. I wanted to make it on my own, but yet I did not want to be that far away from home. So, I applied to student teach in Hillsville in Carroll County and finished my student teaching in December 1972, and the superintendent hired me to finish out the year at Fancy Gap Elementary in Carroll County in a Special Ed classroom. Special Ed. then, that was in January ’73 and Special Education programs were just starting. So I walked in, I graduate on a Friday, and walk in on a Monday without any special education training or background. I had 13 children. I had one that was emotionally disturbed that had already set fire to his neighbor’s animals and barn. I had two children that were trainable. I had one autistic child. I had two or three that were educabally mentally handicapped at the Junior High level, those that were just very young babies. So I had the whole gamut. I had 23 by myself. That was the biggest learning experience of my life and what saved me was my mother, because she was an aide in special education in Floyd County, but gave me lots of advice and that has really prepared me, I think, more than anything else that I have every did. I loved it. Then the following fall, in August 1974, 1973 rather, I went into fourth grade at Hillsville Elementary where I did my student teaching, and had 33 to a class. Taught math, science, social studies and was a team teaching situation. Wonderful experience, very good friends, still have friends there today. And then in November ’77, my principal walked in, by then I had my Master’s from Virginia Tech and I was the only one with a Master’s degree in the school and so he told me that the assistant principal is leaving and I would really like for you to apply for this job, and even if you don’t like it, you can go back in the classroom next year. So I thought, I will do it and I really enjoyed the curriculum development aspect. So my master’s was not in administration, it was in curriculum instruction, so I had to go back and get my license for that, which I did. I said that I would never become a principal. I liked it just fine, whereas I solved all the headaches that principals had to put up with, I knew that we eat our words. I turned down the first principal’s job, which was in Floyd County at Willis Elementary, where I went to elementary school. There were teachers there who taught me and when the superintendent called and offered me the job, this would not work, just that they would never see me as anything but the child that sometimes caused problems and it just wouldn’t work. And, plus, I went to church with some of them, and I said that it was too close to family, so I said no. Then, a month later, I guess a couple of months later that school had already started. It was in September 1980, the superintendent called me again and this time he offered me the principleship of Floyd Elementary. The principal there finished his doctorate at Tech, and taking a teaching position at a college in South Carolina. And it was the largest elementary school in the county, it was a K-7 school with all the special ed. programs in the county, around 560 students and no assistant principal. So, my principal told me, do it. He says that if you keep turning it down, you will quit getting offers, and you know, you just do it, so I did. And so I went into the principalship there from 1980 through 1984, and then Jerry Niles from Virginia Tech called and offered me a fellowship to come and work on my doctorate, and I thought, well I was enjoying what I was doing and I knew that I was comfortable in the role, and I could finish out 30 years right there, but I felt something was missing, because I felt that I personally was growing and eventually, that was going to affect my job. So I took the fellowship, went to Tech for year to work on my doctorate in curriculum and instruction. While I was there, the superintendent calls me and offers me the principalship at a high school. Actually, it was a school board member, but I wasn’t certified for high school and I had no interest in that at all. So, a month or two later, the superintendent calls me and offers me the elementary supervisor’s job, because the elementary supervisor was nearing retirement and she wanted to go back into the school as a principal, so she actually took my job at Floyd Elementary, and I took her job in central office. So, I went back in August of ’85, finished my doctorate. No, I am getting my dates mixed up. From ’84 to ’85, was when I worked on my fellowship so I guess it was really in September of ’85 that I went back as an elementary supervisor and stayed until, and finished my doctorate, and stayed until I resigned after the school year in July 1, ’88, and I came to Roanoke College in the fall of ’88.

Q: Did you find that the position as an elementary supervisor has changed, even since you had that position just a few years ago?

A: I think it depends on the school division. Being a very small school division, I wore many hats, so I did lots of things that in the larger school division, it would be more narrowly focused or defined. I was Title I coordinator, I was also adult basic education coordinator. I was in charge of all the testing programming in the county, as well as curriculum development at the elementary level, and so I did a lot of different things.

Q: Would you describe the instructional philosophy of your school, telling how it was developed and how it evolved over time?

A: When I was principal at Floyd Elementary, I viewed my position not in terms of power. I wanted to give power away. I never wanted to collect it. I felt the more that other people had ownership, the more it made my job easier and everyone elses’. And I looked upon my position as a role. What in my role could I do to assist teachers and in turn children, and I had a great respect for what went on in the classroom. And I made it a point to offer to take every classroom during the course of the year and teach it in every grade level. Not every teacher took me up on that, but I offered to do that partly because I missed teaching, but also it helped children see me in a different light and also for teachers to continue credibility with teachers that I could teach and not just administrate.   It was important for them to see me in terms of what I called administrivia, that I could make the schedules work so that they could trust me. So, I worked a great deal on the administrivia and when teachers asked for something, I worked very hard to get it. If I couldn’t, I would communicate with them very quickly. At this time, I cannot get it. And there certainly would be times that I did not agree with them or they did not agree with me, but I always listened and they knew I was listening and not just pretending, but really listening to what they had to say and I would remember what they had to say, so that we built a dialog, I think, of collegiality on a first name basis, and there was none of this power stuff, which I just shake my head when I walk in schools and see principals, that is kind of like a little kingdom, and this is my domain and how dare you interfere with it. That is not, to me, a role of a principal at all. Rosa’s response.

Q: It seems like you definitely had a good climate in the building then.

A: Try to. Try to.

Q: Were there any success stories that stick out or unsuccessful. Things that had occurred that you have had to overcome as far as the climate is concerned?

A: When I first went in, there, yes there were some things that I had to overcome. Still, even though, I had not attended Floyd Elementary, being a Floyd County native, lots of people there knew my family and my aunt and my first cousin were there. So, I had to work doubly,

Q: They were there teaching?

A: Yes. So I had to work doubly hard not to show any favoritism. In fact, if anything, I was unfair to them. Because all three of us went the opposite direction to make sure that no one could sit back and say, well. In fact, I would even be criticized at some point saying that you are too hard, or you are not being fair and I would be rather that way than the other, but still, that was an awkward time to overcome, but we did. And the other thing is that the principal that had been there, had been there for like 25 years and that was her school and her domain. She finally was forced to retire just because of age and health. And after she retired, there was a succession of principals, just every two years. They were working on their advanced degrees and leaving. So the school was really in, either a point of going from stability to just total chaos with just change over, after change over, and change over, so teachers were very leery of change. They were wondering how long I was going to stay, and was I just going to use them to go on and do such and such. So, I took things very slowly, to build trust and we did, first I tried to do some things just to make the climate better for teachers. Because, I felt that if I made things better for teachers, in turn, it was going to make it better for children. So we had a breakfast program just for teachers. Every Wednesday morning, no faculty meeting or anything like that, it was just to get together and the cafeteria staff put it together.

Q: That is wonderful!

A: And at the end of the year, we cooked a breakfast for the cafeteria staff. Things like an ice machine, a salad bar had been a big deal to teachers and they have never gotten it. I made sure that they had that. So, I felt like if they could be fed well, and be given some little things like that, but that were a big deal. They complained constantly of the cafeteria noise, so I had ceiling tile put in for acoustics. I read in the cafeteria three times a week. In those days, we did not have duty-free lunch, so I gave every teacher in the school duty-free lunch at least twice a week by my scheduling, before I could go in to read in the cafeteria. So that gave me a little extra break and let them know that I appreciated what they were doing. So, those kinds of things built a lot of collegiality in that first year. Then it was in the second year that we started starting about curricula changes and what they would like to see, but always made a part, so that I really felt like at the time we left, we had a very warm open relationship, and people were not afraid to try to change. Pat Kelley came in and taught some writing to learn classes that really I think affect a lot of people and how they viewed learning and teaching. But, it was all in a nonthreatening way.

Q: That is wonderful. That is an accomplishment, I think. What kind of things do teachers expect principals to be able to do? Describe your views on what it takes to be an effective principal, some of which you have already done. Describe some of the personal and professional characteristics of the "good principal."

A: I think a principal must be a good listener. I think the principal must also be a good communicator, and he or she needs to follow through. I have lots of teacher friends, who talk to me on a regular basis and lots of times about administration. The things that I hear, well he or she never does anything. Send a child, but nothing is accomplished. Having been on both ends of the spectrum, I also know that principal’s hands are tied lots of times and you can’t, but you need, it is how you communicate with that classroom teacher that makes such a difference. Again, letting that teacher know I am supportive or making requests and you never hear from the principal. Those kinds of things, I think, hurt. I think a principal has to be good, again administrivia. Making sure that it the buses run on time. The scheduling is there. The things that are visible, right up front, that the building is clean. A safe environment. I see that it is the main role of a principal. Some principals do, I don’t. But, I think you have to first establish respect for yourself by being able to do those things. To get it to what I view is the heart and soul of what being a principal is all about. So, to be a doer, to be a   listener and if you can’t be a doer, to communicate to say that can’t be accomplished right now, but here’s why and not forgetting it. So, it is staying on your toes.

Q: Some attention has been given to the sensitive issue of gender in regard to administrative positions. Please discuss any obstacles or successes you encountered as a result of being a female principal.

A: I never experienced any sexual harassment. I never asked to be principal. I kind of fell into it. They called me and asked. So I did not really have, I did not experience any of the horror stories of not being offered a job because I was a female, as opposed to someone being male. So I guess that I would not be able to really.

Q: You did not have any obstacles then.

A: Because of my gender.

Q: Right

A: I can’t really sit back and say that I did.

Q: That is good Could you describe your workday? How you spent your time. The normal number of hours per week you put in. You kind of talked about what you have done with your time already.

A: I am always a morning person so I was there very early, usually by 7 or sometimes 6:30 in the morning. Always there to greet every child off the bus, but be visible. I would walk into every classroom in the morning. Just walk in and walk out so that it wasn’t a big deal. The children would see me and I would see the children. Greet the teachers, as well. I would do the formal observations, but I always despised those, because I never really felt. I always felt that they were very isolated situations and I learned more by walking in and out of a classroom every day, over 180 days, because I saw people at their best and at their worst. And then kind of got a bar to gauge how many good as opposed to how many bad days. I would always encourage faculty to invite me in for observations as opposed to my walking in. There were one or two very bad situations that we had that had to be dealt with, so then I could get very structured and very formal. And do all other things that I had to do for accountability, but as much as possible, I wanted him to see me as a support role and just there as an extension as to what they were doing. I know that I am getting a little bit off the scheduling, so I would be in the halls, very visible. I would do the lunch room duty, but I would read to the children and have the children bring books in to read during lunch. Then we would have meetings where parents might be scheduled or unannounced both times. Certainly meetings at the central office and because we were so close to the central office, the superintendent was constantly dropping in, and with school board members and all. So probably from like 6:30 to 7 in the morning, I would stay that late in the afternoons, 4 or maybe 4:30 would be the latest that I would stay, unless there was a PTA meeting that night, or some other situation.  

Q: So you still had your time.

A: Yes, and I made sure that I did. I felt that was very important. If I saw teachers that, there was one that was a very good teacher, but I was concerned about her burning out, because she would be there, she would beat me there in the mornings. She would be staying to 6 and 7 at night. So I got to the point at 4 o’clock that I would go up and I would pack up her purse and bag, and everything so she can get out, to try to break her of just not having a lot, because I was very concerned. You have to have an outside life. You have to. You would be a much better teacher or principal by having outside interests in life. Totally separate from school.

Q: Would you describe some of the pressures that you faced on a daily basis, and explain how you coped with them and describe your biggest headaches or concerns on the job. Describe the toughest decision or decisions that you had to make.

A: Some of the things dealt with the special education, the paperwork. Because I did not have an assistant principal and had all the Special Ed programs in the county, I knew that feeling that I was spending 80% of my time on IEPs and dealing with all the Special Education problems. And then not enough time for the other 550 children. Finally, I yelled so loudly, that the superintendent designated one of the Special Education teachers to do the testing. I was doing all the testing as well at that point, so that helped some of that. But, I felt very drained from just constantly having to work with just the paperwork aspect of that. That was one headache. I never really minded discipline problems with children. I always looked to that as a challenge, where I would near the March madness, like they talk about in basketball. I called it March madness for teachers. March was always the worst time for me as far as dealing with personnel issues. March seemed to be month where everything would just kind of fall apart, if there were problems. It is like during the regular year or in the wintertime that people would have some time off with snow or whatever, but come March, like people were tired of winter. They wanted spring. Most of the time, it really wasn’t warm enough that we could go outside and stay outside. The month was long, so irritations and frustrations would manifest itself in March. Come April 1, it would all evaporate again. It was like April 1, June is coming. I can handle it now, and I could make it, but March was. So I found myself doing much more of my PR and communication skills in March. It can be just sometimes very trivial things between faculty members over just silly things like hair appointments and the things like this would drive me nuts and I would sit back and look, but they would get angry with each other. And two, I remember on the staff were best friends, I mean very best friends, and they were Special Education teachers. They did everything together. Families everything.   One was an upper TMR teacher and the other was a primary TMR teacher, so when one of the children due to age and development went from the lower to the upper, they got jealous of each other over this child. They disagreed on a teacher strategy for this child and it blew up and they would not speak to each other and got the parent. It was really ugly. I had to call them both in and tell them they both were acting like children. They had forgotten the purpose and I said the saddest thing is that you have destroyed your friendship. I wrote them both up on their evaluation and gave it to them, obviously with the ability to respond and to refute, which they did not. They never did regain the friendship that they once had. All over ego over this child and I felt that was very sad. I had two very difficult situations. Both one teacher of 17 years that we finally fired. I started documenting in my final year as a principal and it carried on being as an elementary supervisor, and the elementary supervisor, who took my job continued that on, but we worked with her and that was a very sticky situation. I got some anonymous letters from her family, but I knew exactly whom they were from, but she needed to go. And the thing is that everybody on the staff knew so that when finally she did, no one came to her defense, which said a lot in itself, but yet at the same time, we wanted to treat her with respect and dignity, but she needed to go. There was another one that had a lot of emotional problems. Evidently, shuffled from school to school because of these and because of her connections with the superintendent, he hired her anyway, even knowing all this background on her. Something like close to 30 parents signed a petition against her and one minute she would be fine, the next minute she would be on a roller coaster, and that was a very difficult situation. And I had to deal, she came in after I left and became elementary supervisor, but I had to deal with that situation and she also left. And the first year as an elementary supervisor, I was working on my doctorate, it was in September, so I just started a brand new job and my home burned and I lost almost everything inside of the house, and I was living with my parents and we were in a tent for three days until the house could be secured. The superintendent sends word to me that he wants to fire a teacher with 34 years of experience because she slapped a child. And he wanted me back to work. I lost all my dissertation material. I lost all my clothes, it burned. Willis Elementary was sending us our lunches to eat. I had one suit left and I had to defend that Friday after my home had burned on Sunday. My prospectus from my doctorate, so that one suit, I had sent to the cleaners to try to salvage, also had I had outside for like three days to air out. I called it smoke No. 5 perfume. I remember after three days, I had to go back and deal with that teacher, who had slapped that child and the school board insisted that she be removed. They could not get enough documentation to fire her and the VEA was involved, so she did take a leave of absence for the rest of the year, but I had to counsel her from September until August. She had to come in on a weekly basis and I had to talk to her about   discipline and measurements to control her old anger, and it was kind of sad because here there was someone with 34 years experience. So that was kind of hard to overcome. I tried very much to establish a collegial relationship to her in a nonthreatening way. I don’t know that I ever really succeed, but I tried.

Q: The first person that you are talking about, how long of a process was it before she left the system?

A: 2-1/2 years. It was a long documentation process. We had lawyers involved and the lawyer would meet with her lawyer, and we would have to write up contracts and we would have to show how we were going to try to help her and our responsibility in helping her. Then, we would have a list of things that she would be held accountable for and then we would have to meet on a regular basis and see how well these things were done and all of that was documented, and she would have to sign saying that she had read and received a copy. Because if we did not do that, then she could come back later in court to say, well, I never got that. So we had lots of those kinds of situations until finally though the writing was on the wall.

Q: If you had to do it all over again, what kind of things would you do to prepare yourself for the principalship? What you describe your feelings, knowing what you know now about entering the principalship yourself, if given the opportunity to start anew?

A: I don’t know if I can really answer that because I never applied for a principalship. I never wanted to be a principal. My masters nor my doctorate are in administration, so I never focused that way. I fell into these positions so I don’t know that I can go back and say that I would do something different, because that was never a goal and never a focus. If I were to go back as a principal today, I still would go in with the same attitude that I am in a role and I am not here to gain power, but to give it away and using it in a collegial way. I certainly have a lot more background with supervising for the number of years I have from the secondary, middle and elementary, but I think that I am better prepared now than when I was a principal to do deal with more curricula matters, and even more personnel matters.

Q: If you were advising a person, who was to be considering an administrative job, what would that advice be?

A: Not to see the principalship as an ego trip or again, as a kingdom, but to use your considerable talents and intelligence to give away and you will receive a whole lot more in return.

Q: You have talked some about your style of personnel management. Are there any particular approaches that you employed that contributed to your effectiveness? Any specifics that comes to mind?

A:   There was an aide at Floyd Elementary that was in high school with my sister, who did not think she had to take any directions at all from me, because she remembered me as a little bitty. She was also not liked by anyone else. So I had to sit down with her one day and say look, you know, I respect the fact that you were in high school with my sister, but we are all grown up now and I am not here to try to boss, but there are some things that we are going to have to do. I had to be very straight and forthright with her and I did not back down from her. She respected that, so after that, we got along fine. I had dealt with some situations with parents. One grabbed me by the throat because were going to retain his son and the mother wanted it, but she was very fearful of him and I can understand that. She was 4’11 in, and he was 6’5 and weighed 400 pounds. I found that being just very direct, very blunt, but not in an ugly sort of way worked best. I would not back down. I would listen. If somebody could show me a different way, now that is a totally different ballgame. I was very happy to change, if you could show me a different way, but other than that, if I was a woos, I would not have handled it at all and you would have been walked all over, and then, you would not be effective in your position. So I could be pretty tough when I had to be.

Q: When we were talking about school culture, it seems that you really put a lot of emphasis on the celebration and the successes of different things. You mentioned the morning breakfast, just because and thinks like that. Are there any other examples of…

A: We did something, being again a rural area. Lots of kids have never experienced eating in a restaurant. Fast food, yes, but not a real restaurant. So, we made a celebration where we chose a French theme and we turned our cafeteria into a French restaurant with tablecloths. We have a really wonderful cafeteria staff that really got into it and we had little pinafores and little hats. They printed up their regular lunch menu, but we did it in French and the high school was right next to the elementary school, so some of the high school students during their planning time could come down during our lunch time and play violins. I took sixth and seventh graders, who were good kids, but did not get a whole lot of recognition, and I trained them in the proper whay to serve, which side to serve. The teachers and to sent for reservations. It was there regular lunchtime, but they had to send out for reservations. The meanest, toughest kid in the school made the bouncer. So he was very pleased that the SGA president was the mater D. Teachers taught children about gratuities, so they left play money, whatever and those sixth and seventh graders who were the waitresses and waiters worked themselves to death, and I gave them free lunch for a week and free ice cream for a week. The newspaper came and took their pictures and a huge spread of two to three pages. The children came in dressed in the best and we have ties for children for boys, who did not have any. We just really made it into a big deal; some teachers came in evening dresses for this. We turned out all the lights in the cafeteria. We had   through art classes; they drew the Eiffel tower. We invited the central office people over and served them individually. I remember the bouncer fussed at the superintendent because he did not leave a big enough tip. I thought that was pretty funny. Then the children would go back and write about it and they absolutely, it was such a big hit with the community as well, and the children would say that I have been to a real restaurant now. They had menus. That following year, we did one on a Spanish theme, so we got into different cultures and it was just really a nice experience for the children.

Q: They still remember it today.

A: I think so.

Q: You talked about how for the most part you kind of let your teachers go and kind of go in and do the informal observations day-to-day, so it seems like you assume that most teachers are self-starters and well-motivated.

A: I think if you treat people that way, you get it back in return and in fact, I had some say to me that they did not want a let. I don’t mean me down personally, but what we all represented together. So they did not want to take advantage of that. I think if you set yourself up as you are going to be the spy and a snoot, then it is almost like you are creating environment, I don’t trust you, so therefore, I know that you are going to slip out early and do this or that. But if you set the environment, I expect you to be professional, you will be professional, and they are more apt to be. That doesn’t always work, but they are much more apt to be that way, because I think they build a respect for themselves as well. I did not collect lesson plans. I did not do any of that. Again, if there were problems with a teacher, yes, then I did on a regular basis and I expected it to be detailed. Anything that I tried to do in essence to help her, again, it was not even meant to be as punitive, but to try to help. But, if they were doing what they were supposed to be doing and they are professional, then you treat them as professionals. I did not make them sign in in the morning, any of that. I just expected them to be professional.

Q: How did you make your own personal philosophy of the way that you work with your staff in the evaluation process kind of jive with that of the central office, and the formality as if this will be done, when it will be done, and how it will be done.

A: I still did the formal observations because I had to assuming that I did that, which is part of the central office role, but I still tried to make it, I quess, my own styles as much as possible. When it came time for the full evaluations, the teachers being under full evaluation, I would give them a copy of the evaluation up front. Say, I want you to just evaluate yourself and be honest. What I usually found, is the teachers that were really good would cut themselves down when they shouldn’t have and the teachers who really needed to look at themselves harder, sometimes did not. So then you would have to sit down and I would have to given them my reasons what I think, and that was not always easy to do, but when they saw that I wasn’t trying to do this to fire, but instead to say look, here is how we, I would say, how can I help you do this. Here is my concern or how we can negotiate this together and what I can do in my role to help you with that. Then it took some of the threat off and I think that may be environmous so that they felt more comfortable in saying to me, I need help here. We set up peer observations, not in a punitive way, because up until the end, if a teacher went to observe another teacher, the word soon spread, Oh, teacher so and so is having problems, and the principal is to go and observe teacher B. So, I sat up and gave with the superintendent’s permission everybody a professional day, which we did not have. They could use that professional day to go and observe in another school within our school or in another county, but they had to do it at some point. The in-service hours, I gave them the choice of how they wanted to use those hours, and we sat down and talked about those, and we not everybody came together, all do the same thing so we broke it up in the hours and to different chunks based upon different people’s needs. I think that help established some ownership and professionalism along with that. It has been a while since I have been principal, so I am having to try to remember some of these things, but with the whole evaluation process, it was colaborative. And if there were disagreements, they had every right to come in and file addendums to that if they wanted. I made sure that my office door was unlocked so if anybody wanted to come in and check his/her personnel file, they could. I made that very clear right up front. Here is your personnel file; you have a right to see what is in here. You should see it. You should check it. You should also go to the central office and ask to see your file there, and several took me up on that and did that. So I think after a while, they understood that I wasn’t trying to hide something or slip something in their file, but right there it is and let’s keep this above board.

Q: These days, a good deal is said about teacher grievances. Would you give your views on the desirability of such procedures and describe their approach to handling teacher dissatisfaction.

A: Some of my friends have told me some stories that I have been absolutely appalled by. Absolutely, the teachers have had every right to grievance. You don’t treat people like they are surfs and I am thinking of one situation in particular that in fact, she called me last night just to tell that it wasn’t in her school, but it was in one of her friend’s schools. Telling of what the principal is doing. They are just saying you will do this and you are going to come in on Friday night and you are going to stay all night and do this read-in thing, and whatever, and that is out of contract hours. If you set it up as if we have any volunteers, and if you don’t come, that is okay. That is a different ballgame, but to sit back and say you will do this, it is above and beyond your contract hours, and I am going to write you up on her evaluation if you don’t do this, teachers have the right to grieve and I am totally in support of that. You have got to have access, because I think that we had administrators, who viewed the whole role of administration in a very wrong light. I have no problem with that, none.

Q: Given the presence of administrative complexity, if there were three areas of administration that you could change in order to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of educational administration, what would they be?

A: Not so much top down, which I think we have the tendency to do, and I don’t mean, I think that is true everywhere. I still see a lot of top down. I really think every central office administrator should be required to go back into the classroom and teach, may be for just one day out of the year, two days out of the year, but should be required because when you are away from that classroom, you think you remember, but you really don’t remember what is like to go all day long without a bathroom break. And have 20 little ones coming up to you constantly wanting this or that. You forget those things and you forget the patience it takes. I think it just helps you keep respect for a classroom teacher. So I would make that, that every administrator including principals, would have to go back into the classroom and teach. I would also, I guess the third thing that I would do is before I would start dictating more and more paperwork on teachers, I think that I would first try to see if there were things that I could take away doing the paperwork, and make what paperwork that the teachers have to do beyond the curriculum with children, the administravia paperwork. Really is something that is important instead of killing some intrigues.

Q: What about if you could change three areas in the curriculum, or just in the way American schools operate today?

A: I am very concerned over our whole attitude of accountability. I am very concerned over the SOLs and what worries me the most is no one in authority really cares or is listening to anyone out in the public schools. No one says that we should not have standards. But when I look at some of the SOLs, especially in social studies and I see what we are asking 6-year-old children to do, I had this in high school. Socioeconomic does make a difference. No one is trying to use any of those things as excuses, but at the same time, you have got to be realistic and if I could wave a magic wand, I would like the state board of education in Richmond, and the governor and everyone to truly look and see what they are doing. I think eventually it will change, but I wonder how many children, teachers are going to get chewed up in the process. I think American schools represent the best and worst of society and in any school, in any school division, you are going to find the best and you are going to find the worst. We have tried to be everything to all people, and we can’t, but I think our heart is in the right place in that we want to give all the children a chance to succeed. We don’t always do it very well, but again, we should get an "A" for effort in wanting, and believing that we want to reach out to all children. I think the SOLs are going to create a European model where if you don’t pass by a certain point, you are going to be sent on this road as opposed to whereas before, the SOL testing, we were always were a very forgiving society, so okay, you screwed up the elementary level, the middle school, you have got a chance or high school you have got a chance. And then we have this tier of colleges and universities, the Ivory towers, the Ivy League schools, and people who are national merits and the A++ students will get into those schools, but we have a whole tier of colleges and universities so that if you did not shine at one area, if you have the motivation and desire, you can somewhere else. I do worry how the SOLs will impact that down the road. So, if I could change things, I would change how we are using the SOLs, how we are, especially the assessment and its accountability of 70%. We are even getting this at the college now, where if students will not pass the Practice 2 with 70% passing rate, it could affect our accreditation.

Q: College’s accreditation?

A: Yes were getting adult SOLs. We are, starting in the fall; the state has issued competencies all licensure areas. I call them adult SOLs. We have to meet those competencies, and the Practice 2 test will be around those two competencies. So we are very much impacted the same way and I just think we need to stop and reevaluate how we are using assessment. I think we are using it for the wrong reasons, not for the right reasons. I don’t think there isn’t a simple or easy solution to all of the ills with American education system, because we are so diverse and there are just so many factors involved. I think to truly have meaningful change, it takes time. A long time, but until we are patient enough to wait for that, I don’t see that we are going to make real progress, because we are going to want the quick fix, the Band-Aid approach, and the accountability to show immediate results. I think real accountability shows when you have kids finishing high school, how many of them go into college or successful in careers, military. Those are kinds of longitudinal studies that take time. Not how well they did on this SOL test or that, which is more of an immediate quick fix. So I don’t have any easy solutions. I never have believed that I could go out and change the world, but my philosophies are always been that I could chip away. I am going to continue that.

Q: So if you were in Richmond or if you served on that committee of the Department of Education in Virginia, what would you do?

A: I would scream very loudly to stop and to put a halt to the SOL testing until we really determined how we are using these tests, the purpose of these tests. I don’t even think they are truly criterion a reference test. I think Dr. Cross at Tech is right and I think the 70% thing is ridiculous. Have SOLs, fine. But we need to sit back and look to see what we are asking children at the ages we are, and when I   see teachers not even having the time to go back and reteach, which has always been a fundamental part of teaching, but you can’t cover the SOL, something is wrong. We need just to sit back, catch our breath and truly involve teachers and parents, which I don’t think the SOL development ever did. And say, alright what do we have here? Which of these SOLs are truly appropriate for ages, which are not? How can we provide assessing this in a different way and certainly holding schools accountable, but this is punitive, not accountable.

Q: So seeing as the SOLs are the way they are and children, parents and teachers and administrators have to come and deal with them now. What would your advice be to a principal who is in that situation presently?

A: To try to be as supportive of faculty as possible. To not while teachers are worried about the SOLs, rightfully so, as the principal, you have to be as well with the accountability. But, you are not going to help matters by handling them over their head and threatening, and giving more and more paperwork, and more and more outside things to do to try to take as much of the pressure off as you can, as much of the paperwork off as you can, so that people can focus on the SOLs without being so uptight that they lose their effectiveness.

Q: Since you have 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 weakness.

A: I listen and I try to follow up.

Q: How has your experience as a principal influenced your current position as a college professor and how has it influenced you in preparing students to enter the teaching force?

A: Well, I have made friends on both sides, so that when I go into the school, the principle will grab me and say you have been a principal, just let me tell you about my day. Certainly I here then from lots of teachers the same thing, so I can emphasize on both sides and see both sides, that there is not one side versus the other. Sometimes if it is made into that, but I can certainly understand the roles of both. I share a lot of their stories with people in the preservice in my field. I walk a fine line between wanting to take the rose colored lens off, but not scaring them out of the profession. But, I don’t want them go in being naive, to say that the classroom with four children are going to sit back and say teach me, teach me or that they are going to get lots of recognition and praise when they do things well, because they may not. You have to be a self-motivator and know that you can make a difference in a child’s life, so I guess I use all the different factors from, all the different positions that I have had, and just life experiences to try and take in too much of.    

Q: Would you give us an overall comment on the pros and cons of administrative service, and any advice you would wish passed along to today’s principals.

A: Well, I certainly think your program is better than when I went through and, of course, again I kind of backed through the door, but we did not have an internship component. It was more just here are the courses that you have to have. You get the courses and I was already seated in an assistant principal without even having an administration or administrative licensure at all. It was like one day, I was a fourth grade teacher and then next day, I was an assistant principal. That is how it went. So, I think there is a lot more preparation and support given in that whole process. More time to reflect and think about what administration is and should not be than when I went through.

Q: What different ways would you involve the community and express the importance of community involvement, and kind of making the school a home for the children.

A: We had like an arson day, where we involve, because we had lots of very talented people living in the county, well known nationally recognized partisans, who would come in and teach crafts and whatever to the schools. Volunteer programs. Parents would come in and read and grandparents. We are constantly inviting parents and grandparents in to each lunch. So it was an open door kind of policy, now I think especially after Columbine, schools have had to be more closed off and understandably so. So, I think you can’t just have a completely open door policy where people can come in and out the way you like to, because as for safety reasons. But, we had parental committees and I remember one in particular, there was a sixth grader teacher. I always hated this business, if I hear a principal, say "my teachers". I say that just make the hair stand up on the back of my neck. It was not my. We are part of a family unit at a school. A teacher in the school where I was principal, wanted to use Huckleberry Finn as a novel for her sixth graders and at that time, there was a very big outcry against using any Tom Sawyer’s or Mark Twain’s books about Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn in the classroom, because of the connotation for African-Americans. But, also, the teacher while recognizing at the same time, the story itself, this is being so important, so she went to one of the black teachers on the staff and asked her opinion and set down with some parents of sixth graders, both black and white, and says here’s the novel, here is what I want to do. I recognized that their words and connotation to African-Americans that I don’t approve of, but I wanted to also address that, so that they can see the richness of the story, but also the time that it was said and the attitude, and compare it to now. They really liked that and it ended up being a really positive thing. So instead of, I dare you teach this book and censorship. After reading the book, got into a whole dialog on the issue of slavery and segregation, and prejudice and it just evolved into a much larger theme, but one that it was an open dialog and that ended up being very positive. So, I see communication like that with parents also is very important.

Q: Obviously, with education just, the fact that the children graduate and go on to be productive citizens benefits businesses in society in general, but in creating different partnerships with different businesses or agencies, it is easy to say how the business can help the school. How do you see that the school can help the business?

A: I am not sure I am following the question that you are asking. You mean like a local level, you mean globally.

Q: On a local level, a school approaches the business. You form a partnership. Mentors can come in and help students, for example. How can the school in turn help the business, if you are taking the business’ perspective, well what are we going to get out of this deal. Do you see that there is a way for that to happen?

A: You mean preparing our students better to enter the business world. Is that what. I am still not sure I am quite following what you are asking.

Q: For the students or the school, the individual school to help the businesses in some way.

A: Okay, I think I understand what you are saying now.

Q: First, there are businesses.

A: Like Junior Achievement and those kinds of things?

Q: Yeah.

A: We still have Junior Achievement, I think certainly from the secondary level. At the elementary level, I would certainly do it the other way, as you say, by inviting people in, but the other way around. Maybe doing more than asking businesses what they want to see and then trying to incorporate that. I know that the Magnet School at Huff Lane…they do a lot with community service and teaching children about how government works and teaching them how to take care of their money and having a checking account, so they get in with the businesses. So, I think it is trying to help the children see that everything that they are trying to do and teach is there for a purpose, so that they can take it out in the community and write a check. I did that when I was an assistant, no a fourth grade teacher at Hillsville Elementary. I taught all the children to write checks and I went to the back and got checks and taught the fourth graders how to write checks. Unfortunately, one of the children went out and tried to cash it. So, I remember that, but I that is an example of how I was trying to help business, because I was trying to teach these fourth graders how to write checks and how to set up a checking account. That was part of their math requirements. They had to learn how to add and subtract, so when they were doing their addition and   subtraction facts in their math textbook, I wanted them to see that there was a practical side to this, and that was keeping, you know, how to do a check book. Or going to a grocery store and being able to figure up what would be best bargain on things on sale, so I would try to incorporate and prepare our students that way, and then to go into the real world. The principal got the call about the child that tried to cash to check, and I had forgotten the story until then. But, I guess those kinds of things where that what we are teaching while we are driven again by the SOLs. If we can look at those SOLs and see perhaps from a pragmatic standpoint, where we can make them apply to the business world to life skills. And then while covering the SOLs, at the same time provide the activities that will help children understand, if I can add and subtract, then I can keep a checkbook. If I don’t know how to do this very well, I am going to bounce a whole of checks and then I am going to be in big trouble with my credit and everything else. I do not know if I am really answering your question. I think that is the route.

Q: Despite my best efforts to be comprehensive in my questioning, there is probably something that I have left out. What I have not asked you that I should have?

A: I don’t know Erika, I think you have done a pretty good job and have always been very thorough.

Q: Thanks.


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