Interview with Merca Toole


Today I will be interviewing retired District of Columbia Principal Mrs. Merca Toole.

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Q: How many years were you in education - as a teacher, as a principal?

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

A: I was in education for 24 years. There is a gap there because after I started my family I was at home for 13 years!

Q: Describe your school?

A: My school, Lafayette Elementary School is an urban open space school located in an affluent section of the city. The plant is partially old and partially new. The old part was built some where in the 1930's and has been remodeled. It houses four learning centers, a great hall, office quarters, counselors office in the old section and in the new edition, a health suite, a multi-purpose room, a music room, the pre K through Kgn. Learning Centers, the library, the gymnasium, lockers and showers, another multi-purpose room and a community room. The population at the time I was there was approximately 600 students and approximately 85% were Caucasian.

Q: Why did you decide to become a principal?

A: I didn't start out to be a principal or at least I didn't consider that. I was encouraged to specialize in primary math in one of the schools where I worked and from there to take on more administrative assignments. I was encouraged to apply for the assistant principalship by various supervisors and superiors. As a result of some of my experiences and with the feeling that I have the skills required for the job I started to apply for the principalship.

Q: What events led you to a principals position?

A: For 51/2 years I served as an assistant principal under a lady who believed strongly in a team approach to the job and I was fortunate to share in all phases of the work. At the same time I was taking courses which I felt would further enhance my skills. At times, do to the illness of my principal, I was fortunate to take on full responsibility of administering the school. When a search was made for a principal at Lafayette, some one recommended me and I was called from vacation for an interview. I don't know to this day who did it, who recommended me, but I was chosen for the principalship.

Q: What was your school's Philosophy?

A: Our philosophy was to be a caring institution where the interest of the students, staff and parents was the prime concern. Where mutual respect existed and where teachers taught enthusiastically. Where students understood the need to take some responsibility for there own learning. Where students were encouraged to develop a sense of self-worth and where students were prepared to sustain themselves and help sustain society. Where parents were welcomed to become involved.

Q: How was your school's philosophy developed?

A: The philosophy was for the most part was in place when I came to Lafayette and I was in agreement with it. The schools philosophy was developed cooperatively with the administration, the teachers the staff and there was input from parents in the community.

Q: How did you create a climate for learning?

A: The climate was created first by discussing with the advisory committee what kind of school each of the components of the advisory committee would like to see Lafayette be. Goals were set to improve instruction, agreed on and a plan devised to reach these goals. It was decided that the desired outcome would develop best in a open climate. The degree of openness was discussed and agreed upon. Teachers were encouraged to use their creative talents and share them with team members. Teachers were encouraged to view the principal as a partner in improving instruction rather than as a critic and rating agent. Respect and trust were demonstrated a cooperatively developed code of ethics was agreed upon and was administered fairly and consistently. Student work was displayed in the building and around the building which helped to make the building more attractive. The physical plant and the ground were kept clean, safe and beautiful. Parents were welcomed to the school to work cooperatively with the teachers and students progress. Two annual events, the winter bazaar and spring festival were cosponsored by the school and community. Open house and parent conferences were regularly scheduled. Student achievement was high in this building and i-t was our aim to keep it high.

Q: What leadership techniques did you use while creating a climate for learning?

A: At all times I tried to exhibit self confidence, optimism, respect for every other person in the building. I tried to exhibit a sense of humor. I had high expectation and I let that be known. I was considerate of the teachers and the staff and the students and I shared leadership in the building.

Q: Which leadership techniques were successful and unsuccessful?

A: Well, not all techniques were successful. It was sometimes difficult to transfer my enthusiasm from school mission to everyone involved. There was a problem at times with getting maximum use of the instructional time in preventing conflicts sometimes between staff members and between students and students.

Q: What role did you play in public/community relations?

A: Well realizing that the school is a reflection of its community individual community, I took the following steps to improve public community support. I supported fully the home and school association, I met regularly with the advisory board which had representation from parents and community as well as from the school and the student council. I utilized student help because they go home and talk about what is happening in school. I encourage the teachers to conduct a review of what we learned today and the end of each day prior to dismissal. I wrote a weekly column in the Tuesday bulletin and we had frequent open house sessions at which we frequently invited the media. I shared the goals and objectives and the policies with the parents. The parents were welcomed to volunteer in the school and the school shared responsibility for home and school fun raising activities.

Q: What do you think teachers expect principals to be?

A: Well, I think teachers expect principals to be instructional leaders, to work with curriculum improvement. They expect them to be supporting. They expect them to be skilled in group dynamics. They expect them to be a good organizer. They expect them to be fair, tactful, apart of the team. A decision maker. They expect them to know something about new educational developments and they expect them to share it with the teachers in staff development. They expect them to be an effective communicator and they expect them to be skilled in human relations.

Q: How did you evaluate teachers?

A: I had had a course while I was Assistant Principal in clinical supervision and the teacher of that course was a parent in Lafayette school. So naturally. I evaluated teachers by the clinical supervision process. It was used to improve instruction and learning through direct observation of the -teacher and the pupils in action in the learning environment. The teacher and I planned together the objective of the lesson which a teacher would teach. We planned the physical and technical arrangements. Then, at a given time, I observed in the classroom. The lesson was taped and at the end or shortly after that visit, within the week the teacher and I analyzed what happened in the classroom and identified what changes in the behavior were desired. In some cases there was a follow up observation but appraisal was ongoing in this process and I did try to visit the classroom not as formal observation tactic but I tried to visit regularly and you could be surprised what you could pick up in a minute or two.

Q: What techniques did you use to make teachers feel important?

A: Well, I tried to be supportive and loyal. I gave recognition for a job well done. I gave opportunities for shared leadership. I gave them freedom to innovate and I tried to make adequate time available for lesson preparation and preparing conferences.

Q: What is your Philosophy of education?

A: My philosophy of education is that education should provide a strong foundation in the fundamentals of reading writing and mathematics and science, social studies, fine arts, health, and physical education. The first few years of a students life are very important as far as learning is concerned so that makes the elementary school very valuable in the child's education. The education used enables a child to be effective verbal and non verbal communicators. To be good listeners. To be comfortable with technology such as computers and it should help students develop a positive self image.

Q: What is your philosophy on teachers?

A: My philosophy of teaching is that the teachers should be qualified by training and background she should operate from a thorough understanding of the schools mission. She should share in the formulation of the goals and objectives for the appropriate grade level with the students and the parents. There should be strong focus on academics. She should have high expectations for success for her students. She should provide the students with basic skills necessary to function effectively in society.

Q: What is your personal leadership philosophy?

A: Well, I believe the leader, leaders values, beliefs and personal characteristics should inspire people to want to accomplish the schools mission. A good leader should provide instructional leadership that increases teaching excellence. She should be qualified through training and background for the responsibilities which he or she should assume.

Q: What does it take to be an effective principal?

A: There again the effective principal should have the proper training and background for the job. Should have strong leadership skills. Should have high expectations. Should be a good organizer. Should be a team worker and should be always mindful of the people he or she is working with and have loyalty towards them and support them in there endeavors.

Q: What pressures did you face as a principal?

A: One of the greatest pressures I felt was in correcting some existing misunderstandings between the school staff, the parents, the community and the administration prior to my coming to Lafayette. Another pressure was the placement of students. Each parent felt that... Well, I won't say each parent but, many parents felt that they wanted a special placement for students in a special ' classroom with special teacher. The parents were very supportive at Lafayette but, they did not hesitate to complain if they felt that things were not going as they thought. On the other hand, they were very generous with compliments if they felt things were going well. Another pressure was keeping the learning center teams operating smoothly and harmoniously. Those were the major pressures.

Q: How did you handle the pressures you faced as a principal?

A: I used the techniques which I have mentioned before relating to the leadership techniques. I will choose one of the pressures where parents were very certain about the placements of their children. We gave them a chance in the spring of the year, just before school closed, to request certain placement and as far as possible, we honored those placements but once that had been done, they couldn't come back in the fall and request another placement. They would have to stay in that placement until the semester had ended unless there was some real problem and it was impossible to leave the student there.

Q: If you had to do it again, what would you do to better prepare yourself for the principalship?

A: I think I was fairly well prepared. I had a number of courses relating to the principalship but, I think my 51/2 years as an assistant principal prepared me greatly for the task.

Q: How did you handle teacher grievances? Discuss the issues.

A: I had one grievance which I guess was the biggest one I had during my time there. One of the teachers had been accused of using corporal punishment and of course that teacher denied it and I did resolve it by bringing the parent and the teacher together and we discussed why the teacher felt corporal punishment was being used. We were able to resolve it. One, the parent had heard from someone else that this teacher did use a bit of corporal punishment. She did squeeze their hands rather tightly and things like that but, the parent and teacher were able to get together on just what was occurring and of course there was a follow-up meeting with the teacher by me where I re-emphasize the rules of the board of education.

Q: Did you ever fire a teacher? Discuss the issues?

A: We were not empowered to fire teachers. We could recommend replacement or recommend that a teacher not be assigned to the building, but, we were not able to fire teachers.

Q: How can we improve education, teachers, etc.?

A: I think we can improve education through evaluation and assessment. We can gather information to help determine whether the program we are using are successful or need to be modified to improve them. We can promote our staff development to better prepare teachers to teach. We can become aware of new innovations and decide whether these would fit in our program. Through assessment of students, we should be able to meet individual needs better and improve mastery of skills and we can make use of evaluation based on management by objectives. We can set our objectives and then we evaluate to see if we have done what we started out to do and if we have not, then that's when we need to modify them.

Q: What procedures should be used before a person is selected to become a principal?

A: I think the selection committee should make sure that the applicant has been broadly educated, has had 5 or more years of successful classroom experience on the level he or she will be working. I think that they should serve an internship of at least 1 year and should serve as assistant principal for at least 2 years.

Q: How did you utilize your assistant principal?

A: I had only one for one year at Lafayette and that assistant principal worked as a team leader with me. I tried to provide the same experience for her that was provided for me when I was an assistant principal. She assisted in planning with the teachers. She assisted with observations. She worked with new teachers. She orientated them and guided them and provided assistance for them when needed. She worked with various teams, instructional teams on problems and planning. At times, she conducted faculty meetings. She assisted in the selection of equipment and supplies. She coordinated assembly programs and she assisted in supervising the lunch room and the playground.

Q: As a principal, what was your biggest concern?

A: My biggest concern was that the school's quality and character be such that the students receive an elementary school experience of the highest quality. Lafayette has been know as a quote good school unquote and my biggest concern was that it remained that way and improved.

Q: As a principal, what was your biggest headache?

A: I think my biggest headache was what was commonly known as R.I.F. (Reduction In Force). This meant that because of lack of funds, teacher were assigned based on their seniority. Other teachers, some teachers were lost to a school. They were sent to other schools and the school received teachers from other places. It resulted in a great upheaval of the program which had been started and it required that some teachers learn to operate in an open classroom. All of this took time and I think some progress was halted. It was a real problem.

Q: How did the 1979 teacher rifts affect your program?

A: As I stated before it caused changes in grade assignments for the teacher who were left. For the teachers who came in, it caused changes in grade assignments. Some teachers were thrown into an all together different type of program. Some teachers were unhappy to leave, some were unhappy to be transferred into the school. There was a period when I felt the bottom had fallen out of everything I had tried to do.

Q: What are the characteristics associated with effective schools?

A: There are many characteristics associated with effective schools. An effective school will have a written philosophy. It will have goals and objectives. It will have sufficient numbers of qualified personnel to fulfill the goals. An effective school will place students determined by their needs. In other words, students will be assessed to determine their needs and they will be placed accordingly. An effective school allows efficient time to accomplish the goals, it has strong leadership. It has an approved curriculum in the D.C. Public Schools do set curriculum and this curriculum should define what teachers are to teach and what pupils are to learn. It should stress the basic skills necessary to function in today's society. It should plan for monitoring, assessing and supervision of the implementation of the curriculum. It should have enough materials and resources to do the job. The teachers should plan and provide and instructional program to accomplish the goals, school's mission and to attain student outcomes that are desirable. The students are taught how to learn and assume some responsibility for their learning. A quality school or an effective school has a good staff development program. The climate or the environment promotes the worth of the pupils. Emphasizes their capabilities. The evaluation data is used to improve the program and a fair and systematic procedure for evaluating the teachers and principal is in place.

Q: What was the toughest decision you had to make as a principal - why was it difficult?

A: My toughest decision as a principal was to retire. I felt a strong obligation to work longer than I worked. I had not been a principal at Lafayette that long and things were going well but there were a number of factors which combined to make me decide to retire and that was a tough decision.

Q: Were you a manager of a building or an instructional leader?

A: I was a combination of both. As you know a principal has a number of jobs to do. The foremost of which is instructional leadership. But, the principal also has to be well versed in budgeting and managing, a building and providing good relationships with the community and the parents. Has to be a disciplinarian, has to do boat loads of paper work and all of this takes away from the main purpose for the principal. That of an instructional leader but you manage to get it in, to work it in and there's not enough time provided but you strive to do the best you can with the time that you have.

Q: What was your key to success as a principal?

A: I think ... well, I'll say keys to success because I think there was more than one. My interest in my work was a great key to my success. My personality, I think had something to do with my success. My organizational skills aided in my success and my vision of the overall picture of where my school fit into the whole picture of the D.C. Public Schools had something to do with my success.

Q: What was your code of ethics as a principal?

A: At all times I tried to be professional. I tried to be caring, fair, impartial, honest and forth right.

Q: What advice would you give to a person who is considering and administrative position?

A: I would advise that person to prepare himself or herself academically and prepare themselves for these specific tasks: instructional leadership and curriculum improvement, personnel administration business management, plant management, school/community relations and an administrator of routine duties. This, I think I have mentioned before but, some of these answers interlock.

Q: What was your staffing pattern?

A: During my first year there, there was an assistant principal, 1 secretary, 24 classroom teachers, 1 counselor, librarian, 1 special education teacher, 1 primary coordinator and 1 intermediate coordinator, 2 teacher aides, 1 math resource teacher and 1 intermediate reading resource teacher, 1 part-time primary resource reading teacher, 1 physical education teacher, 1 part-time writing teacher, 1 science teacher, 1 instrumental music teacher, and 1 part-time speech teacher. There were 2 engineers, 4 maintenance workers and this completed the staff. Now, an independent, preschool program was housed in the lower level multi-purpose room. The art, french, and Spanish teachers, as well as the vocal music teacher and the nurse were employed by the home and school association.

Q: Would you discuss for us: The 5 most pleasant principalship activities, The 5 most unpleasant principalship activities In other words, what are you happiest to be leaving at retirement and what are your sorriest to leave?

A: My 5 most pleasant activities were planning the schools mission, interaction with the students, team meetings for planning and evaluation. Orientation for prospective parents and observing the growth and progress of the students, teachers, the parents, the staff and myself. I guess the 5 most unpleasant activities were: filling out the standard rating sheets, dealing with the vandalism, just a little bit of that and theft. Dealing with dissatisfied parents, disciplining students and indoor recess.

Q: What are characteristics of the superintendent which you found most effective for allowing you the most leeway in operating your own school?

A: My assistant superintendent demonstrated caring and concern. She was supportive and loyal and she gave me the freedom to proceed in my own pace and in my own way and she was very complimentary when something happened that she approved of.

Q: What in your own experiences did you find most beneficial in helping you maintain a "SANE" attitude toward being a principal?

A: The support of the faculty, the community and my husband. The student behavior and demonstrated achievement, my assistant superintendent and my sense of making progress.

Q: Is your retirement because of "Administrative burn-out or age or for going into another occupation?

A: First of all I had the age and beyond. I did not have as many years of experience as perhaps some other retirees but, there was a reason for that. I was out for 13 years raising my family. Also, when the R.I.F. came alone my whole situation was in a state of upheaval. I had lost some of my best teachers and it was going to be very difficult to start again building what I felt had been accomplished, also, at that time, I had been a diabetic for 30 years and the stress of the job and the time required was not allowing me to care for my health as I should have been doing. So, there was more than one reason why I retired.

Q: What have I not asked you that I should have?

A: You did not ask me whether I liked what I was doing and I did enjoy what I was doing to the highest degree.

Q: Mrs. Toole I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your time and cooperation with this project. You are truly dynamic and I know your school is what it is today because of your effective leadership. I also feel that you will continue to make a difference in what ever you do.

A: Thank you!!

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