Interview with Ray Tolson, retired principal of Jackson School, Arlington, Va. It is being recorded on April 7, 1988. The interview is taking place at the home of the interviewer.
| Back to "T" Interviews | Index of Interviews | Protocol | Home |
Q: Good morning Mr. Tolson.
A: Good morning.
Q: Mr. Tolson I'm delighted that you have agreed to give us an interview this morning. The purpose of the interview is to reconstruct your professional history with as much accuracy and vivid detail as possible. The first set of questions that I'm going to ask you will deal with background information and some personal recollections. Mr. Tolson how many years were you involved in education?
(Streamed audio file of interview for this question using RealPlayer)
A: I was involved 33 1/2 years in Arlington County Public Schools. That's the total of my time, I've only taught in Arlington.
Q: What did you or why did you choose to become a principal?
A: Well I chose to become a principal because I thought I had some leadership ability. I always wanted to be an elementary principal. I ended up a Special Ed. principal but my desire was, since I had spent a number of years in elementary education, that I would like to be an elementary principal. Just a desire of my own.
Q: And where did you serve as principal?
A: I served as principal at the George Mason Center and finally at the Jackson Special Education Center at Jackson School and that was the last place. I taught at Jackson 20-30 years before I finally came back to Jackson.
Q: Take me on an imaginary walk through your school and community. What was it like?
A: As far as the school was concerned we, ugh, Jackson School had closed because, I guess, of insufficient number of students in the area and we were at that time renting building space - school space - from the George Mason, ugh, Department of Human Resources and that building was the George Mason Center and they wanted us out of that building in order to enlarge some of their work so they began to put the pressure on us to get out of the building. When Jackson, I knew Jackson from being there for six years in the past has an elementary teacher and we made recommendations through my staff and the board that worked with me at the schools who go to Jackson so we took - I guess close to $300,000.00 and modified the old Jackson building so that it could handle handicapped children. They made ramps, elevator so the building changed quite a bit because of the ramps inside ramps and outside ramps and the elevator plus, you know, making the rooms better, cutting away some of the rooms that were open spaces and closing them up and things like that. If you come in we had an office cause we basically had I would say anywhere from 70 to 100 students at the time. Now I think its down to in the sixties. At the time that I was the principal. There we had one and one half secretaries if you come into the office you would meet the - we had a half time instructional secretary and a full time educational secretary. So our office basically did the same amount of paper work as a regular elementary school in fact I was all my 11 years I was considered to be part of the elementary education area and even though I had a right to go and sit in on the secondary principals meetings I never did go. Once in a while I went. Most of the time I stuck with just the elementary principals meetings. We have a gym which was ideal. We had a full time gym teacher. We had the only occupational therapy room at the time in the County - a special room for occupational therapy. We sought and got full time speech therapy. We had teachers that ranged all the way from working with the very small children all the way up to the older kids. They, the students, were all considered in some form or fashion mentally handicapped. Many of them were physically handicapped as well. We provided the necessary education for each one of them. Each one of them had to have their own individual plan of educational plan IEP that we called it. We had, at the end, we had more older students than we did younger students. I guess it's almost that way now. They still have a lot of older students because they stay instead of leaving. Where you would think of 17-18 would leave they continue with our school until they're 20. They can go almost up to the age 22 but 21 is the cutoff. But it depends on their birthday whether they get some of them leave at age 22. All of our teachers had to be certified in special education in the area in which they were teaching whether it would be for profoundly mentally retarded or for educable mentally retarded or the trainable mentally retarded. We had most of our students were considered at the beginning trainable mentally retarded. When I got there it sort of opened up to the fact that we then began to get educable mentally retarded as well. We hired ... I hired a person who would act as a teacher of the four occupations. Before I came aboard I guess we had EMRs were going out working, cleaning doing other things in the community and even in some of the government. They had some positions in the government they still do. But the trainable ... there was very little or nothing for the trainable. Many of the kids were closeted, you might say. We had two or three that we really had to take the parents to court to get them to face the fact that they had a child that should be educated. So we had we set up a program with the kids and for the kids and with the parents and we tried to get parents support as much as we could to really start a program that would not only give them some basic skills but it would also lead them - those that were better able to adjust - it would lead them to some forms of work as they got older. During this period of time we also began to fight for the workshops and the occupational workshops that they have at several places now in Arlington. Most of my older kids are there if they are not on full time employment. Some of my students are still employed full time with local and also with some government agencies. So we basically had a school that ranges from severely mentally retarded to those kids who were considered trainable mentally retarded and educable mentally retarded who were able to function as young adults. Some of my students now live in group homes, group apartments and they are functioning very well. They have their own independent jobs. They go to the occupational workshops in the area and they are more or less functioning independently and they are not in a home. Many of my students, even while they were still students with me, had moved into out of their homes and into these apartment areas and the home areas. So basically that's what we started we really pushed. I went down when I was first beginning to be assigned as a principal. I was to be I thought I was applying for Page Elementary School and during the summer instead of them giving me Page Elementary School, they gave me the George Mason Center. They moved Joe Simasek, who was then the principal at George Mason Center, they moved him to Page Elementary School and they moved him there and moved me over there. So then that summer I had basically taught special ed in Jr. High School, Williamsburg Jr. High School, with what we call reluctant learners. They were not slow learners, in fact, some of them had a 130 -140 IQ so they were not they were not they're not I called them reluctant learners they were Tolson's M squad. I taught them seven years and I taught them all subjects everything I could get into those kids English, Math, Social Studies, Science, Typing, Gym even gym class. I went with them, industrial arts everything that I could give those kids I gave them. That was a real seven years of the hardest work that I had ever done but it was the most rewarding of all of my experiences at school. And so we basically had no background on mentally retarded and so we began and they gave me the whole summer to go places and learn. So I went down to Lynchburg to the home down there for the severely and profoundly mentally retarded and there was an old gentlemen there by the name of Dr. Nagler and I guess he has long since retired. It's been sixteen, seventeen years ago now, in fact, I think he was almost getting ready to retire then. But he was such a joy to meet and he talked with me for a number of hours which I was really surprised that here is a man in the position that he was in would spend as much time with a new person going into the field. From some of the things that he told me I got sort of the encouraged that as I looked at these handicapped adults shoving other handicapped adults around in their wheelchairs making appointments, taking the mail in and out doing all kinds of things. I said, " well, if they can be trained down there at the training center at Lynchburg, then why can't we train our young ones". And so I came back with the purpose of really trying to introduce occupational therapy and occupational work you might say, right into the our curriculum and that's where we started. I had a feeling, I hired a teacher who had taught in Maryland in the shop area and she took that ball and she just go with it. She and I agreed with the philosophy that we wanted to work with and she just took the older kids and before you know it, she was out working with the handicapped to the point where I got a bus. The only school in the County who had a bus/van in which we could take these kids to their jobs and bring them back. We got contracts with the recreational department cleaning up parks. We worked in the hospitals. We had a Friday, in fact I think we still do ... we had a Friday afternoon in which we cleaned the church right there on, I can't think what its called, can't think of the street, now right of Route 50, right there on George Mason Center rather George Mason Drive. So basically that how we got started.
Q: OK Thank you so much that is a very comprehensive answer to the question. Mr. Tolson would you tell me a little bit about the community that your school served?
A: OK. Under normal elementary and secondary you have a certain area allotted, whether it is North Arlington, South Arlington, West, East or whatever it is or a division if you're in Page Elementary, it would be a certain area or if it was Hoffman-Boston area, it would be in a different area but our school, the Jackson Center, the community was really all of Arlington County because we drew our kids from every area in Arlington County. Any kids from any area that was mentally retarded and we had to have of course a placement committee decision so they could be placed in our school from anywhere over the whole county which made it. Our kids were transported in from every different point many times and had to be shuttled in to a basic school and then transferred and bring them in. It sounds almost illogical that some of the kids who could should be doing the least amount of transferring where some of the ones that did all the transferring. Those who were mentally retarded had to be transferred. They'd go to like Page School - they go to McKinley School and be transferred on another bus and be shipped back to us. So we drew from the whole County which made a big area when you come to think about it. Our parents came from the wealthier, what we call the wealthier North Arlington area sometimes and other areas South Arlington and the privileged areas or the underprivileged areas. We drew from all different places. One thing we did do in the last couple of years we got an influx as Arlington did of foreign people who came in from Korea, Vietnam, quite a number of them came in from Cuba, South America and of course up until just the last few years we had to teach those kids the best we could. They were not only handicapped as far as their mental condition but they were also handicapped by the fact that they knew a foreign language and we had to teach them the best we could without that. So now our school is also one that has the ESOL teachers that come in and teach those students who need English as a second language. So its really gone you know you had great influx in the last ten years of those people who come from other nations that we needed to work with.
Q: OK Thank you. Educational programs are influenced by the times and the communities in which we live. Would you give me some background information on some of the more relevant educational issues during your principalship?
A: I think the biggest issue that we had, that came up, was the fact of a self contained school versus the mandated educational system where you took all your elementary and all your handicapped kids and put them in regular schools. Many of our people and they fought for it and fought against the rules you might say of saying you should close the school down. You should not have a special ed center. We found out that we could do the job far better because we could work with those students and really give them the type of program that they really needed. Whereas we had to continue to defend over the years why we were a special education center and I guess it even now there are some people who would prefer ... now of course with the new regulations and rules that they have if a parent so wishes their student to be in a regular school situation they have that right to put them there. But many times we find that many of these students before I came had been in regular schools and were laughing they were sorta laughed at they were made fun of. They were miserable as far as students and the parents were very happy with the fact that here was a program in which we gave each kid their own time to learn and a way to learn and we helped them and it was not any type of fighting against within the realms of the student versus student with these kids and so that is I would say one of the biggest things we had to go with. The other issue that we had to face - once in a while you got a parent who refused to believe that their child was mentally handicapped. And those parents then made it very very tough on the principal and on the special ed people as far as making accusations that their child wasn't mentally retarded and shouldn't be at the school or should be given special privileges and a few got away with it. A few, after a year or so, people began to realize that the kid indeed was handicapped even though in most cases the mother refused to believe that they were handicapped. And we kept on, even though they left us, some of the kids, left our school and went into regular school but then it was requested that we turn them back to our school because they were utter failures in the regular programs in the school system.
Q: Thank you. How do you think your community influenced the educational program?
A: Well now you see our program was totally influenced by the community. When I say community it means all of Arlington County. When I moved in from Key School that's where I was CDC Child Development Consultant. When I moved in their there was a core of parents who were very variable. They had a general idea of what the school should have been doing and maybe didn't do, also what they felt could help and enhance the school system. And so they worked with me tremendously well. We had parent meetings. We had parent groups. I had open house once a month in which parents could come in and sit down with me and talk with me about any of the problems that they felt. We had an advisory board in which one member of the school board plus plus the president of the PTA several of the other PTA officers and two or three members at large would meet as a staff to discuss programs and to present the plans for the following year. And I found that the parents were extremely ... let's see, I can't exactly think ... they were helpful in every form or fashion. If I wanted something and many times, in fact, I don't think that I went but one time before the school board and that was when it came to Jackson School. The rest of the time we gave it. We gave the information to one of our PTA personnel and on our staff group and they went and presented it to the board. Many times we didn't have to present it to the board. We got Dr. Blocker or some of the other people over at the Ed Center who really supported the program 100%. They would present it and get it without even us having to go to the school board, even though we had a school board member that was there. They knew the problems. Evelyn Syphax, for instance, was one of our school board members. They served our school and they were just great. They knew that I didn't always ask for too much and so, therefore, when I asked, it was usually there. They really they were really great in supporting the programs and it was a joint affair. It was not only our, the nucleus of our leaders, of our parental group there but it was also they had connections with the school board and other advisory committees and other schools and it just was we all just moved toward one thing and that was to do the very best we could for our mentally handicapped students.
Q: Thank you. What was your school's philosophy?
A: I guess you could say that the school's philosophy was to do the best for each student that they could possibly do. Now we know that some kids, the very fact that they could recognize 10 words, that was a major step in the lives of those and for others learning to read and some did learn to read. Many of them, even though they couldn't read, many of them were fairly bright as far as mathematics and the concepts there. So basically our philosophy was to give those kids as much of an opportunity to be like normal people and that was not only in the school but in the community. We took those kids on all kinds of field trips. I mean we had an excessive amount of field trips according to some other people. We always went over the limit. The bus people were very gracious in many cases and gave us a little bit of extra when we needed to go to the White House. We went to the White House. We went all over. We came down all the way down here to Price William County to a school just like ours and played soccer games and basketball games so that they would have we had cheerleaders. We just had a lot of things that gave the kids the feeling that they were in the same type of regular school. So it was basically take those kids as far as they could go. If they could be trained to work on a job in a modified condition, we sent them there. If they could only do collating and work like that, many times we trained them right there at the school. We went out in the community and asked people if they would like to send in their projects and so we did collating for churches. We did a lot of collating for George Washington University. In fact, I think there might be a letter in my packet here that deals with that. We try to be supportive of every type of group when you look through that you can decide. We got letters from all types of agencies who had connections with our kids and with our school and who wrote thank you letters appreciating the work that we did with them and allowing them in to work with us. A lot of times, on a volunteer basis, I had a heavy volunteer clientele. One fellow came in and he was a retired civil service worker and he began to volunteer and he actually volunteered more than many of our teachers worked. He'd work 8 hours a day if you wanted him. He'd come in at night and work as a volunteer. He was always there and he's still there. And so this is, I guess, Jim has been there possibly 10 - 12 years now. He's there everyday. It's really great. The volunteer program is really a very helpful program. The other thing about the volunteer program, I found that I would find a parent who was a little antagonistic towards the school. I would invite him in to be a volunteer and I found that it wasn't too long before they saw what we were really doing. If you really wanted to see, I'd say come in and see us. Come in to the classroom. Work with the teacher. If you don't want to work with the we preferred not to put the volunteer in where their child was, but in some cases we did, but in other cases they came and they saw what the school was all about and their attitudes changed a total flip of what they thought the school was. And they became where - they were aggressive towards the school at first - they became the ones that were very supportive.
Q: Tell me about your personal leadership philosophy. What was your personal leadership philosophy?
A: Well, first of all, I would not give anybody a task that I was not willing to do myself. I think that was my leadership ability that I had of instilling into others the desire to take a ball and carry it and they knew I was always there to work with them. I had a sort of a philosophy that what I would do is I would open it up to the staff and the community but they knew that ultimately I made the final decision. And so that was the basic work that we did with philosophy of the school. I'd give a task and I'd meet with the staff and tell them that this is the situation. I had what was called white sheets and on anything practically I'd say if you would like to present a white sheet on your feelings about this particular thing, then I'll study them and then we will meet and make some decisions. And so they would turn in, it didn't have to be neat, just some thoughts that they had and they would write them down and turn them into me and we would go from there.
Q: What were some of the most effective methods you used for creating a positive learning environment?
A: I think I tried not to be discouraged I found that discouragement seems to breed discouragement and most of the time I smiled to the point of even in very critical situations ... I had one parent that didn't believe that her kid was in fact she thought the school had made him retarded and he was there before I came there but she had given the other principal quite a lot of lip and I figure that she was always on my back so I decided that instead of trying to argue with her that I would just sit and smile. So one day I sat and smiled through her cussing me out and that evening the superintendent called and he said "Ray what's going on over there at the school? He said "this person says that she came in and cussed you out and he was laughing and he said that she said she cussed you out and all you did was sit there and smile which made her madder and then she said that you were making fun of her". It was really one of those things but I tried to I guess that that's one of the problems I had that, I tried not on the outside to show that I was having a bad day. I tried to be as encouraging as possible. These teachers - really they were great because they work with these handicapped and you get a certain burnout working with handicapped. It's not like I was when I was in the elementary school teaching where you take bright students and you give them an idea and boy they got that idea and go. Our kids are not like that. We got the encouragement just to see those kids be able to say 10 words or count to 10. When they have never been able to count to 10 before. It was that type. Just encouraging the staff. We had get togethers on Wednesday afternoons and we had several especially during conference times we'd pick lunch times and all of us would bring in things to eat and we'd have lunch together. Sometimes we'd have breakfast together. We had breakfast assigned. Two or three teachers would bring in some forms of sweet rolls and stuff like that and fix coffee so that we could really get together. Otherwise we were so busy. Sometimes we didn't see anybody all day. They'd go in their room and they were with their group and you didn't have time to really fellowship or have any fun with anybody else.
Q: What were some of the pressures you had to face as a principal?
A: As I said in one of the other ones ... one of the biggest pressures I had was the fact that some parents refusal to believe that their child was handicapped. I had several parents ... only really one ... that basically several parents who were not convinced that their child was mentally retarded or handicapped in that special way. And the one parent just took me to hearing after hearing after hearing, appeals hearings, trying to force us to either do more for the kid or force the county to give the kid special privileges. And it was just a mess because it kept us - it not only kept me tied up but kept the head of special ed over at the Ed Center. It usually took the psychologist, the visitor teacher, the nurse, the principal, the supervisor of special ed, the supervisor of all special ed programs which Dr. Blocker was in. We'd have 8-10 sometimes 12 people sitting there in these appeals while these people tried to say "my child is not handicapped" that was the biggest - that was the biggest problem that we had. The second problem that we had we had a division among the parents, that is between the parents, well anyhow, because it was a division, we had one group at the time Fairlington was opened up and Jackson was open. I knew that Fairlington was not as good a built school as Jackson Jackson. I'd been there. And so, therefore, it took quite a lot of doing to get the group when they were getting ready to move to move to Jackson. Once we moved, many of the parents who opposed me on that move came in and said "Ray we realize now that it was the best". It was central located, - structure wise it was a better building. Most of the floors and units are all concrete block whereas Fairlington - a lot of it was wood and Fairlington was totally on the other side, so it means that the kids who lived in North Arlington would have hours, sometimes one and one half hours, on the bus to come to school and to get back home and we just felt that Jackson was ... we really got the flack on that one area. As far as programs we never had any problems with programs. The parents really saw what our teachers were doing in giving these kids the opportunity to work, to do chores, to get out into the community under supervision of our teachers and aids and do tasks. We moved those kids in and out of the community just so that community would see. We did individual lawn care and all kinds of things for free. Basically just to give them experience and practice in the community.
Q: As a principal, - you talked about this a little bit in several different sections, but what was your biggest concern?
A: My biggest concern was trying to get a total commitment of our total staff and the parents in going towards the fact that these kids can be trained, most of them, to do particular tasks.
Q: How about your biggest headache?
A: The biggest headache, I would think the biggest headache I would have would be the people who tried to use the state law to oppose some of the things that we recommended. And of course we had several people who would contact, like Kathleen Terry down in Richmond. And she was the head of the special ed and many times instead of coming in and talking to me which I always said to the parents - if you have a problem with the teacher talk to the teacher first. If you have a problem with me, come see me first but we had several individuals who were close friends of some of these people down in the State Department and so what they would do - They would complain to the people down in the State Department the State Department people would then call Dr. Blocker and then Dr. Blocker would call me. And that was the biggest headache. Cause I never knew sometimes what these people would pull - even to the point on a couple of cases, we had one parent who had the Arlington County Police Department come in to arrest me because I was keeping their student, her student in school and he shouldn't have been there so she had the Sheriffs Department serve me with a warrant. She took me one time before Judge Kramer and after it was all over the Judge realized that she was a trouble maker and so he put the screws to her and told her that she couldn't come into the school. I'd always let her come in before and she had to sit on a bench outside and then she accused me of going to Judge Kramer and getting her put on the spot but it really was her. That was the type of headache. You never knew what to expect. And then you were always on watch of the community. For instance, we had a fire drill one day and we had a boy that would go bananas and he would start hitting people, throwing people down and he wasn't that big but he was strong and wiry. And so during this fire drill I saw him beating up on one of my aids. He was just pounding the daylights out of him. So I just went and stepped in between them. I figured he could pound on me a little bit and I grabbed his arms and I said, "stop and sit down", and there was a guy up on the roof. I got a call from the superintendent the next day and he said "what happened over there yesterday? Well, somebody called and said a boy was over there and he was acting up and this man in a brown suit came running out there and he got in between them and he wrestled the kid and he threw the kid down and the kid was down on the ground" and I said, "the man in the brown suit was me". Had to wrestle him down. I had to actually go back and get statements from the aids and the teachers. So what he saw was completely different than what really happened. It was a roofer up on top the roof and his wife happened to be a special ed teacher in Fairfax and he went home and said something and she called the superintendent. So it was that kind of headache, didn't happen too often but it was just enough that you had to be on your guard all the time.
Q: How about frustrations. What was your biggest frustration?
A: I think the biggest frustration that we encountered was knowing that we needed a certain amount of money and we knew that things were tight. Since I left, it's amazing now that since the new superintendent has come along it seems like to me many of the things that we had desired, like better equipment and new desks for our staff, we basically were getting everything that I could scrounge from anywhere in the county. If I found out that another principal had a desk if he had this or that I'd bring my pickup truck and over I'd go get it. So I ended up with a lot of scrounge type stuff. They said I was raised a pack rat. But I saved a lot of money in the process. But recently - now the staff - last summer, in fact, - I was there when they bought them in - they brought in new desks. Did you all get new desks? "No, I don't think we did. We got some". We got 30 some new desks in the school and of course we had to put them together. But it was ... that was the frustrating thing ... the budget was an area. We tried to do ... I'm the kind of guy who likes to fix and do and make. I rebuilt and built a lot of things that would have cost the school quite a bit of money but I did it on my own time after school hours when the kids weren't there. I would stay there, in fact, I lived too far away to go home. So I had to have something to do. So many times I'd have these projects - build things for the kids. They wanted a special thing built on their wheelchair or they wanted special things. I spent time doing that. We had a complete shop, which is still there, but nobody uses it. I would like to have it for my own. I've got one almost like it but not as good as equipment as that. But basically we really I spent a lot of time building things, making things, changing things. Many times if we had to have something done I knew that the maintenance people were busy and so I just, if I had some time, would take care of it myself.
Q: What was your toughest decision?
A: I guess the toughest decision I had was the fight toward going to Jackson instead of Fairlington. That was a tough decision because we had so many people who were for Fairlington. It was a tough decision because I was really going against the major at first ... route that many of our parents wanted. Fairlington came up first and Jackson came up second but that was a tough decision.
Q: Why did so many parents want to go to Fairlington?
A: I have yet to understand that. Except that it was available. They could get out sooner. We were utilizing at the time, we were doing this. We were even using the storage room as a classroom. We were using a little closet across the hall as a speech therapy room that's when we were at George Mason. So we needed - the biggest decision was to get out of that building even though it meant uprooting and a lot of changes but the biggest decision was getting those kids over where we had enough space and Jackson provided that space. In fact, they had more than an ample amount of space. To the point where we rent out rooms at Jackson now. The extension services has the biggest part of the upstairs now and so we had the whole downstairs and one, two, three, four, five rooms, I guess, upstairs. The extension services has the rest. But that was a big decision.
Q: What do you think the teachers expected you to be?
A: They expected you to be all things to everybody. They expected me to be there 24 hours a day. They expected me to be always there which was almost impossible, to be always there. In fact one of the times I got criticized from the some of the members of the staff. I was with Dr. Cubin having my administrative evaluation. And we had this boy that blew. I guess the same boy that I grabbed when we were having that fire drill. I guess he just more or less kicked and butted and pushed and shoved and knocked down about eight teachers and aids while I was gone and I wasn't there. If seemed like to me that if I ever decided I'd go out to have lunch with like Dr. Blocker or Jaren Van Den Heuvel or some of those people at the Ed Center to talk over some of our ... there was always something going. So it got to the point that the last few years that I was there. I never left the building. Even though a lot of the principals meetings I would forgo them because if anything was going to happen, it was going to happen while I was gone. And the teachers expected you to be there all the time to help them. And that was tough because you couldn't always be there. Then when I started getting sick. Then of course I fell out of the tree and broke myself up pretty bad. Twenty feet out of a tree I hurt my back pretty bad. Broke all the bones on the right side of my body. Then they expected help and so they sent Joe back to take over during that period of time that I was out. They expect you to be there. They expected you to be superhuman. You had to be super strong because some of these kids were just strong as oxens. Especially when they got angry at us or something upset them. They could pickup chairs and throw them. I learned a lot of the skills that was taught me earlier on how to control students who were out of control so they wouldn't hurt someone else or hurt me. I did get banged up quite a bit once in a while but before I got in and got a hold of them. Once I got in a got a hold of them I was able to calm them down. But at the end I was getting to the point where the arthritis was eating my wrist up and my thumb up and I was almost afraid that if I grabbed a kid I might be forced to let go and he could hurt me or hurt somebody else. And that's the reason why I just decided well it may be time to retire.
Q: What do you think the superintendent expected you to be?
A: I think the superintendent expected me to be the leader of the school. He expected me to have good control over the community in which we were operating and that was all of Arlington County. Dealing with parents - he wanted us to have a good relation with the parents. He wanted our parents to have pride in the school. In order to do that, we had to be proud of the school ourselves. He expected us to take total responsibility of all things just like any normal principal in the county. The leadership qualities, the evaluation of teachers, the encouragement of the school projects, the handling of the financial aspect of the school - everything. He expected you to be a professional man. And it didn't make any difference. You weren't paid because you had a special education job. You were paid just as an elementary principal. We had the same pay scale rating as a lot of the elementary people.
Q: What made you an effective principal?
A: I think everybody saw that there was nothing in that school that they had to do that I wasn't also willing to do. And I took that ... and I guess it's being an example. They knew that if they had a 20 year old boy that needed, that just physically messed themselves up, and needed a shower ... they knew that I was not above taking that kid and putting him in the shower and washing him. Kids that couldn't even take a shower on their own - you had to do it. If the aid wasn't there or if the teacher was having a special project and it would have deterred from their program, I would take the kid and do those things. Take the kids and clean them up, shower. And the parents and the teachers all appreciated the fact that I was the type that would jump in with both feet and help do the task. If they called me, we had an intercom system that they could ring me in case of emergency or I could talk to them anytime but if they sent out the word that there was something disruptive going on, all they had to do was send and they would meet me and I would be in the classroom. They knew that I wasn't afraid of any of the kids. We had some bad kids that came through there. One girl especially. I think there is a letter in here that the parent wrote me about that. She was totally out of it. And when she went out of it, she was really a troublemaker. But everybody was scared of her. Teachers would back-off. But I wouldn't back-off. I just go in a get her and quiet her down and she's now down in Florida. When I get a chance to go down to see, to visit Sarasota they are just about 8 miles up from Sarasota - and I visit every time I go down. I stop in and see the family. The Jones family is just great. And I think there is a letter with that. But we weren't afraid. We could many times have gotten very badly hurt because if they had something in their hand, it could be very serious. We had one boy who would, every time they delivered the milk in these little cartons, crates, as soon as we would get the milk out of them, he would go over and pick up the crate and sling it. So we had to do things like that. The kids learned to, for some reason, they learned to respect my voice. Whether I had a commanding voice or what it was-- and they knew that I wasn't going to back down from them. Many times if the teacher wanted to be able to do something, we made tapes, used tape recorders and I would say, "Jackie, sit down and get busy on your work", and every once in a while all she had to do - we found out it was working that way by me getting on the intercom - So then we found out that the teacher would buzz and she would say, "Jackie is not doing his work Mr. Tolson. Would you speak to him? And I would just over the intercom. I'd say, "Jackie, sit down now and listen to the teacher, and get busy with your work" and he would. And then we got so we'd put everything on tape. We had about five different messages and we had footage like you have on this tape recorder here and they would play these certain statements that was my voice and he would just respond to it and respond to it. So it was those type of things that made us really enjoy. It was a tough job. It really was, but I tried to enjoy it. I tried to not - a lot of people would look at some of the bad things that some of the kids would do and say, "ah, that's terrible", and everything else but we tried to look on the brighter side of. Sure, in the normal run of things, it might be a terrible thing to do but with this kid, maybe it was just something special.
Q: How would you describe your management style? Can you think of a style?
A: My management style according to them was the same as my teaching style. I was a hands-on type of person. When I taught my M squad at Williamsburg, Cletus Cole and ... stop it, for a second, maybe I can ... Cloyd Hall, did you know Cloyd Hall? No. Cloyd Hall did a test in which he was trying to find out why I was so successful for those seven years with my M squad boys. What are what was the M? Well that was that special reluctant learners or whatever you wanted to call them. Why, that I was so successful because they tried it one down at the other end of the county and it wasn't successful. In fact, they dropped out with it. In fact the teacher that did the training is a good friend of mine and he stayed two years and went into the government making twice as much money as I was making. He was just a beginning teacher. But Cloyd gave us a test, gave me a test and then he gave every student of mine for several years tests and they found out that we were the type that were on hands. We were not - he had a lot of different categories and one was intuitive. You learn by intuitiveness but mine was hands-on, basic. It had to be written down and spoken in order to get it and I found out that in many of my things that I did - that's the way that we operated.
Q: What was the key to your success?
A: Patience. One word. OK.
Q: The next set of questions will focus on the school and community relations. It has been said that the principal is the prime communicator with the community. Would you define the "school community" as you see it and share your philosophy of communication that you used with that school community?
A: OK. When I came on the job the school community, that means all of the parents of our school, were a little unhappy with some of the things. They said that they were never listened to, that the staff, more or less even though they made suggestions about their kids, would never follow any of the things and I found out that what I really had to do was stop and listen to those - I'm a good listener. I am a trained counselor. In fact, my certification in the state of Virginia not only was for elementary school and teaching the special ed but I'm also a certified principal and a certified guidance counselor. They were the four areas. They were trying to get the fifth one, a visiting teacher in. And I could have made it but I retired and so I didn't fool with it anymore. But basically, the listening to the parents and having them feel that if they had something to say, they could come in and say it and I would not get mad. I would not get upset. I would not take it out on their kids as they said that many times it happened in the other schools they had had their kids in. If they brought up a subject many times the teacher or the principal would get angry and then the kid would suffer. I don't believe in that. I believe you have to have good communication with not only your student body but you have to have good communication with your staff, good communication with your parents. And that was a goal that I really ... when the principal when I was called as a principal for that school I was told go in to the school and see if you can get the parents on your side. And so we had to do a lot of communicating, I did a lot of listening, very little suggestion. I had trained in the Rogerian Theory of counseling. So in that period of counseling Carl Rogers believes in listening and being a good listener and letting the individual if they are of any basic sound mind and body that they are able many times to work out their own problems. That's ... we had to do a lot of listening for the first few years and many times it was to the point where some of my night meetings that I had with the parents in the community got to be quite aggressive. The parents got rid of their hostility and many times they took it out on me to the point where one of the teachers that was in one of the meetings with me and they realized that the parents were really banging me, and it really wasn't banging me, it was because they were angry at the administration or angry with the school or the philosophy of the school or whatever the case may be and I sat there so they'd bring me like a dish pan all decorated up so that I - they said, "here's your helmet so you can go to the next meeting without getting to beat up". And they would, they gave me one night after a really a bad session where they accused several of the teachers of doing certain things and they were really angry about this is. When we first started, one of the teachers gave me a picture. I still have it, of a little baby with spaghetti all over its head. Have you ever seen that picture? "Yeah, I think I have. And on the bottom it says "this is the day the Lord hath made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it". And so we took some of the things that made other people very angry and I would sit there and smile and try to show that I was not angry about it. That, this is basically a chance to let them get rid of their steam and I found out that all these people - I can't even think of a one that was so critical at the beginning - who weren't really staunch supporters later on in our communications with one another.
Q: When I think about community besides the parents - where else did you have to go to sell the school?
A: We had to go to the school board and we had to go to the community because you see a lot of people did not want. When I say a lot of people, normal people, people who had normal students felt that if you spent all this money for handicapped, that it's taken away from the regular students. In fact, you'll find even in Arlington County, even now, a lot of the black communities are saying, and I worked at Drew for awhile, the black community is saying all this special attention that we've given to the Vietnamese, to the Koreans, to the South Americans and all of those things that we are spending money for is taking away from the black community. Which basically, in a way, I can see their thought behind it. They thought that here they were working on trying to improve the communities, trying to improve the school situation for the blacks and all of a sudden you get this great influx of people.
Q: Your school was a very special kind of school. To give us a better understanding of how you handled community relations, would you describe the organization that existed in your school to work with the community and the methods you used to foster effective school community relations?
A: OK. First of all we had the same community organizations working within our school as every other school had. Every school was responsible to have a school board advisory committee. And this was made up of the leaders of our PTA and then several other people, usually two additional ones, added to it plus one of the school board members. We would have two sets of meetings. We would have one set of meetings strictly where I would meet with the advisory committee without the school board member. The second meeting we had each month was in connection with the advisory committee again plus the school board member that was assigned to our group. Each year you turned in five names of people, who you had already contacted, that would serve on the school board advisory committee and the school board then made this nomination so they knew who they were. They also then would assign one of their school board members to be your representative at your school. And although they could take it back to the school board, anything that happens would no longer be a shock to the school board if you proposed something or needed something, you had a liaison officer right within the school. So we represented we had I had a staff advisory committee in which I had one member of each of the different groups that came in that once a week we would sit down usually around a cup of coffee or coke or something and we would talk about the plans for the next month or any plans that had to even be. Especially we had to, I guess about the second year I was there, we had to do our accreditation study for the SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) we had to do that and of course that meant a lot of meetings, a lot of writing. I had to have people who would take over the writings of each of these different areas. You know how I'm sure you all have been through if you've been here 10 years you've been through a self study. We after we got our SACS which was for me - it was real great. Because after we got it and got the recommendations of the self study our recommendations and these this visiting committees recommendations - I would sit down and then I would start pointing up things. That these are things that we can work on now and we should be able to accomplish them. These are things that we can't or we can work on but we can't accomplish them unless we get additional revenue into the school. And then of course we went from there. So I used I used these self study paper not only our recommendations but the recommendations of this committee to make a lot of these improvements that we felt we needed in the school. As part of my plan and as far as the schools plan of taking care of it. And so you covered these and you covered them with the staff. You covered them with the people. I had once a month, I had a coffee hour in which any parent that wanted to could come in - and we'd serve coffee and donuts and they could come in and talk about anything they wanted to. Then I would take the notes from that meeting and then we would go to the school board advisory committee and say, "hey, at the last months meeting, these are some of the thoughts that was brought up by the people who came". And we would use that as part of the studies. So we had the same type of a format as any other school in Arlington County. They had to have all these same things. And I had so I had meetings for all groups, meetings I had advisory board made up of teachers, I had the school board advisory committee made up of the five parts leaders of the school plus the school board member and so we would hash many of these things out ahead of time. Plus we had the open door, I had an open door. A lot of people say keep the parent out of the classroom. I did not agree with that philosophy. I believed that the parent had every right to be there and I found out that some of the people who make the most squawk ended up to be the best supporters because they come in and they'd see we were not trying to hide anything. They were always saying, "when I first came there I been in schools they'd say - and the principal tried to hide. The teacher didn't notice them in the room, "and I just said, "you can come in, volunteer, volunteer in some other area. It really worked. It worked great.
Q: The people who came to the coffees - were they, generally speaking, the parents of the students or just people from the general community?
A: No. No. No. In most cases it was the parents from the, of the parents of the students. Very seldom we had - now we had once in a while - I would have if there was a neighbor, a lady that they knew, I had for instance, - she was always fussing about the about the growth of morning glories and honeysuckle over on the fence. Over on their side on the Edison side of the street. And once in a while she would come in and sit down in the group and say, "hey, I been noticing that you all haven't kept that trimmed off and I like to tell you that it's now collecting trash on the outside of the fence". It really wasn't ours. It wasn't in the school yard. It was on the outside and really, really, basically, it wasn't our responsibility to do it. It was really the county's responsibility to handle that. But many times I'd just get my, I bought a weedeater, a gas operated weedeater, and I'd just send a custodian over there and let him chop it down. We tried to keep the peripheral. We even had one parent who came in and sat in one of the meetings because when the county snow plowed one day, they threw this hunk, great big hunk of snow, right over the side walk down below my school. It wasn't really connected with my school but it was around and so we'd have to get out there and she complained some. We had to work with the community right around the school. Most of the people came in were very supportive. Because many times, when we had big meetings and stuff like that. We parked in front of the places and you know a lot of people don't like that you park - take up the parking spots - and we had to be very careful but we tried to get along with the community the best we could.
Q: It is said that we learn from adversity. Would you describe some of the most difficult experiences you had in the area of school-community relations and share with us what you learned from these incidents?
A: Wow! Adversities. Basically when I look back except for those couple of parents who were always on my back because they didn't want their kid in school, I really didn't have that much adversity in the school. It was always positive. I majored in positive reinforcement. I believed in trying to hit the problem before it became a problem. So I think really, in all honesty, I can't really think of - a - except for those couple that I've already stated - about the guy up on the roof telling his wife that I was physically manhandling a kid down on the playground that was a problem. There was a problem, but once I explained it and got the people to see things - I tell you, the biggest adversity I had though and I believe, that's in here somewhere about have you ever fired a teacher? Yes. I had one teacher who was the teacher of this one kid. That the parent was always riding my back - and I still and she began and she was a new teacher and she began to, ah, and the parents came in and showed me marks on the kids arm that her fingernails had really cut into the girl's wrists and the back of her arm here. And so that was all. That, I guess was the the biggest problem that I had the whole time that I was a principal. I talked with the teacher. I, then, she went to grievance and she said because she was Jewish is the reason I was doing this. I got people who said they would write letters which in this same case this woman who more or less forced me to take the kid out of this woman's class and put her in another class because she felt she was being physically abused. She was going to write me a letter of support and tell them why she, I transferred her child out and give me some background and really some support of saying this is why I've been on this teachers back. The day we had the hearing at the Ed Center none of the letters that these parents that had their kids in that class that they felt that she was taking care of - None of them sent me any information. The two of the other teachers who said that they would go to be a witness of some of the things that were being brought up wouldn't go. My aide went over. The aide that works in the room with her, went over and she was a big help but it ended up that she was really an asset ... I guess a liability, liability, asset is good, liability, because they pooh pooed that because they said an aide shouldn't evaluate a teacher. So that was really a bad situation. Everything fell apart. People who promised to be at the meeting or send letters and that was the most frustrating thing I could think of. I finally ended up getting enough evidence in the long run and I made the situation pretty hot for her that she finally resigned instead of going to court.
Q: What kind of emotions did you get left with in terms of the rest of your staff - because they didn't support you?
A: Well, the rest of the staff was still happy that she was gone. But the thing of it is, I never have figured out why they left me hanging out there on a limb. The aide was crucified to the point where on a similar situation in the same classroom a year or so later we had the aide refused to even go. She said, "well, they just made such fun of me and I won't give my version of what I saw or what I felt during this period of time". So it really was a bad situation. We finally put enough and then it was really interesting. The head of the women of the teachers organization she said the reason why I was giving the girl so much trouble was because I was a Christian and she was a Jew. Which wasn't true at all. We had then, of course, I had to go back to refute that statement and that sorta got me on the spot. I had to go back and get some of my Jewish friends who taught on my staff and who had taught on my staff in the past to write letters to tell them that would be furthest from the truth that I would ever use that because I was Christian and she was a Jew.
Q: Did you get support from the superintendent or from other administrators in this procedure?
A: In this case I talked with the superintendent and the situation really didn't get to him but he was supportive of me. I can honestly say that the superintendents, I don't know whether they felt sorry for me or what for having pretty tough duty, they were always supportive. I had the second problem that I had was the fact I had an aide come in, a male aide, come in one day and say that at a party that he was at, that one of my teachers, male teachers had propositioned him. I had suspicions of homosexual behavior to the point where I had already warned the parents of that particular class to not let their boys go home with him or to the beach with him or other things. That was a touchy situation too because when I talked to personnel and the superintendent they said unless he did this on school grounds on school time with school personnel that I couldn't do anything about it. It made a pretty tough situation but you. I just kept my fingers crossed that nothing would happen. But I did warn the parents not to let the kids go their boys go to the beach or anything like that with the individual teacher.
Q: What was the parents reaction to having this teacher in the classroom?
A: They didn't really question the fact of why. I just said in some cases I've made these rules and I'm just warning them that I think it's better if we just don't do these types of things.
Q: Did they know that it was for homosexual reasons or did they think it was just school policy?
A: No. They just thought it was my policy. So I didn't, they didn't question it. But they did stop sending the kids. It was a touchy situation. Especially when it got to the point were from then on I had a terrible time trying to get my male aides to work with this particular person in the school. Which then of course I talked with the superintendent - very supportive about it - and to the point that one day I even talked to the teachers aide and he told me a lot of things and not only did he tell me a lot of things he went right back and told the teacher. That he came in and said that he was going to file suit against me because I was accusing him of being a homosexual. And I told him I had talked to the superintendent and if he wants to make an issue of it, I'll dial the superintendent right now. It just so happened that either the evening before or that very morning, I talked with the superintendent about the situation. And he backed down. It was a sorta nip and go situation. But I really watched from then on. I really watched for any types of behavior that I thought was derogatory but yet I would not - he was a pretty good teacher and I gave him fairly good evaluations too. I felt that I tried to be as even, though that's one of the areas I have a problem with, but my own self in realizing that people have different styles of sex preferences I guess. But that was one of the that I guess was one of the tight ... those two the teacher that I had to finally well she finally retired resigned on her own and then this other situation dealing with homosexuality. That ah but no proof that except of the fact at a party this had come up several times and it was a tough situation to follow through. Very touchy ground to be working on too. Right.
Q: Well, tell me about some of your more enjoyable successes. Some of the best memories come from the recollections of past triumphs. Would you share some of your most important and enjoyable successes?
A: Well, this is as a principal. Because I think my most important ones I found, was, it was as a teacher, but, ah, I guess that one of the biggest ones I had was - we had a Jewish family that opposed our move to Jackson. And, ah, they did it to the point they opposed it so vividly that it almost got to the point that they wouldn't even speak to me. Ah Ah especially the husband. The wife, I won't use names, the wife was a little bit more leaning toward ah toward the ah being half way decent, but he absolutely would have nothing do to with me. He would totally, if I was in a group, he would speak to everybody but me. He wouldn't speak to me to the point that a lot of this animosity was about our Christmas time and of course we used to sing Christmas Carols at the PTA and it was really interesting. I had all these Christmas Carols and we sang a few at Christmas at Christmas time at the PTA and right after than evening, after it was over, this parent came up and she said Mr. Tolson I'd like to have about four copies of ah of the songs that you were singing! I said ah ah, here she goes! Here I go, you know! We already got the rabbi's interpretation - nothing dealing with Christmas - you know here I am singing Christmas Carols so I gave them to her and I sorta said, "wait man that's going to be tough". Here, she after Christmas, was over I never heard anything and one day she came in and she handed me the four copies back and she said, "Mr. Tolson I really appreciate you loaning these to me". She said, "my family had the best time singing them". And then we had been in Jackson, oh, I guess about one half a years and all of a sudden the father and the mother both just turned completely around. They saw that the school was good and their son was progressing and ah finally in the end even before even before he left the school, he had already moved into his own group home and they were just pleased as punch. I think when I look back at that one case, I would say that possibly is one of the best cases. They were really so opposed and to the point of not even speaking and yet they turned right around and right now if she sees me and if he sees me, it's a big handshake and big hug. That's wonderful. But of course we just kept at it. But you know you sorta wonder, "hey, man did I step out of bounds along the line?"
Q: OK. The last set of questions. We'll treat opinions, evaluations, and advice. What aspect of your personal training best prepared you to be a principal?
A: OK. Basically I think ah ah the first place of really desiring and getting to be a principal is that I had to serve as a ah as, I well, I was a CDC. Our principal was in a negotiating team. Negotiating for the principals of the administration and he could not serve the function of the principal and they put me in as temporary principal at Key School. And that was a good experience because if I did counseling, I went into my office and did counseling and if I did anything dealing with principal part, I would go into his office and work it from there. That was a big help in learning what the job what the duties of a principal was. Then of course I went back and got my masters degree strictly on from George Washington University strictly on Principal/School Administration. And mainly elementary school. Because I was interested basically in being the principal of an elementary school. So I would say that the I had a lot of course work dealing with the school and the community with the aspect of being a principal in college but I think the hands-on experience that I had as a, you might say, an intern principal while the principal was working on the negotiations was one of the best experiences I ever had.
Q: All research points to the fact that excellent schools have administrators who are actively involved in leadership for educational expectations. What are some effective techniques or strategies you would recommend to involve oneself to the maximum in educational leadership?
A: The first thing I think that, and yet it wasn't, I don't think it was anywhere required. But I think the principal has to be visible in the community. They have to know. Your not always visible in the community but I think the principal has to be visible at the board meetings, school board meetings. I think this is where people see, hey, who's that guy there? Ah, that's very important to be there. I think the other thing is that on all, whenever my school was open, I was there. Ah, ah, if they were having a special program upstairs at night, I was there. Even though it took away from my own being at home and of course on those nights I never got home until 11:00-12:00 o'clock at night when I finally arrived home. But I think being visible in the community, visible in the school, ah, is a very great asset because people then know who you are and where you are and they know where to find you. Some of the biggest problems I guess that's happened over the years, ah, not only in school but it's happening in our own church with one of our youth pastors. He was suppose to be at church but he wasn't. You never saw him. You couldn't find him. When a parent needed him, he wasn't available. This, I think, your availability to be with people and meet with people is one, I felt, one of the key things in leadership. Ah, I don't know whether that answers your question.
Q: Oh, it surely does. Sit in there anxious to hear every word you are going to be speaking. Whereas many times I'd have to modify my stories if I told them to my special ed. It kept me in touch with the normal routine of the day of the regular school. That's one of the things now...... What were some of the more unpleasant principalship activities you remember?
Q: What are some unpleasant principalship activities?
A: I think the most unpleasant things, the two most unpleasant things that I had, one was in burying several of my students. Oh!, burying them. Going through the funerals with the parents and seeing, you know, kids that I truly loved. I think that's another thing, that the parents all knew that I loved their kids. Just like they did. And it was tough. Seeing someone pass on and have to bury them. The other thing, the other thing I had, it happened we had a real bad this girl had a seizure and even though she had head gear on she didn't have on a full helmet. She fell and hit her head and split it wide open. Ah, when they got a hold of me, in the principals office, I ran down to the room she was already, by then, in a pool of blood. Ah, unconscious. I picked her up bodily and raced her over to Arlington hospital. We just had to move out of one set of doors, across a small field and parking lot and ah, in to Arlington Hospital, when we were at George Mason. And we got her there. And, of course, they were able to provide her with ... while I was doing that ... my secretary was calling the parents and telling them that we had rushed their daughter to the hospital. Please call the hospital to give permission for any type of work that had to be done on the kid. But, that was scare situation. Ah, I didn't know it at the time, but the girl had fallen about a week before and had seven stitches and what she did she fell and opened up those that same place and caused about four or five more in her head. So, that was that was I would thing a scary and a hard thing to do as a principal. I had to carry kids a lot. Which got pretty bad as I got older. When I was younger I had a very strong back, it wasn't too bad. But it got so that on five year olds for instance, you had to rush up to ... that was the other thing ... you had to get those kids out. And you had to go through the drills once a month so in the event ... that once a month you ran up and helped the teachers get those particular handicapped kids that were in wheel chairs out of the out of the room and down. Sometimes it meant physically picking them up and carrying them out. That was pretty tough. But I would think those couple things would be ... oh, they sure are. You don't see it ... normally you don't have too many kids in elementary school, in fact, I don't remember any of my elementary students dying. But I got to know these kids, cause you're with them all the time. Their with you. Some of these people were with me eleven years. You really get to know these kids. You get to know the parents. You've been with them so long they are just like your own.
Q: Did you have to deal with the issue of merit pay? Career ladders? What's your feeling about those issues? Do they help or hinder a principal?
A: Basically, I guess, we were very fortunate. That a lot of that type of thing was taken care at the central office. Ah, we did not have to go through, even though we could put in recommendations, and I guess the teachers groups and organizations and even the principals groups ah, submitted their plans and proposals, ah, you know I have found one problem, one basic problem with the merit type pay, where one person gets better pay because they supposedly are better teachers than others is that I felt that it would cause teachers to become selfish with material. I think a lot of the things I look back in my early days as a teacher and coming up in the career was the fact that a lot of good teachers shared we worked and we shared with one another the things that we found were successes. And, I think that if you find out that you're going to get paid according to what the principal decides that is ah, is a really great method that you're using your going to soon get to the point where you won't share your method. Cause if you share your method everybody else gets it too. Ah, and ah, it could turn out to be a selfish type of an attitude. Where there is no sharing, where you wouldn't want anybody in your classroom to observe what your doing because you don't want them getting some of these little tidbits. And we know that there are good teachers, there are some bad teachers and ah, it's a shame that some of the bad teachers can't see and be in a position where they are experiencing some cooperation with good teachers. Ah, that's the reason I think merit pay is gonna, is not good. I think, I don't know whether, I believe I covered that in that report over there. That's my opinion. That the selfishness where I think that .... what we can do if something really works we should be able to share it and not worry about whether it's gonna make me out a better teacher then they or them a better teacher then me because I've got a little trick that I use that others ... that's the way I feel about it anyway.
Q: What about career ladders? Is there a difference, do you make a distinguishing ...
A: Career ladders. I think that basically, there is, there is a step up. Ah, in every area I was in. I was in the teaching area, we had a career, you might say a career ladder. And, then the pay scale we had a but after so many years and so much of this that you went on up to the top. I basically, ah, I've made more money and put in less time as in some ways as a teacher especially when I was working 33 1/3 days extra every year. Which I always did. I was making more money as classroom teacher then I was the first two years of principalship. Ah, and ah, it wasn't until about the third year that I really began to see and move up the ladder that I began to really see. And, of course, I was putting in, I was putting in where as normally as a teacher I might be putting in, timing my trip from home and back to home, I was putting in maybe 10-12 hours. But I was putting in sometimes 12, 14, 16 hours a day as a principal. And, ah, it wasn't that much difference. I can see why their out. I would say that the merit pay can destroy cooperation among the staff.
Q: What emotions do you associate most with your principalship?
A: I look back at it has being really a learning experience. Ah, I look back and I think of all the ... I think of the smiles of the kids face when they succeeded in doing something. I look at the kids when we were having activities and athletics. Or field days - whatever you want to call it - for the first time win a medal, for ribbon, for doing something good. And I remember those good things. And then I look back and I see ah, one or two parents who were continually on my case about something, mainly about their kids.
Q: What are the quickest and best ways or methods for a prospective principal (or a person interested in an administration) to learn more about a school system or the community?
A: I think the quickest way is to live at the school for a week. I'm serious. Be there. If you really want to know how the school operates work it out so that you can be with the principal or near the principal for a week in a school setting. I think you'll find out an awful lot about what the principal does. You'll find that some days are busier than others, some days are worse than others. There are some good days along with the bad days but basically they'll find out that the principal is a very important aspect of running a school. I really believe that. In fact they have proven it time and time again that if you had a good attitude and if you had a good leadership abilities your school is going to do its job with personnel as well as with the students involved.
Q: What about the community. How can you get to know the community? What's a quick way, a good way to get to know your community?
A: See, in a regular in a regular in a regular school setting and I have to back that question back to that because, ah, you had to know all of Arlington County. But when I was a Key School for instance, as a CDC, I did a walking trip on the whole I took a school map and I walked the whole area that was involved in our area around Key School. That meant going over to the Court House, ah, seeing what was there, going down to where the old Wilson School used to be and down in that area going back over to the couple of home divisions that were in that area and I basically, I walked through them. Many times in the evening, in the afternoon, I would either take a bus or else I would walk with some of the kids that walked home. So I would knew. In the mornings sometimes I'd leave school and walk over to a particular area and when I saw a bunch of kids, I'd walk back to school. It was good for two reasons, it encouraged the kids and it also helped me to find out where these kids lived and something about the community. I went into many of the shops right there on Wilson Boulevard we had from up Sears all the way up to the circle, used to be Clarington Circle. You don't even have a Clarington Circle now. But I used to go into the different areas and introduce myself to the people. I found out that when we had special projects that at the school, that many of these people would offer certain things that we could use for fundraising. Or in cases like Drug Fair down there one year we needed a Christmas Tree. I just walked into the Drug Fair and I said, "Sir, I am the principal of the, - I'm the CDC at the guidance counselor here at Key School and when I did it, - I also did it when I was a principal - and I said that I have $40.00 that I would like to spend but I'd like to pickup a good Christmas Tree. And in most cases, in fact, I guess, I did it twice, the man said, "hey, I really appreciate all the school does, so here, you take any of them and it won't cost you a dime".
A: Those types of things. That I would visit, walk in and talk to the people. Of course when I was at Key School I did a lot of repairing of things myself and so I learned. Snyder's Hardware was where one of our, we have a charge, a place with the county with them. And I got the people at the, at the, down at Tara Street to put my name on it so that basically if I wanted a box of screws or something for my school, I could just go down there and get it at Snyder's Hardware and it would be charged to the county. It was that type of a opening. I tried to meet as much people that I could. Reed's Hardware up on Lee Highway, those type of things, Drug Fair, the Lee Shopping Center Lee-Harrison Shopping Center I would visit some of those places and periodically have walking field trips all through the community. That would get them to be responsible in the community as well as have the community see our kids. And, ah, and ah, so we could break down some of these so called quote statements that they said used to hang around handicapped kids.
Q: Would you discuss some of your most pleasant principalship activities and some of the most unpleasant?
A: OK. I think one of the one of the pleasant experiences I had was going into the classrooms with the kids. I, ah, well I was in guidance. Well, I started it when I was teaching, ah, I learned ... I had a book in my classroom in the sixth grade at Jackson School that was called Jack Tales and I learned to tell those stories. In fact the whole book very well. And so consequently, I would go in to tell the kids these Jack Tales and not only as a CDC I would go to all the different, many of the different schools, and tell stories to the sometimes whole classrooms, sometimes to whole assemblies. And, ah, even after I became a principal I did this. Even since I retired I have told the Jack Tales to my grandsons and several of my grandsons classrooms. I've told my - I go to my daughter's, she's a teacher in Prince William Schools, I go to her sixth grade class about three or four times a year and tell Jack Tales even now. And that, I would say, that is a fun thing. It's a break away from the routine. Jack Tales are sorta it's written in the old country, hill country of the Appalachian area and the language is not good, but it's fun and fun stories and they're so far out that you know they couldn't be true so, therefore, you are not persuading somebody that this could be something. Although I had something I incorporated into all of mine and I even have done it - used it even in my adult class, Sunday School class, is that the students over the years and even the parents have come back and said, "we remember that one thing that you always told us, that if you ever get into anything, hardships, troubles that you say, all I can do is try". And that's probably, and I incorporate that even though it's not in every story, I incorporate that in almost every story I told. I put that in because that's one thing that the kids, that they don't remember, anything else they remember. Give 'em a tough situation and they would say, "all I can do is try". And those that I would think that that would be one of my best even as a principal when I would go out to the different areas and, ah, tell these stories. I think that was the other thing, too. I worked for a lot of years for the handicapped but by doing that, it kept me in touch with the regular school children as well. And it was great to see these bright-eyed sixth graders or Junior High School kids Ah, and I guess until they die they'll be always on somebodies case. To complain about the fact that nobody did anything for my kid or you made him handicapped or you made him retarded because you kept him in your school. It was that kind of thing. Ah, I look back and I say, "man, basically it was a pleasant experience. All my school years were pleasant. Even though as an elementary teacher I only had one good class ... and, and out of the ten. I had one good one because they found out that I was good working with mean boys. And I got every mean boy for nine years, I got every mean boy in the school. Ah, when they came through, Ray Tolson got them. And, ah, it was ... it was nice ... it was ... I would like to have had, once in a while, a nice bright ... instead of most of my classes were not exceptionally bright, they were just average or below average, and most of them always included a couple of hell raisers. That were always ah, .... problems always through school. And, and, and a lot of times, until they got to my class, it was just something about working with me. I really believe that we should have had many in the elementary schools many many years before. I was, for years, I was the only male teacher in the elementary schools.
Q: Do you think that that has something to do with why you got all the mean boys?
A: Oh yeah. I figured that happened. Especially if the men, if the men have a good way of relating with the kids. Of course, I did. And we had ah, we had art, the teacher would, many times, feel this was break time for me. And I was still having to grade papers or something. I always went to art. Music, I like music anyhow, and so I would go sing with the kids. Phys ed time, where some teachers would stand around the corner and talk to one another and observe. I would get out and play with the kids. I would play soccer, softball, ah, it was that type of thing. I would get involved with the kids. Ah, even when we were at Oak Ridge School, we had a lady that came in a taught french to the kids. That would have been a time that I could have very easily gone back to my classroom and say "No, I'm not interested, I'm never going to speak french. I'm not going with my kids". But I did. And you know ... and so even after thirty some years now I can still remember the verb "to be" and how to count to 10 in french and some of the basic words that they used in colors and so forth. I found out that being with the kids was always important. And instead of... I'm a doer, ah, just like football, my wife is a football fan, she sits and watch football. If I had my preference, I'd be out playing with the kids. And leave the football alone. Ah, I can get that anytime. That's the same way it was with my school, I'd rather be doing with my kids, playing with them, singing with them, ah, teaching them at the same time with their attitudes. Eating with them, a lot of people complained about eating with them, I enjoyed it. When I was a CDC I would come in and eat with the kids. I didn't have too, but I did. I would set up tables, ah, honor tables, where kids who had good behavior. We put up table cloth on the table and have a candle or flowers. And the kids who were excellent, that I observed were excellent during the time, they would be my special guest at the table. And we would communicate. It was that type of thing, it was fun.
Q: Did the central office policies every create frustrations for you or prevent you from accomplishing goals that you otherwise might have attained?
A: OK. The only thing that I found that the central office did ... I found the central office was almost totally supportive of everything I did. It was ... it was really great to see how well the, ah, all the different aspects psychology department, the visiting teacher department, the ah, the superintendent, the associate superintendents, the people in charge of special ed. There was just something about those people, that they knew that I wasn't an extravagant person and that if I asked for it then I must really need it. And they had that type of an attitude with me. And I really can honestly say that the eleven years that I had there that they bent over backwards to give me what I asked for. Ah, many times they knew that if I couldn't build it myself then I'd ask for it. Ah, and ah, it was that type of attitude. We really had strong ... I really had strong support from the superintendent on down. Ah, and I can't even think of a case where they, they, that, I had one of the leaders over at the ed center really say, "no, you can't have this and no you won't do this Ray, and I don't want you to do this, and you stop now". If there was anything involved it usually was involved with money. Whether we had enough money to do a certain particular thing. But even that, ah, Joe Guter, was ah, was the, ah, head of all that while I was in and out. They tell me he's retired and dying of cancer. So, I don't know. I haven't seen him. I've got to go see him one of these days. Do you know Joe Guter? I know who he is and that's true, he is dying of cancer. He just retired. He just left. I just heard about it. Joe and I talked together over at Williamsburg. And I got to know Joe real well. I got to know a lot of people real well over the years. I guess the friendships that I've made here just will never end. In the county as far as students as well as parents as well as staff. That's a good feeling.
Q: How did you view the power structure and what advice can you give to the novice in dealing with it?
A: Let me put it this way. I was never one who wanted to laude it over everybody about power. Although I saw it all the time. I think those teachers and there are administrators, people in our county, even now, who would walk over your body to get somewhere. Ah, I was not that kind of a guy. Ah, and, so therefore, I didn't really, I didn't have any power struggle within myself. But I know that there were a number of people who were constantly trying to get their two cents in with power. Ah, thinking that power is very Important.
Q: Is it important?
A: I don't think you should consider power. I think leadership, ah, cooperation, ah, even training are all important aspects. But I think somewhere along the line if you get power minded, many times many of us don't know how to use power properly. It can be a detriment to the school system. And, I think where you find that there is a power struggle between leaders, ah, whether it's in the school system, in the school itself or whether it's in the school system, at the central office you're going to find that someone's going to get hurt in the ultimate with this power struggle. Ah, when they start looking for ways of overcoming their foe and getting the best of both worlds then it becomes a problem. I was never a power struggle type. I think there is only one power, that's God. So your advice to a novice is? Don't try to be powerful because it can get you into trouble. Most of us can't use the power we are allowed to have. Recognize it's there, it's there. Oh yeah, it's there. It's there. The power structure. The power structure is there. The chain of command is there. And, you know, that was the thing that I tried to point out all the time. Parents, if you have problems with a teacher, go to the teacher. Don't come to me. That's the .... see this one philosophy of this one lady was I never go anywhere but to the top. Because that was her attitude. Her attitude was I'll get right on to the power that's up there. Why waste my time talking to you when you might discourage me you might even change my mind. And, there are a lot of people who are that way. But I told my people, "go up the ladder and start with the teacher first". If you have a criticism of the teacher clear if with the teacher first. Then if you couldn't get anywhere else see me. And if you don't think that I'm doing a proper job in this particular thing go to see the special ed supervisor or policy superintendent, I don't care, but let me know first what's going on.
Q: Do you think you were ever held back because you didn't play the game - play along with the power structure?
A: Yes. I'm sure I was. In fact, in fact, several times when I applied over the years I applied for principalship. A very close friend who worked in the Central Office and he said, "Ray, I don't think you'll ever get to be a principal because you're too honest. You're not struggling for power". Ah, and ah, I wasn't. I wasn't struggling for power. I was just working to do my very best in whatever situation I found myself. Ultimately it didn't cost you. You did get to be principal. Yeah. In fact, you know, it was really interesting. Was that just a lucky break? I had just made a statement to myself that if I didn't get principal this time I'd never apply again. And it opened. See, but that's, see but then I have something else that's different. I firmly believe that God directs my path, and that if he wanted me to be a principal, my wife never really wanted me to be a principal, she wanted me to stay in the classroom because she had seen over the years all the results of all the things that happened. The good positive things that happened in the classroom with me as a teacher. And, ah, she really didn't want me to be a principal. But I said, "well the Lord opens doors, and he closes doors" he's closed doors three or four times in the past. I interviewed and thought I had the job and it ended up somebody else got the job. So I did get discouraged. But I just kept on saying, "Lord if you want me apply" ... now the last time I got the principalship I was asked to apply. Before, I did it on my own. I applied, you know, I saw something come up. Principalship opened up and I'd apply for it. Do you think that makes a difference when you a statement to myself that if I didn't get principal this time I'd never apply again. And it opened. See, but that's, see but then I have something else that's different. Do you think that makes a difference when you're asked? I think it definitely makes a difference because I think you have somebody evidently who now looking at the ah, you as an individual saying, "hey, Ray, Ray should be given a chance". And I think that's what happened. I was asked to apply and I did and I got it. I didn't get what I asked for. See. I got special ed which I never had any idea I was going to get. I applied for elementary. Principal? - And you got a different job than you applied for? Yeah, oh yeah. I got special ed. How did that happen? That you applied for principalship of an elementary school, interviewed for it. Interviewed for it and they, and they ended up switching the principal of the special ed over to the school I applied for and gave me his job. So that's the way it goes. See, you never know. See, and I didn't ask for that. But another thing that's interesting is that that is the reason why I had so many areas on my accreditation from the state of Virginia is that every time that I fell into something like this, ah, then I'd have to go back and study. Most of the time it wasn't because I had all the preliminary stuff ahead of time. Like my counseling, I had to go back and almost get a master's degree in counseling. You became a counselor then you got the education necessary to ..... right ..... that's exactly what I did. I became a principal. Now I had my background in principalship. I had done all that work before 1959. And, ah, and during those periods from 1950 to 1959 I was, a lot of it I was working on my master's degree. I got my master's degree in 1959 because I was told that you won't stand much of a chance at getting a principalship unless you have a master's degree. So it took me to 1959. Raising a family and going to school and working three jobs. Trying to keep family going because I believed that my wife should be home with the kids. And, ah, that was the thing.
Q: What advice would you give to a person considering an administrative position?
A: I would say just like any other thing count the cost involved. I think you have to know how much you can take as far as an attitude. Ah, your attitude, your patience. Ah, you also have to have a love of the job. I still believe that teachers have to have a love of teaching. Ah, if it doesn't you're never going to be a good teacher. Ah, you have to love kids. I had a counselor once, a number of years ago, ah, that ah, said ah, "I hate kids". That's the reason I got her out of the classroom. Anyhow I began to think to myself, he hates kids, and yet he's a counselor. Ah, that's a bad, that's a bad thought. If you love kids then no matter what station whether you're going to be a teacher, whether you're going to be a counselor, whether you're going to be a principal, the key is that you have to learn how to love people.
Q: What do you have to love most if you're going to be an administrator? What do you love about ... I mean I can understand ...
A: One of the things that you have to love ... you have to love a lot of meetings. The ah, I found that that was one of the tough areas because my meetings always took me away from home. Ah, I was not making enough money in Arlington County to survive in Arlington County as far as a home. I didn't make enough money to be classified as being able to buy an Arlington County home. So consequently I never ... and of course that was one of the things that really was tough on me because ... and on my family because anytime that I was up here for night meetings I was up here. I couldn't go home and come back it was just too far to travel. By the time you take two hours or more out of your time going home and back it wasn't worth it. So your children suffered. Your wife suffered. So I think as a principal you've gotta be willing to give of the time. A lot of people say, "well I'll get somebody else to do it". In an elementary school when you're a principal there are not that many people ... sure in Jr. High School you might have three Jr. High School assistant principals that ah, could share the load of a certain night their there and a certain other night the other is there for the school to be open. But when the school was open, my school, I was there. Even though it was a community project and the community basically was responsible for it - I felt I was responsible for my school and I'd be there. So we have to say that you have to love kids, you gotta love disagreeable parents, at times, you gotta love the time that you spend in your school. If you don't you might as well forget it. If you're not willing to do those things.
Q: What suggestions would you offer universities to better prepare candidates for the principalships?
A: I think that the biggest thing is that you have to have good close work. You have to have skills in paperwork and writing skills, cause this is very important in a principalship. The new principalships have to be dealing with new technology especially in the use of computers. You have to also be an instructional leadership so you have to have a good wide variety of background as far as course work and a strong human relations skill.
Q: Is there anything that I should have asked you that I didn't?
A: I can't think of any, I think we've covered quite a bit.
Q: Thank you so much for your interview. We appreciate this very much Mr. Tolson.
A: Thank you.
| Back to "T" Interviews | Index of Interviews | Protocol | Home |