Intervirw with Al Taylor


It's Thursday, February 4th, 1993, and this is an interview with Mr. Al Taylor, former elementary principal in Boardman at Stadium Drive elementary school.

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Q: Mr. Taylor, to begin, would you tell us a little bit about your family background, childhood interests, and the ... your development -birthplace, for example, elementary, secondary school, family characteristics, that type of thing?

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

A: Well I was born in New Castle, Pennsylvania, went to kindergarten there. We moved to Youngstown and I had my entire public school experience in the Youngstown system. We lived on the South side. I went to the different schools ... ah ... Hillman, Delason Elementary, Princeton Jr. High School and graduated at South High School. My family was ... I was an only child and my mother was from ... ah ... my parents were both from farm backgrounds, my mother from 45 miles north of Youngstown, my father from 125 miles south of Youngstown.

Q: Could you discuss a little bit of your college background, your education and preparation for entering the teaching field and also a little bit about your years as a teacher - how many years for example you served as a teacher and then your preparation as a principal and how many years you served as a principal?

A: I started my college education in pre-medicine. I ... ah ... went into the Navy after two years of college. I had actually been in medical school but felt ill prepared with only 21 months of college, came back and worked into education - found it perhaps better suited for me and finished at Youngstown College where I had started, then went to University of Pittsburgh where I took my graduate degree in Education and Administration and then continued after that at Kent, Western Reserve, further studies at the University of Pittsburgh, all ... and some in the University of Akron, too. So I took ... extra work but not clear to the Doctorate level.

Q: How many years did you serve as a teacher and where was that work done and also as a principal?

A: I started my professional experience at Unity Local Schools near East Palestine ... small community ... most of the children - all you could say - but one or two were bused in from the farm community. I taught the sixth grade homeroom but also had fifth, seventh, and eighth grade students in other subjects. The second year of my experience I moved into the Boardman system and completed my whole experience in the Boardman system. I taught for five and a half years in the Boardman system and became a principal in 19 ... January, 1954, was a principal at the Center Elementary School for a year and a half, then at the fall of 1955 we opened Stadium Drive elementary school and I served there as the principal until the summer of 1985, just 30 years.

Q: Could you discuss those experiences or events in your life that constituted important decision points in your career and how you feel about them now? For example, you mentioned being in pre-med and switching out of that, being in the Navy and so forth. There's some other things that affected you into going into the teaching?

A: Actually it was a strange experience that ah ... caused me to leave another college. I was in the bad housing situation and the administration there refused to correct it in any way so I withdrew and came back to Youngstown College as it was then known as, now Youngstown State and ... ah ... they knew me and admitted me late, well it was October and I started in and ... ah ... perhaps persuaded a little bit by the Dean of the college and ... ah ... my father who was very much pro-education to try a few years in education and then see if I really wanted to go into medicine. I never left education.

Q: As a principal and the instructional leader for your building, could you take us on a walk through your building and describe the organizational nature of it, its' appearance and any other distinguishing features that you think enhanced your organization.

A: The school where I served was a brand new and somewhat unique design in a building called a modified campus pattern. The various grades were in separate wings all joined together under one big roof with an auditorium/cafeteria in the center. At the outset, each of those wings was to house a grade but of course we know as years go on and enrollments change, it doesn't work out quite that easily. The building was the largest at the time in the system -22 rooms. We started out with ... it was designed to hold 700 pupils, including kindergarten. We ended up at one time with 10 hundred twelve in that plus a two room portable plus five rooms rented at the adjacent church next door. That was before our system opened a separate new building which allowed us to relax our limits somewhat.

Q: As a principal, what techniques did you use personally to create a successful learning climate in your building? Could you describe successful and any unsuccessful experiences in ... ah ... climate building that you were involved in as a principal?

A: I believe that the staff should be kept informed immediately of anything that is announced or required by the front office administration and I believe too that one of the best ways to keep the staff in harmony is to have round table type meetings often - no more frequently than necessary because we're all very, very busy. Sometimes if something came across my desk, I would call a short meeting right after the children were dismissed in the afternoon, perhaps for ten minutes so the staff knew about it as quickly as any part of the school staff in the system. We would sit down to discuss things and sometimes I was surprised. I was frequently surprised how long they would want to sit and talk about things that they had opinions on which I was happy to hear.

Q: In the same vein, with the same question, did it become any more difficult from when you first became a principal in 1954 than when you retired in 1985 being that we had during that time a rise in unionism, a school strike, contract limitations, and that type of thing. Did these somewhat constrain what you were able to do as far as to build a closely knit organization and keep teachers well informed and so forth?

A: No, I don't think there was anything in those years ... um ... we ... ah ... were not really in an antagonistic relationship. I felt ... ah ... sorry let's say about my staff being out on the picket line. I felt that ... ah ... many of them really didn't have their heart in it. It was bad weather ... ah ... unfortunately, there was some illness as a result of it. Um ... they knew that I was not opposing them. I didn't agree with the strike. I felt it could have been handled in a better way. I didn't ... I felt that it didn't do the Boardman school system any good to have that strike. It kind of lowered the esteem in which we were held as professionals I felt - perhaps not. Because we are in a strong union valley, a strong union area here in Youngstown but when we came back in after the strike we had a ... ah ... homecoming party that morning and it was all over and we went back to work as though nothing had happened.

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

A: My approach to leadership was to do everything I could to make it easier for the teacher in the classroom to fulfill his or her responsibilities. If there is anything happened over the years of my professional experience, it's the paper work that has increased ... uh some of it I would not hesitate to say was useless ... uh ... didn't add anything to the benefit of the child in the classroom. If I could somehow keep that paperwork down and let the teacher teach, I was happy. If I found something that had to be required of them, I tried to simplify it as much as possible and let them get back to work as an educator, as educators.

Q: If, OK, I'll ask this question, if you were trying to promote some innovation that you felt strongly about, how would you go about promoting that innovation? For example if you were going from self contained classrooms into more of a specialist type of a situation where you had different teachers teaching language arts, science, math, that type of department elevation uh, how would you go about trying to get your innovation across to the teachers?

A: Again, I think I would go to the round table sort of ... ah ... discussion. I might start with fewer than the full number of staff members. I saw something work very well in years past. We were one of the few elementary schools - one of the first in this area - to go into the North Central Evaluation System and for a good part of a school year as we went in to that system, we would meet in my office or six or eight of my staff members and I would meet once a week and then those individuals would go back and meet with an equal number - oh not an equal number - a number of their ... ah ... fellow educators during the week and share their experiences and share their ideas and then we would bring them together and did a really professional job of evaluating what we had been doing and I think that was a way to go - not to dump some idea that I had on them but to sound out what their feelings were.

Q: And that's since been dropped since you left.

A: It has been dropped.

Q: Do you feel that self evaluation would be something that we could all benefit from?

A: Indeed, I do. I saw the benefit of it. I think they were very, very ... ah ... conscientious about what they were doing in that self evaluation and I think the benefits were practically limitless.

Q: And, as you say, it's a good way of getting new ideas ... ah ... introduced to the staff.

A: Yes, indeed it is.

Q: There are those who argue that more often than not Central Office Policies hinder rather than help building level administrators in carrying out their responsibilities. Would you give your views on this issue? If you were king, for example, what changes would you make in the typical system-wide organizational arrangements as a way of improving administrative efficiency and effectiveness? You kind of touched on this a little bit ... you were saying before that you felt that some of the paperwork was unnecessary and that ... ah ... Central Office dictates, you felt that you had to enforce those but ... ah ... just give me your reflections on that.

A: I'm not certain that the Central Office was responsible for many of the things that came down to us. The State and the Federal Government today has so many regulations and policies and programs which ... ah ... are not necessarily something that is of value. We don't ... ah ... we want ideas. I'm sure the educator wants ideas but some of it boils down to nothing but paperwork and making reports and again the individual teachers working in a group can accomplish much more than something mandated by the state of Ohio or the Federal Government. We saw things that were useless. Somebody had concocted an idea, something that had to be done. We had to do it. Much of it, I felt, was a waste of time.

Q: There are those who argue that the principal should be an instructional leader and those who suggest that realistically speaking this person must be above all a good manager. Could you give your views on this issue and describe your own style?

A: Well, I think a person had to be an on hands leader. I think the best way is to be visible in the rooms in the school so that you can be found if the teacher has a problem, if the teacher wants help, if the child wants to come to you, you can be found. I'm not saying that all principals aren't that way, I'm simply saying that you have to be available at all times, whether it's early in the morning or after hours or be ready to talk on the phone if someone wants to call and make that availability known to everyone.

Q: This is a, I think a very important question something that ... ah ... many schools today lack. Uh ... it deals with the ... ah ... parents support, the home support of the schools and the question is ... It has been said that there is a home-school gap in that more parental involvement in the school needs to be developed. Would you give your view on this issue and describe how you interacted with the parents in your building and with the citizens who were important to the well-being of the school, because the school families only number about 25% these days and the rest of the community is important also.

A: We had the finest parent relationship which I think could be found anywhere. Maybe it started through the overall umbrella of the PTA, I'm sure it did. But the PTA worked hand in glove with the administration and with the teachers. There was no differentiation between the teachers and the administration. We had volunteer services ... a lot more available sometimes than we could even use. The PTA did much of the organization but we had parents in - welcoming the opportunity to help individual children, to do any of the services that we asked them to do. I sometimes felt that I was losing track of who was on the staff as a hired member of the staff, as a teacher or counselor, and the PTA because the PTA was that much a part of the building. That is the parents in the PTA, the parents and the volunteer groups were almost as frequently in the building as ... ah ... some of the staff.

Q: Did you have any special way or did you at all try to reach out to other segments of the community ... ah ... non parents or people of the community who did not have school age children?

A: Actually the Board of Education and the front office staff made that their responsibility. We didn't have too many responsibilities as far as reaching out to the community except when we did a - an all community canvas one time for we were just one of the schools, all of the schools participated and the whole community was canvassed to promote the passage of one of the school issues. The Board and the Superintendent and the Assistants were usually very much ... ah ... on deck and ready to perform when it came to meeting with civic groups, business associations, ministerial associations - to present the school problems to the public in general. We may have been asked on occasion to participate in those meetings but generally that was taken off our shoulders. Not that we wouldn't have been willing.

Q: In your time as a principal, you worked with a number of different superintendents. Could you describe generally your relationship with the Superintendent in terms of his or her general demeanor toward your school?

A: I think it was a very friendly - it's more than that. When a superintendent gives you the responsibility of a school, I think he must trust pretty well what you can do. I think you understand each other, he must have some trust in you in and we had principals meetings periodically in the superintendents' office usually once a month but more often on call and we were always available to the Superintendent if there was some question or some problem. Very seldom did any problem arise, but if there was some question a phone call did it.

Q: A similar question ... could you discuss your general relationship - pro and con - with the Board of Education and comment on the effectiveness of the Board in terms of your operation in your building.

A: In the Boardman system, generally the Board Members, I'd say almost entirely, all the years that I saw there was very little direct contact with the school principal until the last ten years of my experience or maybe ten or twelve. The contacts were all through the Superintendent's office. The Board cut the policy and the Superintendent administered it. On occasion, very rarely, did I ever see a Board member in the building where I served unless he would pop in for a question or need some clarification and in that sense he did not circumvent the Superintendent. Of course I had Board members who were parents of children in the school where I served and I would see them as parents not as Board members. One time I think ... ah ... a Board member who did not have children in the school, I say as my school, came in to ask what we talking about on such a thing as doing some blacktop paving. He wasn't that familiar with the grounds at Stadium Drive School and all he was asking is what we were thinking about as far as the extent of that paving. He wasn't asking me for my opinions or he wasn't asking me for my stand on the question. He just wanted to familiarize himself and he was gone in a few minutes. I was not put on the spot. He did not intend to. As I say, the Board of Education at Boardman has always been, by and large, very professional in that they cut the policy and the Superintendent has administered it with his assistants and of course we're second level to him.

Q: It's been said that the curriculum has become more complex in recent years. We keep getting state mandates, you must teach for example at the high school level sex education, must inform students about the hazards of AIDS, of smoking and so forth of education. Ah ... would you comment on the nature of curriculum during the time that you were principal and compare it to the situation in today's schools citing positive and negative aspects of the situation then and now. Since you're career spanned three decades you saw quite a few innovations come and go through the years.

A: Many of the things that were started ... Let's go back. It was a rather simple curriculum to begin with. Um ... subject matter - of course we're talking the basics of an elementary school. As years went on more and more programs were necessary. I think we all recognized some of those things and generally teachers were able with their expertise to insert in the program without much cost time-wise or in money expense. I know the one thing that we often thought about some and I think this is generally true ... sometimes when the state started a program they underwrote the cost. Then the program got underway and it was to be completed or continued over the years but somehow the funding disappeared and the local Boards were forced to pick up the costs. Now we didn't have too many exorbitant costs in the elementary. Most of the programs were, could be done for minimal cost or through volunteers or through donated materials but I suspect some of the things today are costly and so many minutes or so many days or so many periods of time are mandated and you have to fit it in some way to the best of your ability and that plus time to accomplish all the things that are required of the regular curriculum can be difficult.

Q: A very simple but important question - Could you describe what you consider the key to your success as principal, what made you effective?

A: I had a wonderful staff. Very simply. No, we had a professional staff that worked as a team - as they called it, we were a family and we were involved in things together. We worked for the common good. Children were handled with care. When there was a special need it was met. I think you should look at a school and the children like a physician or a therapist looks at his patients. He takes care of the needs of those individuals ... not as a group. And we had a staff at Stadium Drive School that was truly top shelf. Most of them are still there - I regret that I am not.

Q: They're still doing quite well. A good building. This is related to that question. You mentioned you had a great staff, very professional. You referred to them as a family, as a team and this question addresses that and that is ... Could you tell us your views on forms of team teaching and ah ... I don't know if you had team teaching in your building at all ... ah ... but ah ... how did you prepare your staff to successfully integrate a new teaching format such as team teaching?

A: Team teaching can be defined differently, different ways. If there was a case in our school, for example, of one teacher that felt a particular weakness in one area and a strength in another; she might volunteer to take the strong side of her personality and see if one the neighboring teachers would take the other area to handle. Now when they ... there was some team teaching in those double classroom situations where two or three classrooms would work together and the two or three would all work in harmony with each other. I think that was beneficial too. Um ... it made for variety, it made for creating interest, it got the children excited about some of the things that they were studying. Otherwise it might have been an uphill fight for one person to do it but it's like the entertainment world today, you have to have variety and I think that's how sometimes the team teaching worked out the best.

Q: Did you become directly involved with the planning and organizing when there was team teaching?

A: Very little. Very little. Only to talk it over with them and perhaps share ideas about it. If someone wanted to do that ... ah ... I thought it was very professional and if they could do it without um ... losing ... um ... losing or leaving the track of what they were to accomplish there would be no reason why they shouldn't.

Q: Sticking with the topic of team, you built a team and a family at Stadium Drive and many of those teachers are still there today. What techniques -you mentioned that you collaborated with the teachers in help meetings quite often but I would imagine there are other key things that you did in order to build a team - for example, your interviewing process for when you hired new teachers, you probably were looking for certain traits in a teacher. Can you tell me a little bit about your team building methods at Stadium Drive?

A: Actually interviewing became more important in the later years of my professional experience. When I started the staff was pretty well set for me. The staff was hired ... uh ... I was perhaps too busy to do much interviewing although the interviews weren't that lengthy but when I walked into Stadium Drive we started that building kind of abruptly. The contractor wasn't finished with the building and we actually started school on folding chairs and packing cases and folding tables until we got the furniture in from a supplier in Texas and that summer was a hectic summer forcing the contractor to finish the building on the orders of the Board of Education. Getting in, actually I was presented with a prize staff from ... ah ... from the older building were they had generally been brought over and had served with me there and ah ... some of those staff and additional staff members and I was given a prize staff to begin with so we had a great team.

Q: So the organization started off right and it ... kind of set itself, self perpetuated ...

A: It perpetuated itself for years and it started ... I think the Superintendent at that time, Mr. Nisonger, ah ... had a sense of what was needed and chose staff members well.

Q: Do you think ... you mentioned earlier in the interview that the layout of the building was such that grades were on different wings. Do you think the building organization itself (physical organization) somewhat lent itself toward cohesiveness in communication between grade levels or within a grade level?

A: To a degree but on the contrary when the numbers of rooms you needed for a certain grade didn't fit the wings. I think the straight line hallways are the best building plan. Perhaps they are more expensive but not that much more. Our building was built on this modified campus plan, as it was called, simply to save money and we did get the most for the dollar of any building ever built in the system but it was awkward to handle when you needed say five rooms in one grade and the wing only held four rooms.

Q: So you're saying ...

A: So that one teacher might be moved up the hallway into a ... and the building was on three different levels which was another problem. I believe in a flat level one level perhaps long hallways ah ... double loaded hallways if you please so that you can concentrate a number of rooms in a certain area.

Q: You're saying actually that your building pattern that you had at Stadium Drive Elementary School may have in later years taken away from the communication within a grade level and by isolating somewhat ...

A: We learned to live with it. If we hadn't had a superb staff of professional, professionals in that building it could have been a problem and I don't think after seeing it that the Board of Education would have done it again. I think the attitude would have been, we won't do this again.

Q: A lot of times the dollar dictates though unfortunately.

A: I say I think ... I mean we got the most for the dollar of any building ever built in Boardman, any of the new buildings.

Q: What is your view on mentoring programs for new administrators in which an experienced administrator is paired with a neophyte? What experiences have you had with such an approach and was there a mentor for you in your life?

A: Not really. When I came into the administration I had been a sixth grade classroom teacher and my administrative duties started midyear when one of the other buildings was completed. It was scheduled to be completed in the previous summer but a steel strike held up delivery of some of the materials so that building was not completed until Christmas time that year and at the semester the new buildings' staff was a part of our staff and the principal was my principal. In January one morning everybody came to school, midmorning the buses came back and everybody going to the new school picked up his books, trooped out onto the buses and went to the new building and came home that night from a new school leaving us half the building, half the staff, all within the old building. Mentoring, not really.

Q: No one took you under their wing when, when ...

A: Only the fact that I had had two good friends or three ah ... the junior high principal served in the adjacent part of the building - in the same building - in the old Center building. He and I were friends as had were the ... the man I had previously served under in another building and the man that I served under ... I came back to the building to take over in the summertime but the building wasn't ready so I was a teacher that fall - a regular sixth grade class, and when the school split in January, I moved up to a vacant classroom catty-cornered from the office and I became a teaching principal.

Q: You taught and ... .

A: So I ran - I taught, and then would run across to the office for a few minutes and then go back and I had a wonderful group of kids that could be trusted and must have taken pity on me if I had to be out of the room for five minutes.

Q: Maybe your reputation ...

A: That got on TV ... ah radio.

Q: I admit this is a question for me. I'm curious about this. You started out you say as part teacher, part principal. Do you think, and I realize today there are a lot more responsibilities for principals - there's state requirements as far as the paperwork and that type of thing ah ... do you think it would be beneficial to principals - so that they stay in touch with the classroom and with teaching - to have part time teachers, part time principals, the same situation that you started under, today?

A: I really don't know how you could organize that in the elementary school. Perhaps you could do that in the middle school or junior or high school but I don't think you could do that very well except for special situations ...

Q: To continue, Mr. Taylor, principals operate in that constantly tense environment. What kind of things do you do - or did you do - should I say ... to maintain your sanity under the stressful conditions that you encountered?

A: The most stressful part of the job, and it may have been my own inefficiency, was all the paperwork that was required. As I say, it could have been my own inefficiency as far as getting things done. The paperwork that's required for reports, for testing ... some of that can be handled though by a very capable secretary and I had several very capable secretaries. The secretary can take a lot off a principal's shoulders and let him go back to being what he is supposed to be. It's again being available to everybody as much as possible, I think is important. I think too that you can plan ... if I were to do it over, I would plan my days ... you can't really plan them because you don't know what's going to happen the next minute but I would limit my hours on task. I might start ... I don't think any building principal can finish his work say 8 to 4. I used to spend many an evening, many a Saturday, and many a Sunday afternoon in my office. That I feel now was foolish. I think a person should learn to eliminate a lot of the things that have to be done. I think it was a desire to do the job well that you would spend so much time at it and some of the things that I spent so much time I can see now were not that important and I think it's important to have some recreational time for yourself.

Q: You're saying that if you had it to do over again you wouldn't put in the Saturdays and Sundays?

A: I would certainly take off Sundays. I might spend part of Saturday in the office if I felt it were necessary. But again, the only time in the profession that I ever felt that I was finished was when everything was finished and closed for the summer and that was only for four weeks and we kept popping back into the buildings during that four week summer vacation to check on the mail and shipments or anything else that might need our attention.

Q: Since you have had some time to reflect on your career, you've been retired now for eight years, I wonder if you would share with us what you consider to be your administrative strengths and weaknesses. If you have any weaknesses, that is.

A: I'm sure there are weaknesses. I think my greatest strength was the desire to have that team relationship throughout the staff. I think they appreciated it. We had a lot of business transacted successfully as a result of it. I think that teachers felt as a whole that theirs was the whole schools' reputation. They were responsible for the whole schools' reputation. We were involved socially too. We had different events where the whole staff was involved, not always instigated by the principal but sometimes by individual staff members. Now maybe you can't do that with a bigger staff but we had frequent social activities inside and outside the building. Sometimes um ... we would even have social events in the summer that involved just the administrators at the school, maybe a luncheon, something of that nature. In the winter we would have get togethers or dinners and have hundred percent or nearly a hundred percent attendance. Weaknesses, I'd have to ask somebody who observed me.

Q: Could you discuss the circumstances leading up to your decision to retire at that time, giving your reasons, the mental processes you exercised in reaching the conclusion to step down. Do you miss it at all?

A: Oh I still miss it. It took a long time for me to get used to not getting up and going to school in the morning and I mean a long time - several years. I couldn't go back now, there are too many new things that have happened - I would have to be retrained. But I really regretted the decision. I felt that after thirty-eight years in the profession that maybe I should learn to do something else. I'm not sure of that now.

Q: And the final question ... I've tried to hit on a number of different areas and my best efforts in this quest to comprehensively find out about your leadership style and so forth there might be some things that I've left out. Is there something in particular that you think that I've left out that you can add to this interview and once again as far as you as a leader of your building and so forth?

A: I can't think of a thing that ah ... has been omitted. I don't know that there's been any ah ... unique thing that any other building principal wouldn't do. I think the thing that makes for the success of a school and I don't mean a success as far as the school itself is concerned but as a service that is being rendered by the school, is a completely open door policy for the public and the staff. I've had many a person walk in the morning without an appointment which I didn't expect anyhow ask to see me and unless I had some other commitment such as a meeting with the Superintendent within the next few minutes, I was available to them. That would be either for staff or for the public in general.

Q: So you were always accessible.

A: I was accessible. Not very often was my office door closed. If anybody ever closed it, it was because someone wanted something kept confidential. They might come in and close the door behind them or if I felt that it should be kept confidential, I would step over and close the door. Although I felt that we were not being listened to in my office, I felt that we had privacy anyhow.

Q: Well, you've been very informative. I know a lot more you personally and about the school system -history of the school system - now than I knew prior to this interview. I appreciate your time and your generosity in this past hour of giving me this interview.

A: Glad to do it.

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