Interview with Margaret Thompson

March 29th, 2000

The home of Mrs. Thompson.

| Back to T Interviews | Index of Interviews | Protocol | Home |


Q: will you begin by telling us about your family background, childhood interest, birthplace and so forth?

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

A: I was born in Roanoke, Virginia and the first child of six and during my childhood, as a child they tell me I took care of my toys and particularly my dolls, and I use to set them up like a classroom and with a blackboard that could be converted to a desk, I called myself teaching. I spanked my dolls legs when they misbehaved, but they say I started out in that way. It looked like I was geared to be a teacher and in class because of the fact that my godmother and my mother use to read to me a lot, my mother kind of slacked up on me when the other children came along., but I was able to tell bible stories and what do you call those stories you tell about Cinderella and all those things, well anyway My teachers use to call on me in school between classes and what have you when I was in primary school, to relate those stories and I use to be called to the front of the room and that gave me exposure to a whole classroom, and I went to private kindergarten and then into first grade all in Roanoke City.

Q: Which high school did you graduated from?

A: The one, the mighty Lucy Addison High School, I was salutatorian of my class.

Q: How about college? Where did you do your undergraduate work?

A: To Virginia State College in Petersburg, majoring in Economics, no I was going to be a social worker but, during the beginning of my sophomore year I was still prone to be a teacher so I changed major to elementary education.

Q: Discuss your college education and your preparation for entering the field of teaching, what prompted you into becoming a teacher?

A: Well that was always in my mind. And I had a job on campus for awhile at the elementary school in which the professors children attended on campus and I worked in that school for awhile and I was impressed and liked the idea of imparting knowledge to others. But the children that were in that school came from middle class families and they were bright and achieved a lot I will say that. But when I did my practice teaching I had to move off campus and I was in a inner city school which gave me another look into education, and those children had needs.

Q: How many years did you serve as a teacher and as a principal?

A: I was teacher for twenty seven years. I graduated and came right back home to Roanoke and I was a principal ten.

Q: Would you talk about the circumstances surrounding your entry into the principalship?

A: Well, I think I was a little late in I was interested but I was taking my time acquiring the certification to be a principal. I was asked by the superintendent. The superintendent asked me was I interested and I told him I was. So they quickly told me to become certified and I went right in as assistant principal.

Q: How many years did you as an assistant principal?

A: One year, and between two schools and it was a job because I had to do double duty, I mean two PTA meetings a month. Both principals put me in charge of programs that were being held at the school. Both principals gave me more than half of their staff to evaluate and it was a job.

Q: Did you serve as principal in one building when you became principal?

A: In one building and that is all I would have been able to do with the school I was given.

Q: What was the name of that school?

A: It was Northwest Elementary School, a school that was ninety-eight percent Black American and the federal government did not even include that school in their plans for integration, but the superintendent kept it as a challenge and it was.

Q: Kind of walk us through the building that you were principal of and give a feel of what it is was like.

A: Yes, when I grew up in Roanoke it was Monroe Junior High School for white students only. After integration, they integrated that same school for blacks and whites and then eventually they closed it as Junior High School and it was a elementary school. So it was basically built for students that would be in Junior High School and it had its advantages because it had a full size auditorium and it had a full size gym, which most elementary schools did not have. Of course it was not air-conditioned and as time went on look like it became extremely hot during the warm months, so they put in air conditioning here and there and now and then.

Q: Describe your personal philosophy of education.

A: I personally believe deep within my heart and when I attended a workshop that was held at Virginia Tech when I became a principal, the person that was in charge of that class said that he had meet no one that had a higher respect for education than I have. For one reason being a black American youth that came from a hard working family, lower class family, I realize that was the key to moving ahead in life. It opens opportunities that are not opened without education. I certainly do treasure education. I witnessed and experienced what it can do for you, and that was my greatest goal was to see that other underprivileged children would learn that and use that as a tool to enjoy a comfortable life.

Q: On the lines of philosophy, what was the instructional philosophy of your school when you were principal?

A: As far as team efforts on the teachers, I did believe in that, and for one reason the school had a high percentage of Caucasian staff. Many of them were relatively young. Many of them had no experience with lower income blacks, so there needs to be collaboration among staff members to meet the needs of those children. Because the needs were very, well, there were many of them, they needed help and they needed good teachers, but sometimes It look like they don’t realize it but sometimes the better teachers are in schools where the need is not as prevalent as in inner city situation.

Q: Everyone has their own management style or how they operate was there anything in your life professionally that influenced your management style or your philosophy as far as managing your school?

A: Sometimes it is a built in character within the person. I am one who believes in being serious about the material that is to be attained. However I do not believe in being a dictator, a stanch person that makes the employees uncomfortable when that is where they are going to spend the major part of their day is on their jobs. If they are in fear because of a leader that is too strict and stern, that makes them uncomfortable. The same thing applies to the children, I believe in putting my foot down and being stern, but do it in a way that they appreciate you. And I am one that enjoys a good laugh and I think a laugh a day, a good one for the staff and the students really helps them to appreciate what you are doing. And I think also it is important for good PR for the community, that same personality when they walk in your office, if they can see if the parents or the people in the community feel they are welcomed by this person. I have seen very angry parents walk in but when they left they shook my hand and said it was a pleasure I would be willing to work with you, and that’s true and they went on to say it’s because it’s your personality. You can’t be like a pit bull and get things always solved.

Q: So you are saying that the climate and tone of the school is set by the principal?

A: Yes, I believe that.

Q: What kind of things do teachers expect principals to be able to do?

A: Well I found that they felt like, they look up to you to have the answer for everything, everything, in fact everybody in that school, including the custodian. They all depend on that principal. And sometimes I found that even though you may not know the answer, you never really let them know that you don’t know, and you might end it by saying we will explore this together.

Q: Cultural diversity is a topic of great interest and concern at this point in time, would you comment on the problems, challenges and triumphs which principals are faced with when dealing with cultural diversity today?

A: Well, I am going to say I am a baptized witness because I was there during this transition of integration into the classroom and I am not one that lies, it was a challenge for the white teachers as well as the African-American teachers. I developed the attitude at that age then. I felt like a child was a child, there were no problems of cause when they first integrated. I do know there were white teachers who were very apprehensive about teaching black students, and they made such remarks as they are so nice and clean. These students has always been nice and clean, but some parents did not want their children to be taught by the black teachers, they went to the office and kind of requested, almost demanded but the principal could not really do that. And the next year those same parents were in the office asking for the black teachers, because they realize they were good teachers. And far as the children are concerned I have always looked at them as being children and never treated one any better than the other. I told the truth when it came to history and what have you. The white students appreciated it and so did the blacks. I never left anything out because it might hurt somebody’s feelings as far as history is concern, because history is history.

Q: Curriculum is such a complex issue in schools today, what would you comment on as far as the nature of curriculum during your time as principal compared today’s curriculum?

A: There has been so many programs introduced to make education better for the students, however there seem to be more problems to me today. Reading to me was the most important of all subject matter. We meet the children’s needs, I started teaching in 1959, we placed them in-groups according to their abilities, and we had full cooperation of the parents. We did not have many problems with test scores seemingly as they do today. There was more of a human touch to helping the children learn. There are some things that I see that have gradually come in that I wish they would have even when I was a child in school and I use to advocate this and finally put it in. Budgeting and teaching children about finances beginning in elementary school, because so many people, so many kids do not hail form homes where there are bank accounts or know about savings, know about gaining interest on money that you save if they have any to save. But there is something that they get into their minds as elementary children as they grow older they will see the importance of it, the point that when you borrow money you have to pay back a little extra because of the privilege of being able to borrow. I am saying this because there are people like me who with a master’s degree plus who still don’t know how to manage that money and all, and I think it should begin in elementary school. Learn how to read, if you can read you can just about do all of the other subjects. Then learn about one of the main things in life, getting that money in your pocket.

Q: Standardized testing in schools today, do you feel as though standardized testing improve instruction or hinder instruction, what is your view on standardized testing?

A: I think there should be a method of measuring how much someone has learned. I think it is important to know the success that a child is making in school however it should not be the last determining factor because though my experience I have a found that some of your best students do not test well. Some people are good guesses, and I can go as far as my youngest sister who I taught in the fifth grade myself. But all though school, when she graduated from PH she wanted to go to Howard University and her SAT scores were high but not quite high enough and see we knew that she just fail apart when she took test. When she graduated she graduated from PH with honors. We went to Howard; I went to Howard to the registrar and explained that, and the man said OK we are going to let her in. She graduated in four years with honors. That was proof to me, my family so use her as a example that you could not always go by test scores because in both instances she graduated with honors and got a full scholarship to get her masters degree.

Q: As principal, describe a normal workday for you, how did you spend your time? What was the number of hour per week you put in?

A: It could almost be a 24 hour job. There is always something in the back of your mind that needs to be done, first thing is to get there and get the school open, walk around and see if thing are in tack before the students get there. Because, a lot of times the principal and the teachers arrive about same time. Most principals try to get there before the staff gets there. But it begins, it depends on the school that you are in. Since I have retired I have been working on twenty days and I have been working in various schools. Some schools are like walking in heaven, some schools are like walking in hell. As soon as the buses pull up in the job I had the bus drivers started bringing in unruly children that were on the bus. Then you are called maybe to the cafeteria to straighten out something. So the discipline, it depends at this date, it depends on the particular school you are in, discipline starts from the time you get there past the time school is out because you have parents that may call you at home regarding something blab, blab, blab. Then you have to not only be the manager of the school, you got to be the instructional leader, and you have to observe and it might not be a formal observation but you should know what the teachers are doing. Then there are teachers sometimes that may display behavior like kids that you may have to straighten out things. Cafeteria, we’ve had problems with the manager of the cafeteria and her worker that’s brought to the attention of the principal. All the problems with the custodial staff are brought to the principal. The principal should be aware of materials they use to clean or when it is running out, are all the places in tiptop shape. Instructional materials, finances, that is the big boy, that is a very important, knowing how to work the budget for your school according to the moneys that are available to you. Making report monthly, now that is so important that you could be fired if the moneys don’t tally out. Not that you are stealing but if they are not right, that is a big boy. The principal is just responsible for everything and the programs in the community and the people in the community expect that principal to be able to speak at their churches, or lead workshops, I have even visited the daycare centers that fed my school to see what was going on , if we could cooperate or collaborate on the avenues that these children will be taking when they nursery school and then on up. So it is a community thing and people in the communities respect principals if they allow themselves to be respected, they really do.

Q: With all the pressures on a daily basis that you mentioned, what was probably the biggest headache that you had as a principal on a daily basis?

A: (240) In my situation I believe it was discipline of the school. I think that was the biggest headache, and second once a month the finances of those books. In fact the principal is suppose to look over finances, they sign everything involving the money, but if you didn’t have any courses in bookkeeping, that could pose a problem, because most principals haven’t. But discipline, if things are nice and smooth and orderly, because it’s not that you want to always punish a child or what have you, but you are concern why some students behave as they do. What can you do to help solve that child’s problem because an unruly child can upset the entirely, not only one class, they can upset the whole school.

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

A: Mark I am going to tell you the truth , it had a lot to do with my personality. I really do think, you know most of the teachers to me a all felt comfortable, they knew what I expected and they tried to deliver, but it is my personality. I can’t help it I smile, as I said previously, the parents have approach me today and said they were sorry I left the situation. The students, I could deal with those children, I really could, there were some problems I had difficulty with but, growing up black girl and from a hard working family, I understood where some of these children are coming from. Of course when I was growing up, the problems weren’t as serious because in high school we wouldn’t dare do some of the things the kids are doing in elementary school today. But of course most of us then came from two parent homes which had a lot to do with it and this a modern day which if they don’t check it I don’t know what’s going to become of this world.

Q: With the growing need for new leadership in our schools, and the many things principals’ face when get into these schools as new principals, do you feel there should be some form of a mentoring program? How do you feel about mentoring programs for new principals?

A: Hopefully, if they have taught, they have already observed some good characteristics of good principals, But I think they should have a little experience working with someone who has had the experience and someone that is suppose to be a pretty good principal. And I think they should have some good background in having taught students. I don’t see a person not having the experience of teaching jumping right into being an administrator. As a principal now, in some other administrative capacity, but a principal needs to have some background in teaching.

Q: Give your view on the gap between home, school and parental involvement, what is you view on parental involvement in schools today?

A: I think it is very important, one thing a parent that shows genuine interest in their child has that teacher on her toes and the principal too. When they realize that parent is interested and wants the best for his or her child. Some people say it but they bring them the first day and then you don’t see them anymore. I don’t say they need to be in the school every hour but they should try to become involved so they would know what’s going on with their child. I think that, most children who do well are those children whose parents do show interest and become involved. And I know that a lot schools have a lot of trouble today, parents, some parents, the working ones are so busy that sometimes they don’t participate in their child’s education as much as others. Then another problem we have is that some parents are so young, the woman unmarried are so young that they are children themselves, and that poses a big problem for some schools, now that really is a problem. And they are only there when their child is in trouble and I found that today, I found and I am not the only principal that says that. The extremely young mother a lot of times is in defense for their child regardless if they are wrong, they defend the child which poses a problem, they don’t realize what they are doing to their own child.

Q: With the need to improve the quality of our teachers today, what is your approach to teacher evaluation and your philosophy on teacher evaluations?

A: I think it is very important, I really do. We just can’t put somebody in a classroom and never observe what they are doing, because that could be crippling to children when the teachers are not up to par. And that occurs just like some doctors are not the best doctors, some lawyers are not. And we do have some teachers in the system that needs help. And as I was told one time by a supervisor some people are not teacher oriented. They should be told after observation for a couple of years, if they don’t show it they need to find another profession because they are actually crippling our youth who will be the leaders. Yes I think there should be a good measure of evaluation and I am not saying we are always looking for the worst things, sometimes you find that they have some talents that are really good and they themselves can mentor other teachers or what have you.

Q: How would you encourage your subordinates and peers by staging celebration on their successes and to what extent do you as a principal do to improve moral in your building?

A: Well, I use to when I had the time.As I walk through the building, you don’t always have to be sitting in the classroom to know what’s going on, sometimes you can just past the door and glance in. But I use to leave notes, put a note in the teachers box congratulating them or complimenting them for something that I thought, That I observed, that I thought was very important to the school, for the schools programs for the students and encourage them to continue. Sometimes when we had honors day we would even honor the teachers that have done something that we thought was an accomplishment. We should recognize, let them because they are already underpaid, so we can at least give them a word of encouragement.

Q: And you felt that this affected moral?

A: Yes and deed, I knew how I felt when the superintendent would come in and compliment me for something. You know it’s bad to only speak to the teachers or the janitors or anybody when you felt they needed to improve, you should let them know that, but when they do something that’s worthwhile, that helps to enhance the educational program, they need to be complimented or something, recognized.

Q: Some principals believe that teachers and other staff members are in general well-motivated and reliable self-starters. Others feel that they must closely monitor the activities of their employees. What approach did you customarily take on that issue?

A: Well I had a relatively young staff and I did monitor them, not formally like during the times when they were being observed or what have you, but I monitored them, yes all of the time really I was looking. And sometimes they may have had personal problems, and I conveyed to them that they were human, and that they still had a job, but if it was to the point where it was disturbing their performance we could talk about it, and I understood and we tried to work together on it. One time there were three divorces on the staff at one time and they were all women involved and they were low-spirited and they came to the office and we closed the door and talked and I understood. And that gave them I know it did because they would come to me and they would tell me things about their personal life, really I had nothing to do with. But if I could help them and help them feel better, I did that.

Q: How did you go about convincing or inspiring a shared vision with your staff, how did you get them on board to follow the direction you wanted to go as building principal?

A: We had workshops. We had class level meetings, we had sometimes lets say for example I may just talk with the second grade, because there was something that we would want to do, and then sometime we would meet with the second grade, but the class that fed into that the first grade. And we would compare what was being done in the first grade, and what could be improved in the first grade that would help the second grade teachers have a starting point or what have you. And I said we would try it out asking their opinions, and then we would meet to see if it was doing anything or not, weather it should be continued or it should be stopped. I would try to keep up with what was going on but never forget the things that have been done before it worked, because what works for some. For instance I forgotten the name of that reading program that came out, it was the program, I don’t know how I could ever forget it. But it was for children who came from families with I am going to say, educational backgrounds that their children were exposed to books for a long time, they could read better. I kept emphasizing our children needed phonics. They could not attack an unfamiliar word and I kept stressing this so I took it upon myself to be one of the only elementary schools to re-introduce it into the curriculum. Many of the teachers were not taught that in college, the new group, well we had workshops and the administration down at the school building supported our efforts. And when the teachers started to seeing children attacking these words from their efforts, they said you were right, our children are now trying to say unfamiliar words on their own rather than sit there and wait for somebody to tell them. The other reading involved some webbing or something on the board and it takes a very creative teacher to be able to that, and all the teacher weren’t creative, they needed that step by step themselves. But what I am saying was that was my idea and we told the teachers we were going to try it, now the whole system is doing it, the whole Roanoke system is doing what I said then.

Q: Would you discuss the circumstances leading up to your decision to retire? What was your thinking and how did you come to the conclusion to retire?

A: Well Mark, I have always enjoyed education. I mean as far as involving children, working with children but, as time went on coming from a teenager of the fifties when you did what the adults requested of you. When times change and children start coming with behavior like, you can’t tell me what to do and all these types of things and then Health, high blood pressure and becoming a diabetic and stress is not good for either one of those things. Each year to me the principals have more demands on them. I have been in the schools since I retired and I’ve seen the load that has been placed on these principals, educators in general. At my age now I don’t think it is good to have all those demands, so I enjoy doing the twenty days, I can go when I want to, I can stay home when I want to. When I go to the school, I am still expected to be the leader of that school however, I don’t have the paperwork that goes along with it because I am just there in someone’s place. So the retirement business had a lot to do with my peace of mind and my health.

Q: Despite my best efforts to be comprehensive in my questioning, is there anything I left out that you might want to share?

A: Well, I would like to say this Mark, teachers have a lot of respect for principals that have knowledge of, a general knowledge of the curriculum. If you are in elementary school you should know the reader that’s being, or readers that are being used, what levels they should be on. Before the SOL’s , they keep talking about those SOL’s , they had the same thing all my teaching career, but they were not called standards of learning, they were, it was a book put out by the State. Each year if I stayed in one grade level for so many years I knew what suppose to be. But it’s good thing to just look through it, now they weren’t as, they changed some of them , they weren’t quite as difficult as they are today so many of them. But I use to find out , I would say now I am teaching the fifth grade, let me see what the State say’s what the children should know on this fifth grade level, what should I have ready for them in social studies, math , reading, science, I did that, I didn’t sit down and study by heart, but I knew what was expected on that grade level. Being a principal you should have a general idea as to what each level is suppose to be on. And it is really embarrassing if teachers comes to a principal and say I need another reader or something and you that that teacher is in the third grade, but you don’t know what book. But course the way they have them group now according to abilities, it would be advisable to say well which level, what level is the child in. But, should know the company that publishes the book, like Lipencott,or, if you have just a general knowledge. It is kind of difficult to go in there and tell teachers what they should be doing and you don’t know yourself. And see that was a weakness, everybody has strengths and everybody has weaknesses. I did all my teaching in the intermediate elementary grades, fourth, fifth and sixth. I never did like that little primary grades. When I became principal I really had to get on the stick because I didn’t know, but when fourth, fifth and sixth grades I was on the money. That’s what I mean when I’m saying. Now the other day I was in a classroom just observing when I was doing one of my twenty days, and the kindergarten teachers said, this little girl had just reached number eight. And in my mind I knew that child should have been farther than that, recognizing the number eight in kindergarten, she should have been higher than that. But then they say the little girl had problems and that’s why was late. But you know these are the things that I am saying that not only do the principal need to know how to manage a school, but they need to be good instructional leaders. Be able to offer sometimes a method that might help the teacher get something over, and if you don’t know don’t let them know you don’t know just go by yourself and find out a way and then offer a suggestion, why not try this, this might help. But that’s one of the things, knowing what you are doing, what you are talking about because, if you go around there not knowing what’s going on that discourages them, and then they start whispering, he don’t know anything Blab, blab, blab you know. Have the right attitude towards your parents. You don’t have to get down and bow to them, let them know that you are in control of your school, But that they are part of it too. Don’t let them walk over you, but in the mean time don’t act like I am highly educated and dummy don’t bother me, that attitude has a lot to do, now that’s the truth.

| Back to T Interviews | Index of Interviews | Protocol | Home |