Interview with Margaret Van Auken


This is an interview with Mrs. Margaret Van Auken from Fredericksburg, Virginia, on April 30, 1987.

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Q: Could you give me a little bit of information about your educational background?

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

A: I graduated from Mary Washington College and got my Masters Degree from the University of Virginia. I did quite a bit of work on my Doctorate but had not completed it by the time I decided to retire.

Q: It sounds like you took courses throughout your entire career.

A: I think I went to school my whole life. I don't remember doing anything else.

Q: You had a three-part career looking at the information you gave me in the book: elementary teacher, Supervisor of Instruction for the Fredericksburg City Schools, and principal of Hugh Mercer Elementary School. How long did you spend at each level and do you have any thoughts about how you felt about each level?

A: I was in the classroom for 19 years (all at the second grade level) at two different schools and just about the time I was ready to move on to a different grade, my Superintendent asked me to go into supervision. I was a Supervisor for nine years and then another Superintendent asked me to be Principal of the new Hugh Mercer Elementary School. I was Principal for five years before I retired.

Q: It sounds like Hugh Mercer was a very large school. Could you take me on an imaginary walk through the building and describe the setup of the building?

A: It was a large school. We had nearly one-thousand students. It was grades Kindergarten through fifth grade with a number of special education classes. It was a very modern building - in fact it was - a lot of people who were building schools they would come to tour it.

Q: What year was your school built in?

A: It was built in 1965 or 1966, I'm not exactly sure. It had a huge sunken library in the middle of the building, and two gymnasiums - a large one and a small one - a large cafeteria, a music room, an art room, a science room, and we also had a computer room. I guess we were one of the first elementary schools around to have computers. We had a large office complex with an area for the nurse and the guidance counselor. It was a very modernistic, up-to-date school.

Q: I noticed in the information that you gave me, there was a brochure for beginning kindergarten students. Did you have an all-day kindergarten?

A: We had an all-day kindergarten. I believe it required ten sections. That was my first job as a supervisor, to set up the kindergarten program. It was debated whether it would be a half-day or a whole-day. We went for the whole day - one of the few all-day kindergartens in the state. At the time I thought it would be the best thing but as I observed it over the years, I am not so sure that a half-day is just as good. They are tired in the afternoon and you have to be careful of the activities in the afternoon.

Q: You mentioned that it was an open school at one point, but it has partitions that could close off the classrooms?

A: Yes. When I went there it was an open school. The school was built with four-room pods. The outside walls were two-room pods but they all had four room walls so they could be self-contained or open. When I went there it was open and the teachers were unhappy in the situation and I was not pleased with the situation so we decided to go to self-contained units but we could open walls at anytime we wanted to. It was a very flexible school that you could do things like that.

Q: Just looking at your schedule of things that were going to take place each month, it looked like a lot occurred, like plays and concerts.

A: There were lots of things like that and we tried to plan monthly activities by bringing in outside play groups and music groups and that sort of thing. We had a wonderful May Day program. The two teachers were worn to a frazzle by the time it was over, but we had a wonderful program. Then when we got the fifth grade we went for a field day type thing, and that worked very well also.

Q: Could you describe a typical day in terms of how you would spend your time, how you would start out in the morning?

A: Well, I was there by - I left my home by 7:30 and was only five to ten minutes away so I was always there early. I always wanted to be there - I usually got there before the teachers and checked the building out. Then for the morning opening I usually tried to speak to the children on the speaker, the communications system, and then I would spend my time with the office work - you know the paper work would just floor you, but I had to spend a little time with that and of course there were always telephone calls - many many telephone calls, but I tried to finish that up by 10:30; and then I would like to be if not actually in classrooms at least visible in the building. So my day was pretty well divided up. Now if I was evaluating teachers I would start earlier in the morning.

Q: Do you think you spent a larger proportion of the time with the teachers or the paperwork - or did it balance out?

A: I guess it balanced out, but if you consider working with teachers and individual children, all of that, I guess it would lean more towards teachers and children, not the paper work.

Q: You had a full-time Assistant Principal?

A: Yes, I had a full-time Assistant Principal and a Guidance Counselor who was just marvelous. You know the requirements of Special Education are extensive now in working with those children. The Guidance Counselor for me was a necessity.

Q: I understand that IEP's had to be written for each special education child, and the state is beginning to push for IEP's for G/T children also.

A: Yes, that's right, they were starting that at that time. I did have a full-time guidance counselor who did nothing but work with the gifted children so that helped. The Counselor was the one who did the testing and helped write all the IEP's.

Q: You mentioned earlier that you considered yourself an instructional leader rather than a building manager. Did you spend a lot of time keeping up with curriculum changes and helping teachers use them in their classrooms?

A: Yes. We were constantly looking for better ways to do something and we watched our reading scores very closely. And, I was always working with teachers trying to find better ways to reach all the children I guess. We spent a lot of time with curriculum.

Q: It has to make the teachers feel better knowing that their principal is up on all of it and is not more concerned with paper work.

A: I think that is why it is important to have classroom experience. I can't see how anybody can go into a school and work with curriculum and keep up with their teachers on curriculum and raising test scores and all sorts of things and not have had classroom experience - I think that is important.

Q: As a principal, what was your biggest concern? Did it fall into that area of curriculum?

A: Yes. Trying to - those children who were not achieving - find ways to help them achieve and helping teachers to cope with that problem, too, because they were trying as hard as anyone else to help those children achieve.

Q: I would imagine that because Hugh Mercer was the only elementary school in the area, that you would get a real cross-section from the lowest children to the highest.

A: All the children in that area went through that school. We didn't have one school over here and one school over there. All of them were funneled through that one particular school with all the levels from the lowest achievement to the top achievement.

Q: Did you try tracking them - say putting reading levels together?

A: We tried to give a teacher two reading levels so one teacher didn't get all the top or low students. I know teachers thought they got the same levels every year, but it wasn't true. If you looked at the test scores as you tried to divide them you gave them a top group and a - you didn't give them a top group and a bottom group. I didn't think that works too well. You gave them a top group and a middle group and the next top group and next middle group so that you had a graduated thing. Then, too, I think it was better for the children that they had different levels.

Q: When it came to evaluating teachers, did you have forms that you had to use and a narrative, also?

A: Yes, we used a check form and a narrative form. They had to be evaluated if they were in that three-year cycle - probationary cycle - they would have to be evaluated twice a year and with that many teachers there it took a long time to get around to them. Now the others who had been there for a while, each year we took a group and they would be evaluated once a year, but the new teachers, the ones who were on the probation had to be evaluated twice a year and it was a very time consuming thing.

Q: I noticed on that schedule that was in the notebook the duty assignment sheet that was made up for the year. They had before school duty and after school and lunch duty. There seemed to be a lot of duties. Did you not have any aides?

A: We did have a lot of aides - we had classroom aides and all sorts of aides - but usually the aides would assist - in the afternoon when the children were waiting for the bus, we tried to gather those children in a big area and one teacher would be in charge, but aides would assist so actually the teacher - this week she might be on duty but for the next two or three weeks she would not be on duty.

Q: It must have been interesting to try to figure that schedule out so that it was fair to everyone. I couldn't believe how thick it was.

A: When I did schedule physical education or Art or Music and all those things for all those teachers, I tried to set it up for one thing - start with physical education - and get them all in a spot and then juggle the rest of them in because that was a break for the teachers. That was the only break time they had - and I know it is better for the teachers according to all the studies they have for the teachers to go to physical education or Art or Music or those things with her class because they know what is going on - but still how are you going to build in break time for your teachers. That was the opportunity for them to have some planning time and it was the only way we could work it.

Q: I would imagine even with the computer lab - that was another thing that had to be scheduled.

A: That was another thing to schedule, the computer lab, so those children - neither the first or second - we didn't start them in the computer lab until third grade but if we had children in the first who showed a real aptitude we tried to schedule in the few that could, actually we scheduled them from second grade so that was another thing that had to be scheduled. I would go into a room with the blackboard and shut myself in and in the summer that was one of my primary jobs was that board - and I dared anyone to erase it.

Q: You mentioned that you have a staff meeting on Wednesday afternoons, and when there weren't staff meetings you would have committee meetings. Is that how you involved your teachers in decision making?

A: Yes. We had our faculty meetings maybe the first Wednesday of the month and then the next Wednesday we had what we called the Teacher's Council. Each grade level would select their representatives and - two representatives from each grade - and we would meet. They were the grade leaders. They were supposed to meet with their teachers and find out what was on their minds and give suggestions and they would bring it to the Council meeting. We would try to come up with a solution. Then the other Wednesdays in the month if they were serving on committees - the other Wednesdays of the month it would be the time for them to do the committee work. We always did it on a Wednesday so it didn't mean the teachers had to stay everyday after school for this committee or that committee if this was the day they knew they were going to do it.

Q: What do you think teachers expected the principal to be:

A: Everything! Trouble-shooter, mother-confessor - I think they want someone who will try to smooth the way and make it easier for them to do their job in the first place, to supply them with the stuff they needed to do their job, to try to ease some of the rough spots for them, but they also want someone who is going to listen and have an open door when they have problems. I always had an open door. They didn't have to make an appointment - they just stuck their head in the door and knew they could come in if someone else wasn't already in there. They need that support. They need someone to stand beside them with parents also and I think that is one of the main jobs of the principal - public relations. Try to help parents understand what is going on.

Q: It must be hard to balance between a parent who really feels he knows what is best for his child and a teacher who is trained to know academically what is best for the child.

A: It really is and the only thing you can do is to listen to both sides then try to come to some compromise between the two. Once in a while you get a parent who simply won't compromise and that is a real problem.

Q: The notes you had in your notebook sound like you made them happy more often than not. There were some very nice notes in there about work you had done with their children.

A: I had a nice group of parents, I really did. They were willing to help. We didn't have a PTA, we had a parent council that would meet and were informed of what was going on. They were on the whole I would say most of them very cooperative.

Q: What would you say - I know your biggest concern was working with curriculum and children. How about a headache. What was your biggest headache?

A: I guess what would really get to me more than anything - and you might as well say it - was ethnic sensitivities. It is one of the things you find you really have to be very careful with. Most - 22% of my teachers were Black. We had very few Oriental children. We had a few Vietnamese and a few Koreans but you try to be sensitive to all of those things and it would really grind my teeth when you bent over backwards and did the very best you can - (Unfortunately, the phone rang at this time and I had to stop the tape. She did not want to continue this topic, but did add a little more).

Q: I guess what you were saying then is that it really is difficult to try and not offend anyone because people have different perceptions of whether you are being fair to them or not - so it is really hard.

A: Right, and they really have different interpretations of what you are saying. What you think you are saying you know someone else may say you are saying something entirely different. It is very touchy ground.

Q: How about standardized testing? We talked about that a little before. More and more it seems we are having to do standardized testing, whether it be SRA's or achievement tests, or whatever. Do you think it is valuable to collect this data?

A: Well, I don't know. I guess I am on the fence on standardized testing. Some children are not good test takers and I think in a way it is harmful to them. And then again I think maybe one of the most important things you get from standardized tests is to look at your whole group and see how they stand in various areas. It may help you to see weak areas and strong areas. We use to study test scores very carefully when they came back and if we were weak in this area as a school then that year that would be one of goals to work on that area. When it came to individuals I was a little more suspicious of them I guess. I wasn't too sure. I thought there were other ways of testing children and maybe we could get a better picture of what they could do and couldn't do. I wouldn't throw them out. I think they have a use and a place. I think they have to be used with discretion.

Q: There is more and more talk about tying teacher performance to their test scores.

A: That was always one of the dangers of it I think. I never did like to tie teachers too closely to the results of their test scores. One year they are going to have a group of children who are going to do this and another year you have an entirely different group of children. You can't have consistent returns on test scores with different children each year. It's just not possible.

Q: I think that is one of the benefits of you having been in the classroom. There are some administrators who didn't spend too much time in the classroom and can't see that.

A: Another thing I think - teachers need to be trained to use the test scores and monitor them because if teachers do not use them in the same way your results are going to be different because so many things affect the outcome of the tests. What I found with the Guidance Counselor - she would take over the testing and get the teachers together in a group and they would decide exactly how the tests would be administered. She was trained to monitor them in the correct way so that the results would be a little more consistent. If one teacher is going to be very lax on how she monitors it and give it and this and that and the other - and this teacher over here is going right down the line on the way it should be done, the results will be different.

Q: What about preparing students for the tests. Is this teaching to the test? How do you feel about going back and reviewing before the test? Is it unfair to review before the test?

A: I have always thought they should not be reviewed on subject matter. I do think what they should be taught all along is how to take the test. A teacher knows that it is going to be a multiple choice or another kind of a question. I don't see anything wrong with teaching children how to handle that kind of testing - what do I do or how do I mark these questions - so that they are test-wise on how to take the test, but I really don't think it is very wise for the teachers to go back and review them on the subject matter that has been taught because then there is the danger of teaching directly to the questions on the test. How to take the test is a different thing. They should be trained very carefully how to do these things and if they practice they are not as nervous on their test day and you are going to get better results.

Q: That would be a good topic for in-service for teachers on reading those results.

A: We had a couple of in-services on that. Then after the test results came back we had some people come from the central office who were very familiar with testing to interpret and review it with teachers so that they would know what the results were. In-service is another big problem you face, too. We had a day - we use to have a day each semester for in service where the children were allowed to leave and the teachers would have in-service. That was under one superintendent. Then you get the next superintendent and he doesn't approve of that so we don't have the day. We usually did most of our in-service before school started in the Fall. End of Part I, first tape.

Q: What are the pressures that face Principals?

A: Well, one thing is the parents. The expectations of parents sometimes would be so different. You would have one or two parents over here who expected something entirely different from the parents over here. How are you going to reconcile the differences so everyone goes away happy? That doesn't always happen.

Q: Did you have a lot of community support, a lot of parent involvement in the school?

A: We didn't have a PTA but we had a Parent Council. We had about twice a year a tremendous parent program and each classroom would prepare something for their parents at that time, but I think since I have left - now this wasn't just our school, but it was the whole system - had gotten away from the regular PTA system - the teachers, this business of going back at night you know for PTA programs can be very difficult sometimes and so we tried to handle it in many different ways and still involve parents. We had a large parent volunteer group who came in to assist teachers and would even tutor and almost every classroom had one or two volunteers. It was always very easy to get - we worked on the playground one time - well, you can always get parents interested in playgrounds - so, whether we had a PTA or not we still had all the activities that would go along with a PTA.

Q: Did you have to play an active role in community relations as far as the school was concerned? Did you have to keep up memberships in clubs or attend public functions?

A: Of course that was one of the primary functions of the Principal, was public relations person for their school. We sent out a newsletter every month from the school and as far as being required to belong - do you mean community organizations? (Chamber of Commerce, etc.) Of course I belonged to so many organizations I thought I wasn't going to be able to pay the dues. But, we were not required - there was no requirement that we do that but we were expected to be - and then if you were invited to these public things you know you had to go as a representative of your school.

Q: I know that in Fredericksburg for a long time there was a segregated school system. There was Lafayette (and Maury) Elementary and there was Walker Grant that covered all the grade levels for the black students. (Note: At that time Lafayette was 1-6 and Maury was 1-7. Students from Lafayette went to Maury for the 7th grade and then all white students went to James Monroe High School).

A: That's right. I was in the second grade and I had the first little black boy that - they gave them you know when you had the freedom of choice - and this one little black boy - he was the first one to integrate in the city schools. After that they began to come a little bit more and finally they closed out the school for the blacks and they integrated the schools. When they built the new school that happened - when they built Hugh Mercer, the school where I was Principal then they had full integration. Lafayette became the public library and Walker Grant became a middle school. Maury School became - they had special education, a lot of special education classes over there and it became a regional school for special education. And then, of course, they moved away from that again because they wanted the special education in the schools. They moved the special education back into our school and the middle school and the high school.

Q: Then there is still the three main schools?

A: Yes, the elementary school, the middle school, and the high school. And now they are talking about building another school because Fredericksburg is growing so much.

Q: What do you think it takes to be an effective Principal today in the environment with everything that is expected of public schools?

A: Well, I guess you might say patience is one of the things that is required. I think it requires classroom experience. I might be out on a limb saying this because I know there are a lot of superintendents who do not agree with me. They move people in who have not had classroom experience, but I am one of those who think they should have classroom experience. I think there is nothing that takes the place of that. I think you must like children. If you don't like children it soon shows up and they will know it in a hurry.

Q: What do you think of Secretary Bennet's idea that retired military officers and executives could move into the Principal's office without any training in education?

A: I don't agree with him at all on that. I think the experience in a classroom with children - I don't think anything can take the place of it.

Q: Do you think that Administrators over a period of say five years should be required to return to the classroom to see what is going on in classrooms on a day-by-day basis?

A: I am not too sure of that - that it accomplishes what they think it does. I think once you have moved on and you have gone in a different direction, then when you start backing up and changing your course of direction, I don't know, I just don't know. I didn't do it and I don't know how effective it would be. Now there are some people who like to do it. I talked to a Principal just this week. He resigned and is spending all his time now substituting. He said he wanted to get back to the classroom but he didn't want to be tied down to any one classroom. He likes that. I think he will be very good at it because he does want to do it. But, I think if you are going to force someone to do it, they are just going to do a half-way job and be very unhappy in the situation, then I don't think it is effective.

Q: How do you feel about the Federal money that is coming into the schools today and the requirements attached to the money?

A: I think there is a lot of money that has gone down the drain. We were very conservative in our use of it, and I think we got the most out of it - but here you would have all this money and at the end of the year if you hadn't spent it by a certain time then next year they might cut the amount you get and next year you might need it. What you would do is rush around buying all this stuff and all this material that actually you don't need at the time but you would think if I don't do this then next year I won't get this money, so that is a waste of money. And then when they tie your hands as to what you can buy with it and what you can do with it you might not be meeting the needs.

Q: Maybe developing some programs to just to satisfy the Federal government. Did you have a Title I (Chapter I) Program?

A: Yes, we had a big Title I program.

Q: Did you find that some of the requirements for the funding and what those teachers could teach maybe didn't quite match up with the needs of the classroom teachers?

A: Very much so. One of the things that creates a difficult situation I guess you would say. A lot of money was spent. I had a huge tremendous storeroom with all kinds of materials - machines of different kinds - the only people who were using them were the Title I teachers. At the time we could not let anyone else use them. Or if they did they could use them for a little while and then have to return them. And that creates hard feelings among teachers. This teacher is trying to teach over here with what she has and this teacher over here is over-flowing and has more than she can possibly use - and there were materials stacked on the shelves that would go year after year without going out of the storage room. This use to disturb me greatly. And, of course, there was someone in charge of Federal programs and there were very strict rules on the use of it.

Q: You mentioned several things about your leadership style - about dealing with teachers and working with the curriculum. Is there one thing you can sort of hang your hat on as the key to your success as a Principal?

A: Well, I don't know whether there would be one thing. I think communication is probably the thing that is the most basic to having a good relationship with teachers. If you can't communicate with each other then you are going to have problems. I guess communication is one of the - and I think teachers have to know that you care about them having what they need to do the job and that you care about providing an atmosphere in which they can work. I admit that there were many times that I got very angry with teachers because I thought that their demands were over and above what . . . you do, you get very angry - to yourself. You don't get angry so everyone can see it. You think - well, goodness, will the demands ever end - but, - I guess I taught at a time when where you had your basic textbooks. You had math and your speller and that was about all you had to teach with. And we did a very effective job of teaching. You didn't see children going away not being able to read. The thing was children were dropping out of school before they ever got to high school. But, I saw so many people doing such a tremendous job with such a little bit of material and now the more we have the more we think we have to have to do a good job of teaching and I don't think that is necessary.

Q: Had they moved the computers into the classrooms when you were there?

A: Yes, we had a computer room and the children were scheduled in for a certain period of time. I think that is another thing. They have put so many programs in. You have children going to the gifted classes. We had a very outstanding gifted program. And a Science room where special science projects were going on. We had the computer room where they were scheduled in - and trying to schedule all these things and still give the teacher time enough to teach in the classroom was a real problem. I guess if you want to know one of my headaches, that was a real problem, trying to schedule everything. Trying to schedule these children so all of them would have the advantage of doing all these things because you know if this group over here was doing things and another group doesn't do them, you have a parent saying: well, why isn't my child using the computer? You begin to build a schedule that gives each of them an opportunity sometime or another to do these things but then the poor teacher is just struggling to keep up with where their children are going and supposed to be. At certain times it is a headache.

Q: If you had to do it again, is there anything you would do differently to prepare yourself for the job of principal?

A: Oh, gosh, if I were going to do it again? I think what I would do if I was going to prepare myself, so much time in this grade and so much time at this grade level so that I could get a big overview of, you know, the continuity of it rather than concentrating on just one or two grade levels. It would be to a person's advantage to shift around. And I know the year I went into supervision I had already requested to be moved to a different grade level. I had worn that grade level out. I think that would be a big help.

Q: It would probably give you a good idea of what kind of growth you would see.

A: That's right. Especially if you are going to work with curriculum and you are going to be the leader in that area. You need that.

Q: Was there anything in particular that caused you to retire when you did or you just decided it was time?

A: No, I retired before I had to because my husband was retired and he was anxious for me to retire. And, I thought, well, it is getting close, it won't be that long so I'll just go ahead and retire, not because I was unhappy. In fact, he had urged me for two or three years; however, I didn't want to leave it so I really would have stayed on I guess.

Q: What procedures do you think should be used before a person is selected as a principal? Any process that may not be used now?

A: I think group interviews work. They are used in a lot of places. I think that is a good tool in selecting a principal - a group interview because I know I sat in on several group interviews and it is funny what different people see in a person when you interview them. You know you can be sitting in a group interview and each asking you a question. This person sees something entirely different from what this person sees. You pull those things together and it is interesting to see "You know, I didn't see that." I do think group interviews are important. I think recommendations are important but I don't think they amount to much in this day and time because with the laws being as they are and the effects they can have a lot of people are afraid to write a really honest recommendation any more. So when you get a real good recommendation you are not sure you are getting the truth. We use to laugh and say if someone had a bad teacher or someone that they would like to move on they would give them a glowing recommendation, you know, pass them on to someone else. (Note: This was said with a lot of laughter. I don't know. Recommendations can be - if you know someone very well a good talk with someone or a good talk with someone they have worked for probably is the best. Written recommendations, I am not too sure about that.

Q: Are you familiar with the Beginning Teachers Assistance Program (BTAP)? Before any new teachers in Virginia can get certified they are observed, I am not sure if it's three or four times, by a team of state observers, not just the principal in your school. There is a list of areas they are looking at for these new teachers to have mastered. They are supposed to get assistance if they need it to pass. That combined with the merit pay talk - do you think maybe teachers are getting a little overwhelmed with these things they have to meet in order to teach?

A: I have said for a long, long time that teachers need to be better prepared before they start teaching and I think they need a probationary period. I think they should be able to pass certain basic tests and have a certain amount of subject matter knowledge if they are going to teach, but I am not familiar enough with all the ins and outs of the new procedures that are being used to really say how effective they would be. You have to start some place. They will make a lot of mistakes before they work the kinks out. Now as far as merit pay is concerned, it depends who is going to make the decision, you know. How are you going to make that decision. Two people might make an entirely different decision about it. I am not very sure about merit pay unless you work out something that - and I think they are doing it in some places - where teachers are given the responsibility of working with beginning teachers in their buildings as teacher mentors and you want to make some extra pay for that, that might work. I am sort of on the fence about merit pay.

Q: Do you think teachers will stop sharing? I think that is one of the fears that teachers will be competing with each other and stop sharing their ideas.

A: I think there will be a lot of competition and may be some hard feelings if you do that. If you have a program where teachers offer to do certain things in addition to what they are already doing as a regular classroom teacher - they offer to do these things and it wouldn't be mandatory it might work. I don't know. I think a lot of things are going to be happening in education in the next few years. We come around in cycles. The open classroom - they went all out for it and had children running all over the buildings. When I went to the school I thought - well, they are like rabbits - so I went back to a more or less self-contained classroom and only opened the folding doors for certain group activities - and having children in their home base and not having children have to pick up all their materials and run there for math and crying because they forgot their books or something. Things go in cycles, so it will all go around again. Thank you very much.

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