Interview with Sarah Whittington



| Back to "W" Interviews | Index of Interviews | Protocol | Home |

Q: How many years were you in education?

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

A: You're counting the last part of my career?

Q: Give me the total.

A: Total in education, period?

Q: yes.

A: 33 years

Q: Then as a teacher,

A: 1950-1966, that's ]6 years as a teacher.

Q: and as a principal?

A: As a principal, 1966-1977, that's 11 years

Q: Describe your school, if you will.

A: Which one? (smiling) There were several.

Q: Describe each one of them for me, then, if you will?

A: Well, the first one was Walter Reed Elementary and Huntington Elementary, they were about 1O blocks apart. Each was all black. (phone rings) I'm so sorry. Before we were interrupted Walter Reed School, which was split. Six and Seventh grades were over at Huntington Elementary which was 1O blocks from Walter Reed which housed grades 1-5. That was in the beginning. They cut their enrollment, so that it would not exceed 600 and closed Huntinqton. Follovwing that, integration came. Then I was shifted to Thomas Jefferson Elementary School where I began my last days as a principal, working in an integrated situation.

Q: Why did you decide to become a principal?

A: I really didn't decide to become one, it just sort of happened. A series of ah... I didn't decide because I had intended to become a master teacher. Unfortunately, in some situations, when they don't have a hiearchy and all. If they think you are good, you get kicked upstairs instead of into where you want to be. That's what was happening, I was studying guidance and doing a lot to help the principals in every way I could. When all of these different shifts came along, they needed someone to be acting principal and the truth of it is, it wasn't a matter of my deciding. From what I gather, they didn't really want me to be principal. They really wanted a man, but they didn't have anyone qualified and I was. Accidently qualified, because I was constantly seeking ways to work with children and to be better. I wound up being qualified to be prircipal.

Q: What was your school's philosophy?

A: The school that I supervised?

Q: Right!

A: The best possible education for every child.

Q: How was it developed?

A: We would have staff meetings and staff development roles. We also set goals and one was to develop it around a school philosophy. I put it in a few words there, but you know we had long and involved, and a lot of rhetoric, but that's basically what it was all about.

Q: How did you create a climate for learning?

A: How did I create, me personally or ...

Q: You, personally?

A: Working with the teachers, and with parents. Through the parent Teacher Association, I tried to develop a situation where the children would feel free to question and seek information and teachers felt free to teach and I tried. I tried, I.m not saying I succeeded. I invited the parents. I wanted the parents to be there and involved so they could see what was going on. It also helped with the discipline. When the children knew their parents were there and concerned, they were less likely to goof off and waste a lot of ti#:e, because the parents were interested. That is basically how it was developed and we would have in service workshops. We would work with the PTA. I'M not saying we suc ceeded, but that was the effort made.

Q: What leadership technique did you use?

A: What I tried very hard to do, was to give teachers as much freedom as possible. They had to work within some guidelines. I tried that. People are different, and people have different styles of learning. Children have different modalities of learning. There is, in my opinion, no one way tc teach anything. There are many varied ways, so if I went in trying to improve an "only way" to do it, I might cramp a very gocd teacher and keep them from being successful. Some of the teachers could get very good results in a particular cituation where noone else could. I sometimes wondered how could they do it; but, I found that it was from leaving them alone and allowing them, within reason, to fly free. That didn't work for all of them. Some teachers couldn't handle that kind of freedom. They needed more direction and fences which made it a little difficult to operate in a democratic or open manner, so you had to sort of-temporarily walk in between. Some were happy with the situation and some weren't. You had to play it by ear for the most part.

Q: What techniques were successful and unsuccessful?

A: Techniques which were successful: allowing them to have a lot of input and freedom to work within the school policies and guidelines. Also, I was very open with them about the school system's policies, the expectations of my superiors, and my expectations of them, in return delegating whenever possible to show that I had confidence in them. Some teachers . didn't understand that when I couldn't delegate. A few teachers just had problems understanding because I was allowing them to help with the decisions. Sometimes I would go in with a directive and they would start wanting to change it. They couldn't seem to distinguish between being given a directive and a request for input. That caused a few problems, but it worked out. Over the years we got to know each other and they were able to understand.

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

A: I was very much interested in the community because of my background. From the school point of view, I continued to encourage PTA involvement. Personally, I was very active in the church, political activities, and other community organizations. This kept me mixing with the people to let them know I was approachable and made it easier to relate to parents. Easier for parents, anyway because I never had a problem relating to parents. I had more difficulty relating to teachers.

Q: What do you expect principals to be?

A: Superman, Superwoman, all things to all people which you can be.

Q: How did you evaluate teachers?

A: Classroom visitation, observations, formal and informal. Sometimes I announeed my visits and sometimes I didn't. In other words I constantly moved about the school. Often, I would see things I needed to follow-up on. Teachers were sometimes called in just to discuss certain things and as for clarification of certain things I didn't understand. I always tried to provide them with glows as well as grows. Of course they accepted the glows better than the grows. That seems to be a human trait. Of course that was not true of all teachers. The more mature the teacher, the better they were able to handle it. The less mature the teacher the more I had to "dance" around the edge to avoid shattering egos and losing what good they could do yet trying to strengthen it. The process was not to try and get rid of the teachers, but to try and strengthen them. That was my philosophy. Of course, we were required to, once a year, sit down and discuss strengths and weaknesses with teachers.

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

A: I've got a job to do. You've got one to do and stress the importance of teacher input and indicate that neither can be done with them. Then I turn them loose and let them do it. It gave them a great feeling of im portance. When they performed especially well, I praised them and let them know I appreciated them.

Q: What is your philosophy of education?

A: My philosophy of education is to help every child to want to learn, develop all of his skills to his fullest potential, i don't care it it's only a pint, and live a full and appy life. This, I don't mean in terms of money, but in terms of quality. It is an on going process. To prepare the child to live and continue to live, but to continue to live a full happy life.

Q: on teaching?

A: No one way, as I said before. There are many methods of reaching people. You take the children and look at his method.

Q: What is your personal leadership philosophy?

A: Well, it is not lassez faire, it's not fraternalism, it's a cooperative one, where we work as a team, we come together, share and plan together, and try to solve problems or get a job done that's my philosophy. I don't have to be king pin as long as we get the job done.

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

A: How would I know? I never felt effective. I wanted to be good principal a gcod administrator, but how do I know whether I was one or not. I can ot evaluate myself. I never reached my goals. I never reached the limits of my expectations for myself. I always say that I was mediocre, I have had people to say that I was a good principal, I don't know what they call a good principal, quote, unquote. What makes an effective principal? I'll tell you flat, I don't know.

Q: What pressures did you face as a principal?

A: The pressures I faced as a principal, ones of them that I got from the very beginning, was assistance from many places because I was a female and the resistance to female authority. I was constantly Proving that I was capable of stayng on top of everything. The other pressures that I got was, some teachers that were under some other principals who liked their particular style or they did until they got from under them wanted me to change my method of operating to that other person's especially the particular school that I was in, because I succeeded my former principal, I moved up from a teacher to principal, I constantly got told about the way the other principal did, it took me some time to get them to understand that I was not that person, I was a different one, times had changed everything ,#as different and that was pressure. The other pressure was to keep the educational program going and and at the same time plan for innovative, encourage to be innovative and you got in novative if it looked like, you are going to run into snags when you are innovative. Administration wasn't that sympathetic, or that supportive of your innovative ideas, if you were successful, yes. If you fell on your face, I can't say the word, that's pressures because you are walking a tight line, you would like to feel that you are supportive, I remember a situaticn I had with a teacher who I was not going to recommend for reemployment, I remember doing all I had to do and taking all the steps that I was supposed to and walking them through the administration as I did them, I remember the letter that came to that person, it said to the person that, your principal has decided not to recommend you for renewal, that you will not get a contract, one other paragraph would have made me feel that I was supported in my decision since they knew every step that I had be#n't.rcugh, I was following school board policy why:leave it with just your principal, I was following school board policy when they could have simply said they had reviewed and they had, all of the information concerning this situation and we concur. That's all they could have put in it would have been so much more supportive. Of course, I got all kinds of pressure, from teachers and the community because they feel pressure when a teacher is dismissed, they live in the community, they have friends and they rally behind. For a long time there wass hostility towards me and different things that indicated pressure, there was pressure, stressful.

Q: How did you handle them?

A: How did I handle them? I prayed. I would sit down and review my action, to see if there was a better way that I could have done something, a better way for the next time. I would seek advice from my other colleagues to see if they had similar problems and how they might have handled them. Also let them review what I had done and get their advice on what I should have done or should hot have done so that in the future I could listen to that it I so choose. Most of the time I was introspective, I would study, and I would also go to school. Sometimes I would sit down and get depressed about it, and I would find myself and I would break myself of how they felt about me, their response to me in general. When I'd get throught I'd say that you can't win them all, you are not so bad, I'd have more pluses than minuses by names. One of the main things, I would look #t children and see them responding in a certain way, especially children who had problems. I got lots of pressure from teachers to send children home who were disruptive in the classroom, I understood that they could not teach with them in there, but we couldn't teach them at home and our job was to teach the children, not to pitch them out in the street and even thou#h they had problems, the teachers looked at them as problems and I looked at them as children with problems, we had to work with them therefore, I couldn't bump them into the street and the teachers pressured me, because I 1istened to what the students had to say, when I say listen to what students had to say, would let them have their day in court for telling his side of the story, because he had a right if he is accused to tell it, and sometimes in listening I pick up info#nation that the teacher could not possibly. have had. When I went back to talk to the teacher, we would have done a terrible in justice if I had operated on just what the teacher. had said. Some of them did not like that, but it was not a matter of my believing or disbelieving, it was letting the child have his say. They felt they were getting a fair share when they came into the office, but they knew if they were wrong I was going to land on them with both feet. It worked with some of those kids, it straightened them up!

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

A: If I had to do it again, what would I do? I don't know of anything different that I would do, I studied, I took all the courses and many subjects, I tried as hard as I could to learnabout subject matter. I would take mcre courses than I did in psychology because you are dealing with people and human beings and if you are going to get anything done, you have to un derstand how they work and operate so you can work with them, it sounds manipulative, but when it comes down to it in many instances that's what it wound up being.

Q: How did you handle teacher grievances?

A: We'd talk a#out it. I would listen to what they had to say, and some times I'd say, "I don't agree with you, but let's try your way to see if it will work.'. It wouldn't sometimes and sometimes it did, the sometimes I'D gently lay it on the line to them, if they had one. If it was some thing that I could do something about I made every effort to do something about it. Especially if I felt at fault or even if I didn't feel at fault if that teacher felt pinched I knew I wouldn't get too much out of her in the classroom, but I'd try. If I couldn't, I would lay out, this is a school board policy, I cannot change their rules we have a policy that the teachers can go to the forum. I recommend that they take the policy there, because I can't change it, take it there it will get kicked upstairs, they can work on it , right now as long as this is the policy this is the. way we are going to do it.

Q: Did you ever fire a teacher?

A: Not exactly fire, because if that teacher were ever able to get her act to gether to get a job, the lady had been teaching twenty-six years. I hated to see her not beable to get another job, but I could not keep her in the situation she was, she had a terminal illness, she was an alchoholic. That was impacting on the classroom, their safety. She was a science teacher and getting worse and wrose, kid had gotten hurt in the class, I didn't fire her, but tried to help her improve and in the process of helping improve , she ran. I started the process for dismissal which meant stage by stage of documentation. She saw what was going to happen. Toward the end when she that, she came to talk to me. I told her, which is illegal now, that if she wanted to,.I could not recommend her for rehiring, but if you resign before, for the reason of ill health, then later on when you get yourself tcgether and you want to start back to work again it will not be on your record that you were dismissed. I could say, I could write a letter of recommendation, telling what you did well, before you became ill and I am happy that you are on your feet again and ready to go back to work. The lady did that, she put in her resignation, before I put in the recommendation that she not be rehired and that took care of that. I could not do that now cause I would be skating on thin ice.

Q: How can you improve Education, teachers, etc.?

A: You know it would be easy to say, give us more money so we could have bigger schools and better pay for the teachers and all of that, but I don't think that's the answer, because we had good education, children were educated well when they had one room classrooms, when they had adverse conditions we still turned out good, well trained students and etc. There is something else thats needed and I don't krow what, its a sense of com mittment on the part of the people who were in charge of our nation's children. That's what's been the key all along, because teachers have never been paid what they should have, they have never had the amterials and things,but if teachers are really dedicated and committed they will get in there and work. They teach in spite of committment, how to draw people who are committed like that to the field with conditions as they are in a school where children are out of control where if you try to put any fences around children or restrict them in their activities, the parents yell about their civil rights etc. How to get a teacher who is really interested in teaching when the children don't seem to be interested to come into a situation like that, with low pay it is very difficult for me to say, but that is what you need, you need more committed teachers and of course, if they get better salaries and don't have to worry about how they are going to survive, that will be a big help. More freedom in the classroom to be innovative and creative would be too, I know that you can't let them go flying off in all directions, but give them a little more of their head, because they are not dumb. They have been trained, they've got a feel, if they are really committed, they can really do miracles for children.

Q: How did you handle the civil rights issue, the busing issues, the NCEE Reports, etc.?

A: I prayed, I prayed, Oh, I prayed and took it one day at a time, beeause it was rough. You couldn't do anything right. I often said, many times, I wish that I was an Albino, no color, neither white nor black. So, if the whites were accusing me of being prejudiced, the blacks were accusing me of being prejudiced. You didn't stand much of a chance. You had to cut it down the line and do what you knew to be right, and cut it straight down the middle. That's all you could do. Take the rules, apply them as fairly aud squqrely as possible and let the chips fall where they may. It worked for me because they found they couldn't shift me in either direction, but I couln't sit up there and worry about who was prejudiced or who wasn't because if you look it, you find it and I didn't have time for that kind of thing. Those people who came in and were willing to be supportive and help, I welcomed their support and we went on from there. Those who were anti and what not, I listened to their screams and squeaks, smiled, thanked them for coming and went on about my business.

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

A: I think that somebody ought to take a very good look at the personalities of the principals. If I had my way, every person who had to work with children principals, and teachers, anybody would have to be psychoalyzed before they walked into the classroom, because there are too many people who feel threatened and can't deal with the things that are thrown to them. One of the things that I had to do many days was to stand back and move away from a situation to de termine if I was a target or position was a target. Many times, it wasn't me, it was my job. This is going to come with the job. If you can't hack it, then don't get in it. But, a lot of people get in there and make a lot of teachers, children, and other peop#e miserable because they feel threatened and have this little Nepolean complex. It kills a school and can kill you. 1 have seen it happen too many times. You need a very secure person within themselves. I am not saying I was most secure. I grew a lot, believe me, I had to learn. They knocked me left and right. There is no place for a person who is hypersensitive. Yet, you must be. How crazy that sounds. By that , I mean you must be sensitive to other people's feelings and needs, shove yours in your back pocket, take them out and look at them when you get home. You have to respond to the other person's feelings, but if you are sensitive as to what is bothering you, you re in trouble.

Q: #ow did you handle assistant principals?

A: I only had the experience of working with an assistant principal for one year. That assistant principal was out to become a principal. They promptly proceeded to do everything they could to win teachers, quote, unquote, to themselves, which raised havoc in the school. So, the way I handled that, we sat down and went over all our responsibilities of a principal. I wanted us to handle it to- gether. Some decisions, we got together on and was able to present a united front. We divided the responsibilities for different levels.

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

A: My biggest concern? Those children that you could not reach. Those children that I knew there was a way to reach, but we had not yet pushed the right button. That was of concern to me to see those children moving through the and we were not reaching them. What could we do to reach them?

Q: What was your biggest headache?

A: Teachers, Teachers, Isn't that awful? O.K., They were my biggest headache.

Q: What do you think of career ladders for teachers? What about merit pay?

A: I wish we didn't have to do that because if teachers are looking at careers and moving up, then they may not give as much attention to the child as they should and the child is the bottom line. I wish we could find other ways to show teachers we appreciate them. I don't know what the answer is. The career ladder is an option, but not mine.

Q: What about Merit Pay?

A: I don't know how it can be done fairly. There are teachers who are better than others. Some stand head and shoulders above others, but how do you reward them without damaging the morale of the teacher who is just mediocre or struggling to become better? If they are insecure, they become hostile and it causes lack of cooperation among teachers. then there is always the charge of favoritism. You cannot deny the fact that the halo effect does have to be taken into consideration. I don't see how it could be assured and insured. Therefore, I am not too keen on merit pay.

Q: What do you think of the Standards of Quality, etc. established by the State School Board?

A: We need standards. By having them, we can be assured of having less students who are substandard. They have something to measure up to and it guarantees all of Our children a better education. I would hope that it would not be- come so rigid that it would preclude innovation and creativity.

Q: What are some characteristics associated with #ffective schools?

A: Well, you pop into a classroom and you see children eagerly participating in the activities, anxious to respond, there is a nice interaction which is not teacher dominated, but is teacher led. You find an attractive, comfortable building. When you see that humane, warm situation, then you know that it is a good situation. One that has enough equipment for all children, a clean attrac tive, well staffed cafeteria . Those are some characteristics of a good school.

Q: What do you think of the testing procedures? SAT, etc?

A: I am afraid that there is a lot of teaching to tests. We need to find someway of test mastery that will be demonstrated in application, rather than have children guess or cram for it. I have some problems with testing.

Q: What was the toughest decision you ever had to make why was it difficult?

A: That Teacher who was an alcoholic.

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

A: They know the answer to that. I had to do both, but where do you put the percentage of time would determine if you are a manager of a building. School policies would not let me move in certain directions. A principal has to wear a lot of hats.

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

A: Who said I was successful? Perserverance, good health, determination, openmindedness, listening to others. Those wi11 help you to survive if you call that succeeding.

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

A: That covers a lot. What do you mean?

Q: Standard of operation?

A: My ethics caused me to become a principal. I was an acting principal. I thought my ethics would get me fired. Instead, I became full time principal.

Q: What are your feelings about the responsibility of the principal for identi fying and developing future school administrators? How did you go about do- ing this?

A: I really think they have quite a responsibility. That is what I meant when I said everybody should have a psychological examination. I think if the admini- stration would listen, not taking everything in total, sometimes people would do a job on others simply because they don't like them. It is very important that you have good judgement. You can't teach it. It comes from experience. You do have a responsibility not to hurt people, but you are also respprsible for the young people and their futures.

Q: I think you have answered the second part of this question, but how did you go about doing this?

A: I was asked. Only if you are asked, you don't go about doing things. You encourage those who have potential.

Q: Describe your typical work day in terms of how you spend your time?

A: My typical day was like a rat on a treadmill. But, I had plans and priorities, and still had time for pop in visits and other things that might come up.

Q: How did you spend most of your time?

A: Well, I'll have to be honest, Most of my time was spent with administration. You know the running of things, the discipline, and the solving of problems.

Q: How do you account.for your success as a principal?

A: Twelve and fourteen hour days, which I got chewed out for, but that is the only way I could do it. I could not do the paperwork with people coming at me.

Q: What caused you to choose retirement when you did?

A: Health.

Q: Last question. What have I not asked you that I should have?

A: Did you like being a principal? Would you do it again? Do you miss it? The answer to all of those is NO ! NOI NO!

| Back to "W" Interviews | Index of Interviews | Protocol | Home |