Interview with Ronald West


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Q: Mr. West, I'm most appreciative to for agreeing to this interview which will become a part of the Virginia Polytechnic Oral History Project. I'm sure that your experiences as a principal in Fairfax County will provide aspiring administrators insights into the complexity and the joy of the principalship. It might be helpful to begin by hearing your philosophy of education and how this affects your leadership style. Mr. West...

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

A: OK, most people view a philosophy as being something mighty complex and most intellectual. I think though, as a leader we have to focus on the commodity, the important thing - and it's the kids. Uh, caring about kids is not enough. Caring about teachers is not enough. But, doing something about the problems that confront children and teachers becomes most important. If children don't learn, I still believe it's the fault of the schools. And translated,that's the fault of the principal, and the teachers. So we have to make every effort to make darn sure that we not only provide the right kinds of teachers, but the right kinds of materials and the right kinds of support for teachers. You know, philosophically, one can go into great detail about how one teaches children, but those are things that we can help teachers with. We can't help teachers care about children. They do or they don't. Principals either care about kids or they don't. And if they don't, they'll be fired.

Q: Um. Realizing that your number one priority is focusing on students and their learning, what would you say your leadership style is to achieve that end?

A: Find good teachers is probably the number one priority. Um, I think over my entire career, I've tried to focus on trying to find teachers who are emotionally stable, uh with a fairly high degree of intelligence and some intellectual curiosity about how we can best teach children. Then you stand aside and give em the support. And your concern ought to be, not with things like: are they fulfilling the entire contract day that they are obligated for that or whether or not the blinds are straight in the windows, but whether or not they are really teaching children.

Q: OK. Piggy-backing on your thought about selecting good teachers, when you interview a perspective teacher um, what kinds of qualities in a person convince you this teacher is right for the for the job? ...other than intellectual qualities and...

A: OK, the assumption is when we interview teachers and, at least in Fairfax County that these are people who have the appropriate degrees and are certified or certifiable in the state of Virginia to teach. That's a given when you come in. So, and beyond the intellectual calling, I think, what I look for is enthusiasm, uh potential for creativity, people who are risk takers, people who will try things if they feel that it will help improve the instructional program.

Q: Sounds good! Uh, could you discuss some of the various techniques that you've used to evaluate teachers over the years?

A: The well having spent most of my administrative career in Fairfax County, I certainly used the process designed and implemented by Fairfax. Um, but when you are sitting in observing and actually watching teachers teach, you're looking for those things which focus on what's happening to children. Are the children excited about learning? Is there this eureka moment that you find in the lesson? Do children see the light? Is the teacher using all of the techniques for which he or she has been trained? In other words, is she pulling out all the stops to make sure the children really do grasp the concepts and the skills that she's teaching. Beyond that, if you look for other things um, as you evaluate that are outside the classroom, how does she treat or he treat children from her classroom on the playground, in the library? How does the teacher deal with children who are not her own? Uh, how does she deal with the community, the parents, and lastly how does she do with those routine details that are required by most school systems?

Q: Sounds good! What are your expectations of teachers assigned to you or to your school building?

A: The very first expectation, I think, is that they would be very serious about the job. It does not mean that twenty-four hours a day is serious, but I do think that they really must focus on the purpose of schooling and the need for making sure the children get the very best that's possible. Uh, teachers also have to have a sense of humor. Because twenty four hours of seriousness a day, one hundred ninety-three days a year would put them in a rubber room. Uh, they have to deal with children. They have to make a commitment to improve the quality of education and above all else, I think they must enjoy what they're doing.

Q: Excellent. Conversely, what do you think teachers expect their principals to be? What do teachers expect from their instructional leaders?

A: The term instructional leader is sometimes mystifying because we aren't always sure what it means. But I do think that teachers expect and have the right to expect support, instructional support, emotional support, uh support with resources and assistance with helping teachers do a better job. When I said instructional leadership is a mystical term its almost mythical because there are so many administrative details that are pushed upon, not only the principal, it's put upon the teachers. And it's incumbent upon the principal to reduce the non-teaching load and the teachers have a right to expect that.

Q: Based on a lot of activity in Fairfax County regarding career ladders, pay for performance and merit pay, what are you views of these issues?

A: With little time remaining, I'm not sure what my views are. But philosophically, I don't think one can argue with the concept of pay for performance. This is something that we never should have had to formalize, but I think if we had hired from the beginning of time, the best teachers and paid them professional salaries, we wouldn't be in this position. But we had to face facts that there are some teachers and some administrators, probably a greater percentage of administrators, who ought not to be in the business. But they're here. I think we have the opportunity to help them become better teachers and move up the career ladder. Or, then we have the obligation to kids to counsel them out or remove them from the profession.

Q: If you could site one advantage and one disadvantage of pay for performance, what would it be?

A: The disadvantage that most people I think focus on immediately and that is the morale factor. If one is realistic about that, we know that the morale is going to be affected initially because teachers will look at each other and figure, gee, am I better or worse than that teacher. The issue is not better or worse but your performance level. Are you doing a better job than the teachers who are not on, obviously you have to or you would not be advancing up the career ladder. The advantage is for those teachers who have the energy and commitment and the willingness to perform at a higher level, if you will, that we can pay them more. We can pay them, begin to pay them what they're worth. It does not mean that teachers who are not advancing to the top of the career level or career ladder are inefficient or inadequate as teachers. It just simply means They have not performed at that level. It has nothing to do with one's ultimate or potential ability, but what is the functioning level the teacher chooses to use.

Q: Well, time will time how successful the pay for performance plan is for Fairfax County. Changing to another topic, we know you have been principal at Glen Forest Elementary School for a number of years and that you've initiated some innovative schedules. Could you comment on your view of the best organizational arrangement in a school the size of Glen Forest, with its diversity in population.

A: Obviously, I believed that what we're doing was the best at the time, the best organizational arrangement. And that is literally defragmentizing or defragmenting the curriculum of the school day by eliminating the early Monday closing and developing inviolate two hour blocks for Language Arts first thing in the morning to reduce the number of children that had to be pulled out. We have pulled them out only for reading and only, or Language Arts during that period and then very infrequently. Kids who come out, those who perhaps are considered the LD or language minority children, but the focus is on Language Arts during that block of time. Specialists such as music, art, P.E., and the others, and those are valuable parts of the curriculum. But they can be taught at another time of the day. Because it is most frustrating for teachers, at least that's what they've been saying for twenty years, to never have an entire classroom of children in to which they can teach all of the skills.

Q: So, in total the plan that Glen Forest used was positive, not only for the teachers, because they had their whole class for Language Arts instruction, but it was advantageous for the students and the administrator too.

A: Yeah. It was also positive in other respects. We reduced the fragmentation and/or pull out necessity and in the other core curriculum areas. We extended the school day for some children by as much as an hour and forty-five minutes to offer remediation and enrichment. For "at-risk" children, we extended the school year by twenty days. In fact, during the past summer, we had about ninety children, K through 6 who had an extended twenty day period. The results are not complete at this point, but we have good feelings about the achievement and in attitude and in behavior.

Q: Interesting. When you extended the school year by twenty days, that was not included in summer school as we normally think of it?

A: Well, it was not a typical summer school where you pull out children and dump them on a bus and haul them to a strange environment. Where we pulled them out, in effect, was to extend twenty days where possible on the 184th day of school with teachers who they knew, in an environment which was totally familiar. So, there was no down time, there was no time required to have the children become familiar with the facility and with the teachers. The other great advantage was the nine teachers who taught had very small groups of 8-10 children with /and during or prior to that extended year program those teachers had time to work with the child's regular teacher to determine precisely and almost exactly what the needs were.

Q: Did you apply for grants to fund the extended twenty day period or how...?

A: This was a result of a staff commitment to make some radical changes in the way we try to teach children. A number of staff were involved in grant writing, and there were probably a total of seven or eight grants written to cover the things that we were doing. This was to improve the quality of instruction.

Q: Well. I'm sure that you've made some inroads in that area. If you could use a one or two word description, how would you prioritize your activities as a most effective leader? What are the things that you do, first and foremost to be an effective leader in an elementary school setting.

A: We talked about hiring staff earlier. But, to me in one or two words is: good staff first, trust them to do the job, support and evaluate.

Q: OK. What are the three most pleasant principalship activities that you've encountered over the years?

A: The three most pleasant. I would think that, while it seems not always to be pleasant, I think just showing up at work everyday and dealing with children and watching over a long period of time the dramatic changes in children, and watching children become total human beings, working with the community. Most specifically, it's difficult to go back and pick out an event that was foremost in my mind as a pleasant activity because those occurred daily and sort of routinely. Because when, as I did in one case, I stopped a child in the hall and said, small child and said. "Why are you running?" And his immediate response was, "My teacher told me to run this down to the office. I said, " Be my guest!" It was just thousands of events like that, of encounters with children - all pleasant. Encounters with teachers don't have to be unpleasant. As you can maybe tell by now the key to good instruction lies with the classroom teacher and not with the system itself. The system including all of those components that make up a system, make teaching possible.

Q: Well, it's obvious from your comments that being a principal was a very fulfilling role for you, but were there any unpleasant activities that you could recall during your principalship or unpleasant duties?

A: Frequently there were some unpleasant aspects with the job. When you have to deal with things that are so distasteful as child abuse, child sexual abuse, and people, parents, teachers, employees alike who somehow can't bring themselves to respect little children as human beings, and the results of the abuse mark not only the abused child, but make an impact on all of those children who know about it and all of those staff members, people who deal with those kids.

Q: I can see Why that might be an unpleasant situation. Uh, we were were talking prior to this interview and you shared an interesting quote from C.S. Lewis THE ABOLITION OF MAN and its relates your view of the problems of education. Would you like to ex pound or discuss that in just a little bit more detail?

A: Yeah. In THE ABOLITION OF MAN, C.S. Lewis simply pointed out that in his words, "Such is the tragic comedy of our situation. We continue to clamor for those very qualities we're rendering impossible." Somehow, we tell teachers that these are the things that you must do to satisfy the requirements of providing an adequate education for children. And then we throw a lot of stumbling blocks in the way. Uh, he goes on to say, "On the one hand, we make men without chests and demand of them virtue and enterprise." We do the same things to teachers. We demand that they do the job and frequently we don't support them to do that job which we require them to do.

Q: Do you think the requirements of the system prevent principals from giving teachers the support they need? Or do you think it's an individual principal's....

A: I don't think the system is the stumbling block that sometimes we accuse it of being. Um, frequently, we are as program managers or as principals reluctant to make decisions because of fears that we may have. Um, I think if we ever get to the point whore we didn't mind taking risks we feel necessary, then the quality of life for teachers and children would improve dramatically. Uh, we use the nebulous "they". You see, school systems a, often times run on rumor and myths. Frequently you hear people say, "You can't do that because it's against the policy or they won't allow it." And all of the "theys" that I have known in this system will allow almost anything that you can create and develop and convince them that's it's good for kids. There's no question that you can get support. Sometimes we're literally afraid to make decisions except those decisions which are enforceable by policy.

Q: That brings up being a risk-taker again, those who will and those who won't. What advice would you give aspiring administrators regarding the experiences to prepare one for a principalship?

A: Um, perhaps each in his own way should learn to pray fervently. And I may sound facetious, but I think one going into administration had better go in with eyes wide open. And one, I think, going into administration has to understand that it is a full time job and that the decisions you make on a daily basis, hourly basis, or minute by minute affect the lives of many people. And most dramatically, those children whom you serve. Uh, one going into administration, I think, has to understand the system and how he or she fits into the system. And those are decisions that need to be made in advance of the appointment to administration or to a principalship or whatever it may be called. One I think, has to be a company person. It does not mean you abrogate all responsibility to make decisions. But you have to believe in the principles, that's the "le" principles of the system and the school board because those reflect the desires. the needs and indeed those things which the community expects. I don't know whether that makes sense or not.

Q: Well, you've been there, so I'm sure that it does make sense. Is there anything that I have not asked that I should ask you concerning the principal's role, some of your experiences that might enlighten others who are walking along the paths that you've already covered?

A: I think we've about covered it. One of the things that I would point out to those who are aspiring, is in spite of some of the things we've talked about earlier, it is a self-satisfying, wonderful job. You get to work with a lot of fine people. You get to work with citizens, future citizens, our kids. You will have a part in what happens to them and whether or not they succeed depends to some great degree upon the kind of leadership you offer in the school. If you don't believe that kids can learn, then perhaps you need to go back to Administration 501 again or Supervision 413, because we know through years of experience and fifty years of research that kids can learn. All we have to do is find the key. Listen to teachers, support teachers Listen to the community. Work with the community. Work with the system. That doesn't mean you have to hand over the key to the candy store to the community. You're still a professional and you have to run the schools. But we cannot much longer assume that the parents of kids whom we serve are totally ignorant of what an education is and what it should be. And I think working, it's sort of a triumvirate that the school, the community and the system, we can improve the quality of education immensely.

Q: I'd like to piggyback just a bit on your comment about listening to teachers and supporting teachers. We've had some pilots in progress in Fairfax County schools that have had their basis at the Office of Research and Evaluation where we've had teachers being an integral part of the plans of the school, the effective schools program, where teachers on a collaborative basis work with the principal on developing their annual operating plan and developing the focus and direction in which a school will move. Um, do you think it's important for teachers to have a voice in that kind of planning?

A: Most certainly. Uh, as C.S. Lewis said, we expect them to do it and yet we don't give them a part in the planning. Uh, there are constraints. There are federal laws, state laws, board policies, regulations, school policies, area commitments, but none of those are meant to hinder decision making in the classroom, at the classroom level There are parameters within which teachers and administrators work. Those are called, I guess, for want of a better word, system goals. But those have to be developed as much from the bottom up as from the top down. It has to be a collaborative arrangement and teachers know that. They realize realize that in the 6th grade it will be most difficult to teach social studies that is not on the approved Program of Studies continuum. And they know, I think that we need to trust teachers more and give them more credit to make sure that kids don't suffer.

Q: Well, I would like again thank you for agreeing to this interview and I'm sure that we can reflect on many of the gems of wisdom that you've passed on. They may be helpful to people in the future. And I want to congratulate you on a very successful career as a principal. I understand that a wing or a section of Glen Forest School has been named in your honor and I'm sure you're very proud of that. We hope you will be in the area after your retirement which is imminent. And that you can continue, to be a source of enthusiasm and enlightenment to other educators in the area.

A: The thing that I'm most proud of however, is having had the opportunity, twenty-one years in the county and a few years in Florida to work with the children and having been a part of whatever happened to them or happens to them in the future. It has given me a great deal of satisfaction. And naming rooms or buildings after one is not necessarily, I mean it certainly is a wonderful honor, but I think the satisfaction you get from working with the kinds of people with whom I have worked over the years is far greater than anything else that you can take with you when you retire.

Q: Well, I want to wish you good luck and happiness and enjoyment during your retirement. And thank you, again.

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